Sorry Is Not the Hardest Word

Is it ever a good idea for politicians to admit to mistakes and say sorry? Some political commentators say that it is not a good idea. They argue that it is a sign of weakness, especially in leaders and that it creates a precedent, damaging their image.

I’ve never really understood this and have come to believe that political spin doctors live in a parallel universe.

In this strange other world politicians are always “on message”. They parrot off the same lines when interviewed by the media, regardless of the questions they are asked. Indeed many seem to have a genuine problem answering questions at all. When it comes to political opponents everything is cut and dried: ie they are wrong about everything, and we are always right.

And as for having done anything wrong, well that never happens: everything that isn’t working in the world, except perhaps the weather, is the direct responsibility of “the last government” or whoever else it is that disagrees with them.

I’m not alone in finding this irritating. Political engagement is falling off right across the western world. Fewer and fewer people are active in politics than ever before and in most elections where there is an option not to vote, those who choose not to take part outnumber those who support the “winning” party. That was certainly the case in the recent European elections in Northern Ireland and, indeed, right across the UK. Even if you were to add together votes for our two largest parties they would still struggle to hold off the army of the disillusioned, apathetic and disaffected who chose not to vote at all.

This trend of switching off from politics is growing and is causing increasing concern. There has been a lot of research carried out into it and, strangely enough conclusions include that people are fed up with watching and listening to politicians shouting at each other. They don’t like it when they evade straightforward questions and they also think that politicians should be performance-managed, in that they should be held accountable for their failings and not allowed to blame them on others.

So when you step back and think about it, it is this strange, mysterious world of the spin doctor that has to be at least partially responsible for the decline in support for and participation in politics. Funny that, isn’t it?

In the real world we acknowledge that people (even, dare we say it, politicians) make mistakes, some of them absolute whoppers, and, generally speaking if they apologise for them and do everything they can to make amends, we forgive them. After all we make mistakes too, it is part of being human.

So in that context it was good to see First Minister Peter Robinson apologising for the ill-judged remarks he made about Muslims last week. A few careless phrases ended up getting broadcast around the world, damaging both the office of First Minister, the image of Northern Ireland and denting our efforts to get foreign investment. It was also less than helpful in a place which is currently plagued by racially motivated attacks. He chose his words clumsily and he was, quite rightly castigated for that.

To make a public apology, albeit rather late in the day, was the right thing to do. It took courage and Peter Robinson deserves credit for it, and I for one, respect him for it. The test now, of course is for him and all his colleagues across the Executive to put in place a strategy to make sure that people from ethnic minorities here are cherished, protected and better understood.

So has Peter Robinson created a precedent? I certainly hope so. There are plenty of people in politics here and elsewhere who would enjoy a lot more respect if they were gracious enough to apologise when they foul up instead of trying to bluster their way through.

And if that were to happen more often then maybe the rest of us, who make mistakes all the time, would actually like them more for it. A little bit more humanity and humility would do no harm whatsoever in the current political climate.

Northern Ireland: Better off Pink?

Have you got one on order yet?
Have you got one on order yet?

I’m really looking forward to the Giro d’Italia coming to Northern Ireland in May.

It’s a brilliant coup to have secured the start of the race and it will be fun to learn a bit more about such an exciting and spectacular sport.

We’ve had great success lately in attracting big events: last year there was the G8 Summit, the World Police and Fire Games and the UK City of Culture in Derry/Londonderry. This is an area where our politicians have excelled: getting behind proposals to bring visitors here, working together effectively, and using their networks to get results. We should applaud them for this. They do work hard at it and they do get results.

This performance is reflected in the latest tourism figures, which were published last week. They reveal that Programme for Government targets of 4.2 million visitors and £676 million tourist expenditure which were set for December 2014, have been met by September 2013.


It’s not very often that government targets are met, so this is cause for celebration. However delve a little deeper and there are a few more worrying statistics in the report. For example the number of overseas visitors who came on holiday, as opposed to being on business or visiting relatives and friends, actually fell during the action-packed year. The biggest factor in the rise is actually people from Northern Ireland holidaying here. So if, for example you live in Coleraine and spend a night in Belfast, you are categorised as a tourist, whether you think you are or not, and you will find yourself included in the figures. That’s fine with me – if you are staying in a hotel and eating out then your money is just as welcome as someone from Germany, Sweden or Italy.

But the lack of growth in overseas visitors is a concern and that is presumably why the Tourist Board, politicians and others are putting such efforts into making the Giro a success.

So we are being encouraged to deck out our homes, shops, restaurants in pink, which is the race colour. There is pressure on politicians who will be competing for local government and European seats during the time of the race to remove their posters from lampposts and Belfast City Council wants more than £200,000 so that empty and derelict premises passed by the riders look like thriving shops.

You get the picture. We all dress in pink for a couple of days, eat pink themed meals in pink bars, pretend there’s no political action going on, and paint over the dereliction and decay that is blighting our towns and cities.

The watching millions will be charmed by the wild beauty of the Antrim coast, they will warm to the quaintness of our streets and to a people who have taken the race to their hearts. Many may conclude that Northern Ireland is misrepresented and misunderstood and will decide to visit.

I wish the powers that be good luck with this: I hope it works. We need the money and tourism is vital to our future prosperity.

However:  a little advice. One of the biggest challenges for the PR industry is not so much coming up with ideas that make people look good, but matching the image you are creating firmly in reality. Get that wrong and the whole exercise can backfire to such an extent that you end up causing damage instead of boosting your reputation.

This has certainly been our experience here: yes great things happened last year. But there was rioting during the Police and Fire Games, and widespread disorder throughout the year which culminated in Northern Ireland featuring on Ross Kemp’s Extreme World. So let’s not be delusional about this. There’s a reason why people don’t come here on holiday and taking down posters of Anna Lo, Diane Dodds, Alex Attwood and Martina Anderson is not going to alter that, and is when you think about it, insulting to all those good people. As if anyone watching in Italy would decide, after all, not to come here when they discover what the SDLP candidate for the European elections looks like!

No the reality is that disorder and instability are symptoms of a lack of political progress. And tourism will only take off when that is addressed.

I’ve no problem whatsoever in the authorities pretending that everything is just terrific here – and I’ve got my pink shirt all washed and ironed already.  I just wish they would put in just a bit more work to actually make it so.


Comic Relief: Not So Funny Now

All those good people who dutifully make fools out of themselves to raise money for good causes must be feeling a lot more foolish just now. Comic Relief has swapped its red nose for a red face after the Panorama expose that was aired on Tuesday night.
The charity may well be helping to avert disaster in other parts of the globe, but it has failed to effectively manage its reputation, the question now is just how bad the damage will be and whether the public will be quite so generous next time around.
Sometimes PR disasters are the result of innocent blunders, sometimes the result of bad behaviour, sometimes the organisation has done no wrong but just ends up looking bad.
Comic Relief at first claimed it had done nothing wrong before performing a U turn a few hours before the documentary was broadcast.
What Panorama revealed was that Comic Relief has been sitting on cash reserves of around £100 million which it invests in the Stock Market in order to make profits which allow it to pay its £17 million running costs and therefore keep its pledge to ensure that for every pound donated a pound is spent on a good cause.
This sounds like a really good ruse – except for two things. The first is that when we give on impulse to charity we tend to have an expectation that our money will be put to use immediately rather than invested in shares for a few years. Secondly it transpires that several million pounds have been in tobacco, arms and alcohol companies. This is great news in terms of getting a good return on investment, not so good when you consider the moral and ethical implications for a charity which is trying to make an impact in the Third World, so often scarred by conflict and health problems.
So how did Comic Relief respond and what will the damage be?
Being really cynical the timing has been as good as it could be for the Comic Relief team. The documentary was broadcast after this year’s appeal was complete, after being delayed for legal and other checks. Secondly it was shown on the night of Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service two hours later than its normal slot. Yet despite the fact it was buried down the news schedule on Tuesday the expose was the most read piece on the BBC news site, with way more views than the Mandela story, so it has certainly been noticed.
And when the charity asked for celebrities to take to social media to support the cause, the request had the opposite effect. For example comedian Frankie Boyle tweeted to his 1.5 million followers: “Those fairy cakes your kids baked for Comic Relief bought [Ugandan warlord] Joseph Kony a rocket launcher”.
The story first began to surface in the Spring and so comic Relief has had plenty of time to respond. It gave a clear and reasonable explanation for holding on to cash: to give time for other organisations to bid for funds and also monies were held back in order to ensure donations were well spent. But on the much more damaging issue of investing in arms and tobacco it blundered badly.
The reputational damage looming was obvious. It should immediately have stopped investing in the controversial businesses and announced the adoption of an ethical investment policy.
It deployed a law firm which tried to get the programme stopped stating it would “damage vulnerable people in the UK and around the world”. It stated that it had a duty to ensure it got the maximum return on its investment and then refused to say whether it was continuing to buy and sell shares in tobacco and arms.
This response did not go down at all well and so, at lunchtime on Tuesday chief executive Kevin Cahill announced the inevitable U Turn in a last ditch attempt to close the issue off.
Whether or not he is successful remains to be seen. There’s a long time before Comic Relief will be on the airwaves again, if indeed the BBC decides to retain it.
But there are lessons here for the voluntary sector. Many charities have become just like businesses, the only difference being that profits generated do not get paid out to shareholders but are invested back in the cause.
There is nothing wrong with that and it helps to ensure that they are, or become self-sustaining. However there is an important difference. Businesses exist in order to make a profit, charities exist in order to make a difference to others. We support them, volunteer for them and donate to them because we believe in what they do.
They in turn need to be careful. The public does not like charities paying their people excess wages. Mr Cahill gets £131,000 a year, which frankly is towards the upper limit of what the public deem acceptable five staff get £80,000 plus, a lot more than we pay our MPs.
And in the drive to make a difference across the globe we expect the highest ethical standards, not those of Gordon Gecko and the financial markets.

Asda’s Black Friday – The Great PR Disaster

Asda’s “Black Friday” debacle in Northern Ireland was such a comprehensive PR disaster that it is worthy of further analysis – if only because it is remarkable how often large, well-resourced businesses display such a lack of understanding of how to deal with crises.

It appears to demonstrate a level of incompetence in media relations which, on the face of it appears incomprehensible.

To briefly reprise: the company decided to replicate the American tradition of creating a “Black Friday” shopping spree by widely advertising a range of goods that would be on sale at their stores at massively discounted prices from 8 am last Friday morning.

The campaign was backed by a significant advertising campaign and PR push. The objective was to create a shopping frenzy to stimulate pre-Christmas sales.

The day before the sale PR people representing Asda lobbied Wendy Austin’s flagship BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback Show to be given airtime to promote the sale.

Promotional activity was effective in so far as crowds were beginning to gather outside stores across Northern Ireland in the early hours of Friday morning.

But when the “sale” began it immediately became clear that there were very limited numbers of goods on offer, and in some stores at least some goods advertised were not available at all.

The result was predictable: as it became clear that hundreds of shoppers had queued for hours and were about to be disappointed angry scenes developed. In the West Belfast outlet this descended into chaos, with one woman who had queued from midnight, suffering a broken arm in the fracas. Shoppers in several stores reported that there was no security and that management did not make themselves available to deal with complaints.

Within minutes the story was breaking across social media and making headlines in the regional press. The BBC went big onit, with Talkback devoting half an hour to the issue. Wendy Austin pointed out that although Asda had been very keen to talk about Black Friday the previous day, they were refusing to go on the airwaves to talk about the carnage. Thirty minutes of extremely damaging publicity resulted, with some callers stating they would never shop at Asda again. A statement was read out from the company which characterised the sale as a success.  “This is the first time Black Friday has been done on this scale in stores across the UK and our customers were eager to take advantage of the great offers available to them…”

It struck entirely the wrong note. Meanwhile Asda itself which was tweeting merrily about Black Friday the day before was getting traduced both on traditional and social media across the UK. It was a classic disaster. There was even talk of potential prosecution for the company for allegedly advertising goods which were not on sale.

So what went wrong, and why and what should the company learn from this?

First, when you are planning a major event you have to do a thorough risk analysis and put in place communications strategies should things go wrong. So were adequate numbers of goods despatched to Northern Ireland stores? What was the company going to do and say if this turned out not to be the case or if some goods were missing? What measures were taken to ensure good order amongst shoppers and preventing a frenzy if large crowds turned out?

And if things did go wrong what was the company going to say, and how fast could it get its message out? Big retailers have large customer bases and the widespread use of social media means that negative feedback can reach many thousands in seconds and reputations can suffer huge damage unless companies are in a position to respond quickly.

All of what happened was easily foreseeable and yet it does not appear to have been prepared for.

And that’s before we get on to the issue of who was going to deal with any potential negative comments. The company had prepared someone to go on radio to promote the event, but could not respond when asked to put someone up to explain what went wrong. That is a cardinal sin. Every organisation should have people trained to deal with crisis communications. When something bad happens you cannot tolerate a situation where executives are all hiding under their desks, waiting for the storm to pass. The public know when this is happening: it just makes a bad situation so much worse.

There is, of course, another potential explanation for the affair. Given experiences in the USA it was highly conceivable that there would be pandemonium in stores over here. Could it be that this was envisaged and that the company might have thought that would be a good thing and it was just that they hadn’t quite anticipated the level of mayhem that resulted or else felt that that was not their responsibility?

If so they are taking consumers for fools. Everyone likes a bargain and enjoys the sales. Nobody likes being manipulated into queuing for hours for goods which are no longer on the shelves. Nobody likes being stripped of their dignity trying to get a good deal during recession. People don’t forget this sort of thing very easily. Nor should they. Asda played to the worst aspects of human nature and are reaping the consequences for a shameful, cynical and manipulative exercise. It will be interesting to see if they repeat it next year.



Poots: Stronger or Weaker After All the Rows?

Last night I joined Alex Kane for a debate with Paul Clarke on UTV Live about the impact of all the recent controversies on Edwin Poots’ position as Health Minister.
I believe that the rows over abortion, the blood issue and his attack on Gerry Adams actually strengthen rather than weaken his position amongst core supporters.
It is certainly interesting to note that there is still no sign of the re-shuffle that we were all anticipating with Jim Wells taking over the health brief.
He’s certainly provoked a huge backlash with his views on homosexuality and abortion, and the petition to get rid of him grows by the day. But has that had any impact on his standing in his own party? If so I’d be very interested in seeing the evidence …

Victims are not in the Past

Gerry Adams: under pressure
Gerry Adams: under pressure

It’s very hard to try to be objective about such an emotive topic. But let’s try to examine the impact on Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein and, the peace process of the BBC’s powerfully moving documentary about The Disappeared.

To date Sinn Fein has performed well post conflict: it has usurped the SDLP to become the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and it has made significant gains in the Republic, transforming itself there into a major political force.

Ousr was an especially squalid and dirty conflict in which many innocents died, and it was fought with a ferocity and ruthlessness that it is easy to forget in more normal times. Unlike most conflicts, however it did not end with one side victorious and the other defeated, regardless of how various elements tried to spin it at the time.

Essentially the Good Friday Agreement was a compromise, and underpinning it was an agreement that the various paramilitary groupings would cease activity, and in exchange the security forces would cease to pursue them. As part of the deal many paramilitary prisoners were released early from prison.

One of the main architects of this deal was Gerry Adams, who, along with his allies in the party persuaded the republican movement to support the new political structures that the Good Friday Agreement put in place.

Since then Sinn Fein have entered government at Stormont, and as referenced become an important force in the Republic, campaigning on opposition to austerity cuts, a popular agenda there.

The future has looked positive and we’ve all been encouraged not to dwell on the past.

However, there is a big problem with that. If you were a victim of the conflict and suffered serious injury or bereavement, your suffering is just as much in the present as it was in the past.

And as the government at Stormont geared up to celebrate a decade of centenaries, to encourage us to respect each others’ pasts, there were those, including myself, who pointed out that this would also lead to the marking of anniversaries some would rather forget about: the Abercorn Bombing, Bloody Friday, Greysteel,  Loughinisland and the Shankill Road bomb: the list goes on and involves members of all communities.

These events were all in the past, but they are still being experienced today, many of them were atrocities of the most appalling nature.

Recently there have been renewed allegations of security force linkages with loyalist paramilitaries. We are all familiar with the allegations being raised against Gerry Adams and some of his colleagues in Sinn Fein.

They may be carrying out different roles these days, but the past still hangs around them.

In Adams’ case this is a double difficulty. In the case of The Disappeared he has made several appeals for more information about those still missing, but he steadfastly denies his membership of the IRA and the role he played in the dark days of the past.

This does not just damage his credibility with political opponents, as the BBC documentary clearly showed it has also caused resentment amongst republicans.

But there is a problem here. Republican ex combatants have a simple rule in talking about their activities. If they were convicted they will talk about their actions, if not they won’t. And the reason for that is simple enough: were they to admit to committing serious crimes they would be liable to arrest, prosecution, trial and imprisonment.

So Adams is in a difficult position. He simply won’t change his stance when asked about IRA membership and his early days in the Republican movement. But nobody believes him, and in the Republic in particular that is a very serious problem amongst new voters, attracted to Sinn Fein by their economic policies.

And as far as dealing with the past goes, that’s not possible when some of those involved won’t speak openly about their roles, indeed lie about them: that’s a serious problem for Sinn Fein as it is very hard to have a dialogue where one side is not engaging properly: it also undermines their calls for  investigations into alleged outrages committed by the security forces.

So this is probably the most difficult problem of all faced by Richard Haass and his team as they attempt to negotiate a way forward. Many have called for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation process. That would require an amnesty from prosecution. Are unionists going to agree to that? It seems unlikely.

In the meantime we need to bring more focus to the victims themselves. By this I mean bringing more practical help.  Let’s take those seriously injured as just one example. Many of these people need lifelong care, and help with both physical and mental conditions arising from injury and trauma.

Yet for those who were hurt in the early 1970s, the compensation they received has long since run out, for many their carers are now elderly and they are at crisis point as they face up to the rigours of Welfare Reform. Surely all parties and all persuasions could at least agree on this: that notwithstanding who knew what and when and who exactly did what to whom, whilst this debate is raging, an even more pressing issue is not being fully addressed: ensuring that all victims have the right level of care and support from the State. It’s the least we can do.



How to Use the “F” Word Live on TV – and Get Away With It

This year we witnessed the shortest careers in TV news history when AJ Clemente made his unfortunate TV debut as anchorman for KFYR-TV.
The first two words he uttered were … well check it out for yourselves! And as he came off air he was promptly sacked. The cringeworthy Youtube clip that resulted is one of my all-time favourites.
So, is it possible for you to use the “f” word live on air during a news broadcast and get away with it?
Well yes it is. Check out this even better one from Sue Simmons, veteran anchor WNBC in New York.
This glorious gaffe was made in 2008 and yet Sue stayed on until her retirement last year, when she was feted by both colleagues and celebrities.
The difference is simple really, isn’t it? She said sorry.