How to fight claims you’re just ‘blah blah blah’

Imagine being a public relations adviser and having to combat Greta Thunberg. She has truly mastered the art of the soundbite.

Her criticism that COP26 was just ‘blah blah blah’ was a clever cover-all response to combat any of the advances claimed by the politicians.

COP26’s last-minute stitched together final agreement underlined Thunberg’s view that big dirty industrial polluters and countries with poor environmental records will only respond to a big stick and that the stick isn’t nearly big enough yet.

A bigger regulatory stick for the big polluters

The public’s appetite for using a bigger stick is growing, however. Which is bad news for the big polluters. Especially those who spent so much time in the run-up to COP26 talking up their green credentials and and sustainable practices and products. Phrases like ‘clean coal’, ‘net-zero carbon flights’, ‘sustainable mining’, even ‘clean-burning natural gas’ swilled around like so much greenwash.

Those who invest in big polluting industries face a similar challenge.

Why? Because the lack of transparency is hindering consumer choice. For example, consumers know that switching to a sustainable pension could be 20 times more effective in cutting their carbon footprint than giving up flying, eating meat and driving a car with an internal combustion engine. Yet few know what to do about it or whether they can believe the sustainability claims of the companies their pensions are invested in.

An end to greenwash?

Regulators agree this is unacceptable. So tough new guidelines to tackle this are coming. Guidelines that will curb the ability of big industrial polluters to make sustainability claims that don’t stack up.

Regulatory changes will address claims that too many companies readily use terms about their environmental ‘impact’ and ‘zero carbon’ products that are either hard to verify or just cannot be true. In future, they’ll have to prove these claims.

Just one example, here in Switzerland, the main financial market regulator FINMA has issued draft regulations to tackle greenwashing in collective investment schemes at fund and institutional level. It hopes to end some of the worst abuses that it sees, mostly as a result of a lack of transparency in products offered to investors.

Claims about sustainability must in future be backed by evidence: proof that a sustainable investment strategy is actively being pursued or implemented, and that in any collective investment scheme a large share of assets must be allocated in line with that strategy.

FINMA is one of several significant regulators to be turning the screw on funds that can’t back up outlandish claims of their sustainability with hard evidence. ESG claims will have to be justified. Unwarranted ‘sustainability’ labels for products will have to be dropped.

A new global framework for sustainability reporting?

Underpinning all this regulation will be globally accepted sustainability reporting standards and a single internationally recognised framework for sustainability reporting.

The recently announced merger of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and the Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), to form a new International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) will help. It paves the way for a new global sustainability disclosure standards body to oversee the introduction of more transparent and globally comparable sustainability disclosures compatible with companies’ financial statements.

Proving deliberate mis-selling is hard when precise definitions of words like ‘sustainable’ or ‘green’ are a matter of debate. But new regulations mean this day is coming.

More transparency, less PR?

Greater transparency will ensure everyone understands how to make informed decisions about their pensions and investments. Fighting claims that what they say and do is all just ‘blah blah blah’ will require companies to change, and to show clearly that they have done so. That’ll good for investors and good for the planet.

What Greta might describe as a ‘win/win’ rather than ‘blah blah blah’.

Photo by Carlos Roso on Unsplash

5G and Covid fuel Swiss digital media transformation

A newsstand in Bern, the capital of Switzerland

One of the features of the Swiss media market that first strikes foreigners is the apparently robust health of its print media. Newsagents seem packed with titles and relatively high levels of newspaper and magazine readership sit at odds with the experience in other major European countries.

This is all changing – and the shift from print to digital is accelerating, however, according to a major new entertainment and media industry analysis by PwC.

Pandemic problems

The pandemic has emphasized the rate of change, hitting both print circulation and advertising as lockdowns cut the numbers of people buying papers on the journey to and from work.

Newspaper industry revenues are expected to fall from CHF 968 million in 2020 to CHF 842 million by 2025, a drop of -2.3% annually.

While major media owners are moving over to new platforms this is not without difficulty. Publishers are running into the age-old problem that users think digital equates to free content. Finding new ways of monetising digital audiences will be key if publishers are to survive.

Competing with TikTok and Snapchat

Media companies are shifting to digital models, producing more audio and video content, but even so they will have their work cut out to compete for revenue and reader attention from established rivals such as Google and Facebook to emerging forces like TikTok and Snapchat.

There have been some successes: The free German-language tabloid Blick launched in francophone Switzerland in June. Its owner, Ringier, has also launched an online TV channel. Meanwhile, the biggest online news site in French – http://www.20min.ch/fr – increased audiences across its various channels (print newspaper, app and website) in 2020 to reach nearly 3.0mn readers each day.

That’s pretty impressive when you consider the country has a population of just 8.7 million, though it reflects traditionally high level of news readership and the fact that trust in traditional news sources here remains high at 44%.

Online advertising is the place to be, however. Switzerland’s Internet advertising market is already the sixth biggest in Western Europe, with total revenue of CHF 3.2bn in 2020. This is expected to increase at a combined annual growth rate of 6.5% to reach CHF 4.4bn by 2025, making Switzerland the third-fastest growing market in the region.

The impact of 5G

While online advertising continues to grow, PwC sees a surge in mobile ad revenue following the increasing take-up of 5G between now and 2025.

Switzerland is something of a trailblazer for 5G in Europe. It is now available to most of the population through two major providers, Swisscom and Sunrise. Revenue from mobile ads overtook that of wired for the first time in 2019, when it accounted for 54.1% of total revenue. By 2025 mobile will make up 64.4% of total Internet advertising revenue in Switzerland.

It adds up to a huge challenge for traditional media companies, who must adapt their business models quickly, or die. Those packed news stands in Switzerland may soon become a thing of the past.

Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Return to work? But I was never away!

Commuters pictured at a major railway station in London

My clothes don’t fit. I spent too much time looking in the fridge when I was working from home during the COVID pandemic and now I’ve got a ton of weight to lose.

If this is you, I sympathise. I’m sure you are not alone.

Working from home certainly has its advantages – no commute, more time for yourself and no need to dress up beyond an appropriate top.

But there is a significant downside, and it’s not the extra pounds you may be carrying thanks to the magnet-like appeal of a well-stocked fridge. The real problem is the tyranny of the ‘always-on’ culture of home-working, which has increased pressure on those who feel they need to ‘show’ bosses that they really are working by exhibiting a level of presenteeism that even Gordon Gekko* would frown on.

Years ago I worked for a major organisation where home-working wasn’t just frowned on. It was actively discouraged. “If you’re not ‘at work’, you’re not working,” said my then boss as she insisted I took a day off when I asked to work at home so a technician could come and service my boiler.

I see this very organisation now says working flexibly can be a permanent option for office-based employees and that they just have to inform their manager of their intention to work remotely rather than request permission to do so.

That’s great, so long the downside isn’t having to be ‘always-on’, though I find it hard to believe my old boss will have changed her tune all that much.

For me, as the head of a communications agency, having colleagues I can rely on is essential. But I don’t expect 24-7 service. If I happen to be banging out emails at 11pm on a Friday, it doesn’t mean I want – or expect – them answered by return. I try to respect boundaries. I don’t want to impinge on colleagues’ home time.

At the same time, I trust my colleagues to know when a client needs their urgent response. I also know that the flexibility of home working means one of them doesn’t work in the afternoons for childcare reasons but instead logs on in the evenings to finish stuff off. I tailor my expectations accordingly.

All of which is why I grimace when I see headlines that talk about the big ‘return to work’. Honestly, what do they think everyone has been doing for the past months?

My colleagues have been hard at work, just not ‘at work’.

* Gordon Gekko was a fictional character in the 1987 movie ‘Wall Street’. Played by Michael Douglas, who won an Oscar for his portrayal as the hard-working, hard-talking financier, he famously declared ‘Lunch is for Wimps’.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

The greatest gaffe ever – 30 years on

Gerald Ratner Tweets his regret about making 'that' speech 30 years ago to the Institute of Directors in the UK

It’s exactly 30 years since Gerald Ratner, Chief Executive Officer of the eponymous jewellery business stood up at a conference of the UK Institute of Directors and made a few jokes at the expense of some of his company’s best-selling products.

He described a set of cut-glass sherry decanters that Ratners Group sold for £4.95 as ‘total crap’ and joked that while a set of earrings was ‘cheaper than a prawn sandwich from [the UK retailer] Marks & Spencer’…‘I have to say the sandwich will probably last longer’.

Hundreds of millions of pounds were wiped off Ratners Group’s market value as shoppers deserted the company – and Gerald Ratner’s remarks became a classic in the reputation management genre.

Ratner, who now works as a motivational speaker, amongst other things, said his remarks weren’t meant to be taken seriously and blamed the media for over interpreting his words.

As I’ve reminded executives many times when delivering communications training, the media are not to blame here.

Many is the executive who’s slipped up by trying to be too clever or, worse, trying to be funny. Leave the jokes to the comedians, is always my advice.

The story is whatever the journalist decides it is. I tell clients, ‘Don’t expect them to see past your joke. Or to overlook a remark that is inadvertently funny.’

‘I want us to be as well-known as Disney,’ declared the then head of the Institute of Management Consultants as he spelt out his marketing goals to members at the organisation’s annual dinner a few years ago.

‘IMC President wants institute to become Mickey Mouse Organisation’ read the headline of my diary column that week.

I was standing next to the institute’s public relations adviser as I wrote his remark down. I saw her cringe at his words. Either she hadn’t advised the President properly or, much more likely, he hadn’t listened to her advice to take that comparison out. Big mistake. Huge.  

How to spot an offshore financial con

A Swiss street scene

There’s a book that all aspiring investors should read. It’s called “Where are the customers’ yachts?” and the sub-title is ‘A Good Hard Look at Wal Street’, by Fred Schwed Jr.

Schwed was a stockbroker and an author, his book is still, some 80 years after its first publication, described by leading investors like Warren Buffet as a timeless and authentic description of the investment culture on Wall Street.

The title refers to the supposed question a visitor to New York posed on seeing rows of luxury boats belonging to bankers and brokers.

It is a slightly tongue-in-cheek study of what is wrong with the investment business, a coruscating look at the finance industry. Today, if Schwed were still alive, his book might be entitled ‘Where were the regulators?’ because it is clear that the silver-tongued financial services salespeople (let’s not call them investment advisers, that suggests they have your interests at heart) continue in business unchecked. The regulators are basically asleep on the job.

Even in Switzerland, regulators have failed to deal with offshore wealth managers who target expatriates living here

Want to make a million quickly? Come up with a complicated fraud and diddle lots of people. Leave a complex money trail across multiple jurisdictions and most regulators will spend years working out who has the authority to investigate cross-border transgressions before they do anything as mundane as starting to look for you.

So, why am I writing about this? Well, it’s only the second working day of the year today and already I’ve had six phone calls from financial services companies falsely claiming to be ‘following up on our emails’ and ‘further to our discussions last year’. Six. In two days.

Cold calling is an invariable red flag for me. What a shame there are precious few others I could refer to, like a comprehensive international listing of every conman ever penalised for investment fraud or breaching regulatory requirements in any major jurisdiction across the world. What a service that would be.

Such a book doesn’t exist. Because regulators aren’t interested. It’s too much like hard work for them.

So the age-old warnings must apply:

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