Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Inspired by an irascible 90-year-old

It is my birthday on Friday and I am most definitely feeling my age, even though it will be another three years before I qualify for a bus pass.

No, make that seven years. Because I have just checked the Government’s online ready reckoner of my entitlements, which increasingly resemble one of those carrots suspended in front of a donkey on a long stick.

This seems odd, given that railway booking clerks have been raising their voices and enunciating “Have you got a railcard?” with painful clarity for at least a decade now. The last such encounter was on the Welsh Highland Railway a couple of weeks ago, when the conductor offered us “two seniors and an adult” after apparently mistaking me for the husband of my 86-year-old aunt.

You might think it foolish to make a fuss, but the railway proved to have the unusual policy of charging more for its concessionary fares than for the ordinary ones. So I was moderately cheered until we reached the terminus and I took my small son into the gift shop, where the bloke behind the counter immediately addressed me as “Granddad”.

Morale was not improved when I got home and opened a cheery letter from my doctor containing a nine point questionnaire on just how depressed I feel about being on her coronary heart disease register. As a matter of fact, until I opened my mail I was feeling less miserable than I have been for most of the last 40 years. Now, on the other hand …

At least there is the chance that I may be gloriously Raptured on Harold Camping’s revised date of October 21 this year, or when the Mayan calendar runs out on December 21, 2012. Or there is the long-standing prediction by deathclock.com that I will be handing in my dinner pail on February 4, 2012, though the credibility of this received a severe knock when my brother took the self-same test and it told him that he had been dead for a decade already.

But what of the alternative of getting seriously old, as opposed to just looking it as I evidently do? Could there be a finer role model for any of us than HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, 90 on June 10, who just keeps beggaring on, as Churchill almost put it? One week it’s the State Visit to Ireland, the next it’s the Obamas in London. Both fraught with a huge range of risks, not least the potential for some mind-bogglingly inappropriate asides, yet both adjudged diplomatic triumphs.

My hero

One of the very few bits of television I watched last week was Alan Titchmarsh’s epic interview with the Duke, which had clearly been edited to eliminate HRH’s initial reply to each of the timid gardener’s queries: “What a blanking stupid question!” It was like watching a crocodile toy with a chihuahua.

How much more fun it would be to let His Royal Highness loose on a Paxman or a Humphrys, and see these legendarily tough interviewers being tossed, gored and trampled by a man who truly has nothing to gain by winning them over. And who apparently cares so little for his own reputation that even when presented with an open goal – the chance to take credit for a genuinely great innovation, The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award – modestly snapped that he had merely lent it his name.

I have a friend who repeatedly asserts that there is no such thing as a happy 90-year-old (readers please feel free to correct him). And on the evidence of Alan Titchmarsh’s cringeworthy efforts, there is probably no right thing to say to Prince Philip. Nevertheless I wish him a very happy birthday, and many more. Like the Royal Yacht, he is a unique asset who will be sorely missed when he is gone.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

You really could not make it up

Most public relations advisers devote as much time to keeping stories out of the media as they do to promoting their clients.

When it all goes wrong, I usually deploy a soothing line about “tomorrow’s chip wrapper”. It’s not true any more, alas, now that the Elfin Safety zealots have banished old newspapers from the nation’s chip shops and replaced them with hygienic polystyrene trays. But it remains a useful figure of speech. Least said, soonest mended.

Because however annoying a media report may be, the surest way to maximise awareness of it is to make a formal complaint, which will ensure repetition of the original story and bring it to the notice of a far wider audience than it attracted first time around.

It is far better to ensure that any errors are simply noted by the journalist concerned, so that they will not be repeated in the future.

As any fule kno, the worst possible thing to do in these circumstances is to consult a lawyer. Because in the long run the only party that is going to benefit from that is the aforementioned lawyer, and such of his chums as may be engaged by other parties in any resulting litigation.

This is such elementary common sense that it beggars belief that apparently sane individuals are going to the trouble and expense of obtaining “superinjunctions” to stop the media mentioning their various sexual peccadilloes. In the age of the internet, they might as well try to stop a tsunami with a toddler’s bucket and spade.

Having tangential access to the London chattering classes, I have known the formerly injuncted story of Andrew Marr’s supposed love child for years. As an occasional Twitter user (@keithhann, if you want to join my select band of followers) I have been aware of the identities of those behind the current batch of injunctions for some time. My first reaction was that I had never even heard of most of them, and my second was that I did not care what they did.

Assuming the stories to be true, allowing them to appear in print in a red top paper would have attracted the notice of those who are interested in that sort of thing for maybe 24 hours, then it would have been chip-wrapping history. The brilliant alternative of engaging some of Britain’s top lawyers to prevent publication has instead brought those concerned truly global notoriety.

It is simply staggering that there are judges in London who apparently believe that they can prevent publication of information on a worldwide basis when, as the editor of the Sunday Herald has spotted, the jurisdiction of the English courts does not extend to Scotland, never mind the rest of the planet.

Indeed, when some English newspapers reported on their websites on Sunday that the identity of a certain footballer had been revealed in a Scottish publication that they could not name for legal reasons, the affair moved beyond parody. You really could not make it up.

Is there any legitimate public interest in the stories that the lawyers and their clients are working so hard and so ineffectively to suppress? Politicians who lie to and cheat on their spouses seem to me fair game, since there is every chance that the same character traits will become evident in their treatment of the electorate.

In the case of sporting or other celebrities, there is no comparable public interest defence for their exposure. But they have assiduously courted a following in the pursuit of their careers. Can they really expect to be selective in what the public may know about them?

It would be better, surely, simply to let their lives be guided by this rule: never do anything today that you would be ashamed to read about over your breakfast tomorrow morning.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The Hann Perspective: Ducks in a Row

Many years ago, when I was new to my present calling, a wise old gent told me that the second rule of public relations is always to get your ducks in a row.

Naturally I did not have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. I thought I had gone into an advisory business, not some feathered branch of agriculture. (In those days, incidentally, I naively believed that ducks were humanely reared on outdoor ponds where caring attendants fattened them up on a diet of only slightly stale bread.)

Over time, though, aligning the aforementioned ducks came to be one of those meaningless phrases, like “thinking outside the box” and “centres of excellence”, that I accepted as part of my daily verbal armoury.

Bullshit Bingo

People nodded when I said it, as though I had imparted some valuable piece of wisdom. All I ever meant was that it might be a good idea, before embarking on some corporate activity or announcement, for those involved to think through what they were trying to achieve and how they were going to explain it to the outside world.

The message did not always get across. I wasted one memorable Sunday trying to persuade the two parties to a particularly ill-starred retail merger to come up with a more convincing strategic rationale than the real one, which was that it had generated lots of lovely fees for the bankers who had conceived the idea of sticking the two businesses together, and who would soon double their money by taking them apart again.

Come the next morning’s press conference, a journalist duly asked the obvious first question: “Why?” And received the less than convincing response: “Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?” Followed by a long silence during which I could swear I saw tumbleweed.

Similarly, I have spent countless man hours trawling through the results announcements of my clients and thinking up the nastiest and most devious questions anyone could possibly raise about them. After more than a decade of doing this, one finance director rang me as his train was approaching King’s Cross to say that he and his CEO had read them and were rather impressed.

“We’ve never bothered to look at them before,” he added, disarmingly, which at least explained why they had spent so many previous analysts’ conferences looking vaguely nonplussed. Fortunately the similar lack of attention to rehearsing their presentation meant that the time left for questions was always minimal.

I am glad to say that things have moved on in the business world, while in politics the task of duck alignment has become such an obsession that it is impossible to get a straight answer to any question, as opposed to the carefully prepared and rehearsed answer to the question that the minister or his shadow wanted to be asked.

This lack of spontaneity and, for want of a better word, honesty, is one of the many reasons for the current widespread disillusionment with our political class.

But consider the alternative of the White House, and their vivid accounts of US military operations. Whether it is the sadly botched rescue of a hostage or the elimination of the world’s most wanted terrorist, there never seems to be any delay in blurting out an incredible story of derring-do, apparently concocted by a small boy who has been allowed to spend too long leafing through his grandpa’s stash of 1960s war comics.

But then, like the small boy’s account of how that pane of glass in the greenhouse was broken by a probe from an alien spacecraft, an altogether more prosaic story comes to light.

Almost every detail of the original epic firefight with bin Laden, and how he was subsequently shot while cowering behind his wife, proved to be what Hillary Clinton likes to call “misspoken”. So much so that I did not even feel particularly surprised when I saw a billboard proclaiming “Osama unharmed”, though it turned out when I bought a paper on the strength of it that I had misread “unarmed”.

Now why, when you are dealing with issues so sensitive that people are prepared to blow themselves to pieces to demonstrate the strength of their feelings, would you not think it worth taking a little time and trouble to get your story straight before giving your account of events?

It made me realise, for the first time, the true genius of Ian McDonald, the Ministry of Defence spokesman in the Falklands war, who not only took ages to release a story but then read it at a funereal pace to assist the easy taking of dictation by any hard-of-hearing octogenarian reporters in the vicinity.

And it also reminded me of what that wise old gent I mentioned at the outset told me was the first rule of public relations: “If in doubt, say nowt.”

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who knows all the rules, but does not always obey them – www.keithhann.com

Originally published in nebusiness magazine, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

What I did on my holidays

No image of the Second World War resonates more strongly with me than that poster enquiring “Is your journey really necessary?”

If asked to recommend a single grand gesture to “save the planet”, I would close down the entire global tourism industry at a stroke.

The ever more intrusive rigmarole of airport security has heightened my already strong aversion to air travel; congestion makes the roads unbearable; while the demise of the East Coast restaurant car removes the last plausible excuse for regarding a train journey as a potential pleasure. I have never been on a cruise, but can see no reason to disagree with Dr Johnson’s assertion that time spent on a ship compares unfavourably with a prison sentence because it carries the added risk of being drowned.

Now admittedly I enjoy a huge advantage in living in one of the loveliest spots on all God’s Earth, and might take a different view if home were an inner city slum or even a dull suburb. Indeed, growing up in Longbenton in the 1950s and 60s, I greatly looked forward to my annual fortnight with my parents at the Haven hotel in St Abb’s, where the sun always seemed to shine on the sandy beach, the other guests applauded latecomers to the dining room and the children were entertained with sports and amateur theatricals (in which I resolutely refused to participate).

An early taste of Paradise: St Abbs Haven Hotel
Having belatedly acquired a son of my own I even thought of taking him there. A notion I entertained for long enough to look the place up on the internet, where I found that a developer had turned it into flats.

Last year I got away with a holiday at home because the boy was deemed too young to know or care where he was, but this year I was told it would not do. I fought hard for a cottage in Northumberland on the grounds that we already owned a cottage in Northumberland, which has a number of obvious advantages. But instead I find myself writing this in a remote corner of Wales.

Our beach in Wales: how the Tourist Board presents it
The reality: all wrapped up building a sandcastle in the rain

The rain has been lashing down more or less ever since we arrived, and there is also a scenic rivulet trickling down the wall of the sitting room. The Welsh equivalent of Bob the builder came round to look at it on Sunday afternoon, disrupting the toddler’s afternoon nap, and announced that it was due to the gutters overflowing during Saturday’s freak downpour. But later we pulled the plug on our son’s bath and watched a perfect miniature reproduction of High Force in the room below.

Our sitting room after The Boy's bath

There are two real ale pubs within 50 yards in which I could drown my sorrows, if only I could face running the gauntlet of the menacing huddle of troglodytes outside their doors, drawing deeply on cancer sticks and muttering darkly in Welsh.

In short, it’s just like being at home except wetter (indoors and out), less comfortable and more expensive. The only conceivable advantage is that the beach is a five minute walk away rather than a half hour’s drive, but this seems immaterial when it is too cold, wet and windy to do anything on said beach apart from taking a brisk walk with the dog. The scenic highlight to date was observing the amazing rainbow that formed during the violent thunder and hailstorm from which we sheltered under the awning of a beach hut on Friday evening, as our son looked at us in wonderment and pronounced “My soaked”.

An uncanny echo of Roeg's 'Don't Look Now'

Next month my wife and boy are going for a more advanced beach holiday in Majorca, where sun is apparently more or less guaranteed. I shall be at home in Northumberland enjoying a good book. Which, unless Wales bucks its ideas up pretty smartly, is also where I shall be by the time you read this.
Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Once again the big winner is apathy

It is always a delight to see any political idea favoured by Eddie Izzard being decisively punted into oblivion, so last week saw the Hann household rejoicing for the second Friday in succession.


And who could resist a little surge of local pride on discovering that the North East had led the field in saying no to AV, with a majority of 71.9%?

A mere handful of places said “yes”: Oxford, Cambridge, a few smug inner London boroughs and their Edinburgh and Glasgow counterparts. Tempting me to the conclusion that we need never go to the trouble and expense of a national referendum ever again. Just obtain the newspaper wholesalers’ data on where The Guardian sells most strongly, hold local polls there, then do precisely the opposite of whatever they vote for. We won’t go too far wrong.

Though perhaps we should have one last national referendum on Scottish independence first. And I do mean a national referendum. How can you dissolve a marriage without consulting both of the contracting parties? Allowing Scotland alone to vote on its future would be like letting the children decide on their party guest list and entertainment without consulting the adults who actually have to pay for it.

But I am ignoring the pachyderm in the living quarters, which is this. Although pundits assure us that turnout in the AV referendum exceeded expectations, apathy was once again the big winner on polling day. A thumping 58% of my compatriots still found something more important to do than pootling down to their local school or village hall, and marking an “X” on a bit of paper.

How could this lot fail to inspire?

All right, it’s not very intellectually challenging and it doesn’t promise the same sort of returns as filling in a lottery slip, but in the Middle East people are currently dying for the right to do just this. How can you possibly conclude that it is more important to be scratching yourself on the sofa in front of Loose Women or The Jeremy Kyle Show?

Politics matter. Which celebrity is shagging which lady of easy virtue who previously enjoyed relations with which Premiership footballer does not.

Another thing that matters is our ability to hold our heads up in the world by adhering to certain standards of decency and fair play. From the invention of concentration camps in the Boer War to the recent revelations about our treatment of Mau Mau prisoners in Kenya, the reputation of the British Empire is certainly not an unsullied one.

But have the Americans, who worked so hard to bring our Empire to a conclusion, led us onto the broad sunlit uplands of probity and transparency?

Their support of assorted murderous tyrannies around the world, and their use of “extraordinary rendition”, extra-territorial detention camps, the extraction of information by torture and – yes, their ham-fisted inability to get their story straight about the cold-blooded killing of their public enemy number one in Abbotabad last week – all lead me to the conclusion that the world was a rather better and safer place when those chaps from Whitehall were in charge of it.

It’s not that I have any sympathy for Osama bin Laden, though his “command and control centre” looked to me rather more like a teenager’s bedroom that had been handed over to an OAP as part of a Channel 4 reality life swap show. But why would anyone conceive and execute the operation against him in a way that seems specifically designed to give conspiracy theorists a field day?

Latest version of events: the White House execution team hold their breath as the UK AV referendum results come in
The only thing that troubles me about my misgivings is that I have already found them shared by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and will no doubt soon find myself allied with the entire readership of The Guardian, including Eddie Izzard. So as you were, Mr President. Most reluctantly, Operation Geronimo gets my vote.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Obama gets Osama, but the war goes on

How would the global media have coped if Obama had finally caught up with Osama on Friday rather than Sunday?

I reached page 24 of my broadsheet newspaper on Saturday before I found a single mention of anything other than the royal nuptials. That was a story about the need for larger than expected hospital cuts, released by some strange oversight when all eyes were on Westminster Abbey. Even an ardent monarchist like myself could not help wondering whether a sense of proportion was being lost.

For me, the most remarkable thing was not that dress, or the maid of honour’s striking figure, or even the alleged billions who watched the ceremony on TV. It was the hundreds of thousands who turned out in person to snatch a passing glimpse of this piece of history and to roar their approval of those kisses on the palace balcony, even though they could have seen far more in much greater comfort on their sofas at home.

I am glad to live in a country where huge crowds turn out to rejoice in a royal love match. The hatred that motivated the flag-waving crowds celebrating the death of bin Laden in Washington and New York yesterday was entirely understandable, but still demeans those taking part. Just as the footage of Palestinians whooping in the streets at the fall of the Twin Towers provides one of the most revolting memories of 9/11.

I have friends who are currently climbing Mount Everest. It sounds like hell on earth. Still, at least I had been consoling myself with the thought that bin Laden and his sidekicks must be enduring similar discomforts in a filthy Stone Age hiding place high in the Hindu Kush. Instead it turns out that he had been living comfortably about 800 yards from the Pakistani equivalent of Sandhurst, and presumably receiving regular deliveries from their version of Ocado (as he would surely have raised an eyebrow or two if he had been regularly pushing a trolley around the local answer to Tesco).

Clearly the solution for William and Catherine, in their quest for privacy, is not a remote cottage on Anglesey but a floodlit palace in the centre of London with soldiers marching up and down outside.

No doubt we will find out in due course what contribution Britain made to this belated triumph against al-Qaeda, whether through the intelligence services of GCHQ or the lessons Northumbria Police were able to provide from the search for Raoul Moat. And perhaps the question may also be asked why our forces are in action in Afghanistan when the chief instigator of the terrorism we are supposedly fighting was holed up a completely different country.

If President Obama had acted 24 hours earlier, he could have claimed the scalp of his public enemy number one on the anniversary of the suicide of Adolf Hitler. But that truly was an ending. The demise of bin Laden is just another act in a saga of death and destruction to which no one can see a conclusion.

We can be sure that cruel retribution will follow, and the victims are unlikely to be well-protected heads of state. It could be me. It could be you. We can do nothing but be vigilant. The traditional way of ending terrorist campaigns, like the IRA’s, is to give in to their major demands. But the Islamist movement, fuelled by perverted religion, has no rational goals that the secular and materialist western world can even begin to comprehend, let alone discuss.

The bottom line is this: love is good, hate is bad. That is why we were right to celebrate on Friday, and the Americans wrong to rejoice on Sunday. Not least because, like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s marriage, the war with terror has only just begun.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.