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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.

Why DIY research isn’t always the best business solution

Why DIY research isn’t always the best business solution

By Sinead Assenti, Research Director, Perceptive Communicators

Most savvy businesses want to know how they and their products and services are perceived by their customers, stakeholders and employees. Most businesses can predict these perceptions with 70-80% accuracy, but it is the magic remaining 20-30% that makes all the difference.

This could be underestimating the impact of certain influences on your target audiences, which means precious marketing spend is being wasted.  Or it could be missing a key issue amongst employees which impacts on performance, productivity and retention.

Many businesses turn to online survey software, such as Survey Monkey, to carry out their own research to inform their business strategy, and I can see the attraction. After all, it is freely available and makes it possible for you to create your own questionnaires cost effectively and with relative ease.  But before you think about your next piece of do-it-yourself research, I’d like to give you a few things to think about.

Often, businesses turn to online surveys because they are quick, easy and cheap – but not every research question can be answered by a simple survey. If your research needs are complex, you have a small audience, or your questions are not suited to tick boxes, then you might want to ask an expert for advice.

My first concern with online surveys is the response rate, which can often be as low as 2%. The people who do reply to these surveys tend to have strong opinions, whether they be negative or positive. Because the respondents are self-selecting, they may not be representative of your audience, and consequently the findings of your research may not be meaningful. There’s also the fact that no matter how hard you try, in house research can never be truly anonymous, confidential or objective.

Free software is not very sophisticated when compared with the industry software used by professional researchers. Let’s face it, if it could do the job to a high enough standard, we’d all be using it too rather than paying expensive annual fees. I am often asked to produce reports on online data gathered by in-house surveys because the data they produce is sometimes difficult to understand or use. They also often lead to incomplete data, because participants miss out questions that they have to think about too much or don’t want to answer, or can abandon questionnaires halfway through, especially if they are badly designed.

Some businesses over-use research, firing out an online questionnaire every time they are not sure what direction to take. This can lead to “survey fatigue”. Over-reliance on surveys can also appear to your customers and stakeholders as though you lack confidence in decision-making.

While everyone thinks they can write a questionnaire, it is actually a skill. Some rookie errors that inexperienced survey-writers can make include creating leading or biased questions, asking several things in one question, or making incorrect assumptions. Sensitive topics should be tackled near the end of a survey and spontaneous perceptions should always be gathered before any prompting.

A tip I would give is to encourage participation by offering an incentive, like entry into a prize draw or a copy of the report, and also by streamlining your questionnaire so it is more user friendly – and therefore more likely that the respondent will complete the survey without running out of time or patience.

There is definitely a time and place for the DIY online survey, but for accurate and independent research that will help deliver future business activities with more success, it’s worth considering independent research such as focus groups, in-depth stakeholder interviews, telephone surveys or even mystery shopping.

The findings from this research can help businesses accurately understand how they are perceived by target audiences and employees, so improving return on investment for any new or current initiatives. In itself, carrying out independent research demonstrates an organisation’s commitment to excellence to its internal and external stakeholders and customers.

This article originally appeared on 

Childcare provision must work for working parents – for the sake of business too

Childcare provision must work for working parents – for the sake of business too

The ever-emotive topic of childcare is hitting the headlines again, after Audit Scotland expressed concerns about the Scottish Government’s pledge to almost double the hours of free childcare available to three and four year olds, and vulnerable two year olds, by 2020.

As a working parent, at first glance it’s hard to see what’s not to like about the First Minister’s promise to increase free provision from 16 hours a week to 30. However, auditors have flagged up a host of potential issues, including infrastructure, the recruitment of the thousands of additional staff that will be needed to deliver this, and the considerable gap between what the Scottish Government think their flagship policy will cost, and what councils anticipate the bill will be (hint: it’s considerably higher).

Logistical and financial arguments aside, in principle the Scottish Government’s plans should be welcomed not just by working parents, but by businesses too, who can only benefit if more parents can re-enter the workplace. However, for the policy to have any effect on this front, the new system must be more flexible than the current one.

Research from campaign group Fair Funding for our Kids shows nine out of ten parents who want to change their working situation say lack of appropriate childcare is their main barrier. Most council nurseries only offer free childcare in slots of 3 hours 10 minutes during term time, with no option for parents to buy extra hours for the rest of the day. Only one in ten council nurseries opens from 8am-6pm. This is obviously an unusable system for many working families.

I count myself among the luckiest parents in Scotland, because I work from home three days a week, with the other two spent in the office. On home-based days, I am able to drop my four-year-old off at a council nursery at 8.45am and still make it to my desk by 9am. I have family nearby who pick my son up from his free morning session at lunchtime and look after him for the afternoon.

Those not as fortunate as myself are left with the option of using a private nursery which offers longer hours. However, UK parents currently face some of the highest childcare costs in the western world. By the time families have two pre-school children, it’s not just the low-paid who don’t have much money left to take home by the time they have paid their nursery bills. Some funded places are available at private nurseries in partnership with their council, but in many cases, these are limited.  Because of this, many working parents are missing out on their free entitlement altogether.

The situation does not improve much when children get to school. Without adequate provision of pre-school or after-school care, many parents face a logistical nightmare to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs. Incredibly, I am aware of at least one council which is currently considering axing breakfast clubs – a guaranteed meal for our most vulnerable children, but also a godsend for working parents – from its primary schools to save money. How this fits with their aspiration of lifting more families out of poverty is anyone’s guess.

The childcare conundrum disproportionately affects women, as more than three quarters of mothers shoulder the primary caring responsibility. Women are the ones, therefore, who are most likely to drop out of the workforce altogether – fine if they can afford to and want to, but many can’t or don’t. Women are also more likely to work fewer hours than they would like to, or settle for less challenging jobs. This means businesses are missing out on huge pools of female talent that could potentially address the skills shortages faced by some sectors, such as construction, science and technology.

So until the extended hours of free childcare come into place, what does this mean for business? Quite simply, companies who offer flexible hours or home working will be the winners when it comes to attracting talent. Working parents, after all, can often be some of the most focused, motivated and productive employees you are likely to meet.

Of course, enlightened employers such as mine already recognise that greater flexibility isn’t just appreciated by parents – and they will already be reaping the benefits of a happier, healthier workforce.

Social media is not just for Christmas…

Social media is not just for Christmas…

As Christmas approaches and the annual list of shiny new toys sets fear into the hearts of parents around the country, I’m reminded of the communications industry’s own shiny and slightly scary new toy: social media.

At Perceptive we guide and advise clients on social media strategy on a daily basis and at times it can be like dealing with an excitable child opening presents on Christmas Day. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and overstimulated by the wealth of exciting new channels on the horizon.  LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat: the list is endless. So where to begin as a business? With the opportunity to connect directly to your customers and suppliers in seconds, cutting through the challenges to the responsiveness of traditional marketing channels, the temptation to tear off the wrapping paper and rush into this exciting new realm can prove too much for some businesses.

Yet when we work with clients on social media, our first message is to go back to the basics of your core business. Like Santa, have a plan – make your list and stick to it or there could be tears before bedtime. Ensure you have a strategy to support any digital activity you engage in just as you would any other business activity. It is vital to understand social media is not a quick fix solution and must be closely aligned with your marketing plan, objectives and audience.  Is your goal to improve your reputation? Increase sales? To be seen as an authority on your industry? Then choose the channels that best fit and plan accordingly.

We also advise many businesses to establish a social media protocol and share this with all employees.  This ensures everyone knows what is expected of them in the online world and what is acceptable in their role as an employee of the company. And of course what’s not. We’ve all heard horror stories of employees gone rogue online and a robust, coherent social media protocol can prove a reputation saver.  Another advantage to establishing a protocol is it can educate and encourage shyer employees to engage online, becoming ambassadors for your business, providing a win/win situation for both employers and staff.

A common mistake is failing to measure the impact of any activity.  It’s easy to get carried away in the thrill of the excitement of this new present under the tree, but if you want to make the most of social media, you need to establish your metrics from the start of any project and evaluate ROI – just as you would any other marketing activity. Is your priority awareness?  Then look at reach, exposure and amplification. Engagement?  Review retweets, comments, replies. Website traffic?   Monitor URLs, clicks and conversions. Sales? Consider paid for social media channels.

Another advantage to social media is it can hold a mirror up to your business and industry, giving your company that competitive edge. It’s never been easier to monitor what’s being said about you and your organisation using tools like Hootsuite, which is both free and easy to use, or Sproutsocial.  Monitoring tools can also be a good way to keep a handle on what your competitors are up to in the marketplace and to keep up to speed on the latest industry trends.

When we work with clients we find many businesses are tempted to pass responsibility for social media management to the elves of the social media world, the so-called ‘digital natives’. Yes, they may be enthused by the online realm and constantly attached to the latest device. Yet, the key word here is management. Social media management can make or break your business and should be handled by experts in the field. If you lack this resource in house, hire it in. You won’t regret it.

It’s clear social media, when aligned with a successful marketing strategy, offers plenty of opportunities for business success. But like a successful Christmas morning, it’s all in the planning and as long as Santa and his elves stick to these simple tips, we should all be able to enjoy continue to enjoy our shiny new toy to great effect.

Julie McLauchlan is Managing Director at Perceptive Communicators. This article first appeared in a print edition of The Scotsman

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What do you want to be when you grow up?

What did you want to be when you grew up? Vet? Train driver? Hairdresser? I wanted to be Mr Benn.

But even at eight years old I realised that was probably going to sound a bit odd, so my reply was either doctor or ballerina, depending on who was asking and the mood I was in. If you had been able to speak to someone actually doing your dream job, would that have changed or reinforced your career choice?

With my Mr Benn aspiration dashed by reality a few years later, I had the good fortune of getting practical and insightful advice directly from Flora Martin, who had forged a very successful PR and communications career. Flora’s honest and straightforward advice had a huge positive impact on my future career and encouraged me to stay in my chosen sector.

Have you ever been asked to speak to a young person considering a career in your industry? PR and communications is a really popular career choice and, like Flora, we are asked this all the time. We are very happy to speak to young people about what it’s really like working in this supposedly “sexy” industry. I absolutely love the work we do, but “sexy” – not so much!

What strikes me, time and again, is that most of the individuals we speak to are the ones who already have great professional networks at their fingertips, thanks to family connections, rather than those from less fortunate backgrounds who perhaps don’t. According to Action for Children, one in three children in the UK grows up in poverty. Regardless of which statistics you read, there is an attainment gap; children from richer backgrounds significantly outperform those from poorer backgrounds, in terms of education and job prospects. This continues to be a massive challenge.

Because social media is a great leveller, as almost everyone these days has access to a smartphone, we’ve decided to tap into tech to reach as many young people as possible with direct careers insights. Recently we launched an online careers Q&A on Twitter (#PerceptiveCareers) via our Twitter handle @perceptivecomms, hopefully allowing young people of all backgrounds to access careers advice on sought-after roles directly from those doing these.

The aim of the Q&A is to give young people the direct opportunity to ask questions of individuals in careers that may be of interest to them. Those interested in taking part can follow the hashtag #PerceptiveCareers and tweet @perceptivecomms, which will be the channel for the Q&A during that hour.

The online careers Q&A will take place between 2pm and 3pm on the first Wednesday of each month. The first one took place on 4 October and was hosted at Trinity High School in Rutherglen, part of Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s largest regeneration area.

The first Q&A featured Marion Forbes, director with Mactaggart & Mickel Homes, who has more than two decades of experience in retail and construction, including many years in HR. Marion answered questions relating to preparing for interviews, applying for jobs and starting work.

Future Q&As will feature people doing a ­variety of different jobs from journalism to joinery. Thanks to the wonders of social media, we will also ask those taking part what sort of careers they would like to hear about most, so future sessions will be directed by those taking part in the Q&As.

Clyde Gateway, Scotland’s largest urban regeneration company, is supporting this initiative by helping to promote it amongst young people in its local areas including Bridgeton, Dalmarnock and Rutherglen. If you know of any young people who would benefit from taking part or even just listening to the comments, they simply need to follow #PerceptiveCareers. We can’t guarantee an audience with Mr Benn, but promise direct access to careers advice from vets, train drivers and hairdressers.

An earlier version of this appears on

How to get the most out of broadcast interviews

How to get the most out of broadcast interviews



By Clare Todd

Most mornings, as I get ready for work, I listen to radio news to get a jump-start on the news of the day.
Some items are of more interest than others but what always stops me in my tracks is a live interview going spectacularly wrong – at least as far as the interviewee is concerned.

I stop what I am doing, turn up the volume, and listen to the back and forth, sometimes with amusement but more often with incredulity. As a communicator of 25 years’ standing, it’s painfully clear to me that the person squirming in the studio or stuttering down the line has not properly prepared or more specifically been media-trained to cope with this high-pressure situation that is unlike any other conversation they will have.

While many people are skilled and confident in media situations, I have lost count of the number of senior people who shy away from broadcast interviews when asked to step in front of the microphone or camera. They are happy to provide a quote for a release, of course, but ask them to follow this up with a broadcast interview and they run for cover, mumbling about a forgotten dental appointment.

Some lucky people are naturally good at media interviews. But for the rest of us mere mortals, we have to learn how to handle them. And the good news is, it’s not rocket science. The approach is a bit different depending on whether an interview is live or recorded but the principles are the same. The first is to find out – or work out – what you are going to be asked and in what role you are being interviewed – industry expert, passive witness or even villain.

The one question that is often missed is finding out who else is being interviewed. Is your interview standalone or are you being pitted against the opposite perspective? Broadcasters in particular are duty-bound to demonstrate balance, so sharing conflicting views is standard practice. Much better to know the context of other interviewees so you are not caught on the back foot live on air.

While Theresa May’s “strong and stable” message became a negative, it’s still important to remember an interview is not a normal conversation, so be really clear on the two or three key points you want to convey – and make them quickly. Finally, practise the interview in advance.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that, and that’s where media training comes in. A decent media training package will include the above and more, ensuring that your senior team is prepared to represent the organisation in a professional manner. External trainers will also flag up any industry jargon that would prevent people understanding what you are saying. Rail bosses used to talk about “strengthening trains” until it was pointed out to them that “adding carriages” might make more sense to passengers.

If you decide to invest in media training make sure that the content suits the likely needs of your organisation. For example, you may not need to practise in an expensive recording studio. All too often, one reporter will use their smartphone and a plug-in microphone. So look out for a company that has moved with the digital times.

And finally – a heartfelt plea here – please hold the training before you are facing a crisis or damage-limitation. We can help you either way, but being prepared makes practical and financial sense. The so-called “golden hour” – the chance to get prepared before a big story breaks – no longer exists thanks to social media. If you are finding out, chances are so are your audiences.

Like it or not, your customers and stakeholders are influenced by what they see, read and hear about you and your organisation on media and social media channels. They may not read your annual report, but they will remember the time you were skewered live on air over the nation’s breakfast tables.

This article originally appeared on 

Three Ways You’re Blowing Your Awards Entries

Three Ways You’re Blowing Your Awards Entries

In this short guide we review the common pitfalls of drafting awards submissions, and how you can avoid them to give yourself the best chance of being shortlisted.

It’s been a busy few weeks in the entertainment industry’s awards season, and with the Oscar winner’s due next week Monday, it’s easy to get swept away by who-will-win-what and forget the work behind the scenes in actually being nominated in the first place.

But, just like every awards process, even the Oscars require have set eligibility criteria. It doesn’t happen by magic, but rather by a detailed set of rules.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing industry award entries for clients and employers over the years – at Perceptive we’ve won 50 awards for clients and ourselves in the past three years alone. In fact, we’ve recently been shortlisted for Boutique Agency of the Year at the PR Moment Awards to be announced on March 16 (fingers crossed!).

While every industry is different, there are a few common pitfalls which will usually guarantee your entry won’t make the cut:

  1. Underestimating the work involved

I’m often amused by how easy everybody thinks writing awards submissions is . . . until they don’t win.

It’s heart-breaking when your hard work and exciting project isn’t recognised, and the first hurdle is being shortlisted.

So make certain you give yourself plenty of time to sit and write the award, run it through sign off, review it and submit. This should include background reading on the previous winning entries, and in-depth interrogation of your colleagues and the work being showcased. Needless to say, the entry must be error-free in every way.

  1. Failing to answer the question

The most common complaint we’ve heard from colleagues and clients who’ve judged awards are that would-be nominees fail to answer the question properly.

Instead, applicants often go overboard on offering something incredibly dense and impenetrable or, on the other end of the scale, cut and paste something un-tailored and low on substance.

You need to write from a place of genuine understanding and insight on what was achieved, and how it demonstrates best practice against the entry criteria. Make certain that you have addressed every single point in the award’s criteria explicitly.

  1. Arrogance, verbosity, vagueness

This relates closely to the two points above and is sadly something we hear a lot of.

Too often, awards submission writers assume their audience is just as excited or knowledgeable about their particular piece of work as they are. So they fail to explain the results clearly and concisely, which often irritates judges and comes across as arrogant even if not intended to be so.

Being too verbose, or alternatively favouring style over substance, puts up unnecessary barriers between your submission and the shortlist.

Be careful to avoid jargon and clichés, and never assume insider knowledge on the part of your judges. While they likely are incredibly experienced and knowledgeable themselves, they also have hundreds, potentially thousands of other submissions to read. There is no guarantee they will recognise or care as deeply about your brand as you do.

Hopefully the above tips will help you get your next submission into great shape. If you would like a professional consultation on how you could improve your hit rate with awards submissions, or would like to discuss how we could write and help you win your next award entry, get in touch.

PR for finance people – what is it all about?

PR for finance people – what is it all about?

Our wonderful commercial director Emma Fair gives her (accountant’s) perspective on PR and whether or not it is valuable to the bottom line. 

‘What exactly is PR?’ asked the finance person….

I am an accountant – not something I necessarily always want to shout about, but between you and I nothing pleases me more than a good spreadsheet! My career started as a trainee CA in the audit department at KPMG where I would audit companies, carry out stock takes and generally do all the things the more experienced accountants didn’t want to do.  I then went on to work in industry in publishing and media for ten years before landing a job at Perceptive Communicators.

The one thing that the companies I audited and those I had previously worked in had in common was that there was always an end product – something tangible you could get your hands on, count at a stock take and, as auditors like to do, ‘physically verify’.

Perceptive Communicators was very different, there was no end product as such and it took me some time to get my head around this. I thought I knew what PR was before I joined the company but the reality was that I knew about 10% of what PR was all about.

With my accountant’s head on PR was something you spent money on as everyone else was doing it and it was a necessary (and costly) evil to promote an event or a new product.  It was something that I gave lip service to in my budgeting process and the first thing that I would cut if spend was required elsewhere.

Looking back I wish I knew what I know now.  The value of PR cannot be underestimated. For a business looking to raise its profile, gain brand awareness and keep one step ahead of competitors, it is vital. The coverage my colleagues gain for our clients in the local and national press, online and on TV and radio can’t be bought. Of course advertising spend can guarantee column inches, but this lacks the credibility of a journalist putting their name to it and is hugely expensive.

The PR for our clients is not a box ticking exercise. It’s strategically planned to convey the key messages our clients want to communicate with their identified target audiences – whether that’s customers, stakeholders, government or the wider public.

Something that pleases my spreadsheet-loving self is the fact that results matter to our PR team. KPIs are set and targets created to ensure the results can be evaluated and measured, allowing us to keep our quality high and keep the finance person at the client happy (return on investment is key to us accountant types).

With my accountant’s head back on another value for money area is crisis communications and reputation management.  On many occasions my colleagues have donned their ‘Superhero PR’ capes (theoretically of course, there’s no budget for unnecessary items!) and gone to the rescue of a client to save the day and their reputation.   It’s hard to put a value on this – it could be as valuable as saving a company from ruin which is priceless, but the minimum benefit is that the crisis communications fee will be a lot less than the spend required to rebuild reputation and gain customers’ trust following  an unfortunate incident.

When people ask me now who I work for I can proudly explain to them what we achieve rather than mumbling something about communications and promptly changing the subject.

So finance people out there – don’t write PR off as an unnecessary spend instead rethink the PR line in your budget and what the value of this could actually be. You never know when you might need that PR Superhero!

If you would like to discuss, create or update your company’s PR strategy, get in touch. We are generate outstanding results for clients across PR, marketing, event management and social media. We also provide top-notch social media training for in-house teams, and we would love to help you in any aspect of your company’s communications. 

Social media: how to pick your platforms

Social media: how to pick your platforms

If sorting your company’s social media in 2017 is on your New Year’s Resolution List, you’re in luck. We’ve devised a cheat sheet for which platforms to pick according to your objectives and target audience. Read on for more . . .

With today’s abundance of social media platforms, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with both the choice and pressure of so many ways to connect with your audience. And, seeing as everyone else is on social media, shouldn’t your organisation be too?

Well, probably. But only if it will actively help you deliver on your corporate objectives.

“To Tweet or not to Tweet” shouldn’t be your question so much as “Where is my target audience hanging out, and how can I best connect with them there?” (We think the Bard would agree. He was nothing if not an audience man.)

Resources versus aspirations

While using social media for business communications might appear free on the surface, it does require time and effort. It also increasingly requires budget, though usually not as much as traditional advertising might.

Before you even contemplate a social media platform, you need to be clear on what you want to achieve and how much time and money you have to do so.

You need a communications plan which outlines your business objectives, your target audiences, your key messages and your overall strategic approach.  If you need some advice on what this should look like, and how to grow your business with your communications, get in touch.

Then, taking your target audiences and key aims into account, use the below infographic to help you pick which channels are best to help you deliver your communications strategy. (Click on the image below to open it in a separate tab for easier viewing.)

Which Platform Infographic

If you would like to discuss, create or update your company’s social media strategy in 2017, Perceptive Communicators can help. We are experienced in generating outstanding results for clients’ social media profiles, and we also provide top-notch social media training for in-house teams.

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