You can’t teach creativity in PR

You can’t teach creativity. That’s what I hear. I’ve heard it a lot, too. Well, relatively speaking. It tends to be the reaction some people have to the idea of creativity training or workshops.

To an extent, it’s hard to argue with the outlook that says you’re either born creative or you’re not. Picasso was born with an innate desire to create – to challenge the accepted ways of doing things and to push the creative boundaries.

He didn’t learn that in a workshop held in a medium-sized conference room in a hotel adjacent to an urban ring-road.

So, there you have it. Creativity… it’s either in your genes or it’s not. And if not, tough… you can’t learn it.

That outlook’s nonsense though, isn’t it?

I came to that stunning realisation after a conversation I had recently with a friend about the importance of collaborating with like-minded people. Some of her comments brought to mind a remark made in an interview I read with the guitarist Johnny Marr, who said something like “if you really want to open up your creative side you need to surround yourself with creative people.”

It may be true that we are all born with different talents and abilities, and that there is no substitute for natural ability. But it’s also true that it’s important to create an environment in which creativity flourishes.

It’s also remarkably easy to create an environment – particularly a working environment – in which creativity has no chance of flourishing.

So, while it might be true that you can’t teach the people in your agency to become creative geniuses from scratch, you can certainly achieve a great deal in terms of challenging existing working practices and fostering a culture where it’s ok to be creative, and to have ideas… even really bad ones.

I’d take a really bad idea over no idea at all any day. You can improve on a bad idea and make it a great one.

But those people who put hierarchy before ability, who put their own cosy self-interests before that of the client, the agency or the team… there’s not a lot you can do with them unless you challenge them.

Just how challenging you need to be in such cases depends on how entrenched their attitudes are and how willing – or otherwise – they are to accept that change can be a good thing.

Google+ … like the internet, only with a gun to your head

I have a great many things to be thankful for. One of them is my job. Too many people have no job, or a job they find hateful and demeaning.

In October of this year (which was still 2012 when I wrote this) I became the head of digital at a PR consultancy that until my arrival had taken a fairly measured approach to digital communications.

One of the consequences of this has been that I’ve been a bit more measured too. I’ve had to think carefully not just about what the right approach to a given set of requirements might be, but also about how I present my recommendations.

As challenging as this may have been, I keep reminding myself that it’s good to stop relying on familiar and comfortable ways of doing things.

As part of this, in recent weeks I’ve found myself looking at Google+ and shaking my head a little bit. “Why are you here Google+, where do you fit, what are you for, why should I care..?”

Well, it’s obvious really. If I care at all about search findings (and I do) then I have to care about Google+.

While Google has a history of not getting social (remember Wave and Buzz..?), from Panda and Penguin, through to the knowledge graph and AuthorRank, Google is working the data it holds. It has lots of data, after all, and consequently it’s working it hard.

Maybe it’s too easy to point and laugh at Google’s attempts at social – I should know, I do a lot of that pointing and laughing. Lots of people in my industry have told me in no uncertain terms how wrong I have been when I have publicly said that Google+ is another anti-social media platform from Google.

I’m not entirely wrong though. But nor should I be feeling too self righteous.

As a genuinely social platform Google+ is bit rubbish. Unless you only want to read things from fellow PR, digital and marcomms people that is. It’s like Quora on steroids… lots of brainy people showing off about the things they know about social media, all connected to other brainy people who know lots about social media.

There are no real people here. So where’s the benefit for a business of being somewhere where there are no real people? Unless you’re trying to sell to a load of self-elevated home-baked social media gurus, of course.

I’ll tell what the point is… search.

Search is the heartbeat of ecommerce. No, I can’t quite believe I just said something so nauseatingly cliched either. Let’s move on.

Want to do business online? Better hope you appear on the first page of Google search results (don’t talk to me about other search engines… they are a minority issue, at best).

Want to appear on the first page of Google results? Better get on Google+, create some content, link your profiles, etc etc.

Google+ is now an intrinsic part of the way Google handles search results, and is becoming a fundamental component in the selection of the information you are served when you go searching for ‘stuff’ online.

Suddenly Google+ looks a lot more relevant.

But then Google has just put a gun to your head.

There are lots of reasons why this is not a good thing. One of them is the incredible shrinking online world being created. That’s a subject for another post though.

Further reading

PC Pro: Google’s failed ideas: timeline of axed projects

 

Fake authenticity: the compassion lie

I may lose friends. I may attract abuse. But this is one of those moments when I feel like I can no longer resist the urge to point and shout “the king is in the altogether.”

What am I talking about?

Fake authenticity.

Never heard of it? There’s a lot of it about, and you’d do worse than read this piece by Jonathan MacDonald – The Fallacy of Social Media.

In it he touches upon the fake approach taken to telling stories and building relationships online, particularly in the realm of social media.

Someone once said to me that to use expressions like “telling stories” in the context of PR was to admit that it was all spin, lies and bullshit.

The more I reflect on that the more convinced I am that it’s one of the most ignorant things anyone’s ever said to me and I should have said as much at the time.

Whether you are an individual, a brand marketer, a politician, a social media coordinator, when you are telling people something about who you are, what you do, how you behave, or what you believe in, you are telling them your story.

If you bullshit them you’ll get found out eventually.

Something Jonathan MacDonald picks up on is a piece of advice mooted by someone that says: “Act like you’re a company made of real, actual people, and good things will surely follow.”

It’s a liars charter in tl;dr form. And I find it quite distasteful.

As I’ve already said, there’s a lot of it about. And it’s not just brands that are doing it. I see a lot of people in my stream doing it constantly.

Recently jazz musician Terry Callier died. But for his work with the likes of Massive Attack he would only have been known to a fraction of the people in my stream – those who are serious-minded fans of music, or seek out interesting non-mainstream things to listen to. I don’t fall into either of those categories, just to be clear.

I remain unconvinced that a great many people who own something he worked on had ever heard of him either. In fact, I got a bit nauseated by the wave of “oh that’s terrible. #rip” tweets I saw from people who spend most Saturday evenings are watching X-Factor.

Oh, yes you are a very serious and dedicated follower of interesting musical collaborations, aren’t you?

No, you’re not. You’re a bullshit merchant trying to make yourself look cool, or – worse – desperately hoping to connect with something real, something meaningful to fill that foetid hole you drag round with you everywhere you are.

It was also evident in the wake of Hurricane Sandy making landfall in the US. “It’s awful,” read one tweet I saw, “13 people have been killed. #sandy”

Yes, of course it’s awful. Truly awful. Particularly for those directly involved. But do you know what else is awful…? The fact that the person whose tweet I saw – and the dozens more like them – had expressed no concern or compassion whatsoever for those left dead, displaced and traumatized by Sandy in Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, the Bahamas, and probably other parts of the Caribbean too. Haiti hasn’t recovered from the earthquake it was hit by in 2010, and was in the midst of a cholera outbreak when Sandy passed close by. So fucking what, eh..?

The death toll in the Caribbean is around 70. Probably more. It’s possible no one will ever know.

The only time I saw anyone on twitter referring to that was as a counterpoint to the many, many, “I hope everyone in New York stays safe” type tweets.

Why is it that so many people, here in the UK, were so eager to express such concern?

Dislocated empathy. Not misplaced. Dislocated.

Of course we all hoped that everyone was going to be ok in New York and elsewhere in the US. The same ought to apply to everywhere that was in the path of Hurricane Sandy. No..?

Yet it would appear to be ok, desirable even, to carry on ignoring the plight of poor black countries hit by disaster, when latte-sipping, iPhone-using, GAP-shopping people, wherever they may be, have also been affected by something bad.

I know it’s easier to identify with people who have similar lives, but that’s no excuse, in my opinion, for not giving enough of a damn about the rest of the world to pause your lazy thinking and cast off your me-opia.

It made me rather cross. Still does. You might have noticed.

But more than that, it was telling to see the stories people tell about themselves.

Who do I indentify with..? Who can I identify with..? What kind of person shall I be today…

If you’re a genuinely compassionate person, and care about what happens to others, you can see further than those that wear the same clothes as you, or even the countries where you have personal contacts.

And you aren’t compelled to bleat about it in public in an attempt to define yourself.

Fake authenticity.

Nice work people.

 

Why it’s time to stop counting your retweets

How easy would it be to write a post ridiculing the practice of assessing the success and relevance of your social media activity by counting the number of retweets, likes, followers or fans you have?

I think we all know it would be quite easy.

How much value would there be in my doing that?  Well, about as much value as there is in assessing the success and relevance of your social media activity by counting the number of retweets, likes, followers or fans you have.

Did you see what I did there?

I read a blog post today in which someone said they’d tweeted something about the Uberdaddy of record-breaking sky-diving, Felix Baumgartner. That tweet was then retweeted more than 5,000 times, reaching more than 140,000 people’s streams.

Woah..! Big numbers.

Big so what, too.

In an exchange on Twitter with a social marketer at one of the world’s premier sports brands, I recently said something that went a little bit like this:

Measuring your online relevance simply by counting how many retweets you get is a bit like driving all the way to the supermarket at the weekend, not actually going in to buy anything, but still considering it to have been a trip to the supermarket.

Technically, that’s a trip to the supermarket.

You don’t have anything to eat though.

One point I (try) to make to the brands I speak to about how they measure social success – and more importantly how they should measure social success – is that surely it has to be better for their business to find 50 people they know are spending money with them than to have 50,000 Facebook likes from people who probably aren’t.

That’s me all over though… I state the obvious.

Social media. Digital communications. Where did it all go wrong? We let it fall under the spell of people with no real experience of what it takes to create genuine interest and actionable desire.

Affecting a sustainable change in people’s perceptions and behaviour is not as hard as it might seem. As for measuring those changes, well OK that is a little bit hard. But it’s not impossible and it gets a good deal easier when you know what it is you’re trying to measure and why.

A former business contact of mine got a job last year as a “social media coordinator.”  I posited that one day, maybe in three-to-five years, there wouldn’t be anyone with the word social in their job title.  It’s all just media.

We need to stop dressing it all up as something it isn’t and get back to the business of crafting great narrative, building compelling brand stories, and measuring the things that really matter.

 

I come from England, I grew up there

In 1992, I went to Canada and the USA.  I spent three or so weeks travelling around, on my own, visiting friends and family.
It was the first time I’d flown.
Before we’d even taken off things started to get interesting.
The plane was delayed and while we were all sat there, on the tarmac of Manchester Airport, waiting for clearance, the pilot made an announcement to tell us all that it shouldn’t be too much longer before we were on our way.
He kept on talking, but not to us. For several minutes we could hear him chatting with the co-pilot, and whoever else was there, but it was conversation not intended for us to hear. Mostly it was incomprehensible technical stuff, and some of it was inaudible. Then the mic was cut.
A minute later, he came back over the speakers to apologise for having left the mic on while he was chatting to his colleagues and said “there are a lot of switches up here and it sometimes gets confusing.”
A lot of us exchanged quizzical looks. Had he really just said that..? Yes, he had.
Four hours later, a little more than halfway to Toronto – where I’d get to hear about Mrs Aqua for the first time   the guy across the aisle from me collapsed.
At this point I was beginning to wonder why they bothered putting movies on for us to watch – the flight itself was providing far more entertainment and distraction than I’d bargained for.
We landed, in one piece. The collapsed man was OK too.
My passport photo, taken in 1992

At the immigration queue the guy in front of me got instantly deported… into a holding cell and put on the first plane back to Manchester.

Three days later I saw two guys from the Ku Klux Klan being deported from Canada, at Fort Erie, and sent back to the USA.
By this point I couldn’t tell if I was still suffering from jet lag, or whether I was simply over-stimulated from everything that was going on around me. But one thing was for sure, I was wired.
One of my abiding memories from that trip is of something that happened at Penn Station in New York.

I was waiting for a train to take me to Fayetteville, North Carolina. All the trains were delayed. As any fellow Brits will know, this is a situation we have all become accustomed to. And so it was that I found myself hanging around at Penn Station with lots of other delayed travellers, one of whom struck up a conversation with me.
He was a couple of years younger than me, was well dressed, wore a broad smile and had a couple of suitcases. He introduced himself by saying something about the delay being annoying and that he was on his way home from college.
It was 20 years ago, so what follows is not an actual word-for-word account of what happened next. But the main thrust of it is here…
  • Me: “what are you doing at college?”
  • Him: “liberal arts.”
  • Him: “how about yourself?”
  • Me: “I’m travelling round for a few weeks, I’ve got some friends in Maine and North Carolina, and my brother lives in Michigan. Last week I was in Toronto for a few days.”
  • Him: “may I just say, you speak really good English.”
  • Voice in Sean’s head: “RUN! RUN! HE’S CLEARLY ONE OF THOSE PSYCHO KILLERS FROM NEW YORK EVERYONE’S WARNED YOU ABOUT!!”
  • My actual voice: “Er, I’m English.” (note: I’m not, I’m an Irishman who grew up in England, but that’s a tale for another occasion)
  • Him: “Sure, but how come you speak such good English?” (the ‘such’ and the ‘good’ were over emphasized)
  • Voice in Sean’s head: “THIS IS HOW IT ENDS…!”
  • My actual voice: “Well, I come from England. I grew up there. It’s what we speak. I really ought to find a telephone. It’s been great meeting you.”
On that same trip a lot of very weird and funny stuff happened. But the “how come you speak such good English guy” was a real stand-out moment.

Spinach, start-ups, and bloated tech companies

Dear Tesco, what is the point of this?
I’m referring to the pic of two baby spinach leaves with a speech bubble asking “what am I like?”
 At first glance, and maybe because I lived in Manchester for a time, when I see “what am I like” in my head I hear an annoying voice going “what am I like, eh? I’m just dead mad I am.
But no, the baby spinach is asking a straight question which is subsequently answered. For this is an attempt to tell anyone who has never tried baby spinach what it’s like.
“Young and tender dark green leaves…” is the first thing we are told. It’s also the first thing I have issue with.
“No shit,” one of the unfiltered voices in my head cries out. Baby anything tends to be young and tender.  And I can see there are dark green leaves, because much of the bag is transparent.
Next we are told the leaves come “.. with a distinctive flavour.”
I see.
A distinctive flavour.
Dog shit has a distinctive flavour (sorry, same unfiltered voice as above). So does toothpaste. Everything that isn’t a compound of other flavours has, by definition, a distinctive flavour.
Describing the flavour as distinctive doesn’t tell me anything useful.
So, what’s the point?
I’m not on some there’s-too-much-informationcrusade. I see this as yet another symptom of marketing departments populated by people with no real clue how to communicate with other people – well, with real people; they probably manage just fine talking utter garbage to other dullard marketing managers.
Anyone in PR will at some point have had to work with one of those people at a client. A mid-to-senior level marketing manager who is only in a position of responsibility because everyone better than them was either made redundant in the post-2008 downturn, or left to do something more rewarding.
These people don’t understand concepts like communicating effectively. They talk almost exclusively in jargon. Can’t cope with being challenged and have no frame of reference outside the impossibly narrow confines of their pointless job and equally uninspiring dimwit colleagues.
They add no value and, by and large, the only skills they have acquired are sufficient political nous to dodge the redundancy bullet and a few knife-wielding chops, but only when people’s backs are turned.
While so much of the tech sector is currently experiencing paroxysms of joy over the incredible talent of our burgeoning start-up communities, the heavier weight tech companies remain bloated by people who were hired during periods of rapid growth and who ought to have been jettisoned long ago.
In case you were wondering, yes I do feel better now thanks.

Brothers in arms – my interview with Veterans Aid CEO Hugh Milroy

Veterans of the armed forces are at risk from many of the same pressures as anyone else, I learned from speaking with the CEO of Veterans Aid. It’s all too easy to generalise about drunk, homeless ex-squaddies, and doing so isn’t just wrong, it fails to get to the heart of the matter. 

Dr Hugh Milroy leans back in his chair and fixes his gaze upon me from the other side of the desk. His is an intense stare that accompanies a relaxed manner and a ready smile. This is not, I find myself thinking, quite what I had expected.

A former Wing Commander in the RAF, recipient of an OBE and holder of a PhD, what I had expected was that the CEO of Veterans Aid would be altogether more formidable and imposing.

The room itself also belies many of the usual preconceptions you might have of a CEO’s office. Boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling against one wall, full of clothes and other essentials. Another wall is dominated by a painting of a WWII Spitfire. There’s a meeting table, which I’m later told is second hand. Elsewhere there are collection tins inserted into old boots, a portrait of the Queen, and artwork produced by some of the veterans the charity has helped. But more on that later.

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO of Veterans Aid

What wasn’t in evidence in his office was any trace of standing on ceremony, of self-importance or of lavish expense. It is a businesslike office with enough personality about it to feel genuine, without being over-bearing.

Affable and amiable he may be, but Milroy is clearly a driven man, a man with a clear sense of purpose and deep understanding of the people Veterans Aid supports. And it is in regard to these people that I soon begin to realise that much of what I had considered to be received wisdom was actually nothing but misleading.

Veterans Aid works with former service personnel who, in civilian life, have hit upon hard times for one reason or another. The charity regards anyone who is ex–Army, Royal Navy, Royal Air Force, Royal Marines, or from the Merchant Services to be a veteran. It also covers Reservists, such as the Territorial Army, and in fact just one day’s service qualifies any of the above to be considered veterans.

The charity sees itself as very much part of the Victoria/SW1 scene and has been for much of the 80 years it has been in existence.

 

Myth busting

Anyone paying even scant attention to the media will have read or heard that a disproportionate number of rough sleepers in the capital are veterans and that they all have drink and drug problems.

This is perhaps the first myth that needs dealing with, and it’s one that Milroy dispels with the relaxed sense of focus he displays throughout our time together.

“We see veterans who are in crisis,” Milroy explains. “Real crisis – homelessness is only one aspect of that.”

Veterans Aid provides in excess of 20,000 nights of accommodation every year, and can house between 60 and 80 people per night; in addition to its Buckingham Palace Road HQ, Veterans Aid has its own hostel in east London.

“You could look upon Veterans Aid as the accident and emergency service for the veteran community,” Milroy tells me.

“If someone needs accommodation we’ll find them somewhere, whether it’s in our hostel or in a hotel. If they need detox we’ll get them on a detox programme. If they need clothes, a suit for a job interview perhaps, we’ll do that. We try to be as pragmatic as possible in the way we handle things.”

There are no hand outs. But there is a helping hand up to those who need it and, just as importantly, are willing work hard to make the most of the help available.

I ask Milroy if this pragmatism is because the organisation, and the majority of the people working there are ex-military – do people with a military background have a particular approach to fixing things and making progress because of having served in the armed forces?

“There may be something in that, perhaps we are quite straight in our approach to things. But I think it’s important to point out that people don’t come to us because they’ve been institutionalised by the time they spent in the armed forces. If we were dealing with problems caused by institutionalisation, then it would seem strange that we rarely see people who have served for a long time.”

 

Common ground, common language

Milroy talks to me at length about the need to help people rediscover their resilience, something he describes as running like a thread through all service personnel. He refutes my suggestion that while those who have served in the armed forces are less inclined to accept hand outs whereas run-of-the-mill civilians are that bit softer, lacking in resilience, and will gladly take a hand out.

He is quick to correct me in a firm yet non-chiding manner that sits well with his overall demeanour of a man who is thoroughly relaxed and at home with himself, yet uncompromisingly focussed and alert. “The ‘service’ part is a very good way of getting to ground zero, where we can all talk the same language,” he tells me. “Beyond that it’s down to the individual.”

Finding a common language is clearly an important aspect of helping someone in need start to find their self respect once again. After all, few of us flourish as a result of being patronised and talked down to. Veterans Aid works to sow the seeds of a physical support network of friends and acquaintances in the lives of those it helps, addressing one of the most pernicious demons many of its clients are facing – social isolation. The downward spiral of drink and drug addictions, much like the burdens of growing mountains of debt, will ultimately push people away from their friends and family until, all too often, they have no one to turn to, no one to talk to.

The typical user of Veterans Aid’s services is male and aged somewhere between 38 and 45. It is generally the case that they joined up at an early age and served for around three years. Like many people they encounter difficulties in later life and some simply struggle to overcome these difficulties.

The younger veterans, in their 20s, encounter the same barriers to social housing that face anyone else of their age in the UK.

 

Far and wide

Last year, Veterans Aid received around 2,000 calls for help, and it put 216 people into accommodation. But it also works hard through a network across the country to identify those needing support before they arrive in London – Victoria coach station being one of the key magnets.

Milroy talks of people graduating from the Veterans Aid service, and how they must be ready and capable individuals that can sustain themselves once they’ve received the helping hand up. Otherwise, he cautions, it’s a waste of both time and money.

“We see people from all branches of the services and all ranks. But very few are in trouble because of their military service. They’re here because of life in Britain today – which can be difficult for anyone.

“In fact, it is extremely rare (Milroy places a great deal of emphasis on the words extremely rare) for Veterans Aid to see somebody with PTSD. What we see is people with complex problems. Addictions, alcohol abuse, debt, general mental health issues – just like one-in-four of the general population might also suffer at some point,” he says, referring to a statistic often quoted by the NHS and mental health charities such as MIND.

 

Not just art for art’s sake

It’s not all detox and emergency housing though. There are examples of veterans going on training courses that will enable them to get regular, well-paid jobs. Some have gone to university, and in December Veterans Aid will be hosting an exhibition at the SW1 Gallery of works of art created by some of the people it has helped.

Veterans Aid is an integral part of the Victoria community and this year is its 80thanniversary. Clearly held in high regard, it was the recipient of Victoria BID’s jubilee fund raising lunch in May and has received the support of the Lord Mayor of Westminster. It is involved in training officers from the Metropolitan Police on how to identify and help veterans in need of support. It seeks to stem the flow of homeless people arriving in SW1. It rolls up its sleeves and finds practical, sustainable solutions to the problems facing many people who at some point in their past have served Queen and country.

I reflect on what I’ve learned as I leave Milroy’s office, and upon the ordinariness of it all – the lack of pretention, the absence of affectation.

On my walk up the two flights of stairs earlier that morning I had met two Veterans Aid staff who had once been on the receiving end of the charity’s help, and a third man who was clearly there in need of said help.

It is someone’s birthday at Veterans Aid, and as I leave I hear an office full of people singing “happy birthday” to their colleague, as happens in pretty much any and every office all across the country.

You can find out more about Veterans Aid by visiting their website here.

Portrait of Dr Hugh Milroy is copyright Glyn Strong/Veterans Aid

What the Olympic sponsors could learn from Beckham and Adidas

Adidas pulled off a fantastic PR stunt yesterday at the Westfield Stratford shopping centre (that’s ‘mall’ to my colonial friends).
They installed a photobooth and encouraged people to step inside, whereupon… from the O to the M to golden-balls G – there’s David Beckham waiting for them.
Brilliant work. Inspired. You want warm and fuzzy brand association – there you are. You want to be seen as well connected – help yourself. You want people to think your brand is cool – you got it.
So how come the other big ticket sponsor brands haven’t also done something interesting, different, entertaining..?
Don’t get me wrong, I am not for one minute suggesting that anyone in their right mind would want to see Ronald McDonald emerging from the darkness and coming toward them, least of all while they’re in a confined space.
Yet, unless I’ve missed something, there appears to be a dearth of other Olympi-brands dusting off their creative mojos and winning the hearts and minds of the public.
There’s really no excuse in 2012 – it would be as cheap as chips (which you can only buy from McDonalds, unless they are served with fish as part of an authentic fish ‘n’ chips experience) to knock out a whole rash of Facebook competitions and games, or do some cool London stuff via Foursquare, maybe linked to previous London Olympics.  Plus all the big brands have so much corporate sponsorship going on that they have more than enough potential strings to pull for a spot of A-list celebrity endorsement action.
  
Something. Anything. Anyone..?
It really wouldn’t be hard for these big brands to create campaigns or one-off stunts that demonstrate they’ve actually been listening to their customers through all the Facebook groups etc they have.
It makes me wonder what the point of it all is (having a brand presence on Facebook, I mean) if you can’t then take everything you’ve learned about interacting with your customers via a meaningful two-way dialogue and put it to good use throughout all your PR, advertising, marketing and comms activities.

I think that might be worth setting aside for another post.


Footnote: list of the London 2012 Olympic sponsors, partners and supporters here.

Breaking news: sorry Twitter, journalism still wins out

Two things happened in London in the space of 24 hours that, once again, had me – and plenty of others – musing on the role of Twitter as a channel for breaking news.

On Thursday 26 April, there was an incident on the Bakerloo line of the London Underground (that’s the brown one).

I learned about it first thanks to twitter. But here’s what I learned. I learned that something had happened – it might have been a tube train crash, or a collapsed tunnel, or a train might have hit a bulge in the wall of a tunnel, or the tunnel might be flooded, or some plasterwork might have fallen off the tunnel walls onto the track, or there might have been a terrorist attack.

My, what a lot of things I learned from Twitter that morning.

I looked online at some reputable news providers’ websites to see what I might learn from them.  It took a while for the news to appear on the likes of the BBC or the Evening Standard websites. As is right and proper.

On Friday 27 April, news broke on Twitter that there had been a bomb scare on Tottenham Court Road (a very busy shopping street, complete with a major theatre, lots of offices, pubs, restaurants etc, and a tube station that was featured in An American Werewolf in London). There were pics too.

Someone observed that the bomb scare (which during the time I was writing this piece morphed into a hostage situation) had been trending on Twitter for half an hour, but still no mention on the mainstream news sites…. prompting one person to ask  “do we need 24hr news channels anymore?” (@mattaudley)

But I like this tweet best: “What the hell is going on at #tcr?!? The bazillion varied reports are bloody confusing!” (@/betti_ttt)

The story was still developing while I was writing, but this is the BBC’s take on it. And as of the time I published this piece, there were no reports of injuries – I can only hope that stays the case.

Responsible journalism demands that stories are confirmed (“stood up” in the vernacular). That you have more than one source to corroborate the lead or rumour, and that you explore the facts. At its heart the job of the journalist is to find out what is actually going on and present people with reliable facts*. Otherwise news is nothing more than a lot of rumour and speculation.

There is (and will always be) a role for traditional journalism and regular news outlets – it’s in cutting through the confusion and presenting people with the facts.

That’s something Twitter will never be able to do, because even if one tweet gets immediately to the heart of the matter, the next 50 might offer nothing but fear, uncertainty and doubt. And how on earth is one to tell the difference.

footnote: anyone who tells you journalism is all about getting to “the truth” is either a self-aggrandising liar, or a fool.

 

No place like home

The view from my childhood bedroom window is still there. A tower block, an open green space, gasometers in the middle distance.
The bedroom window itself, much like my childhood, is no longer there; the street I grew up on was demolished in the 1980s. The rows of low-rise blocks of flats, packed in densely so they resembled something like the layout of a series of prison blocks, has been replaced by a smaller number of smaller dwellings. They look like houses, but in reality they are two-up-one-down maisonettes.
Me and my dad, when I was just a few months old

 

I haven’t set foot on that street for almost 30 years, although I drove along it once about 15 years ago. But thanks to the wonders of Google Streetview, last night I went for a stroll through my old neighbourhood. It’s a lot greener now than it used to be, and there are many more cars, despite there being fewer people.
I stared at the space where my bedroom window once was – easy enough to find as there was a lamppost outside it. That’s the kind of thing that tends to remain in situ, so finding the last lamppost was all it took.
After that, I crossed the road to the tower block where my cousins lived, then walked down the street to the library, built in the early 1900s. I visited my schools, and walked past the renamed pub, outside which there was almost always a trail of blood after closing time. The row of shops at the end of the street is still there. There’s a chicken/pizza/kebab place where the haberdashery used to be, but William Hill is still there. 
I know I’m far from unique in this regard, but it felt odd looking at the places I knew as a boy, knowing that the one place I knew as ‘home’ no longer existed.
I left the city I grew up in, Birmingham, when the first opportunity presented itself and I’ve rarely gone back in the years that followed my mother’s death.  This week I am set to return, for the inquest into my father’s death, which will be heard at Birmingham Coroner’s Court.
It’s something that has led to a little more reflection than usual, of late.  On the role of fathers, on childhood memories, on family and on what it means to have roots.