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Devin Scobie – What does the General Election mean for firms

Devin Scobie – What does the General Election mean for firms

In 15 days’ time we will be ­making our way to the polls for the tenth time in nine years.

That’s a lot of elections and, more importantly, a lot of public money. The two questions we get asked constantly at the moment is how much is all this costing us and – more importantly – how do we prepare to engage with new Westminster MPs?

Costs first – a UK-wide General Election costs around £140 million. Just over £98m was spent on fees for returning officers and their teams, who oversee the count at a local level, with £42.5m on delivering “statutory” election literature.

That’s the ones that say election communication and are delivered free – one per party per seat – though the political parties pay for the design and printing.

Add into that the amounts spent by each party and the numbers really begin to rocket. The two most marginal seats in the UK are both in Scotland. North East Fife had an SNP majority of just two over the Lib Dems and Perth and North Perthshire saw veteran nationalist Pete Wishart scrape back with 21 votes to spare over his Tory opponent.

Voters in seats like those and, in fact, any marginal (a seat with a majority under 3,000) or super marginal (under 1,000) can expect a blizzard of literature, letters, mini magazines that try hard not to look like election leaflets, and targeted online advertising via Facebook.


Strict limits mean parties are allowed to spend no more than about £14,000 per seat during the six weeks between dissolution and polling day. Not all parties will spend this in every seat but with 150 seats likely to change hands you can guarantee the leading two parties will be spending pretty close to that £14k limit – adding another £4 million to the election budget.

Then there is the famous deposit, a fee paid to the relevant local authority to help offset some of the admin costs. All candidates must pay it – £500 – but if they gain 5 per cent of the votes cast, the deposit is returned. A local Indian restaurant once stood a notional candidate against Tony Blair and reckoned the £500 was the best advertising money ever spent!

But how to engage with our new crop of MPs? Opinion polls suggest as many as two dozen Scottish seats will change hands. That’s a lot of new names to get to know. Our hunch is that most of the Tories’ 13 seats will revert to the SNP as will a few of the seven Labour seats.

The Lib Dems will probably regain North East Fife. What will be highly significant, however, is if the UK Lib Dem total of MPs exceeds that of the SNP. The third-placed UK ­party has much greater speaking rights in debates, more select committee clout, and a guaranteed slot at Prime Minister’s ­Questions.

Closer to home, we recommend five steps for Scottish firms used to, or planning to deal with, politicians at Westminster:

1. By lunchtime on Friday 13 December you will know who your new MP is. If you know him/her send an old-fashioned letter of ­congratulations saying you look forward to continuing to work with them in the ­coming months. Parliamentary emails will not be operational for another week or so.

2. If it is a new MP, send a similar letter but appropriately worded. Keep it politically neutral and stress a good working relationship with your business in their new constituency (include key employment facts and figures).

3. If you didn’t know the former MP and even if he/she is returned, an amended letter of congrats with a specific invite to visit “in the New Year”. Mention employee numbers and, if possible, value to the local economy.

4. If you work outside Scotland, send a ­letter of welcome to the new or returning UK ­Minister. The Cabinet will be appointed on Friday/Saturday unless it is a (very) hung ­parliament. Junior appointments will be the following week.

5. Follow up either 1, 2 or 3 and 4 – but leave to the New Year. If in doubt, give us a ring!

Devin Scobie is public affairs director with ­Perceptive Communicators and a former ­Westminster parliamentary candidate.

How we are building inclusive schools – Lindsey Mitchell

How we are building inclusive schools – Lindsey Mitchell

Like many who grew up in the 1980s, school for me was the building where I attended each weekday, was moved along corridors by prefects and herded by teachers into classrooms where I would sit at one of the desks organised in neat rows all facing the front. Break times were spent in the one vast playground, huddled away in a corner sheltering from the good old Scottish weather, and sports day when it wasn’t cancelled, took place on the red blaze pitch. Then when school holidays arrived, the building was locked down.

It didn’t do me any harm, but I’m pleased that lessons have been learned with regards to the design of education environments. Much progress has been made over the years and I am privileged to be part of an interdisciplinary team who creates inspirational spaces where everyone can learn.

A really positive attitude shift has been in the recognition of the diverse learner population and the different ways people learn. Personalisation of education is one of the key aims of the Scottish Government’s policy ‘Getting it right for every child (Education)’, and as architects and creators of education spaces that facilitate this approach, it is important that we too get it right for every child.

A vast amount of research has been published that links well-designed education buildings to improving academic performance, learner attainment and attendance. 

Various factors such as natural light, noise levels, temperature, air quality and classroom orientation all impact on both learners and teachers. Flexible seating options can help to encourage participation and collaboration as well as independent work. Technology also has a key role to play and as a result, teaching is no longer confined to within the classroom walls.

At BDP, we too are always learning and our starting point on any new project is to consult with the client, teachers, learners, parents and the local community to listen to what their wants and needs are – we don’t simply take a building design and replicate it in different towns and cities. We place great importance in consultation and listening to determine what the needs of each client are.

One of the key messages we hear during consultation is that schools should be at the heart of their communities, and offer more than just a building for teaching and learning. They should be a real community asset that promotes social interaction and lifelong learning. And they should be accessible all year round.

One excellent example of this is a project delivered by BDP, Waid Community Campus in Fife, built as part of the Scottish Government’s ‘Scotland Schools for the Future’ programme, managed by Scottish Futures Trust. The brief for this project was to create an environment that brought the community together and to create spaces that promoted lifelong learning. 

It contains a learning resource and a café that are not only widely used by people of all ages who live in the community, but also offer work experience and volunteering opportunities for students. The flexible spaces are also used by community groups throughout the day into the evening and this also helps to break down generational barriers. Teaching staff have explained how this environment builds young people’s confidence by improving social interaction in a modern setting.

The teaching and learning spaces are agile and flexible allowing for classes to be reduced or increased, supporting teachers in the delivery of cooperative learning strategies. But this doesn’t just happen within the walls of the building, outdoor space is also an important consideration.

Learning from Scandinavian countries, teaching outdoors has a truly positive effect on children, and not just academically, but also on their physical and mental wellbeing.  An outdoor art terrace and outdoor classroom are just a couple of areas BDP created in a recent project at Maidenhill Primary School, for East Renfrewshire Council, allowing for complete integration of the outdoor experience with curriculum learning.

The external landscape also needs to meet the needs of the diverse learner population.  Having the one vast playground no longer works. What does work is creating a range of spaces offering choice.

Schools estates have moved on and at BDP we are focused on designing spaces that help schools and their communities achieve both their educational and societal aspirations through architecture. We are helping to create public buildings that deliver social, economic, and environmental benefits to the wider community, all year round. Most importantly, through every project we deliver, we are setting the foundations for every child’s learning journey, from early years right through to adulthood.

And hopefully no more ‘schools out for summer’.

  • Lindsey Mitchell is architect director at BDP’s Glasgow studio
We need to home in on ways to beat housing crisis – Nicola Barclay

We need to home in on ways to beat housing crisis – Nicola Barclay

For the first time since 2008 and the global recession, housing completions in Scotland have exceeded 20,000 per year. It has taken ten years to reach this point but, in reality, we need at least 25,000 homes to be built in Scotland every year to address demand. In the face of Brexit, a general election and lower economic growth than the rest of the UK, it is vital that we nurture Scotland’s home building industry to maintain an upwards trajectory.

I would say that, wouldn’t I, in my role representing organisations building the vast majority of the country’s homes. However, there is a lot more to home building than bricks and mortar. As well as putting roofs over our heads, it provides huge economic and social benefits.

Every new home supports at least four jobs (including apprentices and graduates) – so 80,000 on current figures. The industry contributes £370 million each year to government and local finances. As well as being more energy-efficient, new homes bring opportunities for local authorities, from additional council tax to increased footfall on our high streets and more children attending schools, so sustaining communities.

Developers work with local authorities to improve existing community infrastructure, create schools, provide outdoor spaces for communities and upgrade essential infrastructure.

Quality housing is crucial to people’s ­welfare – everyone should have access to a home that provides a safe, secure and long-term foundation to live a happy life, yet this is often not the case. While there are risks and uncertainty associated with the present political ­environment, the housing crisis does not go away – life goes on and people still need homes.

Shared constraints

It’s important to stress that this is not just about home ownership and the private sector. We represent a range of developers, including small businesses and housing associations, and the issues they face ultimately affect all customers, whether they hope to own or rent a new home. The industry faces multiple shared ­constraints, starting with planning. All housing providers need access to land in the right place and at the right price but access is hugely competitive and restricted. A wider allocation of land would ­provide more choice of location, style and price.

Other significant factors are ensuring that local authorities have resources to process planning applications in a timeous manner and tackling the skills shortage. Career opportunities in the sector are often overlooked, limiting the talent pipeline, but the range of careers is vast and includes great opportunities for all ­genders. It is crucial that the industry is recognised as an attractive and stable career option, providing routes for progression.


With the need for more homes, comes the need for more companies to deliver them. Many housebuilders were lost in the recession, particularly smaller ones with ­fewer resources and limited routes to finance. Access to finance and onerous payment terms remain key challenges, and these firms have been slower to recover than larger players – despite the strong demand for quality homes.

Regardless of the size of home builder and political and economic uncertainty, we must maintain momentum to meet the need for more homes, avoiding a repeat of the decade since the recession which has resulted in an undersupply of 80,000 homes. It is important to consider that increasing supply to pre-recession levels of 25,000 homes per year would generate a further 38,000 jobs, £1 billion more in economic output and more than £50m in local infrastructure enhancements.

Delivering 20,000 new homes last year is a good accomplishment given the constraints that exist, but the reality is we need around 25,000 new homes each and every year to meet pent-up demand. I look forward to discussing how we can achieve this at our eighth annual conference in Edinburgh next week.

– Nicola Barclay, chief executive, Homes for Scotland.

Top Three Tips for Successful Social Media

Top Three Tips for Successful Social Media

The Duchess of Cambridge last week gave her first ever news interview and shared her first Instagram post. Kate shared a series of photos to the Kensington Royal ­Instagram account from the royal tour to Pakistan, with a personal caption and signed “Catherine”. In a world that revolves around “Instagrammable” content and hashtags for every occasion, the Duchess has shown that, even in royal circles, social media is a vital tool in shaping reputations and brand building.

Social media channels have provided brands – whether individuals or businesses – with the ability to produce immediate broadcast updates, efficiently increase brand awareness and establish stronger loyalty and relationships with target audiences. It’s created a seamless link between the old and the new, making it easier than ever to ensure that digital activity complements traditional forms of media.

Like the Duchess of Cambridge, if you are keen to make the most of social media, the best advice is to start small and work your way up. While social media platforms are capable of many tricks, there are three basic core elements to formulating an organic (non-paid for) social media strategy– content, imagery and analysis.

Strong content is at the heart of any ­successful social media strategy. To see the real benefit, you just need to look to social media giants such as Asos, Coca Cola and Netflix – they regularly update their feeds, often several times a day, with easily digestible and relevant content.

Short and snappy

The best part? Social media posts don’t need lengthy copy – in fact, shorter posts are linked to higher engagement rates. International marketing expert Jeff Bullas notes that Facebook posts with 80 ­characters or less receive 88 per cent more engagements. The relatable reality is that people often engage with social media on the go – the shorter and snappier the copy, the more convenient for the end user. It wasn’t surprising that the Duchess of Cambridge’s first Instagram post included several images. Like William and Kate or – dare I say it – Harry and

Meghan, good content goes hand in hand with strong imagery. The best pieces of content would be wasted on social media without a complementary eye-catching image. As well as being more attractive and engaging, posts with images are more memorable.

According to HubSpot, tweets with images receive 150 per cent more retweets than those without, while Facebook posts with images achieve 2.3 times higher engagement. Video is even more compelling,

The good news is that images on social media don’t need to be the product of an expensive photoshoot. Modern phone cameras are just as capable of producing high quality imagery, plus they can be posted within minutes of being taken – social media users love up-to-the-minute content. ­Additionally, there are plenty of websites that offer free usage of copyright-free imagery.

The simple reality

Analysing the performance of content helps to identify the types of posts an audience likes. While the word “analysis” makes it sound like a labor-intensive task, the reality is simple, particularly with content that isn’t paid for.

Would you continue to use a product or eat a food that you don’t like? Of course not. Posts on social media take the same approach – if an audience doesn’t respond well to a content thread, stop using it. Instead, continue to post more of what an audience does like, and test different variations of these threads.

Above all, remember that it’s OK for posts not to work. Testing is an integral part of any social media strategy, especially in the early stages of finding your brand voice.

Like any other influencing tool, however, ultimately it is the outcome of all this effort that is key, yet this is often missed. Through this social media activity are you trying to sell a product, direct people to a particular part of your website or perhaps, like the Royals, positively influence your brand reputation?

– Shannon Earaker, digital and social media manager, Perceptive Communicators.

Supercharging SMEs to tackle global challenges through a CAN DO approach to innovation

Supercharging SMEs to tackle global challenges through a CAN DO approach to innovation

It was Winston Churchill that said of the Scots “Of all the small nations on earth perhaps only the Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”

Scotland has a gift for innovation. It’s in our DNA. From penicillin and ultrasound to refrigeration and Watt’s improvements to the steam engine – it is central to our story.

Indeed, for centuries we have embraced the impact of discovery, entrepreneurship and invention to mitigate adverse global headwinds and transform economies for the wellbeing of people and planet.

Today, Scotland can boast world-leading research across several emerging areas including quantum, communications technologies, precision medicine, low carbon and advanced manufacturing, to name a few.

Knowledge transformation is central to Scotland’s future success in the global market place and in tackling the 21st century grand challenges; aging societies, the impacts of AI and big data, tackling chronic disease and the effects of climate change.

SMEs are the backbone of Scotland’s economy, accounting for 93% of all private sector business in Scotland and supporting an estimated 1.2 million jobs.

Bolstering innovation performance and entrepreneurship will be vital to improving Scotland’s international competitiveness and productivity. Yet too few SMEs are active in innovating products, services or business models. And only a small proportion of those who are innovating do so in collaboration with others (such as other businesses or academic institutions) or focus on the potential of international markets.  

In consideration of the above, Scotland’s most innovative SMEs will play a critical role building cultures of innovation that combine human creativity and entrepreneurship with disruptive new technologies (many being developed and researched on Scottish soil) to come up with the breakthroughs that will drive greater business competitiveness, improved productivity and help to secure the wellbeing of future generations.  

That being said; testing and adopting the latest technologies to find new solutions requires a few key ingredients – the right knowledge and skills, money and time. Without the right support SMEs will struggle to stay ahead of the curve on technologies like robotics, blockchain and IoT and realise the potential of these advancements.

Supporting and bolstering business innovation lies at the heart of Scotland CAN DO, a framework that sets a vision to make Scotland a world‑leading entrepreneurial and innovative nation where innovation and growth that benefits all in society, go hand in hand.

Backed by a raft of support initiatives to encourage greater business innovation, this framework has a business innovation target to double Business Enterprise Research and Development (BERD) from £871 million in 2015 to £1.75 billion by 2025.

One major CAN DO initiative is VentureFest. Scotland’s festival of discovery and innovation which culminates in a headline programme every autumn kicking off with Start Up Summit (30 October, Edinburgh) and concluding with the inaugural CAN DO Innovation Summit (20 November, Glasgow).

Now in its eighth year, Start-up Summit is hailed as one of the UK’s leading events for start-ups. Attracting 1000 delegates, it will focus on people, process and performance and will explore all aspects of running a business, including marketing, strategy, leadership, sales and investment.

The CAN DO Innovation Summit will aim to stimulate more innovation within growing SMEs by showcasing the stories of global brands like LEGO as well as over 40 homegrown SMEs. These inspirational forerunners will share how they are creatively adopting new technologies and progressive business cultures across key sectors – from health and connectivity to finance and entertainment – to generate growth through innovation. Local companies like Sustainably (an award-winning fintech startup for social good) will also talk about how they have used the power of responsible business practises to help solve societal challenges.

Crucially, both Summits will help SMEs to navigate the vast range of support in Scotland (and beyond) available to them along their innovation journey. This can be overwhelming for some businesses. They will also also allow businesses across all sectors to make the right connections – academics, investors, entrepreneurs and others – to help them to unlock their innovation capacity and explore the possibilities of tomorrow.

Scotland is already a leader in innovation. We should celebrate that. Sharing our rich innovation capabilities globally will inspire and leverage greater opportunities to attract new investment and talent to the nation. And by designing support mechanisms that enable and empower SMEs to innovate with both social and economic impacts, we will  reach our CAN DO ambition of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the best performing countries in the World, whilst helping to tackle some of the biggest challenges of our time.

Dr Susie Mitchell is Programme Director at Glasgow City of Science and Innovation – the lead delivery agency for VentureFest Scotland (

Robbie Hunter: I always had Grand Designs on my future career

Robbie Hunter: I always had Grand Designs on my future career

Like many children, I liked ­playing with Lego and creating my own buildings, but it wasn’t until I started watching Grand Designs on TV that I realised how much I was really interested in construction.

All I wanted to do was design great buildings and become an architect.

During my third year at school I was offered career advice to help choose my subjects to study. The classes were great, giving me an opportunity to think about other careers in construction, such as quantity surveying or construction ­management.

Further research on a special career database showed me just how many years I would be studying for each career and the expected salaries. The teenage me began to realise the time it took to be an architect and I really wanted to start my career and get money in the bank.

A week’s work experience at an ­architect’s studio in my third year at school confirmed it actually wasn’t for me as I wanted to be on site, working with the ­people constructing the building and not as much in an office.

I stayed until sixth year and passed my Highers and then opted to study an HNC in construction management at my local ­college in Ayr. I wanted to continue ­learning, so the following year I took up a place at Glasgow Caledonian University to study a BSc (Hons) in construction ­management.

The timing wasn’t ideal – it was during the recession, which meant there were very few opportunities for work placements on site during my third year. However, I was really pleased to be given the chance of a six-week placement with Kier on site at Montrose House Care Home on Arran.

I was a bit anxious walking on site for the first time as a trainee assistant site ­manager and tried not to feel intimidated, but I shouldn’t have worried.

I was so keen to continue with Kier and was delighted when they offered me a place on their graduate scheme, even though I had one semester and a dissertation to write before I was qualified to join. It was really hard work three days on site and two days at university but Kier supported me and I have never looked back.

My friends that went into more traditional professions, such as accountancy and law, are always surprised about the career opportunities and responsibility I command. I am passionate about communicating the opportunities in construction.

You can start, as I did, as a graduate, but equally, there is nothing to stop an apprentice tradesperson working their way to the top. If you take the first step into construction you’ll never regret it.

I’ve really noticed at Kier that if you have got the drive and commitment, there is a ladder to climb. The graduate scheme can be a steep learning curve, particularly on the technical side.

However, there are learning and development programmes and training opportunities. I am now a mentor for one of my colleagues who is currently studying part-time at university and it’s great that I can offer her advice and support. I hope to be given more opportunities like this in the future.

I am in an exciting career with a bright future and plenty of options ahead. I can progress my role in site management and get involved in bigger, more prestigious projects, I can work up to leading a project, or if I want the option to be more office-based in the future, I can progress through a contract management route.

The industry is crammed full of opportunities and I think it’s so important to enjoy your job and to feel there are new challenges and opportunities to aim for.

I still love watching Grand Designs, but always think how much better it would be for the homeowners to employ a professional site manager to keep the projects on time and within budget. Although it probably wouldn’t make for such entertaining television!

Robbie Hunter is site manager for Kier ­Regional Building Scotland.

Tackling fuel poverty by building sustainable homes

Tackling fuel poverty by building sustainable homes

Hands up if you’ve heard about the urgent need for new homes?  Chances are most of the business community have seen a headline or three about the UK government’s ambition to see 300,000 new homes built by the mid 2020s.

And it’s a laudable ambition. While this is a stretch target, and the industry is some way behind the curve, there is no doubt that we need these new homes.

But it shouldn’t just be about hitting a target for the number of new homes built.  Quality and future viability needs to be further up the agenda. I believe it is equally important for the industry to focus on building sustainable, energy-efficient homes that are built to last.

This message is definitely getting through to self-builders who, understandably, have a vested interest in building a sustainable property with low energy costs, as presumably they plan on staying put for years.  

At Scotframe we ensure that self-builders understand the benefits of building sustainably.  This starts with the very fabric of their property – the external walls, floors and roofs.

A timber frame structure is complemented by closed panel building systems – manufactured offsite – to deliver high thermal performance and an exceptional air-tight home that exceeds the most stringent environmental and sustainability credentials.

It costs a little more at the outset but the costs are recouped via lower energy bills in future.

But how do you persuade, say, housing associations to do the same, when government and industry focus is all about the number of new homes built?

It was not always like this.  In the early noughties, 40% of housing association properties were built to a timber frame construction and often to a higher specification than those in the private sector.  However, the recession of 2008 resulted in a focus on building for the lowest cost possible.

Today, there is greater understanding of the importance of building energy-efficient homes.   But if I were a chief executive of a housing association, I would be thinking – how can I leverage sustainability improvements to significantly reduce fuel poverty and reduced on maintenance costs?

There is a big win here for those willing to think beyond unit numbers – Scotframe’s building systems significantly improves a building’s sustainability credentials, thus achieving a remarkable energy reduction over a building’s lifetime. 

Eildon Housing, based in Selkirk in the Scottish Borders is a great example of a registered social landlord thinking differently.

Eildon wants to build homes more quickly and – and this is the important bit –  make them cheaper to heat while they do so.  They plan to trial different construction methods across four new sites beginning in the New Year.  Construction costs, time to build, living quality and financial viability will all be under scrutiny.

Potential new tenants will be involved in the study and the results used to determine Eildon’s future building programme while blazing a trail for how Scottish homes are built and lived in in the future.

This farsightedness is to be applauded.  Scotframe have been working alongside UK social housing providers throughout our 30-year history, extolling the benefits of energy-efficient timber frame packages.   

But we have more work to do to dispel the misperceptions that this way of building costs more.  In reality, any additional costs are rapidly offset by reduced labour resources during a – shorter – build time.  Even more importantly for social landlords, the future maintenance costs during the entire lifespan of the property are significant reduced.  And that’s before you factor in the reduction in heating costs for tenants.

Building energy efficient homes is getting easier all the time, thanks to technology innovation and precision offsite construction expertise but it needs social landlords to see the wider, long term benefits – for them and for the tenants for whom fuel poverty is a growing social concern.

Sir Jackie Stewart unites sport and science in drive to beat dementia

Sir Jackie Stewart unites sport and science in drive to beat dementia

September marked World ­Alzheimer’s Month – Alzheimer’s is the cause of 60 to 70 per cent of cases of dementia, an issue very close to my heart, having lost my wonderful and clever mum to this cruel disease.

Working in healthcare, technology and construction, I am encouraged by the increasing number of organisations ­tirelessly trying to make the lives of those with dementia and their families more bearable. From specialist care homes and dementia research to software which allows architects to design more effectively by seeing the world as though they had dementia, we have been fortunate to play a small part by raising awareness of these dementia-friendly products and services.

Unfortunately, I am not alone in watching someone I love disintegrate in front of me as a result of this disease. We hear lots about possible cures for cancer and heart disease with high-profile campaigns to fund research. Dementia research, a ­little, but not so much. At the same time as standing up to cancer, dementia seems almost accepted or expected as we age.

According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, 50 million people globally are living with dementia. By 2050 this number will explode to 152 million. In the UK alone, almost one million are living with dementia and 25 per cent of hospital beds are occupied by those with dementia over 65. At nearly £12 billion, the health and social care cost of dementia in the UK is bigger than cancers and heart disease combined, putting a massive strain on public spending and our economy. It is the UK’s number one killer. So, why do we hear so little about this cruel disease and what’s being done to find a cure?

Around 65 per cent of those with dementia are female. It is the leading cause of death for women. Women like my ­precious mum. Hundreds of thousands of families are living this nightmare every day and it is not just those with dementia who are affected. It also has a greater impact on women generally as the majority of carers are women. One-fifth of female carers have gone from full-time to part-time work as a result.

An epidemic disproportionately affecting women with little hope of any ­solution on the horizon. #MeToo on steroids. So, I was hugely encouraged to hear about Race Against Dementia, a charity founded by Sir Jackie Stewart to fund pioneering research into the prevention and cure of dementia, borrowing techniques from the fast-paced world of Formula One.

Sir Jackie’s wife, Lady Helen, was ­diagnosed with dementia in 2014. Once a razor-sharp mind who timed her ­husband’s laps with millisecond accuracy, her short-term memory is fading and dementia is taking hold, devastating the Stewart family as it did my own and millions of others globally. Crowned Formula One world champion three times and winning 27 Grand Prix, Sir Jackie says he is now facing one of the biggest ­challenges of his life.

Race Against Dementia’s mission is “working faster and smarter to cure dementia”. With support from Formula One royalty, the charity hopes to transfer the sport’s lightning fast data gathering, analysis and innovation to dementia research. In this high-performance environment it is all about results. There is a relentless drive to succeed by using innovative and collaborative technology against the clock. The aim is to transfer this to find a cure and help prevent dementia.

This is a great example of sport, technology and science coming together to battle this ­killer, which blights far too many lives. At ­Perceptive, we have been privileged to ­provide communications support to organisations helping those with dementia and their ­families. Can you imagine the impact of reducing or even eradicating dementia? Too late for my precious mum but hopefully not for the 152 million and their families affected by dementia in the next 30 years.

20 years on and has Holyrood ‘worked’?

20 years on and has Holyrood ‘worked’?

6 May 1999 was a mild day, but my then 16 week old son was having none of it and he seemed to find something to howl about every five minutes.  The fact that history was being made at Holyrood was lost on him. Even the gift of a yellow sticker (quickly shredded) from a kindly Lib Dem polling agent wasn’t enough to quieten him.

But thus poor Duncan became a metaphor for a new institution that this week turned 20.  Rather like the 150 or so children born on  that day in July 1999, Holyrood still has the odd teenage moments but the rules have changed as they got older.

At the time and even now, people are quick to compare Westminster with Holyrood.  A thousand years of history, not all of which went to plan, versus 20. 

But here we are, 20 years since those immortal words “There Shall be a Scottish Parliament” became a reality. I’ve worked in public affairs since the late 90s when Westminster MPs were rare animals whom we seldom saw.  Devolution promised much and some would argue has yet to deliver it all. It is certainly a more open and accessible organisation for those seeking to do business with it.

People are often still quick to criticise Holyrood, but is has achieved much in 20 years.  We have genuine economic growth and the highest level of employment in the UK – facts even the Tories grudgingly acknowledge.  Free personal care for our elderly and zero tuition fees are looked upon enviously by English MPs.

We’ve had six First Ministers – including Jim Wallace who covered twice for Donald Dewar whilst he was incapacitated.  Some 330 people have sat as MSPs. 16 or 17 have been there since the very start (Tavish Scott is the youngest veteran, although he is soon to leave for pastures new).  And some lasted barely a few weeks; Labour’s Lesley Brennan was a North East list MSP for just ten weeks in early 2016.

Ian Welsh (Lab) and Stefan Tymkewycz (SNP) both resigned within months of being elected as they just didn’t like the job.  And surprising number serve only one term, a consequence of the list system whose structure is unique to Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly.

Much has happened in those twenty years and gradually more and more powers have been devolved northwards from an increasingly discredited Westminster, suspended in its own inertia over Brexit.  We already had transport, planning, health, education and rural affairs. Soon additional powers over farming and fishing concessions come to Holyrood rather than Westminster if the Scottish Government get their way.  Many tend to forget that 85%+ of policy is already devolved and for that reason alone, Holyrood matters.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing of course.  Very few Members’ Bills have actually made it through to law and the committee system – intended to be a sort of ‘second chamber’ quickly became and has remained much more politicised than ever intended with the Government of the day’s view generally prevailing.

Holyrood is, however, still a very young institution.  20 years is a blink in time and the opportunities to engage are significant. Few MSPs will decline a meeting with a local business or organisation linked to their constituency, committee or spokesperson duties.  The opportunity to reach Ministers who make real decisions is dramatically better than those of us who remember ‘lobbying’ in the pre Holyrood days.

So perhaps the last words should go to Her Majesty who opened Holyrood this equivalent week in 1999 and returned last weekend to celebrate the first 20 years, concluding that for most of the last 20 years this striking chamber has provided a place to talk. But of course it must also be a place to listen – a place to hear views that inevitably may differ quite considerably, one from another – and a place to honour those views.

Roll on July 2039!

Preparation is key for a successful media interview

Preparation is key for a successful media interview

Should I get some media training? Would my business benefit from it? Is it worth the time? If you or your business are asking these questions, then you’re off to a good start when it comes to dealing with the media.  But there’s a lot more to it than that. 

A bad interview will never leave you or your organisation. Just ask Jeff Fairburn.

What should have been a straight forward broadcast interview for the then Chief Executive of Persimmon Homes turned into a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons. His nightmare interview with BBC Look North took a turn for the worse when he was asked whether he had any regrets about taking his £75m bonus payout.

It was a tough, but entirely predictable question – a response should have been prepared.  A clip of the aborted interview was shared on Twitter and racked up over 1m views.   Cringeworthy right enough but, more crucially, has had a significant knock on impact on Persimmon’s reputation.

All avoidable, with the right training and preparation.

The most important point to remember is this: a media interview is not a normal conversation, even if you like and respect the interviewer.  It’s a skill you need to learn just like any other business skill.   

The journalist wants information to tell an interesting story and you want to provide key messages about your business activities that presents your company in a positive light – or fair light if you are dealing with a breaking issue.  The right balance will be somewhere in the middle – you get a fair hearing and the journalist gets a decent piece too.

Your focus is on getting your points across regardless of the question being asked.  That’s not to say you don’t answer the question – you should – but answer it quickly and move onto your key points.

So, who needs media training? Anyone who’s engaging with the media whether face to face, by email, or by phone. Depending on the size and structure of your company, you may have a single spokesperson, or several individuals who can represent the company on different projects or talking points – all should have some media training before they do so. And even experienced ‘hands’ need a refresher now and then. Social media has changed how we engage, and the lines are more blurred than they used to be.

A carefully crafted media training session conducted by an experienced facilitator will provide the necessary tools to navigate through the potential hiccups a media interview can present across print, broadcast or social channels.

The biggest fear we hear from clients is, “What happens if the interview isn’t going the way I want it to?”.  Knowing how to take back control is essential, and there are techniques that can be learned to address this.

Most media training sessions include a camera or a smart phone to record your practice interviews – even if you don’t anticipate doing any broadcast interviews in the near future.   Playing back this footage and observing your tone of voice and interview style is crucial to help shape the session- and you’ll get more out of it.

By your second or third run-through you should expect to face tougher questions – the ones you hope will not come up in real life.

The reality is, that any media interview is going to contain at least one tricky question that you don’t want to answer or didn’t anticipate being asked. Good journalists are trained to probe, especially if they see any sign of discomfort.

A good trainer will help you navigate these situations with more confidence so you can get back to shaping the story you want to tell.

And don’t be tempted to use in-house colleagues instead. The company culture kicks in and you will find yourself using shorthand and jargon, both of which can be confusing to external audiences.

It only takes one bad interview for media training to become your biggest priority—so you would be wise to invest in bringing in experts.

Good leadership is key to navigating a crisis

Good leadership is key to navigating a crisis

If recent crises and their aftermath have taught us anything, it is that a leader’s actions and comments before, during and after a crisis are absolutely critical to gaining support and understanding as the organisation works towards recovery or resolution.

Or to put it another way, you’re aiming for more Jacinda and rather less Theresa.

Good leaders understand that, while their teams may instinctively seek to batten down the hatches, their role is to ensure that the business is as prepared as possible, has an agreed response plan in place, and – crucially – a plan for recovery to allow the business to continue to operate.

This is even more important in this world of instant news consumption. The reality is that your audiences can be watching a crisis unfold before it is even on your organisation’s radar. These individuals may even be the ones to tell you about it. As result, expectations are now extremely high as to how a company responds to and communicates throughout a crisis.  And for most organisations that means they need a leader who can communicate quickly, clearly, and with empathy.

So what are the most common leadership mistakes during a crisis?  

Failing to have a plan in place is frighteningly common.  Almost half of businesses are guilty of sticking their head in the sand for crisis planning in the mistaken belief that you cannot plan for every crisis, so why bother?  But this is unwise when you consider the sobering fact that 82% of businesses report loss of revenue and loss of brand value as a result of a crisis.                                                 

Many businesses don’t think about what could go wrong.  Of course, you can never think of everything, but this exercise is important because it helps the business understand what they will need from both a communications and a business contingency planning perspective in the event of a crisis.  It also serves to educate your key managers on what types of issues could turn into a true crisis requiring external communications. This could be anything from delayed projects, accidents to staff, loss of investors, new legislation, disgruntled employees, data loss, through to more dramatic incidents such as fire or floods. Make that list.

Failure to identify and train spokespeople before a crisis hits is another common oversight. A wise leader has already selected the calmest heads and most credible spokespeople when the crisis chips are down.  It’s important to choose wisely and think about channels too.  Who is best for live TV and can think on their feet?  Who is great with detail and can brief a trade title?

Responding before you have all the facts should be avoided.  One of the best weapons in fighting potential reputational damage is arming your spokespeople and then your audiences with the facts.  The first task is to figure out what those are – or if you can’t get the answers quick enough, identify a process for getting them. Then, you have to decide how much of this information you can communicate publicly.   More is usually better, but you also have to consider legal and other restrictions.  If this applies, explain why and set out the timescales.

Failing to switch off marketing and sales activities can also land you in hot water.  We have all seen inappropriate or badly timed marketing messages from a company during a crisis.  Make sure you have a process in place to suppress all but essential messaging until the crisis is over.  It’s a good idea to have a stripped back website ready to be published quickly with all unnecessary promotional information removed.  This stays hidden from public view until it is needed.

Finally, don’t underestimate the power of building up a bank of goodwill with key stakeholders and media. And do this before you’re in the eye of the storm.

By acting fairly and transparently, communicating a sense of your values and the benefits you offer your employees, customers and other key audiences, and showing a level of responsiveness on the small stuff, people will forgive you more quickly when something goes wrong.  Your teams will thank you too.

Internal communications shouldn’t be the ‘poor relation’ to marketing and PR

Internal communications shouldn’t be the ‘poor relation’ to marketing and PR

There’s a very good reason why young children ask the question ‘why?’ all the time. Wanting to know the purpose behind the things you’re being asked to do is a basic human instinct. At work, we want to know what our goals are and our company’s plans for getting us there.

At this time of year, motivating your employees is particularly important. A recent study by Hitachi Capital Invoice Finance showed that workers feel least motivated during the winter months. A quarter of respondents singled out January as the month when they’re least enthusiastic about getting the job done.

Good internal communications can act as a vital employee motivator by answering the ‘why’ questions – and that’s just one of the many reasons it is so important. The days of lifelong loyalty to one employer are gone, with employees becoming increasingly choosy. They don’t want to be dictated to – they expect their views to be listened to and acted upon.

There are many benefits for the employer, like improved morale, higher productivity and greater staff retention, if staff feel engaged. Good internal communications also help ensure that employees share positive experiences of their workplace with others.

After many years of being considered the poor relation to the likes of media relations and marketing, it seems that most companies now recognise how critical it is to communicate well with their employees. A recent Censuswide survey found that 80 per cent of C-level executives believe internal communications has become more important over the past year. Almost all respondents (99 per cent) said employee engagement was important to their business.

Interestingly, the same research found that significantly more respondents prepare for an internal team meeting (87 percent) than for a live media interview (54 per cent), showing that they believe the toughest audience can be their own team.

Of course, it is easy to talk a good internal communications game, but more difficult to put a strategy into practice, especially in large, geographically-dispersed organisations. Simply sending a weekly newsletter or email to the entire workforce about major company announcements no longer cuts the mustard. Because people want to feel listened to and cared for, successful internal communication should instead be an ongoing, two-way conversation, whether that be in person or virtually. It’s not just younger employees, who have grown up with social media, that expect fast feedback. Workers of all ages now want a higher degree of transparency from their employers.

For larger companies or organisations, internal communications require a coherent strategy and dedicated resource. The irony is that frontline employees – the ones interacting with your customers, who should be the ambassadors for your business – are often the ones who have the least access to information about the company. They’re the ones who are most likely to be disgruntled if they feel they’re not being communicated with, and to pass that negativity on.

At the other end of the scale, SMEs shouldn’t assume that because their team is small, and perhaps even all sitting in the same room, that a chat across the office is all that they need. They still need to ensure their employees are given the chance to be formally heard.

So how do employees want to be communicated with? Recent figures from the European Association for Internal Communication suggest that there’s still a big role for the company intranet – 74% of respondents view it as very important. Almost as many (73%) value a face to face chat, with digital media given the thumbs up by 60% of respondents, and traditional print endorsed by 43%.

Internal communications are particularly important when your organisation hits a crisis. As a rule, your employees should never find out news about their company from an external source. In an age when almost everyone has a social media account, this is more difficult than it used to be, so speed is of the essence. Organisations need to consider reliable methods of reaching all employees quickly.

So, when thinking about your overall communications and marketing strategy, don’t treat internal communications as an afterthought. If you feed their inner small child by regularly listening to them and letting them know ‘why’, your employees have the potential to be your most passionate brand ambassadors.

Construction businesses need to challenge perceptions

Construction businesses need to challenge perceptions

Like many youngsters, at school I didn’t have a clear idea what I wanted to do next. It became a straight toss-up between studying English or architecture.

When I was accepted into the Mackintosh School of Architecture, I was so delighted with going to Glasgow School of Art that I took that path. Around halfway through my degree, I realised this wasn’t the career for me – unfortunately my fascination with buildings did not translate into a talent for designing them! However, I completed my studies and went on to work as an architectural assistant while reconsidering my options.

After completing a postgraduate course in broadcast journalism, I soon found that competition for jobs was ferocious. I was very lucky that a communications job came up a few months later at the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, and because of my background, they took a chance on me. This was the first step into a career where I have been fortunate enough to combine a love of writing with a passion for buildings.

In the 15 years since, my jobs have included assistant editor of an architecture magazine and a marketing role at a large architectural firm. Three years ago I joined a communications consultancy, Perceptive Communicators, which specialises in just a few sectors. I now handle all aspects of communication for numerous construction clients, so having a background in the industry has been an obvious advantage.

The moral is that there are so many varied roles in the construction industry – and they don’t all involve getting your hands dirty. As well as joiners and bricklayers, the sector needs marketing experts, HR professionals, accountants, lawyers, 3D visualisers – there’s a career to suit everyone. The industry needs to get that message out to young people – especially girls.

There is a skills shortage in construction, and also a huge gender imbalance. Perhaps if we could address the latter, we could help remedy the former. The difficulty lies in how. Even areas of the sector such as architecture, which are managing to attract women in the first place, are losing them along the way. We need to figure out why so many talented people are taking their skills and training into other industries.

When I hear some experiences of women in construction, I know I’ve been lucky. I have very fond and positive memories of my time in an architectural practice. However, this was before I had my children. There does seem to be a long-hours culture in architecture, which does not lend itself well to parenthood, and might go some way to explaining why so many women drop out of the profession.

That brings me on to what is a society-wide problem – men need to take on their fair share of childcare duties. They should accept family friendly measures in the workplace, and should be encouraged to do so by their employers. Until there is as much chance of a dad leaving the office to pick up the kids as there is a mum, then the gender imbalance in senior positions will unfortunately continue – and not just in construction.

Some of our clients are making great strides in encouraging a better gender balance, such as offering shared parental leave, flexible hours and skills academies. One client, Construction Scotland – the industry leadership organisation – is running a programme called Inspiring Construction, which aims to inform not just young people but their parents, teachers and career advisers about the huge and diverse range of roles on offer.

My own thoughts on how construction businesses can encourage more talent to join them? Challenge perceptions. Showcase every career you have to offer – not just the traditional trades. Embrace family friendly working. Discourage the long-hours, survival-of-the-fittest culture. And tell Dads on your team it’s ok to do that school run.



As Michelle Obama says, girls must learn to fail

As Michelle Obama says, girls must learn to fail

Last week I had the honour of attending the Hunter Foundation’s dinner in Edinburgh with entertainment from Beverley Knight, but the main event was Michelle Obama in her first overseas public appearance since leaving the White House.

I expected the evening to be thought provoking, insightful and inspiring – so far, so predictable. But what I hadn’t predicted was how her comments would be perceived as controversial by some attendees.

Dame Katherine Grainger, GB’s most decorated female Olympian and chair of UK Sport, facilitated the discussion and the main themes of the night became clear: gender equality and empowering women. As a business owner and, like Michelle, the mother of two daughters, I would wholeheartedly support this. Having been involved with organisations like Changing the Chemistry and Scotland Women in Technology, both of which work tirelessly to encourage equality and diversity, I would have expected this theme to be unchallenged. Yet this focus on “girl power” surprisingly divided opinions. Several comments suggested that the discussion had gone too far, concentrating too much on female opportunities rather than opportunities for all. Interestingly, none of these observations were from women.

Those most critical worked in sectors with a good gender balance. Such views were a surprise, especially as I work mainly in male-dominated industries like construction and technology, which are hugely supportive of gender equality. I’ve never considered this before, but perhaps the dearth of women brings a sharper focus on, and more support for, equality. Michelle spoke at length about encouraging women and girls to build their confidence and take risks, and importantly not be afraid to fail until you succeed. Men’s innate self-confidence was discussed, that “men just assume they know”, with more than a hint that this is still the case even if they don’t. Self-confidence is very important, particularly in relation to willingness to take risks, but in my experience this trait is much less frequently displayed by women across the board, including by those who are equally talented and skilled.

From an early age girls who speak up are labelled “bossy” and subtly but relentlessly persuaded that success doesn’t make you popular. What is the incentive to put your head above the parapet if the price is losing popularity along the way? The impact of this lasts a lifetime, yet those disagreeing with Michelle’s sentiments about confidence and on risk-taking seemed to have little awareness or appreciation of that.

We host a regular networking event featuring topical guest business speakers. This year, in our own small attempt to help address gender imbalance and showcase strong female role models, we decided to exclusively feature female speakers. However, even the most successful and talented women have been reluctant to speak. “Why would anyone want to hear from me?” has been a common response. In six years of hosting these events I have yet to hear the same question from a man. We owe it to our daughters, and indeed our sons, to change this.

Of course, a woman who did put herself forward only to be beaten by a less qualified man was Hillary Clinton – leaving the US still waiting for its first female president. Despite Dame Katherine’s encouragement, the former First Lady made it clear that a return to the Oval Office was absolutely not on her agenda.

It was indeed an insightful and inspiring discussion, but thought-provoking in an entirely different way than I had anticipated. I support encouragement for all, but if we really want to make the most of 100 per cent of Scotland’s talent, we need to wake up to how girls and boys are treated so differently from a very young age, and the impact of this on key attributes like confidence and appetite for risk. As Beverley Knight warned us that evening, shoulda woulda coulda are the last words of a fool.

Using a sledge hammer to crack the data nut?

Using a sledge hammer to crack the data nut?

General Data Protection Regulation. GDPR. Doom and gloom. Is it “The end of the world as we know it”, “I predict a riot” or in fact “Let’s stay together”?

Having just attended the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Scotland’s very insightful GDPR seminar, I’m feeling a lot more positive about this thorny issue which is likely to be currently preying on the minds of almost everyone in business.

In view of the 25 May deadline looming large later this week and the barrage of misinformation and confusion around GDPR, I thought I would share the key points that I took from this event. The panel very helpfully featured a lawyer who focused on common sense application of the legal changes.

As I am not a lawyer myself, my own observations of this event are not legal advice, but will hopefully be useful nonetheless to those of us currently ploughing through the minefield of GDPR. Everyone reading this is likely to have been on the receiving end of a deluge of opt-in emails over the past few weeks, requesting permission to keep in contact.

The panel helpfully highlighted that email consent is nothing new and indeed rules on this are different for consumers and businesses. A key point for me was that if you have someone’s business contact details because you provide them with goods or services, unlike private individuals, this does not require opt in consent. However, it is still good practice to share your privacy policy and offer your business contacts the option of opting out too.

If you have already asked people to opt in in the past, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you will still need to be able to demonstrate you have this consent going forward. If you are in touch with individuals as consumers, the panel made it clear that different rules apply and the individuals’ consent is in fact required for your organisation to keep in touch with them. It is also important for the organisation to be clear on what sort of consent the individual has given, so replying to a competition with an email address doesn’t give blanket permission to bombard that individual.

As a communications professional I was listening intently for answers to the tricky question of dealing with journalist and media contacts. This issue divided the panel, but it is fair to say that using a paid-for media database doesn’t mean you can avoid being considered a data controller; you and your organisation are probably still likely to be downloading data and using it for your business purposes.

The same applies to customer relationship management platforms, so the onus for data control still lies with yours truly. The key here is to be able to demonstrate legitimate business use, rather than unsolicited marketing. Again, it would also be helpful to share your privacy policy and make it clear that your contacts can opt out. The panel were very clear that politicians are considered as private individuals, so if you are communicating with them, it would be considered good practice to ensure you and your organisation have their consent to keep in touch. Photography consent, particularly at large scale events, was raised by several delegates.

The panel’s advice was to make it clear to event attendees – possibly through signage at the event – that photographs would be taken and images may be used at a later date. A belts-and-braces approach could be to include this information in any pre-event communications with delegates, which could allow people to opt out in advance. As a business owner, I must admit that GDPR does seem a bit like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. However, the panel emphasised that being able to demonstrate clear records, evidence of a willingness to comply, and having up-to-date systems will stand you in good stead. So maybe not so complicated after all, though time will tell.

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