Returning from Brussels on my customary trek last week, I did something a bit silly. Probably driven by exhaustion. And my chronic impatience with authority figures. Especially when I think they’re strutting their feathers to feed their narcissism.

The backdrop. When arriving at St Pancras station from the continent, UK Border Police sometimes asks to see your passport and ticket. Apparently this is due to the Lille loophole. Someone with a Brussels-Lille ticket could conceivably stay on the train past Lille and enter the UK illegally, if they are a non-EU citizen and are unentitled to be in the UK.

I have never understood why they ask EU citizens to show their tickets. EU citizens have a right to be in the UK even if only bearing a Brussels-Lille ticket. Surely Eurostar, not the border police, should care whether you have the right ticket (I assume?)

Hence why I always ask why they want to see my ticket, given that I am an EU citizen. Answers have varied from “I don’t know” to “it’s the Lille loophole” to “the UK has a strict asylum policy” to “I can tell you, but I’d have to kill you” (best reply ever). Clearly none of these answers are satisfactory (apart from the latter, clearly). I suppose the honest answer would be “I have no idea what countries are in the EU so I had best check all tickets and passports.”

Here’s what happened to me last week:

  • Border Police (BP): Can I see your ticket?
  • Me: Sorry but why do you need to see my ticket?
  • Me: But why. I’m a Danish citizen; I believe I’m entitled to be here, why do you need to see my ticket?
  • Me: But why? You’re wasting everyone’s time by asking EU citizens to show their tickets.
  • BP: OK, TAKE A SEAT OVER THERE (pointing at bench).
  • Me: (Thinking, shit, I should have showed him my ticket). OK then, here’s my ticket.
  • BP: TOO LATE! (Changes mind about me sitting down). Come with me. (We step behind booth). What do you think this is (signals room around us)?
  • Me: Um…
  • BP: It’s a border! Why do you think I’m asking for your ticket?
  • Me: Because you want to show us ghastly foreigners and Daily Mail readers that you mean business? (Immediate regret, clearly).
  • BP: (Fuming). COME WITH ME! (Takes me to baggage checking area by exits, which is empty. Asks a colleague to observe. Puts on rubber gloves).
  • Me: (Oh dear).
  • BP: Is this your bag?
  • Me: (Phew). Yes. (BP proceeds to open it, slowly removes everything. Looks through all pockets. Looks through all books. Runs weird gadget along inside lining then puts it in machine, which then beeps lots. This takes ages. He snarls at me. I assume he was beaten as a child, has self-esteem issues etc. and really wants to teach me a lesson. I worry a bit).
  • BP: Give me your passport. (Looks through passport – slowly). Do you travel a lot?
  • Me: Yes.
  • BP: Have you ever been arrested or stopped by us?
  • Me: No.
  • BP: Wait here. (Leaves me waiting for 15-20 minutes with other officer near me).
  • Me: (Crap).
  • BP: (Smiling, hands me back my passport). OK now listen. If you’d shown me your ticket and THEN asked me why I was checking your ticket I would have told you. Your manner was suspicious. I see all sorts in my line of work, so I had to check. But you’re fine to go. In future, just do as we ask!
  • Me: I’m sorry, I appreciate I may have come across as rude. I have lived here for a long time and am annoyed with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Europe nonsense, and I assumed tough border checks were part of all that.
  • BP: Not at all, you’re very welcome in the UK (smiles, shakes my hand, pats me on the back).

Why the volte-face?

Was he first strutting his feathers because I dared to question him – but then having sensed that he’d made me suitably uncomfortable, felt he’d won? Had I truly been suspicious? I look more like a choirboy than a crack dealer, and surely a crack dealer with a bag full of gear would have shown their ticket pronto.

Who knows. In any case, lesson learned. Count to 10 next time. It’s probably not a Daily Mail inspired conspiracy. More likely, they’re instructed to check tickets due to the Lille loophole. And given that they can’t be expected to know all EU member states, they’re told to check ALL tickets.

I’m bored of social media fanatics who see anything other than free-for-all conversation as bordering on malpractice. I know it’s called social media and that engagement can bring real benefits to organisations, from customer care on Twitter through to cracking jokes with young folk on Facebook who then recommend you to their mates or whatever.

But sometimes conversation is a waste of time. An engineering firm on Twitter? An international organisation on Facebook? Sorry but 99% of their followers seek information. They’re not looking to converse. They rely on their social networks as filters and aggregators for material that interests them. So why can organisations not use them to distribute information to them without purists kicking up a fuss?

Of course there’s a place for engagement. But it’s not always the Holy Grail. Let alone in a fully public domain. While communications has changed, human nature has not. Most people do not want to engage in free for all conversation with strangers in public. Perhaps they are self-conscious. Perhaps they just can’t be bothered. It is a fact that most people go online to be informed (over 90% according to most claims), not to converse or publish.

Most annoyingly, fixation with conversation on social media distracts us from other forms of engagement which organisations can partake in. Like using social listening and analytics to learn from what people are saying and doing, and then feeding it into business and communications strategy. It may not be pure engagement perhaps, but it’ll likely be a lot more impactful for most organisations.

I’m bored of hearing how people “don’t get it.” Supposedly, people do not do data mining, advanced analytics, mad large-scale content programmes or community management across every imaginable channel (or whatever) because they’re too thick to see the value.

Sure, some people are obtuse. But most aren’t.

Perhaps they work in a highly scrutinised sector and have weighed up benefits and risks, and decided that for the moment, it’s not worth the risk.

Perhaps they’re doing just fine and have other priorities for the time being: they’re still making money (if they’re a business) or otherwise succeeding (a politician winning elections, a fundraiser raising funds, an activist winning over public opinion).

Perhaps budgets are tight and they find they get more bang for their limited buck doing other things. They might not just assume this, they might know it for a fact.

Perhaps siloes and cultures are so entrenched, that doing anything beyond traditional is utterly impossible, and what is required is cultural change, not new communications activities.

Perhaps the people trying to peddle the fancy stuff are doing it badly: are they making it seem smart, strategic, achievable, scalable and can they prove ROI?

Imagine a world where all lawyers were judged by the standards of those that defend wealthy criminals. Or doctors by anti-vaccine nut-jobs. Or journalists by cowboys distorting the truth for populist rags a la Daily Mail. It happens, but not always.

Yet communicators are continuously being collectively judged by the lowest standards of their profession. I’ve been reading Bob Hoffman’s Ad Contrarian and recently finished Robert Philips’ Trust Me, PR is Dead. Judging by their writing, you’d think all digital marketers and PR professionals respectively were snake-oil peddling incompetents. And I don’t know how many pieces I’ve read by journalists describing the ineptitude of PR professionals.

No doubt communications is flawed. We have no professional standards, which means everything from quality of output to hiring can be arbitrary. As can evaluation. A doctor’s success is largely judged by whether they are able to cure patients. It’s not quite that clear-cut in our profession given that we do not always define success and measure ROI (although we should). As a result, some poor practices seep through, unfortunately.

But all communicators I know are ethical. Most know what they’re doing and provide value to clients. Some are even very talented. However fashionable it is to deride the entire profession, I suspect most would agree.

Who are the good guys?

August 9, 2015

I had fine intentions last year. I left big agency land looking to work for organisations on the “right” side of the public debate. Most likely, I assumed, charities, NGOs and foundations, but also corporates in un-evil sectors. The logic was two-fold. First, representing good guys would mean doing more fun, grassroots type stuff. And it’d be easier to get sign off as the organisations in question would be less risk averse. Second, it’d provide more sense of purpose than representing corporate drones peddling useless and/or nasty products.

Fine thinking. But naïve: defining good vs. not good is not as easy as the Birkenstock crowd might claim.

The good guys

Some are in it for the money as much as any supposed blood-thirsty corporate, but crave public funds and donations, not revenue. They prioritise battling similar organisations for access to funds and donations over saving whales (or whatever), thus saving fewer whales in the process. Decision-making has not proven to be any faster by any stretch. Some so ardently believe in their cause that any wavering, like expecting to get paid properly or having a child, is frowned upon. No doubt plenty of non-profits are ethical and brilliant while making the world a finer place. But it’s not quite so cut and dry.

Nasty corporates

The profit motive is not in itself wicked. I have a bloody profit motive, sod off. Corporates employ shedloads of people and tend to treat them better than non-profits. And many are getting nicer. Perhaps because the market place dictates that they should, but so what? Yes CSR is mostly a load of guff but many companies are genuinely moving towards real shared value and sustainability practices. And while plenty sell crap, others do not. And all companies are not the same. And a company one person might deem evil, might be considered saintly by the next (agrochemicals?) And so forth.

The quest for purpose continues.

Social media is a bloody big deal if you’re in business. Not because cat videos get 100 million views or some pre-pubescent twit has 50 million Facebook followers. Too many communicators see social media through the prism of the cat video. They pump out endless amounts of stuff, hoping it will “go viral” or whatever. Hence why I’m bored of social media. It’s underused and abused. Social media is bigger than communications. Along with other forces it creates enormous risks and opportunities and what a business chooses to do about it will likely dictate whether it stays in business or business



Communications has traditionally centred on outputs: the press release, the ad, the report, the speech, the conference – and so forth. So naturally, when social media came along, communicators were delighted by the many new outputs it could help them pump out relentlessly deliver.

We now have organisations straddled across dozens if not hundreds of social media accounts, blowing large sums on content strategies and community building that garner “shares” but in many cases fail to improve reputation, change opinion or sell stuff (or whatever).

Meanwhile, many have been blind to two key effects of social media:

  1. Heightened scrutiny and expectations by recipients of communications
  2. The ability to understand audiences better

Heightened scrutiny and expectations

Social media has swelled scrutiny and expectations of organisations. It’s nigh on impossible to sell a dud product or service if it’s being slated on review sites and no one’s buddy is recommending it on social media. Likewise, they can no longer spin their way out of trouble: bad behaviour will be exposed fast.

Two other influences reinforce this. Globalisation means we’re setting the bar for quality and behaviour globally not just locally. Also, the ever-growing need for people to feel warm and fuzzy inside by buying products from companies (or voting for politicians) that display high levels of ethical behaviour means that the naughty are admonished and the good celebrated.

In this respect, social media matters not so much because it enables more communication but because it contributes to forcing organisations to be and do better.

Understanding audiences

People used to have limited options: a dozen local shops, a couple of political parties and a handful of newspapers perhaps? The explosion in choice makes segmenting bloody complex. We can no longer assume that people within a single demographic want the same thing. Neighbours of the same sex, age and socioeconomic status might have different political preferences, listen to different music, prefer different holiday destinations and have entirely different shopping habits.

Increasingly, mapping audience preferences requires drilling down to very small (and sometimes odd) segments based on a single or two predilections (people who vote centre-left and like folk music; people who love Italy and read House and Garden!) Often, preferences are so specific that they are unique to an individual meaning micro-targeting just one person will become the norm. To understand such nuanced preferences, we must learn to analyse data sets properly, many of which will derive from social media.

What next?

No doubt this requires more than a couple of paragraphs in a blog post, but here are three thoughts:

  1. What both the above factors share is that they are not usually mentioned in a communicator’s job description. Meeting heightened scrutiny and expectations through superior quality and/or behaviour is a leadership decision. Communications is often only responsible for putting a positive spin on whatever direction the leadership has decided i.e. they’re asked to produce lots of communication material (the dreaded outputs). Instead, communications should be higher up the hierarchy. Heads of communications should sit in the C-suite (or the equivalent of it in other organisations). And ideally, leaders should themselves have a significant communications remit.
  2. Communicators probably obsess over outputs because their next promotion, raise or bonus depends on how many outputs they can produce which garner a bit of coverage (media clippings, web traffic, the irritating Like! or whatever). Hence why they tend not to team up with clever analysts who can identify and decipher data that can help them target audiences better. Communicators’ appraisals should be based on stricter, outcome-related criteria, which force them to invest in smarter targeting techniques.
  3. Be sensible and realistic about what social media can achieve. Run fewer shiny newsrooms and have fewer pointless conversations to show brand personality or whatever (I thought only people could have personalities). Use social media mainly to garner insights and provide real value through stuff like good day-to-day customer care and provision of useful information when and where people want it. There’s a place for the shiny, fun and/or whacky in social media sometimes, but not all the bloody time.

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