Yet another Bowie blog

Soz. But I just started reading Paul Morley’s new biog of Bowie – subtitle “How David Bowie made a world of difference” – and I was struck by a line in his expansive preface: “everyone has their own David Bowie. So many Bowie’s: how do you keep up with them …as he constantly, provocatively moves somewhere else and becomes someone else?”


My David Bowie was – is – the key creative influence all my teenage and adult life. From mid teens hair style’s to being influenced by “Low” in my ‘later years’ to buy a synthesiser and start to create tonal landscapes.

But the most intensive “My David Bowie” period was my early to late teens, when two musical and cultural influences collided in a blaze of colour, creativity, attitude and noise – Bowie and punk.

(Ironically, as a wannabe punk poet who would clamber on stage between sets at campus gigs and rant angry verse at the bemused students, I penned a ditty called “I hate Paul Morley”. In my late teens my heart was set on music journalism, a Northerner freshly arrived in London penning (unpaid) reviews of London gigs by Northern bands for the NME. Then Paul swept in and made a living doing just that.)

My first memory was Bowie as the soundtrack to an early passion and enduring fascination with the Space Race. As I sat up with my mum to watch grainy footage of the first lunar landing, “Space Oddity” was the soundtrack, though it didn’t become a hit until later.

When his early albums came out I was defying my friends carrying Led Zep albums under their arms and was donning my mum’s fur jacket and playing air guitar to rock & roll pixie Marc Bolan. Then I sat with my family for the Thursday evening “Top of the Pops” ritual (my dad only joined us so he could shout “he looks like a bloody woman!” at the screen periodically) and there was Bowie, arm around Mick Ronson, in a sparkly jump suit singing “Starman”. Then I bought “Ziggy Stardust”. And My David Bowie had arrived. It was going to be great!

“Pin ups” introduced me to a wealth of sixties mod and psychedelia songs I had a missed being too busy with playing football and Action Man in that decade.

“Aladdin Sane” was so-so and then “Diamond Dogs” hit the teenage dystopian spot.

Then the change of direction that was “Young Americans” changed my direction as well. It got me listening to – real – black music and funk and buying “Blues & Soul” magazine. I changed my clothes in favour of Northern Soul baggy pants and penny round collars, started looking old enough to sneak in underage into Manchester clubs where soul classics were spun alongside Bowie and Roxy Music. I even tried to copy his hairstyle, sleeping with my quiff in one of my mum’s hair rollers and trying to dye it blonde. Sadly I didn’t know then that hair bleach and domestic bleach were not the same thing, used Domestos, and most of my quiff shrivelled and fell out.

Then he went to Berlin and I went to college. “Heroes” became my theme song and “Low” the soundtrack to new musical directions and investigations. They still go on. He even influenced how I portrayed my sexuality. Solidly straight, I affected bi-sexuality because Bowie had said it’s ok. My ladies squash team captain girlfriend was so worried she bought me Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” , no doubt to cure me of all this Bowie, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, The Clash weirdness.

In my twenties and thirties Bowie and I went our separate ways, with me still resolutely playing his seventies string of albums from time to time. It was talking to Dylan Jones, GQ editor and fellow Bowie obsessive, ten years ago that brought us back together (Dylan has also authored a great Bowie book). By then I was learning to play guitar and keyboards and bought a Bowie songbook to start to deconstruct his song writing for myself. Then I bought the synth. Then Bowie arrived again with a new album, then another, then…

Morley’s book rightly puts Bowie as the key influencer and observer of swirling popular culture over the decades of his and my generation’s life, from the sixties to now. So many Bowie’s, so little time.


Douglas Slocombe’s chair

My family spent a few days on the north Norfolk coast recently. One day we went to nearby Burnham Market for lunch. The little town is a bit like Islington on Sea in terms of the shops and visitors. Turns out that every Monday during the summer they have an open air auction on the green. As I wandered around the second hand bikes and lawn mowers, and boxes of bric a brac being eyed up by a throng of car boot sellers, I came across a couple of old canvas director’s chairs folded and leaning unloved against a tree in the shade. Opening up the least worm eaten and rickety, I saw the following legend carefully hand written in fading letters:

Douglas Slocombe, Lighting Cameraman.2C7ABBBF-159A-416D-9BFD-9C68EEDD43BB

As a cinematography nerd in my teens, I knew exactly who he was, and assumed others would as well. I was excited.

Douglas Slocombe was one of the great British film makers, not a director but a cameraman associated with a long list of award winning movies, from the Ealing comedies of the fifties, through classics like The Great Gatsby, The Italian Job, The Servant and The Music Lovers, through to the Indiana Jones movies. He won multiple BAFTA’s and other British and American cinematography awards, and was thrice nominated for an Academy Award. The son of a journalist, he had originally planned to be a news photographer and ended up a film maker for The Ministry of Information, making wartime documentaries. His work on British and American movies over four decades marked him out as one of the greats of cinema. He died in February earlier this year, aged 103.

Anyone like me who grew up marvelling at the visual imagery of Stanley Kubrick, David Lean and Ken Russell, and wanting to be a visual story teller themselves, knew Slocombe’s name. I assumed some of the well heeled Burnham Market holiday folks on the green would too and prepared for a bidding war with some holidaying humanities professor.

In the end barely anyone (“who the blazes was he?” remarked one auction regular) gave the chair or it’s fading writing a second glance and I got it uncontested for a fiver. It sits in my study amongst shelves of books on cinema, art and photography.

In the days of Hollywood remakes of film classics, franchise movie series, Instagram and Vine, it would be sad to forget a British pioneer of cinematic art.

The business of business

I know of a PR agency leader who walked into a training session for a group of rising star staff and asked them who had read their client’s annual report and who knew their client’s share price that morning. Few if any hands went up. They were all experts in the PR needs of their client, but didn’t really know the business of their client’s business.

Understanding of the business of business varies across the PR and marketing mix. Advertising has always been close to the business issues of their clients, and their relationships have been at CEO and CMO level. As the PR consulting industry pivots more to the marketers who focus on ROI and selling stuff, and moves up the ladder within business (well over half of Fortune 500 CCO’s in EMEA now report directly to the CEO and/or main board) we too need staff who are hungry to learn about business as well as PR services for business.

Some of the PR degree courses I have spoken at – Greenwich University, Leeds Beckett are examples – are rightly embedded in the business schools. Others are allied to journalism studies or humanities departments. But they should all give their students an understanding of business as well as PR theory and techniques. As increasingly people go straight from university into PR agencies without touching in-house roles, it is incumbent on agencies to make sure they address this.

One approach we are taking at Weber Shandwick, via our colleagues at Prime in Sweden, is our Trusted Advisor training programme, which has former CEO’s and CMO’s deliver deep insights into business life, so the communications we deliver are closely attuned to the business goals of the client, as well as their communications objectives. Whether it is protecting the key business asset of reputation, or increasing market share, I always say that firms don’t hire PR agencies because they want PR – they want tangible, measurable business outcomes.

Our top winning campaign at Cannes this year, a Gold Lion winner, was The House of Clicks for property firm Hemnet, a brilliant piece of big data story telling, but the outcomes highlighted were not just the gazillion media impressions globally, they were the creation of a premium new product and market segment.

I have won new clients in the past where part of the onboarding for any consultant or supplier was to go through the same onboarding any staffer would go through about the business and operations of the firm. That might be a day working on a counter or in a fast food firm’s chicken farm, or learning how to effectively deliver parcels for a courier firm. I see less of this today due to time pressures. But it was valuable.

One of our new trainees I spoke with this week did a degree in business and positively chose PR as an aspect of business – a rising discipline within the boardroom – he wanted to focus on as a result of that deep immersion into the world of business. All our staff need to understand business if they are to really partner in their client’s business goals.

On the other side I still see too little focus on communications in management training. CEO’s are as much in the media and social media spotlight as politicians, and are effectively the Chief Communications Officer of their firm. For future CEO’s to think PR was just for the PR department to worry about would be a mistake.

Creativity and contradictions on La Croisette

If you want to read insightful comment on creativity and innovation at Cannes 2016, please read the posts on the Weber Shandwick EMEA blog from my creative colleagues.

If you want to read the random thoughts of a sleep deprived (thanks Daily Mail yacht, ya bastards) old PR lag, read on.

So, my 7th Cannes Festival of Creativity and it was the biggest, baddest, boldest yet. With Health Lions at one end, and the new Entertainment Lions at the other, the festival is creeping into being a mind exploding week and a half of new ideas, creativity, innovation, VR, AR, big data pyrotechnics and great work from every corner of the world and every sector. And rosé. Lots of bloody rosé.

(I arrived and headed as always for the screens in the Work Zone. I had a seven year itch. The PR category was dominated by ad agencies again. Didn’t I see that campaign by another brand and agency just a couple of years ago?  It didn’t last long.)Cannes Lions tweet 2

There was also a welcome increase in the number of clients attending. 3000 is a number I heard, around a quarter of the total attendees. Some old advertising hands apparently resisted this. Like the festival organisers, I welcome it. Creativity and innovation is a partnership with our clients, not something we do to reluctant clients.

Some highlights – and the odd low light – for me:

The Future of Brands – Unilever CMO Keith Weed’s annual lecture is always a highlight, peppered with engaging work, original research and insights into one of the greatest marketing organisations in the world. Watch it online. Not for the first time last week the Persil/Omo “Free the kids” film brought a tear to my jaded eye. His “I to the power of n” proposition is brilliant.

Keith Weed

No blockbuster – there was no apparent (it’s still going on as I write) “Like a Girl” or “Dumb ways to die” category board sweeper but that’s ok. On issues like gender equality, a thousand flowers blooming rather than just one great big one shows how seriously the industry is taking it.

(That said…..I was not the only one in the audience who noted yet again the irony of an industry talking about gender equality as all or majority male advertising creative team after creative team took to the stage. Only one in ten advertising creatives are women. Only one in ten creatives listed on Lions winning advertising work are women. Keith Weed’s own analysis of thousands of ads worldwide shows that 50% of ads stereotype women. Only 3% portrayed women in powerful, leadership roles. 80% of women consumers don’t identify with these ads. Guys – and you usually are guys – this has to change. The most talked about influential on social media at Cannes this year was the brilliant feminist marketing icon Cindy “I blow shit up” Gallop, yet huge swathes of the industry still continue to act like Mad Men in beards and bad denim.)

Creativity counts – every morning at ten am the Cannes Lions folks did a presentation on why creativity was now a more valued business asset than ever. As one client said “you sell more product at higher prices if you are creative”. For a decade now the Cannes Marketeer of the Year company has gone on to see their share price rocket ahead of their peers as a result of their cumulative creative work.

Buzz off – The three buzz words last year were Products, Disruption and Culture. It will be fascinating to see what they are this year but technology innovation and cultural change will be the undercurrents.

Winning is infectious – ten years ago the entire worldwide retail industry combined won one Bronze Lion between them, despite being one of the most consumer facing industries in the world. Last year the sector won 75 Lions for over twenty retail brands from fourteen countries, including a Grand Prix. This year a retail campaign won the PR Grand Prix and John Lewis’ love-struck penguin won big.

Don’t break the Internet – you read so many award entries that claim their campaign “broke the Internet” you wonder how the bloody thing works any more. (I know of only two genuine Internet breakers – Emma Watson’s brilliant UN Women speech and my train company’s crappy wifi. Possibly Kim K’s arse as well I am told.) The PR Jury rightly declared that this sort of hyperbole actually got entries marked down in favour of those that demonstrated measurable business or people impact.

The creative divide – as a perma-worrier about the future for young people including my own kids, a chilling phrase rang in my ears from from one creative commentator; “For so much of life creativity is suppressed. If you are not creative you don’t have a future.” When I was a working class kid growing up in Salford, many of my friends were written off at 11 by the education system or left school at sixteen to go into factory and manual jobs that no longer exist. When you look at our education system today, when you look at the ghettoising of what we used to call working class people (brilliantly documented by Guardian columnist Owen Jones in his book “Chavs”), when we look at the lack of social and racial diversity in the PR industry and other professions, has so much really changed? If every one of us gave at least one non/privileged kid an opportunity to unleash their creativity – through internships, through music and arts projects, by supporting projects from The Media Trust to the Marc Bolan Music Project at his old London school ( these are some of mine), the world would truly be a better place. We are already a world divided by money, power, religion, ideology, war, hate, fear. Let’s not add creativity to the list.

Cannes, Cannes – there are two Cannes. There are the industry moguls on their yachts and the hard working, curious and ideas hungry young (and not so young) creatives. There are the great creative campaigns on gender, sustainability, education, sexual violence, racism and the Millennial Goals , and there are the millions spent by media brands on charter yachts, fine wine, celebrity guests and lavish dinners. There are the gender equality campaigns and campaigners, and there are the girls with long legs and short shorts handing out leaflets at the Palais entrance. As “the thermostat of the world” as Bono called the marketing industry in a past Cannes Lions keynote, Cannes is a world of contradictions. As a New Labour supporter and warrior in the past, I know about trying to reconcile contradictions and not always pulling it off. Hey, you lay out a lavish picnic and the wasps and ants will turn up as well as the hungry children. But the festival itself is a unique showcase of the greatest creative work and minds, the game changing technologies, the criss-cross of culture and conversation.

My advice – forget the expensive A list celebrities, spend some money on sending your brightest young creatives and help them immerse themselves and their colleagues in the work and inspiration that is The Cannes Lions & Festival of Creativity,  Davos in shorts and T shirts.


Bowie and Creativity

I have blogged before on this so will try not to repeat myself.

I had the pleasure of hosting Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow in our London offices yesterday, via our support for The Media Trust. The previous night he had written an eloquent and much read and shared blog on “The incredible creative life force that was David Bowie”.

JS Bowie Book (4)

When I heard the news of Bowie’s untimely death early Monday, I was genuinely grief stricken. I felt a bright light in my creative life had gone out. Bowie had been a creative inspiration to me since at 15, sat in the family living room in a grey industrial Northern town, I saw him perform Starman in that epic, life changing four minutes on TOTP. He brought colour, creativity, rebellion into an otherwise largely colourless Britain.

This morning I listened to Hunky Dory, the album on which he first found his creative and lyrical voice (and some great, great songwriting) in the car on the way to the station and cried all the way.

I firmly believe that Bowie should be “canonised” as Patron Saint of creatives.

Just a few of many reasons and how we can learn from his “incredible creative life force”.

Firstly, he soaked up culture like a sponge. From music to dance and theatre, from art to fashion, from film to literature, from mythology to branding.

Secondly, and obviously, he kept innovating and moving forward. He didn’t rest on his laurels. Look at how he ripped up his fabulous creation in Ziggy Stardust at the height of his success and moved on, leaving us gasping in his wake.

Thirdly, he learned from failure and came back even stronger and with greater creativity. After his creative low period in the 1980s he experimented, he failed, but he kept at it and won through.

Fourthly, he inspired. Whether my generation in the grey early seventies, a time of power cuts and three day weeks and political and social strife in bleak urban landscapes, or those just discovering him now through BlackStar and his untimely death.

He was creative to the end. He refused to compromise. He continues to inspire and for me, always will.



How the “outsiders” upped British creativity in marketing as well as music, literature and film in the 1960′s and ’70s

I am indebted to the brilliant contemporary British historian and storyteller Dominic Sandbrook and his excellent new history of British creative industries, “The Great British Dream Factory” (Allen Lane) for this post on creativity through diversity.


I, we, talk a lot about diversity in our PR industry. A lot of our focus, rightly, is on greater gender equality. Indeed my firm has just published new research which looks at gender as a new driver of corporate reputation.

In advertising The 3% Conference  – see below – has highlighted that until recently only that tiny percentage of advertising creative directors were women, and now thanks to their campaigning that’s up to 11% and rising. I am also focused on racial and social diversity, the subject of previous blog posts and action by the PRCA, The Taylor Bennett Foundation and others.

Sandbrook highlights a previous case study in the British advertising industry in the 1960s. He notes that at the time agencies were “introverted, conservative, stuffy places dominated by the old officer class”.  Creatively ambitious recruits headed for New York and joined the Mad Men.


When a young John Hegarty joined his first agency in 1965, he found “the staff consisted of public school educated account men who were trained only to say yes”.  He thought they were good for pouring the perfect G&T and little else.

Compared to their American counterparts, British TV ads were clunky, pedestrian, badly shot, badly acted and often hectoring and lecturing in tone. At the end of the 50′s British ads made up around 20% of TV and cinema entries at Cannes, but won few if any awards.

Within a decade or two, all this had changed. A golden age of British advertising came about, from the bike pushing Hovis boy to the hysterical Smash Martians, from Hamlet cigars soundtracked by Bach to the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster, and most admired of all Hugh Hudson’s surreal “Swimming Pool”.


From 1974 to 1978, British ads went from winning bugger all at Cannes to dominating the festival, winning half the Golds as well as the top Grand Prix awards.

What changed? Sandbrook sees a crucial element being the rise of the ambitious, creative, post-war generation educated not at Sandhurst and Eton but grammar schools and art colleges (an interesting parallel with the rise of British pop that took America by storm in the 60s, The Beatles, the Stones et al, through to Roxy Music and Mick Jones, Viv Albertine etc in 70′s punk). “As outsiders they were naturally hungry for fame and fortune” notes Sandbrook, “but their ambitions were artistic as well as financial.”

Hegarty was the son of an Irish labourer who attended Hornsey College of Art. Alan Parker, who after advertising went on to direct “Fame”, “Bugsy Malone” and “Mississippi Burning”, was a painter and decorator’s son from North London. Another adman turned movie maker, David Puttnam, was also a grammar school boy outsider.  The Saatchi brothers were the sons of Iraqi Jewish immigrants. Ridley “Bladerunner” Scott went to Stockton on Tees Grammar and Hartlepool College of Art.

They were young, working or lower middle class, creative outsiders. They were the John Lennon’s of commercial visual art. Puttnam has talked about he and his fellow outsiders dreaming of ripping up “the world of privilege and position and place and deference”.

Fast forward to this decade.

The 3% Conference was founded to act on the depressing stat that only 3% of US advertising creative directors were women. “Diversity is the best thing that could ever happen to creativity” declared founder Kat Gordon last year,  talking of advertising being “broken due to a failure of imagination”. There is a growing body of evidence that diversity boosts creativity.

In PR we need to break the self-perpetuating cycle of largely white middle class university graduates who hire yet more white middle class university graduates. As Kat Gordon says; “What can we get from a room full of people in the same situation, validating instead of challenging each other?”

For the golden age of PR, itself rising at Cannes, we need more outsiders.

Links With History

This week I attended the funeral of my neighbour Dick at our West Sussex ancient village church. Dick had reached 95 – a good innings as they say – and until six weeks ago had been a regular sight to us heading off in his car for his morning paper and taking a walk down the lane. It was as much celebration as sadness.

When we got to the church we were handed the order of service. On the front was a picture of our familiar friend, smiling. On the back was a sepia picture of him in his army uniform. It was almost a shock to connect someone we knew to real, world changing history.

Dick had been born in 1920, two years after the end of WW1 and into a Britain struggling to recover from the decimation of a generation. WW2 broke out when he was 19. One of his first jobs was to be stationed in Richmond Park to fend off enemy parachutists who fortunately never materialised. Then he was sent to fight in France and returned with a back full of shrapnel.

We do still have links with WW2 in my family, as do many of us. My mother was six when war broke out, and was evacuated to the Lake District. My grandmother couldn’t bear the separation and after a few months brought her back to Salford. My grandfather built an Anderson Shelter in the back garden. When a German incendiary bomb slid off the roof of a factory opposite and blew their home to shreds, my grandfather’s skills as a builder had saved them.

My eight year old is doing a project on WW2 at school. My mum wrote him a long note on what it was like to be a child in the war, being torn away from family to go live with strangers far away, the air raids while at school, and emerging from the shelter to find possessions ripped and burned. It’s a piece of family history.

To have known someone who had actually fought in the war, these days is rare. I feel our community has lost another important link with history. Later this week I found my eight year old in tears. He said he was sad about Dick and sad that he never got to talk to him about being a soldier in the war he was studying.

To be in PR or not to be in PR, that is the question

ICCO ‘Tis the season of international public relations conferences, with IPRA Congress in Jo’burg two weeks ago, ICCO in Milan last week, and The Holmes Report Global event in Miami later this month.

Like IPRA, ICCO was excellent. Under the leadership of my Ketchum oppo David Gallagher and PRCA head Francis Ingham, ICCO is now really relevant to the challenges and opportunities facing the global public relations consultancy industry.

Big themes last week were – again – creativity, measurement & analytics, talent, the battle with advertising and for the ears of CMOs, and the relevance of what we do (dialogue, engagement) to the challenges facing the world.

One recurrent question – again not new – was: is “public relations” the right term for what we do in an integrated, earned/paid/owned/shared digital world? Is “communications” a better term? Does “PR” attract talent or potentially scare it off.

All good questions.

Here’s my take.

I have now been in this business – PR – for 33 years, probably longer than the average lifespan of my colleagues at Weber Shandwick. So I am fairly proud of the term “PR”. That said, part of my career was as a political spin doctor, one of the branches of PR which has brought the profession into some disrepute (not the only one. Look at the celeb publicity industry. Look at the behaviour of brands flouting convention and trust on sustainability etc.)

I am very wedded to the definition of PR in the ‘idiot’s guide’ that my first boss gave me after I failed as a music writer: “public relations is the dialogue between an organisation and its publics”. Dialogue! In a world of rising levels of fear, suspicion, cynicism, scepticism, cultural barriers – isn’t that more relevant than ever??

But – until the social media revolution were we really in the dialogue business? We were largely in the press release business, not that different from the advertising business (except their clients paid for space and they had nicer offices and company cars). Talking at, in broadcast mode, not dialogue.

Then the Internet, and it’s child prodigy social media, arrived. Everything changed.

Now we are still in the earned media business. But we are also in the paid, shared, owned media business. Some of those involve dialogue and engagement. Most actually. Some don’t. But all require engagement. So we are in the (integrated) communications business.

OK, I am losing myself now!

You get my drift.

Kinda angels on the head of a pin stuff.

But is it? PRPR has a reputation problem. Some of this is our fault, we haven’t focussed enough in recent history on things like measurement and ROI (impact on our clients’ or employer’s business as opposed to image and media profile), innovation, creativity. Caricatures like the PRs in Sex & the City, The Thick of It, VEEP, Ab Fab etc were partly based on the way some of our practitioners liked to prance and preen themselves in front of the media and opinion leaders, who then took sweet revenge. That problematic reputation still hampers our attempts to recruit talent from diverse industries and communities.

So maybe “communications” is a better way to go.

But if we stick to our principles, our founding tenets as an industry – see the “dialogue” definition above – then we should be proud to be part of the industry.

After all, PR is both growing as well as growing in influence. Almost 60% of senior in house CCOs now report to the CEO or chairman or board, which is up 10% on less than a decade ago. 35% of global CCOs now have responsibility for brand communications as well as corporate comms – the rise of the CCMO.

So, are we in PR or communications? Does it matter?

Imagine the conversation at a dinner party, or with your mum.

“And what do you do?”

“I’m in PR.”

“In what?”

“Actually I’m in the communications business.”

“You sell phones?”

Go on, you decide.



I must have attended around twenty Labour Party conferences over the years, first as an activist, then as a party staffer and spin doctor, and then as a lobbyist. Not an evolution that will play well with the average member clapping delightedly at Jeremy Corbyn’s speech yesterday and celebrating “getting our party back”.

(Back from who? The Blairite control freaks? The voters? Worth bearing in mind that Labour members may have elected Corbyn, but voters elected Labour MPs, most of whom regard Corbyn and their potential political oblivion with horror.)

While he was speaking back home in the UK, I was giving a speech on public relations, truth telling and reputation at the excellent IPRA Congress in Jo’burg. Big themes of the event and the many great presentations were the death of spin, and the need for authenticity, dialogue and real engagement by business and business leaders.

One senior in house Corporate Communications Officer I interviewed for my talk had commented on the irony of PR people being dubbed spin doctors by journalists when it was often us trying to seek out and tell the truth, a truth often then “spun” by reporters to reflect their or their proprietors world view. I am sure Corbyn’s team will be feeling the same way as they sift through today’s headlines.

A similar theme was playing out back home it seems. Commenting on Corbyn’s debut, The Guardian had this to say:

“With his overwhelming support from party members, Mr Corbyn has earned the right to do things differently and in his own way. Today he did both. His speech trashed almost the entire playbook of modern media-savvy political orthodoxy, with no conventional clap lines, few soundbites, and in all likelihood not a single focus-group-tested theme.”

Britain's leader of the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn delivers his keynote speech at the party's annual conference in Brighton

Mea culpa. There is some truth to the assertion that Corbyn’s election by the majority of Labour members and three quid texters was a big “fuck you” to the years of careful message management, a formidable media machine and even “control freakery” that has its roots back in the 80′s when I went to work for Peter Mandelson on Labour’s press team, a time of horror at Labour’s near annihilation in 1983 and the start of the long road back to electability. Yes we did focus groups, yes we used modern marketing techniques, yes we put voter friendly faces on TV and kept vote frighteners on a leash. Guilty as changed. And yes, maybe it all went a bit too far.

So is there a similarity between the way Corbyn is trying to do things differently, be the antithesis of spin, and what we were talking about far away in sunny South Africa?

On the surface yes. People want authenticity, from brands and CEOs and politicians. They want to be talked by humans, not pre programmed marketing machines churning out key messages and soundbites. Human to human communications,

People are more savvy, sceptical. People are more connected and resistant to being talked at and down to, including by the media who they often distrust as much as they distrust business, governments and institutions.

So is Corbyn just trying to do what enlightened CEOs and brands are trying to do? Be authentic? Connect?

To a point Lord Copper.

The best CEOs engage internally and externally. (At Weber Shandwick we have researched these trends and our “CEO Reputation Premium” report is available on our various websites.) Corbyn is engaging internally with those who elected him. But the Labour conference, and God knows I have experienced my share of them, is just a physical incarnation of the Twittersphere echo chamber. It’s not the real world. That is outside the conference hall. Voters. The “customers” of politics.


Customers want authenticity and engagement, but they also want products and services that work and make their busy complex lives better. Time will tell if a Corbyn led Labour Party will deliver those as opposed to another new style of politics and making elements of the party feel good about themselves again for a while.

Why are we so behind the curve on diversity in PR?

In my previous posts reflecting on my 20 years in a PR agency, I have written about the challenges, opportunities and changes I have seen over two decades agency-side. In my final one I return to an issue I feel strongly about, which in recent years the PRCA and other agency and in-house leaders have rightly become active on, but where change is very slow. I am talking about diversity.

Although there is research that shows, in terms of leadership roles and closing gender pay gaps in the UK, we still have way to go on gender equality, I am proud to be at an agency in which the majority of leaders in the UK are women, and that has been named by no less that The Holmes Report as the most gender equal of all the global agencies. (Proud also that we are a #HeForShe office in London.)

Although in the past our industry has, to its cost, lost a lot of female talent and experience post having children, more enlightened attitudes to flexible working, and the digital communications revolution, have largely seen an end to such rhinoceros-hide attitudes amongst agency and in-house heads.

Over my 20 years I have not heard any of my lesbian or gay colleagues express any experience of career limiting prejudice in agencies. Some of my top and most successful colleagues, and friends in PR elsewhere, are gay.

Our failure is racial and social diversity. We are not alone in that. But we are the industry that claims to be the dialogue facilitators between organisations and their publics.

As I have done previously, I turned to PR Week as a reflection of our business. I counted all the photos in the recent edition. Out of 63 pictures of PR leaders, commentators and agency people, 61 were white. Worryingly, this edition included the industry’s top 30 under 30 rising stars.

In a subsequent edition, the situation was similar, and one of the few non whites pictured was actually President Obama.

As an industry that claims to understand Britain, we need to look and be a little more like modern Britain. It’s not good enough to merely claim to be an equal opportunities employer, and that anyone is free to apply for our traineeships. We have to work harder on outreach schemes to schools – given the potential talent from less advantaged backgrounds who are now put off university by the prospect of eye watering debt – as well as the less socially elite universities. We have to break down cultural barriers and misconceptions that stop young talent from considering our industry in the first place.

I am not the only agency leader I know who says he wouldn’t get on his own apprentice scheme these days, being a working class half Irish Salfordian with a second class arts degree from a lesser (in the league tables) university.

There are schemes out there – the PRCA and others can advise – and models like the excellent work The Media Trust does with media organisations. We just need to commit, show some leadership in our organisations, and try a bit harder to make real and not cosmetic change.

I am the first to admit that I have only dented the surface in my own agency. But I intend to keep trying.