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June 29, 2006

And the end of the day... it gets dark!

Category: Andy's Columns
And the end of the day… gets dark!

One has to be careful in criticising the efforts of our esteemed terrestrial broadcasters in bringing us The World Cup (“what an international occasion it is”, copyright Mark Lawrenson).
For his comments about the truly appalling commentary on the rugby World cup afforded us by ITV, one of my peers in the business organisation press officer club got his knuckles rapped by a middle ranking silly person at the local office of our independent broadcaster.
Hopefully, the Institute of Directors (for whom I wear the press officer hat) will cut me a little more slack to point out what has been all too painfully obvious to anyone who has sat down to watch world cup games.
The standard of football commentary has been banal at best, and dire for the most part.
Whether it is apocryphal or not, the rumour round my local was the BBC had phased the commentary on BBC Radio Five Live by a few seconds to stop people turning down the BBC TV commentary and turning up Alan Green and his sidekick.
They have also had to ask those emailing the BBC website to tone down their criticism. So much for free speech!
Of course old codgers like me will always insist it was better in the old days, but in this matter how can you argue otherwise?
My favourite commentator has always been Bill McLaren – by a distance. Can you imagine any of today’s crop of commentators coming out with a phrase like “Barry John, he could run through a field of daffodils without crushing a petal”, or “Gerald Davies, his sidestep is like a shaft of lightning”?
And when footballers nudge each other on the nose (head butt, my backside!) or wave their arms at each other, it brings to mind occasions when 16 forwards were smashing hell out of each other (was Brian Moore in their somewhere?) and McLaren described it as a “bit of a brou-ha-ha”.
Murray Walker was perhaps not as crisp and organised as McLaren but boy, did we enjoy his commentary.
"...the lead is now 6.9 seconds. In fact, it's just under seven seconds"
"Tambay's hopes , which were nil before, are absolutely zero now."
As a far better columnist than I might say, “you simply couldn’t make it up”.
For cricket fans there was only the peerless Richie Benaud. Not always as amusing as Murray but often incisive.
Who can forget his muttered comment as Mike Atherton appeared to take some earth out of his pocket and apply it to one side of the match ball? “I really hope I am not seeing what I think I am seeing”.
When you find yourself thinking that maybe John Motson is the best on show at this World Cup, that must be a damaging comment on all the rest of the commentators, pundits, analysts etc.
I recently read a lovely book called “Mr Action Replay” by Dale le Vack on the life and times of Bryan Cowgill, the BBC head of sport who pushed through the action replay machine in time for the 1966 World Cup.
As Bryan sits in his house in Stratford watching the World Cup, he could be forgiven for shedding a silent tear, although I understand from his contemporaries it is unlikely to be a wholly “silent” tear.
For my part, I would like to have seen more made of Ally McCoist and Sky’s Andy Gray. Surely someone could have got him “on loan” for the duration of the World Cup? However, more Scots on TV is not everyone’s cup of tea.
As I write this I don’t know whether we triumphed over Portugal on Saturday or not, but regardless, the World Cup caravan will proceed onwards.
I suspect Portugal’s acting will have been as hammy as our commentary.
Perhaps we should leave the last word on World Cup commentary with Murray Walker who might have said, in fact I believe he did, on another occasion about another sport…
"Only a few more laps to go and then the action will begin, unless this is the action, which it is."


October 28, 2005

All about communicating

Category: Andy's Columns
By Andy Skinner, managing director of ASAP PR.

For those of you who either don’t understand the art of communication, or believe that its importance is vastly over-exaggerated, I suggest you take a look at Lozells and the very sad situation that has developed in Birmingham in what should be a happy, gloriously multi-cultural city.

In my opinion, for what that is worth in the face of deaths and so much damage, communication (bad) was to blame for the situation getting out of hand, but communication (good) is needed to put it right.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of any particular assault on whoever, whether or not it took place, it was not very long before rumour, conjecture and downright fabrication became accepted as “fact” on the street.

And who is to blame is now largely irrelevant. The finger has been pointed at pirate radio, and the buck passing has already started at public sector level.

What was astonishing was the speed with which so-called “facts” spread throughout the community.

A long time ago, an older policeman with many years experience in the West Midlands told me that the real threat of racism in the region was not white versus black, but the tensions, different cultures and perceptions of same within what you might broadly describe as the non-white community.

In my youth I naively, with my huge experience based on a white, middle class, boarding school upbringing (ha, ha!), argued that as each generation succeeded the previous generation and children grew up together at school, socialised together, married and brought children into their community, this would gradually fade.

You can perhaps appreciate why I am not yet recognised as a world statesman of awesome insight.

If you examine what various bodies have tried to do in north Birmingham, there has been a lot of money pushed that way, but whether it has been used wisely is another matter entirely.

There seems to be a vast difference between promising money for regeneration and job creation and turning those pledges into bricks and mortar and, more importantly, real jobs.

Those who lead the various communities must put aside petty cultural differences and make sure that pounds are turned into training for real jobs, not more bodies with administrators and office staff, shuffling paper but not creating anything worthwhile.

Employers can help by setting out their agendas for the next five and ten years and stating what there needs will be.

And maybe what we have seen in Lozells and surrounding areas makes an irrefutable case for the construction of the £300 million Birmingham Sports Village and the super casino in Saltley.

The NEC will make its own case, but this provides jobs where they are needed.

But whatever the outcome, the one thing we must learn from the incidents of the past month is that communication is the key.

We must make sure that help, support, learning opportunities and the chance to acquire skills that will lead to lifelong job creation are communicated to those who need to know about them.

This is too big an issue for finger pointing and “he said, she said” histrionics. Past differences must be buried once and for all.

Communication can make the difference.


September 20, 2005

Directors in the spotlight

Category: Andy's Columns
Media Types

I was contacted recently by a journalist seeking background information on a person I think it is fair to describe as a "serial Walter Mitty".

No names, no packdrill at present because a court case may ensue, but suffice to say that I was able to fill a large portion of my colleague’s notebook with several instances of "Chummy's" duplicity, extravagant claims and names of those owed money.

"Chummy" must be absolutely terrified at the moment. With the full might of the Department of Timidity and Inactivity hanging over his head he faces…..a ban from being a company director!

He could be forgiven for carrying several changes of underwear with him at all times.

A slap on the wrists is almost certainly the worst he can expect. Regardless however, I know he will continue trading, using names of "partners", business "associates" etc to fund further lines of credit and open new "businesses".

The conduct of the Phoenix Four is much in the spotlight at present and we will doubtless hear more on how they rewarded themselves in the past.

For what it's worth, I suspect they have done nothing wrong, although you might question their judgement, and even perhaps their morals and ethical standards.

But it does throw into sharp focus the role of the company director. Declaration of interest: one of my roles involves acting as press officer for the Institute of Directors in the West Midlands.

The IoD has as its motto, "Enterprise with Integrity".

I wonder if the time has now come to reinforce this by persuasion if not by more regulation?

The IoD runs Director Development courses, but rather like Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous you have to want to go to them. I would imagine.

The banks lose out when a business goes bust, but they could quite easily remedy this situation if they wished.

Those who wished to start a business could be offered two bank rates for their required facilities.

One where they have undergone basic training in running a business, not necessarily the IoD's Director Development course, but an officially accredited programme.

They would then qualify for the general business bank rate, and you can shop around as much as you like and it only amounts to pence to the starter business.

Or, you could launch an "unqualified" business, and pay, say, a further two per cent above what other "certified" businesses were expected to pay.

If nothing else, this might focus the mind.

Notwithstanding the crooks about, too many businesses are launched without due consideration, either on whether there is a market for the proposed business, or whether the people involved have the slightest idea of how to run a business.

I have considered the opinion of a bar room mate of mine who considers that bad debtors should be skinned, rolled in rock salt and tossed into boiling oil, and I am fairly certainly, even with my limited knowledge, that his view is unsustainable in law.

But perhaps he has a point that merely banning people from acting as directors for a period is hardly sufficient punishment.

It’s like when I accidentally wandered into a conference for depressed psychics.

I couldn’t help thinking. There must be a happy medium somewhere.


September 19, 2005

What am I supposed to buy?

Category: Andy's Columns
Perhaps, as is not unusual, I have missed the point, but I fail to understand where the “pundits” think continued double digit growth, the great god of the markets, is expected to continue coming from, or what it is I, as a fairly bog standard consumer, should be buying.

I and my family are exceedingly fortunate in that we are reasonably well provided for, all in work except for the Princess who is going to be a QC soon and will in time look after us all (so we think!).

We buy what we need without being profligate. Madam has spending sprees on the three grandchildren, but that is hardly going to turn the High Street tide.

Very few people are moving house at present, hence they have no need for new cookers, fridge freezers etc.

Credit card debt is on many people’s minds and they are working hard to reduce this, either by playing the cards to find the 0 per cent rates, or by paying off as much as they can each month. Many now clear their balances every month, or don’t use credit cards at all.

I also believe savings behaviour is slowly changing. Non-numbskulls are quietly waking up to the fact that they are likely to live longer than their forebears and the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.

If you are going to live into your 80s and want to live above subsistence level post 65, then perhaps you had better do something about it now, whether that means putting more money into a pension, making better use of annual savings allowances, or buying property as a nest egg.

And now is not the time to be lashing out with the cards, debit or credit, as unemployment is creeping up cumulatively if you add in public sector, BBC, MG Rover, Marconi cuts in jobs.

If you want your children to go to university the simple fact is that you have to wave goodbye to somewhere between £500 and £1,000 of taxed net income per month, depending on their university location and your means.

The larger supermarkets can now supply most of our requirements, not only food, but also clothing, garden products, electrical goods, computers and most things you might possibly require in the home.

Whether that is a good or bad trend, nevertheless it is a palpable one. I am told that in Tesco at Redditch there is an aisle known to staff as the “Wigig” aisle. “When it’s gone, it’s gone”. All sorts of odds and sods appear there and are gone in a flash, many of them actually purchased, it is said.

Why go to Currys, Dixons, Apollo et al, when you can pick up a dirt cheap TV at Tesco with the same warranty etc?

If a warranty is not vital, then car boot sales provide just about everything else that modern life appears to require.

And I think living styles are changing. Some of our offspring learn from their parents, even if by default.

Having watched their parents struggling to pay off massive mortgages, and now finding that anyway they can’t get on to the first rung of the property ladder anyway, I believe many young couples will be deciding to forego property ownership until some of us snuff it.

Wait until Mater and Pater go and leave us, at least, the deposit.

In the meantime let’s rent. Depending on where you live and your means, you are probably looking at £700-£1,200 for somewhere habitable and if your joint income is, for example, £3,000 net a month, you may consider renting, and its inherent mobility when required, the better option.

All these elements add up to a growing culture of increasingly cute credit card players and sophisticated savers that does not bode well for the High Street, but is probably far better for our long term financial health.

After all, if our Chancellor can run the country on 2-3 per cent growth per annum, why can’t we manage similarly?


Just give me what I want

Category: Andy's Columns
Andy Skinner is managing director of PR agency ASAP and press officer for the Institute of Directors in the West Midlands. His views are not necessarily those of the IoD and are best attributed to a surfeit of Scrumpy Jack.


I had to chuckle as I read the various press comments on Tesco’s record profits and its so-called “dominance” of its marketplace.

According to the “pundits” Tesco has got where it has by giving the customer what he or she wants, 24 hours a day.

The reason I had to chuckle is that whereas this is so true, Tesco has an unerring ability to kill any stockline that I happen to develop a liking for. It started with their ready-made jambalaya, continued with their tinned hot strength chicken curry and now the Curse of Skinner has hit their freshly squeezed orange ice lollies.

I have very few pleasures left in life now as the Skinner skeleton continues the process of in vitro fossilisation, but freshly squeezed orange ice lollies seem to me to be a harmless passion that I can indulge with out threatening anyone or incommoding passers-by.

Tesco used to produce the bestest lollies you could lay your hands on. They tasted great, really sharp and orangey, just the way a freshly squeezed orange lolly should, in your correspondent’s humble opinion.

Then, presumably because I liked them and began buying boxes of four, ten at a time, Tesco withdrew them, certainly from their Stratford-upon-Avon branch although there have been reports of sightings in Redditch recently (unfortunately, I can’t go there until I renew my pikey passport…)

They have made a kind of comeback but are now “with added sugar” emblazoned on the packaging, quite the opposite message I would have expected in these health conscious times.

It seems that the unadulterated freshly squeezed orange was too strong and sharp for consumer tastes.

Or it could be that there is simply a standing instruction that anything I like must be instantly withdrawn.

But notwithstanding Tesco’s inability to cater for my particular tastes, the supermarket chain has won 30 per cent market share by giving us what we (in general) want.

And all the competition can do is complain. It’s “not fair”, apparently.

I can see a parallel with Worcester Rugby Club’s problem with opposition front rows.

Worcester has such a dominant scrum that opposition front rows seem to be miraculously crumbling in front of them.

For the uninitiated, if there are no nominated front row subs left on the bench, then the referee can order uncontested scrums.

Perhaps that’s how the other supermarkets would like to see Tesco – neutered somehow by the Office of Fair Trading.

But the challenge to them is clear. Stop whinging and start competing.

If Tesco can produce a perfectly adequate suit for £32, £25 for the jacket and £7 for the trousers, either put up and compete or shut up and come out of that line of merchandise.

In the meantime, Sir Terry Leahy, keep up the good work of expanding consumer choice but stop pretending you are keeping prices down. Tesco charges just as much as it thinks it can get away with, and still keep its market share. Simple maths.

Of course, Tesco cannot afford to sit on its laurels and if it wants to continue to drive forward it musts address its areas of weakness.

Jambalaya, tinned hot chicken curry and freshly squeezed orange lollies (with NO added sugar, damn you!) would be a good starting point.


September 18, 2005

How sad we have to say CSR

Category: Andy's Columns
CSR means JOY!

I remember cringing at the time and I must have been less than six-years-old. The Sunday School teacher had been telling us how we should live the rest of our lives.

“JOY,” she proclaimed. “What does that mean?

“Jesus, Others and Yourself. Think of them in that order and you will have JOY!”

I didn’t have to be a cynical fat old hack to wince at the cheesiness of the sentiment. Even at five some things are obvious.

But, like The Bible, The Koran, or whatever your preferred life handbook, the old dear had a point. (Being the son of a vicar, I have heard enough preaching for one lifetime, so don’t worry I’m not about to start now!)

I keep reading the phrase Corporate Social Responsibility and it depresses me.

Not because I disapprove of companies taking on good causes, or setting aside time and resources for good works.

It’s just so sad that we even needed to come up with the concept. Now it has had the ultimate recognition. There are beardies and their female equivalent studying the phenomenon in our halls of learning.

Double sad, or what? Don’t bother to help the community, just think and write about it! It beggars belief.

I have clients who have helped with dry stone walling, who have constructed a school garden, have carried out a UK-long relay and most of the contents of my bookshelves now reside in a Leicester school library somewhere following one of my once a decade clear-outs.

All good works and to be lauded, but isn’t sad that we actually have to formalise what should be a natural, humanitarian reaction.

If you see something that needs doing, that will help another human being, why stop to even think about it?

Companies now make much of the CSR programme and increasingly their good works are being factored into their PR programmes. I agree that CSR projects can promote teamwork and I can see how publicising them can help in the long term with a company’s image and with recruitment.

But I do find it hard not to wince. Maybe it’s just me but I can’t get comfortable with the idea of shouting from the rooftops what good boys and girls we are.

And for those of you with your own belief system that may suggest that accumulated good works go towards your score for a place in the after life, here’s a thought.

Wouldn’t it be funny if you got to your non-denominational ecumenical Pearly Gates (or equivalent thereof) and found that the man with scorecard had been disallowing any good deeds that anyone else (except the recipient) ever got to know about?

The wheezing noise you can hear is me sitting on my fluffy cloud, trying not to burst with laughter!

And that’s where you know that this was a fantasy, rather than a sermon!


Crazy Language

Category: Andy's Columns
It’s very flattering but why do people still want to learn English wherever you go in the world (even if, increasingly, they do speak it with an American accent)?

I was privileged to travel to Lyon with the Institute of Directors recently to explore the possibility of establishing an International School in the West Midlands.

My preconception was that this would be a multi-lingual establishment, enabling the children of foreign company directors to continue their education in their own language. A sort of Grange Hill meets Tower of Babel, if you will.

Wrong! It appears that any such establishment would have to be “anglophone”, as they kept telling us. In other words, English-speaking.

Those of us who can speak it, and fewer every day, those of us who can write English, hardly ever pause to imagine trying to learn it all over again, especially as a second language.

When a journalism student in Cardiff in the Seventies, I once found myself trying to explain to a Turkish exchange student why, at a football match, we sit down in the stand.

Years later on BA’s inaugural flight to New York I fell into conversation with an out-of-work Puerto Rican guitarist who had studied all 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers at college for his dissertation in media and film studies.

He knew the lines better than I, but was puzzled by two of the Major’s comments.

“Why, when the Major says to Fawlty ‘Hampshire won yesterday’ does Fawlty say ‘Oh, did it?’ and get a big laugh?” he asked.

He also asked who “Boycott” was, as in “I see Boycott’s still in”, but I didn’t think my life expectancy would wear trying to explain that one.

Frankie Howerd used to profess: “No listen, I tell you, I was flabbergasted, in fact I would go so far as to say my flabber had never been so gasted.”

It merely serves to remind us how bizarre the English language is.

In a rare mischievous mood I once told the sales manager of the Solihull Times over the phone that she had got it wrong when she rang up chasing copies of adverts that had just been typeset.

“Jenny, what’s the plural of knife?” I asked. “Knives,” she replied.

“And wife and life?” I inquired.

For weeks afterwards she would ring up asking if the “prooves” were ready. Oh, well please yourself!

Other columnists wiser and wittier than I have mused on the lack of egg in eggplant, ham in hamburger and both pine and apple in pineapple.

We recite a play and play at a recital. When the stars are out they are visible, but when the lights are out they are invisible.

And what, for heaven’s sake, does a fishmonger really do? Or perhaps it’s best that you don’t tell me.

Why do we have to make amends for one single mistake? We comb through the annals of history, but what if we know what we are looking for? Do we go straight to that annal?

Should we describe a well behaved, well dressed child as ruly and peccable?

I must end now as I have to jump into my horsefull carriage (it has 125 of them according to the handbook), go to the cleaners and collect my lady’s strapfull gown.

If I wind up my watch I start it, if I wind up this article I finish it.

Good luck with the English language, our new incoming chums, you’re welcome to it!


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