London – this is Basingstoke calling

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought-Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn 

What many people anticipated has happened. J.P. Morgan, an international bank with 16,000 employees based in the UK – spread across Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Bournemouth and Basingstoke – has made a call on how it will be organised in the post Covid-19 world. Working from home, at least part of the time, is going to be a “more or less permanent” feature of their model. The “rotational model” will see JPM bankers working “one week a month from home, or two days a week from home, or two weeks a month”, depending on the type of business.

I’m a former employee, so perhaps I tend to place too much value on what the bank says. However, I don’t think anyone can deny the firm is a leader with serious heavyweight thinkers at the very top. Who would you prefer to be in The White House – Donald J. Trump or Jamie Dimon?

This news came out on the same day as a BBC report about 50 UK businesses. None – not even one – is planning a full-scale return to pre-pandemic office staffing levels. Simon Jack, BBC Business Editor, called city-centres an “ecosystem” like a coral reef. It’s a good analogy. And he called the situation a cardiac arrest rather than a process of evolution. It’s also being reported that London’s West End is still only operating at 13% of pre Covid-19 lockdown levels. The national level for other cities is 17%. This heart-breaking quote from The Times sums it up: Andrea Oriani wonders if the sandwich bar that he owns in Leadenhall Market will exist come next year. “The City has died,” he said. “We closed in March, thinking it would be a couple of weeks, and didn’t reopen until early July.” In the first week back he took £400. Compare that with a normal £10,000. Last Thursday he took £240 in a day.

I don’t know anyone who expects any sort of return to normality this year. A friend who lives in Kennington says the neighbourhood is busy with people working from home and, in the evening, pubs and restaurants are thriving. Moorgate, just five tube stops away, is empty. Inflexion-point is an over-used phrase, but this is surely where we’re at. Public transport and the catering/ hospitality segments that solely rely on office workers in the City and West End are in a death spiral. Tragically, I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done.

Are there any positives? Well, yes. Discussing the situation with friends who, like me, haven’t set foot in central London for six months we bemoaned the loss of many things. Office banter, gossip, meeting friends from overseas offices etc., we yearn for a sense of community. Working remotely may well be efficient, however, it can also be soulless at times.

I live in Church Crookham, Hampshire. It’s in the Hart district, which is regularly voted as the best place to live in the country. It didn’t earn its reputation because of its restaurant diversity. My neighbours seem to have an unquenchable appetite for either Italian or Indian food. America may run on Dunkin Donuts – around here it’s pizza and chicken tikka masala. The only standout is our excellent Nepalese restaurants – a legacy of the Gurkha Regiment formerly being based here. We don’t have any Japanese, Lebanese or even Mexican restaurants.

So, my passion for exploring new cuisines has in the past been partly sated by the London food-truck scene. At my old office near Liverpool Street station, we were quite spoilt for choice. Thursday night events at Spitalfields Market were enormous fun too. I’ve even watched open-air salsa dancing while eating spicy Argentinian Empanadas and drinking beer brewed in Rotherhithe. You can’t do that on a Zoom call…

I have a suggestion. Perhaps J.P. Morgan could organise a food-truck event in the car park at their office in Basingstoke? If we can’t or won’t go to London, then they must come to us. Family members tell me that Milton Keynes (where 30,000 people are estimated to be WFH instead of commuting) and mill houses in Sheffield would love some food diversity. Looking forward to it.

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This piece was written for our website.

Extinction Rebellion’s virtue-signalling hypocrisy undermines climate crisis cause

GUEST POST: Stephen Lynch is a PR and Public Affairs Consultant, and former Press Adviser to The Conservative Party. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Extinction Rebellion are now censoring the press in their pursuit of halting mass extinction. It’s also a peculiar time to stretch the precious resources of the emergency services, and deprive family newsagents of income during the prolonged menace of Covid-19. 

Former Labour ministers reckon that XR’s latest stunt comes out of the fascistic authoritarian regime playbook. Days after attacking the free press and its freedom to publish, the group’s latest email has the chutzpah to praise the “freedom to speak truth to power” as a hallmark of a “healthy democracy”.

Ironically, XR prevented readers of The Sun newspaper this weekend from hearing Sir David Attenborough’s thoughts about how to tackle the climate crisis. The mission of tackling the climate crisis needs those who can build alliances, not alienate them.

XR risks being irrevocably labelled as a left-wing, anarchist group of affluent activists more concerned with parading their morality on social media than effectively dealing with the complexity of the climate crisis. They face being officially classified as an organised crime organisation, with all the invasive surveillance that entails. Their blockades of printworks risk damaging the very cause the group is supposed to be supporting.

XR’s website says their struggle is not about left or right, yet they targeted every right-of-centre newspaper in their salvo against the “crooked billionaire press”. Their literature claims that XR avoids “blaming and shaming” any one individual, yet their recent emails attack Rupert Murdoch and “corrupt media moguls and dodgy politicians.”

XR misleadingly pushes the illogical notion to their followers that the UK government is sanguine about, or otherwise deliberately accelerating climate change. 

Prior to Covid-19 and after leaving the EU, achieving net zero became one of the government’s two overarching priorities, along with “levelling up” the nations and regions. Last year, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law ending its contribution to global warming by 2050; the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G20 country; it is the world’s biggest producer of offshore wind energy; it has cut emissions by 42 per cent since 1990.

There is always more to do, and few in Whitehall or in industry are complacent about sustainability.

Next November, 30,000 delegates, including heads of state and climate experts, will gather in Glasgow to agree coordinated international action for tackling the climate crisis at COP26. 

It will be the first time that the UK has taken on the presidency of this UN conference, and our government will want to lead the gathering with a powerful pledge and a message to other countries that it is time to step up.

The international community also hopes we will lead with a strong commitment on our own emissions so we will have credibility in encouraging other countries to follow suit.

The Met Office’s State of the Climate report this summer illustrates that over the last decade, summers and winters have been around 12 per cent wetter. Four new high-temperature records were registered in 2019, including the highest UK temperature.

Despite the UK’s achievements, there is a compelling case for action, especially as global carbon emissions have more than doubled since 1971. The question is how best can we make a genuine difference on this planet?  

China is responsible for more than one-quarter of all global carbon emissions, and along with the United States, India, Russia and Japan, the biggest polluters account for over half of all emissions.

This seems like a good place to start if you are serious about creating change.

The delayed COP26 also gives XR the opportunity to potentially influence a new administration in Washington, and one that would be more committed to the Paris Agreement at that.

Joe Biden has pledged to integrate climate change fully into US policy on trade and foreign affairs. A stronger believer in alliances, if he is elected president, he could also opt to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership with the UK to form the world’s greatest trading bloc, where the environment is an integral aspect, not an optional add-on.

XR should form partnerships with NGOs in these highest-emitting countries and seek to influence in a more convincing, mature, and legal way.

The global spotlight on Glasgow will help focus delegates’ attention, laser-like, on the task at hand.  

XR’s first demand is for the media and politicians to “tell the truth” about the global ecological emergency. Dale Carnegie’s best-selling books on persuasion do not recommend starting a negotiation by publicly questioning the other side’s honesty and integrity.  

XR can engage more effectively and professionally with the proceedings – coffees, meeting agendas and informed discussion rather than handcuffs, tantrums and disruption motivated by self-appointed moral superiority. Lobbying is making the right argument, to the right person, at the right time. XR can make a strategic shift away from civil disobedience and towards civil engagement and debate in Glasgow, Scotland’s Dear Green Place, next year.

Protest can put critical issues on the agenda, but you need lawmakers and policies to make the change. We have the means to act. The UK is in prime position to coordinate, cajole and enable the substantial political will required. We can begin to finally turn the tide against decades of complacency, for which there may be an awfully high cost.

XR can be a help, not a hindrance in a long campaign that will ultimately be won with advanced diplomacy, persuasion and technology – not by casting aspersions on the intelligence of the people whose support you need, or on the motives of the people who will legislate the change.

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This piece was written for The Independent.

Just what is now ‘normal’?

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought-Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

One of the best managers I’ve worked for used to allocate an hour per day for informal thinking and reflection – sometimes he did it alone while other times he chewed the fat with his colleagues in a completely unstructured way. During my professional career, I’ve seen and heard many people confuse activity with productivity. Further, a friend who works in a managerial capacity in the education sector told me that, at the onset of the lockdown, his boss immediately organised seven hours of Zoom calls for his team. That’s not seven hours in total – that’s seven hours every, single, day. He didn’t allow any time for pre-meeting preparation or post-meeting execution – let alone time to think and reflect. The boss, who is the CEO, clearly doesn’t trust his team to do the right thing. Unsurprisingly, his team doesn’t feel comfortable and they are exhausted from being in an artificial meeting environment almost all day, every day.

It will take a while to paint an accurate picture – but, perhaps in a year’s time, we’ll be able to look back and say who had a good or a bad lockdown. The phrase “(s)he had a good war” is little heard nowadays, however, it was commonplace when I was growing up. The example I remember best is Denis Healey, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and a potential prime minister during the tumultuous mid-seventies. At the beginning of the Second World War, he was a lowly gunner and five years later left the army as a major with an MBE. He was decorated for his bravery for being in charge of the Allied beach landing at Anzio, Italy. And he spoke fluent Italian due to a number of local girlfriends… By most interpretations, he had a good war!

I’ve been keeping a diary since the pandemic first emerged. The most often-cited issue is the NHS. Has it had a good war? My view is that it’s a nuanced answer. With 1.4 million staff and an annual budget of £130 billion it really can’t be looked at as a single cohesive entity. It consumes about 10% of our national GDP. No other entity, public or private sector, comes remotely close.

Some elements of the NHS are in the “could do better” category. NHS logistics failed in the early stages of the pandemic, the provision of PPE was chaotic and it certainly didn’t communicate effectively. At the 2019 General Election, Comrade Corbyn tried to scare us into thinking that the NHS would be sold to US firms. Thankfully, the public wasn’t fooled by this nonsense – but, it does raise the issue of whether it’s an unwelcome idea. Who would you prefer to run the NHS supply chain: NHS bureaucrats with limited international capability and no plan for a pandemic or global logistics wizards with state-of-the-art technology at Amazon? Don’t get me started about NHSX – did they really think they are better at developing apps than Apple or Google? The heroic efforts of our hospital doctors and nurses can’t be allowed to bury these issues.

We are closest to GP services. A recent claim by Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson – that GP surgeries may not re-open until March 2021 – prompted a flurry of responses from doctors who claim to be working just “normally”. NHS England medical director for primary care, Dr Nikki Kanani, said: “General practice is open and has been throughout the pandemic. Whilst consultations may have been offered remotely or virtually to keep patients and staff safe, our practices have been open and offering care.” This is not my experience.

I’m 58 and consider myself fairly digitally savvy. I’m completely OK with telephone and video consultations. For me, in most circumstances, they’re better than face-to-face meetings. I also have a number of close relatives in their eighties with chronic long-term conditions. Most of these people have trouble operating a TV remote control – let alone a WhatsApp video-call on a smartphone. Very few of them actually own or have access to a smartphone! Many have some level of hearing loss, which an aid doesn’t appear to compensate for on the telephone.

Not all old people are technophobes, however it is a prevalent issue. I know old folks who still think the phone is really only for emergencies. A story on the BBC PM show recently highlighted that some old people still prefer to make calls in the afternoon because it’s cheaper than in the morning. (Note for younger readers: this used to be true in the 1980’s). One elderly chap said he only switches on his mobile phone when he wants to make a call. 

GP surgeries closed their doors in mid-March and have only recently started a cautious re-opening programme. Before Covid-19 there were about 26 million GP appointments per month. If you’re elderly the only way you know how to communicate with a doctor is by meeting them in-person. When you meet a doctor, they will routinely assess your body language, your pallor and your general demeanour. How can they do this over the phone? Doctors are expert at listening to what you say and reading between the lines. Many of my elderly relatives will be more honest in the privacy of a doctor’s consultation room than in their own home. They are not accustomed to intimate, private conversations via telephone. The conversation is likely to be a lot more stilted and therefore less productive.

Speaking recently at a meeting of the Royal College of Physicians, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘From now on, all consultations should be tele-consultations unless there’s a compelling clinical reason not to’. My local GP website says: “You cannot book a face to face GP appointment. Following telephone consultation you may be asked by the GP to attend.” Only 10% of consultations now physically take place. This is a radical change – and hasn’t been properly justified, as far as I can tell. Plus, how much consultation on the issue has been conducted?

Medical professionals need to be protected – but, at what cost? My local authority has an infection rate (in the week to August 21) of 2.1 per 100,000 people. That equated to two people … The physical closure of GP surgeries may have been sensible at the peak of the pandemic, however things have moved on, surely? The medical establishment is very good at pumping out statistics about the number of virtual consultations it’s done. But, have they measured the effectiveness and patient satisfaction recently? It would be good to know. Perhaps it’s time they both thought and reflected.

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This piece was written for our website.

Censorship cannot become the new normal

Joy Morrissey

GUEST POST: Joy Morrissey is the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield and Patron of Conservatives in Communications. Follow on Twitter

At a time when we are all still struggling to come to terms with Coronavirus, I would like to re-emphasise the vitally important principle of free speech. Many may not believe that this should be a priority right now, when we are faced with the daunting task of fighting this virus and supporting our ailing economy. But without the historic principle of free speech, which allows for the free flow and exchange of innovative ideas, we would not have been able to make the great scientific and policy making strides that are helping people around the world to tackle this pandemic.

Yet, worryingly, across the Western world, evidence is mounting that people, particularly the young, seem less and less appreciative of the value of free speech. This has become increasingly apparent as more people try to censor the opinions of those with whom they disagree rather than challenging them with reasoned arguments.

This has unfortunately intensified to the extent that individuals themselves are now being censored, no-platformed or “cancelled” in a misguided attempt, almost religiously, to defend the idea that certain beliefs are sacrosanct and cannot therefore be challenged or criticised.

As a result, we now live in a culture where not a day goes by without an individual or public figure having to clarify, apologise or resign for having expressed an opinion, or said a word out of place, or deviated from the approved line on a given subject.

We cannot perhaps expect people from all corners of society to appreciate just why free speech matters so much and how it influences, shapes, and improves their everyday lives.

Yet the vital importance of free speech must be well understood by academic institutions which only exist, and continue to thrive, because of our liberal freedoms.

How can universities seriously expect to maintain their status as bastions of thought, knowledge and innovation, when they continually allow their student bodies to censor research or academic speakers who contradict their world view? Surely they realise how illogical their wilful inaction is?

Already there are real concerns that the failure of institutions to stand up for liberal values could be stifling and suppressing research, discussion and innovation by academics in other areas.

A report from Policy Exchange has suggested that right-leaning, or Brexit-supporting academic staff at universities feel uncomfortable expressing their views, because doing so may trigger a hostile response which could hamper their research and their careers.

This extends to other contentious issues such as those surrounding trans rights. In fact, the report points out that many academics feel as though they must self-censor their work prior to publication. This undermines the very existence of universities as open and thought-provoking environments where old ideas can be challenged and new ideas created.

This is also bad news for the wider public, as potentially game-changing concepts could be stifled, while impractical ideas and solutions get bulldozed through unchallenged.

If universities are more concerned about hurting people’s feelings than the quality and breadth of their academic research then I believe we have a serious and endemic crisis right at the heart of our premier educational institutions.

This is already having consequences across society with schools, public bodies and workplaces following universities’ example and failing to foster an environment which embraces open discussion and debate.

Across our society we need to do more to distinguish between abusive speech inciting violence, and free speech which involves the expression of new ideas and the challenging of old ones. There should be unanimous agreement about the vital importance of the latter.

Only through free and open debate have projects from both Conservatives and Labour, which were previously thought of as unthinkable or unworkable, eventually became universally accepted hallmarks of our country, such as the NHS or the principle of privatisation.

No one – and no idea – is so perfect or unassailable as to be beyond criticism. If you have strongly held beliefs, then you should be prepared to defend them through reasoned and measured debate, exposing weak criticisms for what they are and highlighting how much stronger your own arguments are.

This means of course that we may all be exposed to views and opinions that we find unpalatable or even preposterous. But the minute we start chipping away at the free expression of others, we begin to erode the very essence of what makes us a democracy.

That is something which as a party we must not allow to happen. Universities should wake up and smell the coffee and act now to uphold the very principle of free speech on which they were founded.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

SNP’s hate crime legislation is a threat to freedom of expression

GUEST POST: James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

What do Catholic Bishops and the National Secular Society have in common? Despite their different world views, they have found common ground in opposing the SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation – which both groups fear will damage freedom of expression in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced earlier this year with the aim of helping to “build community cohesion”. It has proved more effective than Scottish Ministers could ever have imagined. Most of civil society in Scotland is now united in opposition to the Bill.

A recent consultation by Holyrood’s Justice Committee revealed the full extent of this opposition – which goes well beyond the usual nationalist critics. The Society of Scottish Newspapers, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Police Federation, have all publicly called for a rethink from the Scottish Government.

A new campaign group – Free to Disagree – has started to oppose the Bill, led by former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars, the National Secular Society, and the Christian Institute. To have brought together such a diverse range of opponents is a pretty impressive achievement by the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf.

But it’s the criticism from the Scottish Catholic Bishops which is perhaps the most striking.

In their submission to the Justice Committee, the Bishops warn that “a new offence of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… inflammatory.”

Let’s be clear what this means – the Catholic Church, which counts around 700,000 followers in Scotland, is worried that legislation currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament could make expressing their beliefs a criminal offence.

The Bishops acknowledge their concerns are based on a “low threshold” interpretation of the proposed new offence. But the fact that such concerns exist at all is extraordinary.

Catholic Bishops in Scotland choose their battles carefully – conscious of a public sphere that does not take kindly to lectures from Bishops. The strength of their public comments shows just how much concern there is about the Bill. It’s also perhaps a sign they think this is one area where they might be able to force a change of approach from the Scottish Government.

The Bill would also introduce a new offence of “stirring up hatred” against certain groups, even if a person making the remarks had not intended any offence.

Currently in Scotland, the offence of “stirring up hatred” only applies in respect of race, but this would be expanded under the Bill to include “age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variation in sex characteristics.”

This huge expansion of the law is not combined with any definition of what “stirring up hatred” means. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes say that an offence could be committed through “behaviour of any kind”, which “may consist of a single act or a course of conduct.” In other words, pretty much anything could constitute an offence.

Crucially, criminal behaviour under the new law would be based on offence caused, rather than intended – a significant difference to England and Wales where intent is required for a person to be criminalised for behaviour which someone finds insulting. As a result, it risks creating a situation in which offending becomes an offence.

It’s little wonder that police officers, lawyers and journalists are deeply worried about the proposals. The Bill paints broad brush strokes and leaves others to work out the picture. The task of interpreting a law where offences are not wholly within your control but based on how others perceive your words and actions, is fraught with perils.

Catholic Bishops fear this could lead to a “deluge of vexatious claims”. The Scottish Police Federation warns it could mean officers “determining free speech”, leading to a breakdown in relations with the public. And the Law Society of Scotland raised concerns that “certain behaviour, views expressed or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction under the terms of the bill as currently drafted.” Not exactly the cohesive society envisaged by the Scottish Government.

At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question about what a cohesive and tolerant society looks like. Does tolerance require conformity and removing any possible source of offence? Or does it mean accepting and respecting difference of opinion within certain red lines?

To use No 10’s language – it’s a question of whether we level up or level down when it comes to freedom of expression. In the case of the SNP’s proposals, it looks like a race to the bottom.

This is not an enviable position. As Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society points out:

Freedom to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.

There is still time for the Scottish Government to reconsider its approach. Most of the groups opposed to the Bill, including the Catholic Bishops, agree that stirring up hatred is wrong, and would welcome an update to hate crime legislation. But the current approach is not working and Scottish Ministers must realise that.

Creating a catch-all offence, and passing the buck to the police and courts, is not the way forward. It’s sloppy law-making, and risks threatening the vibrancy and diversity of life in Scotland.

The publication of the Bill has shown that people with completely different views are capable of respecting one another, and even working together for a common cause.

What unites religious and secular voices is a belief in freedom of expression. This must be upheld, or we will all suffer as a result.

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This piece was written for ConservativeHome.com.

Crafting stories, changing narratives and shaping reality

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public RelationsFollow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

I’ve always worried about talking to stakeholders about the power of storytelling. I fear it sounds juvenile, childish, even infantile. What springs to mind when you hear the word? Telling stories at bedtime to your son or daughter (or nephew, niece, godson or goddaughter)?

Perhaps that’s why we sometimes call it ‘brand narrative’. It’s way more grown up: grand, perhaps even arcane or opaque. To some, of course, it sounds like nonsensical jargon, management-speak, even gobbledegook. There are downsides to both articulations, but to all intents and purposes, they’re one and the same.

But why do we harp on about ‘storytelling’ and ‘brand narrative’? Why is ‘story’ powerful, and why should businesses, organisations and brands of all sizes pay careful attention to creating and telling their own stories?

The answer is simple – a story is memorable in the way that a fact sheet or report isn’t. A story moves our hearts, lodges in our minds and stirs us to action. A story evokes feelings, provokes a response and connects with us on an almost primordial level.

When you’re faced with a choice between brand ‘A’ and brand ‘B’ – the emotional factor will always play a disproportionate role in your decision-making. This is true for products and services, and it also works with personalities, countries and all other propositions.

As we go through life, we pick up all manner of subconscious perceptions, and they become our ‘truth’. If the messaging and the underpinning substance of a brand is clear, compelling and consistent, we understand, absorb and embrace a shared perception of reality.

Let’s do a little exercise.

When you read ‘Germany’ – what comes to mind? Something about efficiency, engineering, beer, perhaps some historical association with the two World Wars, maybe certain brands – such as Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and BMW. The likelihood is that you have a few key thoughts, expressed through maybe a dozen or so words. Your list of perceptions might be different to mine – but they’ll be in the same ballpark.

German’s brand narrative is unambiguous and strong. To the casual observer, that seems to be just a reflection of the nation’s reality. Would it surprise you to know that this is something they work hard at? They certainly can’t do much about the weft and wove of their history, society and culture – but they can emphasise and communicate the positives, and attempt to negate and minimise the negatives. 

There are all manner of indices that rank nation brands, from the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index to the Good Country Index. Some focus on trade, some on tourism, others on inward investment. African nations seeking to become recognised as democracies might focus on improving their Freedom House score, gaining better standing in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and lowering their Gini coefficient.

Each index is built on extensive desk, qualitative and quantitative research – and provides a part of the overall picture. None are perfect, but all offer an opportunity for a nation to benchmark itself and work on strategic communications to frame itself in the best possible light, thus advancing its soft power standing in the world.

Let’s bring it down to a personal level. Individual brands are built in just the same way. They rise and fall depending on behaviours and positive or negative exposure to audiences through media and social media. This is as true for politicians as it is for pop stars. Great PR can’t change the nature of a person’s appeal – but it can mitigate the downsides and maximise their best character and competency features.

Take Prime Minister Boris Johnson. A cursory scan of his career to date has seen him take a roller coaster journey. Whilst he’ll always be seen in an unfavourable light by certain people, he’s enjoyed peaks of huge popularity, and troughs where his reputation has been low and his future seemed on a downward arc. Right now, it’s hard to pin exactly where he is, but there’s clearly room for improvement and his visionary leadership style is needed now more than ever.

Crafting a brand narrative takes time. It requires evidence, insight and powerful, persuasive messaging. It leverages the best of a proposition and builds on it – carefully connecting individual elements of its message to specific audiences and stakeholders. Done well, this builds awareness, shapes perception, and ultimately makes people think, feel and act differently toward the brand. And that’s why I still talk about storytelling: it’s neither childish nor trivial. Executed and implemented well, it changes reality.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Nudge Factory.

The message is central: government comms in a post-Covid world

GUEST POST: Eliot Wilson is Co-Founder of Pivot Point and a former House of Commons Clerk. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Only the most loyal and optimistic Downing Street hanger-on would now argue that the Government has had ‘a good war’ when it comes to the media handling of the pandemic. The failings of the Number 10 operation and the Government Communication Service more widely have been laid painfully bare almost day by day: confusion, changing vocabulary, unclear advice and an inconsistent cast. For every unexpected star like Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy Chief Medical Officer, there has been a Priti Patel, announcing proudly that shoplifting has fallen while retail has been largely closed for business.

In any event, Number 10 has decided to respond to this series of failures, and has hit upon a structural review. The Government’s media operation will be centralised in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, and the daily briefings, deemed by some a success – “event TV” was one phrase I have heard – will be built upon. Most excitingly, for a media built on the cultivation of personality, there will be an “experienced broadcaster” selected to present these briefings, who will be the face of the Government to many people. It will be a political appointment, and insiders say they would like a woman to get the job.

This is obviously a potential revolution in how the government communicates. If the briefings are televised, even if only in highlights, and feature heavily as soundbites on the news of the day (and they will), the new ‘spokesperson’ will, after the Prime Minister, be probably the most recognisable person in the administration, certainly the one with the most airtime. She (let’s assume Downing Street has its wish) will be in charge of media relations, with a powerful influence over the news agenda on a daily, if not hourly, basis, but she will also have a direct line of communication with the voting public. That is a hugely powerful platform.

Critics have already dismissed this move as ‘presidential’ and an Americanised gimmick. That’s hardly a vote of confidence to look at the hapless succession of White House press secretaries in recent years – Sean Spicer? Sarah Huckabee? The scrappy-but-ineffectual incumbent, Kayleigh McEnany? – and, while handsomely paid, they have not lasted nor had much influence.

The brightest star was Anthony Scaramucci, director of communications for all of 11 days (and with whom I have worked a little). The Mooch is a different kettle of fish: voluble, outgoing, eccentric; self-made, self-assured and self-confident. He was too big, too outrageous, a beast to be kept in the Trump circus for long. Personally – I found – he is affable, courteous and charming, but too quickly he was the message and not the medium. He is now one of the president’s most avowed and entrenched opponents on the Republican side of the aisle.

Traditionalists in the UK dislike the bright clothes and snowy-white teeth of American political staffers, and dismiss them as lightweights. By their logic, as on the Potomac, so by the Thames. Maybe, maybe not. It is perfectly conceivable that the Government might find a respected and serious media figure with genuine heft: the mighty Emily Maitlis might not be ideologically simpatico but would be a formidable hire, Fiona Bruce and Victoria Derbyshire both have impressive CVs and skills, and one can imagine Sophie Raworth or Kirsty Wark ably controlling a rowdy press pack. So we should not write this off ad hominem (or ad feminam).

What should concern people is the structural change in the way the Government speaks to people. If there is a single figure with a daily communion with millions of voters, what does that say about the supposedly inviolable practice of ministers making statements in Parliament, to which they are accountable? How much more comfortable would HMG be delivering brightly wrapped nuggets of good news to a selected audience than have a member of the Cabinet slog through an hour of questions from Members of Parliament after an oral statement?

And how far does influence run both ways? Would this new spokesperson begin to be involved in the creation and shaping of policy as well as its presentation and delivery? Good PR practice says that your comms team should be engaged right from the beginning, able to contribute to a project as part of an organic whole. Is the same true for Whitehall? Would the new figure sit ion on policy-shaping meetings, advising from the outset what might and might not ‘fly’? That would be a major point of interest for Whitehall scrutineers like the excellent Institute for Government.

No-one with any experience in public relations or comms would say the Government’s media operation is flawless. It’s arguably not even very good, and some hard thinking (and new hires) are almost certainly needed. But that doesn’t make any change the right change. This idea of centralisation round a new figurehead would make me uneasy if I were a civil servant, a MP or a journalist. Be careful what you wish for.

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This piece was written for The Telegraph.

We’ll meet again – in Busan

GUEST POST: Tony Freeman is a Freelance Thought-Leadership Consultant specialising in financial technology. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Hands up who’s heard of Busan? Probably not that many! Until I visited South Korea I hadn’t either. Well, Busan’s a bustling port city with a population of about four million people. Its significance? In addition to its prominence as a thriving business and tourist destination, it’s the country’s alternative capital city.

Seoul is only 50km from the border with the North. The erratic and ruthless regime of Chairman Kim could easily use artillery and missiles to decimate the metropolis. Busan, meanwhile, is 325km from Seoul on the Southern coast. It’s closer to Fukuoka in Japan than it is to the capital, however you can get to Seoul in just two and half hours on their amazing 400kph bullet trains. This makes it a great deal more resilient in the event of an attack from the North Koreans. Many public sector and infrastructure businesses have already co-located their HQ between Seoul and Busan. The local stock market operator, KRX, has its head office in Busan. In short, it’s a viable alternative capital city.

What can we learn from this? I think a lot. If London was engulfed by a catastrophe, would the UK be able to function? Unfortunately, I doubt it. In 1953, the GDP per capita of Korea was $153. Barely measurable. In South Korea, it’s now $32,000 and fast catching up with countries like Italy. The country has rightly been lauded for its response to Covid-19, but, alongside their many other accomplishments, the ability to re-think and behave strategically surely lies at the heart of their long-term success.

When the issue of a post-mortem review of the Government’s response to the pandemic is raised the most frequent response is “now is not the right time”. It took the 9/11 Commission in the US almost two years to produce its final report. With its impact on the whole of our society and its international aspect, the inevitable inquiry could be a similarly long and convoluted affair. If it’s to be concluded and acted upon before the next general election, it needs to get underway.

So, yes, let’s build – however, we should also have a Busan strategy. Here’s a few ideas.

Designate a city as the alternative centre of UK government. The country is hugely over-centralised. London dominates. We need to be more like Germany with its multiple capital cities. Manchester gets my vote. 

Abandon the refurbishment of historic Parliament. Instead, build two new facilities – one in London and one in Manchester. The Palace of Westminster can be re-purposed as a heritage centre. We all agree that it’s a wonderful building, but it’s completely unsuitable as a modern workplace. It’s also the most disabled-unfriendly facility I’ve ever visited. We need a fully digital building optimised for local and remote working. It should be hugely accessible and be as green as possible.

Create The Department of National Resilience. Locate it in Manchester. Its aim should be to design, build and operate a resilience plan for the entire country. Not just the Government – all aspects of society.

Create an NHS Reserve. And model it on the military reserve model. All retired doctors and medical personnel should be enrolled, trained and paid.

Review our unwritten constitution. For a short while, the Prime Minister was gravely ill. It was never clear whether the First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, had taken the throne. If there had been a national emergency while Boris Johnson was in intensive care, how would urgent decision making operate? Who was in charge of the nuclear launch codes during that time?

Mr Johnson’s hero – Sir Winston Churchill – won the war, but lost the subsequent election. Despite the epochal Beveridge Report being issued in 1942 – in the midst of the war – the public didn’t trust the Conservatives to deliver the new society they wanted. I don’t want the same thing to happen once again. With more than four years before another election, there is now an opportunity to win both this battle and the next election. However, we have to start now.

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This piece was written for our website.

Post Covid-19: have we and will we change?

GUEST POST: Leon Cook is Founder and Managing Director of Atticus Communications. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

UK GDP fell by over 20% in April, more than three times the drop experienced during the 2008 great financial crisis. The impact of Covid-19 on the health and well-being of individuals, let alone businesses and the global economy is hard to quantify.

And yet the country is focused on getting ‘back to work’. Last month, the government announced the creation of five new taskforces responsible for the safe reopening of some of the country’s key economic sectors. With the easing of lockdown measures, businesses are gradually bringing back furloughed staff and ramping up operations. Just as quickly as we were forced to adapt to remote working, companies across the board are reassessing their workplace and work methods. The Coronavirus hasn’t just changed our office footprint. We are and will hereafter continue to communicate differently.

Corporate responsibility and action

Time and time again, companies are advised on the importance of social responsibility and purpose, yet many fail to fully engage with this process despite the benefits to employee morale, the corporate brand and overall productivity.

A GlobalWebIndex study found that 84% of consumers think that a company’s poor environmental policy could result in them parting ways with that brand. In a world rocked by Covid-19 and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, businesses must recognise that consumers and employees are watching. They must be engaged and communicated with in an empathetic way.  

Leaders must listen – and act

If it wasn’t already the case, Covid-19 has put employee well-being at the forefront of concerns for every business, irrespective of size or sector. Now more than ever, staff need reassurance from corporate leaders. With jobs and livelihoods on the line, employees require transparency and openness from those in-charge. 

In the wake of the recent racial equality protests, businesses globally have taken notice and started to ask themselves – what are we doing wrong? One way of answering this question is by asking employees themselves. Simple top-down messaging on its own is ineffective. There must be genuine two-way engagement. As we transition out of lockdown, messages and programmes of inclusivity and good culture must be upheld – and as such communicated. What has this crisis taught you and changed in respect of your corporate culture?

Engage with government

We are in a period of major change, undoubtedly. We’ve witnessed an upheaval of our societal, political and economic norms. Peacetime interventions by governments across global economies have never been so extraordinary. As we transition through the crisis, it is arguable that the government will and should be more attuned than ever to the needs of industry – the very dynamo that will kick-start our economy.

With the old rules being rewritten, businesses need to be at the forefront of any regulatory changes, especially with Brexit looming. No company is immune. It is vital that organisations use this opportunity to the fullest and engage policymakers effectively, and widely to ensure better and fair policy-making.

Take action

We are witnessing permanent changes across the business world. Organisations must ensure that they are agile and prepared to meet these changes. A renewed focus on improving internal communications will be vital to garnering the respect and trust of employees. Carefully watching and influencing policy will be key to staying ahead of the curve. Companies that can swiftly adapt to an agile style of working will prevail in the post-Covid era.

Covid-19 has changed us forever. The opportunity for business lies in ensuring that this mark is not a scar, but merely a footprint in corporate history. Businesses that continue to operate as they did prior to the crisis will, in the long-run, be eclipsed. Operate with integrity. Put employees first. See the change coming. Communicate.

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This piece was written for Public Affairs Networking.

The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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This piece was written for our website.