A woolly tale of reincarnation

Breaking news logo in front of a Woolworths high street store

 

Pick’n’mix is back! Or so said the news media as they reported claims by a random Twitter account that the defunct UK stores group Woolworths was making a comeback. 

Journalists rushed to file their stories, egged on by editors keen to be first with the news. 

Oops.

As later reported, the entire story was the invention of a 17 year old schoolboy who had put the fake tweet out as part of a study into digital marketing. The news media picked it up and what happened next will likely be the subject of media studies degrees for years to come. 

The scale with which the story spread ought to sound a loud alarm about the quality of the editing process at many news organisations. 

How did we get here? Well, in the 2000s as websites proliferated, media owners looked for savings and saw the subs bench – as it was known – as an easy target for redundancies. 

Sub editors were dispensed with and reporters were left to type their copy directly into a content management system before hitting ‘publish’. It’s quicker and cheaper.

When mistakes do happen, they can be corrected later. ‘Not wrong for long’ is the maxim. And we are all worse off for it. 

Years ago, one of the first stories I filed attracted the ire of a subeditor, who loudly summoned me over to his desk for a public earbending. My crime? I’d got a key fact wrong.

I gulped. Colleagues had been fired for less.

I recall opening my mouth to plead my defence.

The subeditor raised his index finger.

I paused. Wisely, it turned out.

“Always, always check your facts,” he growled. “And then read your story aloud to yourself before you file. You’ll be surprised at what you find you’ve missed.” 

I felt humiliated. Though not as much as I would have been had we gone to press with my error. I had learned my first lesson – and the subeditor’s job was done. 

This week’s Woolworths story is a salutary reminder of their value.

Crisis? What crisis?

Competing in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, mid-ocean Rowing 3,000 miles late last year across an ocean is the toughest thing I have done so far. With just over four months left to the start of this year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, I know how fortunate we were not to have had our training disrupted by a global pandemic. Yet the crews I know taking part this time have adapted well to cope, spending more time on their ergometers, pumping iron in their home-made gyms and honing the navigation, nutrition, and boat maintenance skills that will keep them alive when circumstances change. 

The nineteenth century military strategist Helmuth von Moltke maintained that no plan survives wholly intact after contact with the enemy. It’s a lesson we kept in mind during our row as key pieces of equipment broke, our power failed, and promised breaks in the weather failed to materialise.

It’s also a lesson I’ve applied in my day job as a communications director. Crisis communications strategies have to be flexible enough to cope with the unexpected, adaptable even in the heat of an apparent disaster, and honed through rehearsal. Persuading senior executives to take time out to prepare, to role play, stress test, and to learn with you, is vital.

Company directors and ocean rowers alike will do well to consider that crisis management isn’t just a manual to pick up and dust off when things go awry, it’s an approach and a mindset that will determine whether you succeed or fail. 

Braced for the adventure of a lifetime

The team, the boat, the team manager
So just two days to go before my crew mates and I leave the UK for the Canary Islands – ready for our bid to row across the Atlantic Ocean.

Colleagues have questioned my sanity, perhaps unaware that rowing the Atlantic in a small boat is ‘a thing’. Admittedly, more people have climbed Everest than have rowed the Atlantic. But it’s also part of our bid to raise awareness of stem cell research, a field of science that is saving lives and could save so many more if only people knew how important it is.

So what’s the purpose of our voyage?

What we’d love is for people to become aware of what the Stem Cell Register is, to click through and consider signing up. It’s easy, it’s safe, it can save lives and help families in terrible predicaments all over the world. You can find out more on the team website at www.werowyouregister.org Continue reading

Atlantic row for the global stem cell register

Training at Burnham-on-Crouch
I’m taking on the challenge of a lifetime next month – rowing across the Atlantic Ocean in a bid to raise awareness of stem cell research, a field of science that might have helped the young daughter of a friend win her battle against blood cancer.

Three of us – small company investor Martin Beaumont, software industry executive Hamish Miller and I – make up Team Margot Atlantic Rowers, one of 30 crews in this year’s Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge, a 3,000 mile (5,000 km) race across the ocean starting in La Gomera on the Canary Islands on December 12 and ending in Antigua around 40 days later.

Although I was a mainstay of the GB kayaking team back in the late 1980s my rowing experience is more limited – a season or so at Bryanston School 35 years ago and rather more sessions on the ergometer at my local gym in the past 12 months. My motivation for braving 20+ meter waves and storm-force winds – not to mention six weeks of dubious sanitation – is the fate of Margot Martini, the two-year-old daughter of friends, who succumbed to blood cancer when her parents were unable to find a matching stem cell donor in time to save her.

We don’t want your money. What we’d love is for people to become aware of what the Stem Cell Register is, to click through and consider signing up. It’s easy, it’s safe, it can save lives and help families in terrible predicaments all over the world. You can find out more on the team website at www.werowyouregister.org Continue reading

The Uxbridge connection

boris
The last time I met the sitting MP for Uxbridge was in 1988 while a politics student at nearby Brunel University. Michael Shersby, the then Parliamentary representative for our local constituency, generously hosted Brunel’s annual Government Society dinner at the House of Commons, and arranged an array of guest speakers.

One year, we were fortunate to have the Speaker, the then Bernard (later Lord) Weatherill, who came to talk about democracy and the importance of being actively involved.

On another occasion, sharing the evening with the local Conservative Association, we were slightly less impressed by Minister of Education Angela Rumbold. Possibly labouring under the misapprehension that we were the University’s Conservative Students Group, she decided to lecture us about how the Tories were ‘good for education’. Continue reading