Customers: What can businesses realistically expect?

I wrote this blog over a week ago and forgot to publish it – and I’m glad I did, because since I wrote it a shed load of snow fell onto the United Kingdom and thousands of restaurants, takeaways and cafes across the country have been left standing, wondering: where have all our customers gone? So I’ve decided to rewrite it in light of recent events. But, let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

My first blog post started when chef Mark Greenaway introduced a new policy for no shows, intending to charge them £50 a head, which last week had the whole internet offering their opinion about whether this is really fair, or not. Fast forward just one week and millions of people up and down the country have had to change their plans, at the last minute, due to the inclement weather. Luckily, Mark Greenaway implemented his policy last week so he will not have been feeling the pinch at £50 a head. But his competitors will have been.

I’ve seen so many restaurateurs post about how “devastating” this week has been for their business. We ate lunch in a popular local restaurant today – out of a potential 80 covers restaurant, we were the only two in, for two hours.

So, when it comes to customers, what can businesses really expect?

Many businesses open their doors every day without any expectation of paying customers. Retailers, for instance, take a gamble that there will be sufficient passers by to keep them going. Cafes too. Hotels are a little bit different. Customers really want to be sure that there’s a bed there for them when they arrive, so there’s a trade off: they are willing to part with cash, up front, in return for a guaranteed room for the night.

But during the events of the last few wintery days, all gloves have been off. Millions of customers simply changed their plans.

If ever there was an argument for customers being THE most important success factor for your business, here it is, and as simple as we can make it: without customers, you don’t have a business.

And if your margins are extremely tight (and whose aren’t) a few days of unexpected loss of all customers could be nothing short of devastating.

Which brings me back to the first scenario – what happens when your customers book, but don’t turn up? Restaurants with high demand have always taken bookings but now, it seems, customers are “hedging their bets” and booking multiple restaurants so they can decide on the night.

If that is the case, then the restaurant really should be charging them for a no show. It would seem the customer is deliberately intending to let them, or another restaurant they have booked for the same time, down. It’s a bit like booking two shows at two theatres and then only going to one. However, throw in a flurry of snow and it becomes complicated. The weather is outwith the customer’s control. It’s outwith everyone’s control, actually.

So why this is happening? Why are customers covering their bases with multiple restaurant bookings?

The answer is, I believe, in how restaurants are deciding to manage their capacity. On a recent trip to Edinburgh, my husband and I made an attempt to eat in no less than 7 separate restaurants. We gave up in the end and drove home, some 45 miles away, and picked up a takeaway on the way home. Many were half empty, all asked if we “had a booking”. We were not the only ones in the queue with the same problem. You see, they had the capacity to serve us, they just chose not to, because they had a pre-existing booking (who, we are led to believe, have a high propensity not to show up).

Perhaps what’s really out of line here is the restaurant industry’s expectations that their establishments should be booked up months in advance in order to provide them with the security of knowing someone’s going to eat there in July. Moreover they are turning customers away, every single night, because of this policy. That’s a bit arbitrary, isn’t it??

If the customer is always right, how come the restaurants are getting it so wrong?

This weekend, amidst the weather chaos, I heard the plea of our local restaurateurs and headed out in the snow to “deliberately” eat lunch out. We like that restaurant, we know they are having a bad week, and we wanted to help. Lunch was also rather delicious. And they were extremely grateful that we had come in. It’s a win/win situation for us both!

So here’s an idea: Instead of charging customers who don’t show, how about not having a booking system at all and serving up delicious food to those who are literally standing on your doorstep and wanting to be fed. Or why not change your booking policy to only booking out 50% of your restaurant on any given night so you have additional capacity to serve those who simply had a notion that they fancied going out for dinner that night and chose you?

Sadly, on more than one occasion this year, I’ve left several establishments who are half empty but I can’t get a table because I don’t have a booking. I missed the memo that said if I want to eat out, I must plan weeks ahead. Cafes don’t really have this problem. They are either full or not and, as a customer, I accept that.

So I challenge the assumption that customers are just being very, very naughty and should be punished for suddenly deciding they really just fancied a curry rather than a steak tartare. If they are not turning up to a pre-arranged date, the chances are there’s another problem at play – maybe your food wasn’t good enough to entice them back, or your location isn’t the easiest to get to, or your service was poor, or (worse) because you’re all booked up you’ve done no marketing for 6 months and they’ve forgotten about you.

Chuck out the booking list, open your doors and take a chance. You might find that when you most need it, that customer loyalty you’ve built up over the years will pay for itself in dividends when it snows.

Cunningly Good Coverage

It was a busy start to the year for Volpa and our clients, but we have some cracking coverage to show for it! Here’s a round up of January’s best bits:

Award-winning care home director shares her views on the sector

What makes a good care home? And how are they changing for the future? Balhousie Care Home’s Operations Director Louise Barnett should know; she recently won the coveted title of U.K. Operations Manager of the Year.

We secured an interview for Louise on BBC Radio Scotland’s John Beattie show. You can listen here (starts at 19:15): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09ld5rc

 

 

 

 

 

 

Real Life Game of Thrones at Scone Palace

The Palace is getting back to its medieval roots this May when it plays host to the world championships for full- contact medieval combat, a sport rising in popularity around the globe.

Thousands will descend on the historic visitor attraction, known for being the crowning place of medieval kings, when it hosts the International Medieval Combat Federation World Championships from May 10th to 13th 2018.

Volpa secured national and local coverage, including BBC Scotland, Daily Record and The List.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biggest Weekend Comes to Town

Scone Palace had another huge announcement to make in January as BBC’s #BiggestWeekend will be coming to town, with the Palace the only Scottish venue on the line up.

With BBC taking the lead on PR, Volpa used the opportunity to comment locally, securing coverage in The Courier and Small City Big Personality.

Balhousie Care Group sets the agenda on loneliness

Loneliness is one of the issues Balhousie’s care workers address every day. Being apart from family – permanently – and having to make new friends is an isolation that is hard to fathom.

Volpa secured an opinion piece in The Herald, positioning Steve White, CEO of Balhousie Care Group, as industry leader on the issue. In this hugely personal piece Steve talks about the steps Balhousie have taken to tackle loneliness in care and encourages others to follow the group’s lead.

Competition, Business

Embracing Competition

Competition for any business owner is a necessary evil. In a perfect world there would be no competition, we’d all be unique. But the world isn’t perfect and it’s our competitors that keep us moving forward, force us to continuously innovate and give us something to benchmark against.

As I write there are beef and black pepper sausages sizzling in the grill, and six slices of thick cut back bacon sizzling beside them. I bought them yesterday from a long established butcher shop in my home town. It was the first time I’d ever been in to it in the 41 years I’ve been on this planet.

You see, I’d been taught from an early age that these guys were the “competition”. My Grandad ran another long standing butcher’s shop situated just a two minute walk away from this one. It was drummed into me that people who chose the competitors were “not our kind of customers” and therefore just a little bit, well, misinformed about their purchase.

Walking through the door was a big deal. I could literally hear my Grandad turning in his proverbial grave. And the comparison to my Grandad’s shop (which is now probably Scotland’s best known butcher, but that’s another story entirely) was immediately obvious.

I’d stepped back in time.

Here was a butcher shop that reminded me of the butcher shops of the early 1980s. Meat out on the table being chopped. Customers being served by the butchers. Simple shelving, good enough to hold the food it carried but nothing fancy or anything that could remotely be considered as “merchandising”.

They were queued out the door. This, in itself was fascinating. The reason the queue wasn’t moving quickly is that there was no separate cash office so the three butchers serving were slowed down by the fact they then had to wash their hands after handling money on every transaction. Put simply, because of the way they organise their shop, they serve considerably less people per hour than their competitors.

Based on the retail/purchasing experience alone, I would not be tempted to go back. Unless the product is absolutely brilliant. It’s a trade off, you see.

So let’s get on the with the fun part. The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

My husband, understanding the importance of this competitive assessment situation, took extra time over the consumption of his sausage and bacon rolls this morning.

Here’s what we learned:

  • the sausages are double the size, but seem to have half of the seasoning. We like our beef and black pepper sausages to be peppery. These were beefy, but not peppery.
  • My husband really liked the sausages, I wasn’t as keen. The skin was a bit tough which made eating them on a roll to be a wee bit more challenging than that of their competitors.
  • The bacon was nice and salty. This was to my taste but not to my husband’s.
  • The dogs were less picky and liked both. Ten out of ten from them.

Here’s what we concluded:

  • if it was me doing the shopping, I probably wouldn’t go back. The quality of the product wasn’t tasty enough for me to balance out the slightly wonky and inefficient retail experience
  • If it was my husband doing the shopping, he’d probably nip in to get some sausages but would happily leave the bacon behind.

Why does this matter?

It doesn’t really matter where I buy my sausages from – I’m sure you don’t care at all. However what it has taught me is that unless you experience your competitor’s full service, beginning to end, you can’t really judge and compare their offering. There’s only so much you can really tell from their website, or looking at their shop or from hearing someone else’s view.

In this case, time has ultimately told the story. Today I see a small, local butcher’s shop who hasn’t really progressed from what they were in the 1980s when my Grandad was trading. His store, by comparison, produced what is now one of the country’s top butchers as an apprentice, was subsequently bought by said apprentice after my Grandad passed away and whose products (and no doubt several of my Grandad’s original recipes) are now on the shelves of the country’s biggest supermarkets.

And, by a country mile, my preferred butcher.

gofundme, crowdfunding campaigns, crowdfunder

Lost In Translation: Crowdfunding or Begging?

When crowdfunding blazed onto the scene several years ago as a new, democratic method of sourcing funding for businesses and worthwhile projects, it was hailed a credible source of cash for boot-strapped entrepreneurs, desperate to get their ideas into production. Combining the entrepreneur’s immediate need (cash) with the public’s perceived future need (goods), it expertly brought forward the sales in a neat swap of intent and commitment which has seen rise to some of the most successful new companies on the market.

But, somewhere along the way, things have got badly lost in translation. Search for crowdfunding in Google and top of the paid search returns are gofundme and justgiving – both charitable giving sites. A news story doing the rounds this week tells of Saatchi & Saatchi chairman Richard Huntington “crowdfunding” surgery for his dog, Edward Lear despite living in a £1 million house on Primrose Hill in London and earning a six figure annual salary.

The premise of crowdfunding is that the “funder” gets something in return for their investment. It’s usually in the form of a promise of future goods or services or, as in Brew Dog’s Equity for Punks crowdfunding scheme, it’s a piece of the business.

“Crowdfunding” to pay for your dog’s leg operation with Britain’s SuperVet is simply begging others for money, there’s no simpler way to dress it up. Any reasonable person landed with an unexpected bill to pay would borrow the money from close family, or take out a personal loan. For some bizarre reason it has become acceptable to ask perfect strangers on the internet to pay instead, for nothing in return.

With 442 “crowdfunding” campaigns – and I’m using the term loosely – being launched on a daily basis around the globe, you would think it would naturally follow that world economic growth would be soaring (it isn’t) as a result of all these new entrepreneurial ideas getting off the ground. Or charitable giving. That would be going up exponentially, surely? But it isn’t. The Charities Aid Foundation reports little to no growth in charitable donations between 2016 and 2017.

It seems people are simply giving their money away to strangers on the internet, in return for very little except sight of a few Instagram posts of a cute dog (which, arguably, would have been posted anyway).

Maybe it’s time to ask out loud: has crowdfunding got lost in translation?

THE SALES PITCH

If you have a genuine crowdfunding project to promote, get in touch with the team at Volpa. We have experience of working with clients to set achievable crowdfunding targets and successfully manage crowdfunding campaigns to completion. Give us a call on 01738 658187.

9 Tips to Succeed in Business

1. Learn to love outsourcing

You will never be good at everything, nor do you need to try to be. While it might be fun to be in charge of the whole ship, your time will become your most scarce resource and I find women business owners in particular have more difficulty letting go of “doing it all” – find experts, build a team, and point them in the right direction.

2. Be honest with yourself about work/life balance

It’s OK to love your work, it’s OK to take the morning off to get your hair done, work weekends if you like, take days off to spend with your kids. Do whatever works for you – don’t let anyone tell you what balance should be

3. Value yourself

Too many startup business owners go in with the “I’m better and cheaper” mantra. Your skills are valuable, price them according to what the market will pay, not what your competitors are charging.

4. Find a mentor

These people will help you adjust to managing the ups and downs of running a business. And there’s no law says you can have only one at a time. Meet them regularly, ask them questions, people are usually happy to help.

5. Network your socks off

Don’t beat around the bush, get out there, go to every event – regardless of whether you are interested in the speaker or not. The more people you know, the better.

6. Invest in learning time management skills

I popped myself on a Priority Management training course about 12 years ago and while it was a lot of money for me at the time, it was the best money I’ve ever spent. Knowing how to prioritise what little time you have is critical to your success. Otherwise you’ll simply become overwhelmed by the demands on your time.

7. Recognise overwhelm

And step back. At times you will be busier and under more pressure than you can ever imagine. Recognise when this is happening and step back to give yourself perspective. Focus on the future, don’t panic.

8. Invest in your marketing

Don’t (please) be taken in with offers to get cheap business cards. Stand out from the crowd. Invest in a logo, make sure your business cards and website are top notch. Cheap might be appealing in the short term but it will cost you more in the long term.

9. Trust your gut instinct

It’s vastly underestimated in an era of big data where we should always be able to analyse everything within an inch of its life but over the years my gut instinct has also served me well. You know, those times when you can’t quite put your finger on it but you just have a feeling…..trust the feeling.

Rights or Reputation? What’s more important?

There have been a couple of trademark stories in 2017 that have caught my attention, but for very different reasons, flagging up the important question for any brand owner: what’s more important to my business, my rights or my reputation?

And a valid question it is indeed.

When conservation charity The National Trust for Scotland pursued a small local business Hilltrek for its unauthorised use of the trademarked term “Glencoe” in 2017, it was accused of bullying and many of its members threatened to cancel their membership in protest against the organisation’s stance. While the NTS were well within their rights to pursue Hilltrek, as official owners of the trademark in that category, they did not truly consider the reputational damage that could be done as a result of protecting those rights. Rights they had only acquired two years previously.

Later in 2017, Sean Connery confirmed that he too had trademarked his name to protect it from commercial misuse in the promotion of a whole range of goods and services. One can only assume that an organisation trying to launch the “Sean Connery Martini” without authorisation and endorsement by the star would, rightly, be pursued for commercial damages.

Although both trademarks were applied for within weeks of each other, and are both legally the same, they couldn’t be more different in terms of what they offer the owner.

Sean Connery is both a person and a brand. Attaching his name to a product gives it a clear demarcation of trust and endorsement. Sean Connery has invested in developing his brand over several decades. The “Sean Connery” brand adds value to the product and, as such, should be deservedly protected in law.

Glencoe is a place. It is not, technically speaking, a brand. There has been little to no investment in the development of Glencoe as a brand. Attaching the word “Glencoe” to a product does not, de facto, give it additional value. And this is where the NTS have failed to understand the true value of trademarking. It’s only worth protecting if it has value. You can’t protect a word then hope to create commercial value out of it as a result. It’s precisely the reason that NTS decided to trademark the word in the first instance, but it is also, arguably, what they (and their lawyers) have attempted to do by exploiting their rights over the investment that companies such as Hilltrek have made over three decades – and the public has, quite rightly, called foul.

The cost of NTS pursing their rights? Their reputation, of course.

Trademarks exist to protect value propositions, and a brand offers a value proposition. A true trademark has meaning, context and quality. If ever there was proof that words, alone, are not brands, this is it.

Volpa’s Head of Publicity goes back to school

A few weeks ago I received an e-mail asking if I would be interested in speaking to 3rd Year school pupils about Business and Language. Having considered a career in teaching at various points and perhaps a glutton for punishment, I jumped at the opportunity.

The workshop programme would visit different secondary schools around Dundee with a view to encourage more of them to study foreign languages in their later years of school. As someone who worked in business I was expected to talk to kids about the importance of language in business. I decided that i would talk about business communications and the decision-making that goes on behind the scenes.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of school and don’t consider myself academic, though I did well enough to get into University and managed complete a degree in Business Studies. Going back to school was a bit intimidating and exciting at the same time. Harris Academy was a million miles away from the dreary halls of Inverkeithing High School…you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon their recording studio!

After heading to my classroom, I was to speak to 6 groups of 30(ish) students, for 25 minutes at a time, and I had opted not to bring any props!

25 minutes is a LONG time to be standing & talking to 14-year olds!

I started with the basics…companies want to transact with consumers and will use an array of communication methods to do so etc, etc…

Before long we were talking about influencer strategies, communications plans and in-depth campaign marketing. It was amazing how quickly the pupils “got it”. They accepted that not all companies wanted to sell to them and that it was ok to target very specific consumer groups to keep your marketing strategy effective. This is something that can take businesses a long time to grasp (sometimes they never do!) and we see wasted efforts and budgets regularly.

As groups moved on and other groups arrived it was evident that some of the other invited speakers had brought goodies with them…school boy error on my part!

We moved onto social media strategies and this is where they really woke up. Not only was I able to get an insight into the teenage market psyche, but I was also very impressed at the level of knowledge the kids had about each of the networks and the differences/ similarities of each. Scottish businesses have a well-documented skills gap in digital marketing and none of the pupils I spoke to understood or appreciated the value of their knowledge. Not one of the 150 pupils that I met today would include their social media skills on a CV or job application! It surprised me that our future work-force were unable to identify this as a transferrable or valuable skill, and one which a business will (and do) pay handsomely for. The presentation delivered by a representative of DYW (Developing the Young Workforce) at the start of the day mentioned non-academic skills that employers would be looking for but failed to mention social media. My parting words to each of the groups I spoke with, was to make sure these skills were on any CV or job application going forward.

I am fortunate that I work for a company that indulges my desire to get involved at event such as this and get out of the office for a few hours. I hope that the kids got something out of the day as I know that I did. I hope that not only do they choose to study business in school but that they will one day decide to open their own business.

According to ScotGov 98.3% of private sector enterprises in Scotland have less than 50 employees (70.6% have no employees at all) as of March 2017. This highlights the importance of enterprise and entrepreneurship in our economy and given that 0% of pupils I spoke to had ambitions of starting their own business, I would suggest we need to review how we encourage entrepreneurialism in our schools.

On a side note, the kids I met today were engaged, interested and respectful. Thanks to Harris Academy for having me.

Fraser Kirk, Head of Publicity

The Top 5 Tourism Marketing Must Haves

There are well over a thousand different ways to market yourself. Hundreds of channels, hundreds of methods within those channels. But most businesses are small and can’t afford to spread themselves too thin and this is particularly true of businesses operating in the tourism sector, many of who are small and micro businesses, privately owned and with limited marketing budgets. So what are the five “must have” marketing media for reaching the tourism market?

Tricia Fox, CEO of Volpa, one of Scotland’s leading hospitality marketing agencies weighed in with her take on the five essentials:

Good Quality Signage

There’s so much buzz around digital that you could be forgiven for plunging straight in with a website, but good quality signage is always top of the list for me. In marketing it’s so easy to focus on the Promotional aspect of the 4Ps, but Place is of utmost importance and if your customers can’t find you, then no amount of fancy digital marketing work will help.

Make sure your premises are branded up wherever possible and, if you can, think about signposting options on the routes that lead to your location within a 5 mile radius. For a great many visitors to the area, signage will be the first thing they see of your business so make sure it’s looking its best and also clearly displays your website address. They may pass by today, but tomorrow you might be on their “to do” list”.

A Mobile Friendly and Up-to-Date Website

Much has been said about the importance of having a mobile friendly website so it goes without saying: this is now a must. However it’s even more important to keep your website up to date and ensure there’s enough information for the customer to make a decision. There’s nothing worse than visiting a website that clearly hasn’t been updated for more than a year and wondering whether they still serve lunch, or open at that time. It may be obvious to you, but it isn’t to the visitor and, rather than deal with the uncertainty that might spoil their day, they’ll simply move on and find one of your competitors who can offer the same thing but whose communications are more up to date.

Up to Date Social Media

We spend so much of our lives on social media, Facebook in particular, that it’s no longer acceptable for a consumer related business to not have an active presence on the key platforms (in order of use by customers: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). When I can’t find up to date information on the business website, this is the second place I look. If they haven’t updated it since July 2016 I assume they are not active or, worse, closed.

It takes 5 minutes a day to pop out a post. Doesn’t have to be prolific but it does have to be there.

TripAdvisor Testimonials

The desire to avoid “Citizen Journalism” goes with the territory but, while you can’t control what people say about you on third party sites, you can control some of the information that’s presented and join in the discussion. Make sure your company’s TripAdvisor profile is up to date with pictures (you can add yours as well as guests adding theirs) and key contact details. Focus on raising your rankings and actively encourage customers to review you on the platform. TripAdvisor is, in many ways, a numbers game. A business with three old five star reviews will rank lower than a business with 8 reviews, some five star and some 4 star but more recent.

Local Publicity

This might seem an odd one. After all I’ve left out leaflets, adverts, and a whole host of other ways of getting the tourist’s attention. But never under-estimate the power of local publicity. Visitors do not behave like aliens from another planet. When they are in the area, they behave like temporary residents for however many days they are there. That means they devour local information – local newspapers, local noticeboards, local information sites. Raising your profile among these media with current stories about your business will increase awareness when they are looking for information most, helping them to focus on you as a potential destination and filter out others.

So there you have it, my top five “won’t be without” marketing must haves. Get these in place and everything else you do will simply add to the mix, providing the icing on the cake and the cherry on the top.

Are we Really Open for Business?

Here I am, blogging on holiday. I know I shouldn’t be but sometimes things just happen and you have to write about them.

Hot on the heels of VisitScotland announcing that tourism is worth £11bn to our economy and that 1 in 12 Scottish firms are active in the sector. You’d think that for such an important sector, creating 217,000 jobs, we’d be fully open for business and raring to go.

However two separate experiences at one establishment on this, so far, short vacation have highlighted how far we have yet to come.

The first, after travelling for about 2 hours by road to get to our destination, we pulled in part of the way there to a hotel restaurant to get lunch. Clearly signposted from the outside that they were serving food and, indeed, in the bar when we arrived dishes were still be served up with many tables still eating. It was 2.30pm.

When the waiter came over (just after dropping off a selection of what looked like mouth-wateringly delicious plates of piping hot food off at the table next to us), we asked for lunch menus only to be told that “we stop serving lunch at 2pm”. We looked forlornly at the table next to us and their hearty fare and he interjected “Sorry, they ordered just at the tail end of two”. Oh well then.

So we left. Thankfully, just along the road we pulled in to another roadside restaurant and were served a delicious bar meal, complete with complimentary starters courtesy of the chef who was sorry our mains would take a little longer than he’d hoped.

Unperturbed, we decided to go back to our first choice a few days later. A classic case of fool me once….. fool me twice…..

We were careful about our timing judging it just right and arriving at around 11.50, in plenty of time to catch the midday rush. We took our seats in the bar restaurant and the waiter came up to the table to see what we wanted.

‘Lunch, please!’ I said with great glee.

He looked puzzled, consulted his watch and announced that “lunch won’t start for another 9 minutes”.

‘Perhaps I could fill that time by looking at menus and deciding?’ I said. Trying to be helpful, teeth slightly on edge, and desperately trying to hide the sarcasm in my voice.

‘Yes,” he said, “that would be fine.”

Two minutes later he trotted back, having taken a detour to the kitchen to check what catastrophe might befall him if he dared to take an order for food before Head Chef had fired the starter pistol.

‘Here’s the menus but I’m very sorry, I can’t take your order until 12pm.”

One of the most wonderful things about being on holiday is, in my opinion, the ability to set your own agenda, sleep when you want, eat when you want. Except in Scotland where if you fail to make lunch between the hours of 12pm and 2pm you are, for want of a better word, goosed.

I’d like to say this was an isolated incident. But I have sadly encountered it time and time again from hotel restaurants, cafes, restaurants and gastropubs around the country.

In fact, a quick post holiday catch up with my Mum & Dad – also just back from a Short break in Scotland, included the anecdote of how they travelled from Glasgow to Perth, stopping off at three separate places in a vain endeavour to obtain breakfast to either find them closed for the day or not serving breakfast at all. They made it all the way to Auchterarder (just 12 miles from home) before they found somewhere!

So how about it Scotland, time to open up for those tourists who are not on such a tight schedule and have time (and money) to spend in your establishments in the early afternoon or even the morning? Perhaps the late lunchers are what’s really behind the recent resurgence in Afternoon Tea and nothing to do with a love of Granny’s China patterns after all. As for breakfast, we should take some tips from across the pond and see how the good ol’ US of A starts the day. It’s a national past-time.

In the thick of it: why I’m cutting those politicians a tiny bit more slack

One of Volpa’s Account Managers, Gillian, shares her thoughts on the world of political PR and how a recent experience changed her opinion of the comms teams working behind the scenes.

I can’t be the only public relations professional left sniggering at some of the recent PR clangers of U.K. politicians.

The general election campaign brought some toe-curlers, including two stuttering radio broadcasts: Diane Abbott caught on the hop during a radio interview in which she didn’t have her figures straight over Labour’s proposed financing of increased policing; and Jeremy Corbyn stumbling over the costs of free childcare on Radio 4. These two were even more cringeworthy to me because – hello! – they were radio interviews. That means no cameras. Which in turn means that interviewees can look at notes and post-its and briefing papers galore without sounding like they’re unprepared.

Also during the election, Theresa May’s ‘strong and stable’ slogan grew tired, and unbelievable, after several U-turns on manifest policies. She also decided to bury the word ‘Conservative’ in all her branding and instead choose to push her own name, and personality. Which would have been fine had she demonstrated the personality and gravitas to go with it. Sadly, that was as lacking as Diane Abbott’s mental arithmetic.

Post-election, Theresa May walked into a media lion’s den when she visited the site of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. She made a B-line for police and emergency staff, ignoring local residents completely, a move which incited claims of a snobbery and us-and-them attitude.

And all of it left me, and others in my profession, aghast that some comms person someone didn’t see all the backlash coming and prepare for it.

But enough of the moans. I don’t work in politics, and it’s easy for me to poke fun from a distance. I say that because Volpa had its own taste of politics recently when it was tasked with hosting a senior politician at a client event. And doing so made me appreciate that political public relations is PR on a whole other level.

The politician shall remain nameless, but suffice to say the media presence was healthy. We had everything from local reporters to national TV crews, political columnists to tabloid hacks (one of whom chose to hide behind some bushes rather than be part of the main fray.)

We were given just 16 hours’ notice that said politician was visiting. Cue some frantic writing of speeches and briefing notes. and a long series of phone calls with the party media representative. Having planned and communicated meticulously, I was feeling confident that we had the job in hand. All that remained was for our team to host the politician and handle the press. But that’s when the questions started, and didn’t stop. They ranged from the predictable (“What will X’s route through the factory be?”) to the amusing.

“Will X wear a high-vis vest?” asked the media rep.

“Do you want X to wear a high-vis vest?” I asked back.

“That depends on whether management will be wearing one. The press are wearing them. If the owner wears one too, X will stand out. We can’t have that.”

“What would you suggest?”

“That both the manager and X don’t wear one. That means X stands out, but isn’t the only one standing out.”

Done. I pulled my client’s high-vis vest off.

There was also a detailed conversation about car manoeuvres, which side of the car X would exit on arrival, and in what direction the car would sweep around the car park. We needed a car parking space that was close, but far away enough so as not to detract from the welcome party.

Conversations were interrupted by the media rep sloping off to use his mobile and feeding X and X’s staff with facts and figures on the business. I was impressed to see that each and every fact that was drip-fed to X just minutes beforehand, was cleverly dropped into conversations and speeches on arrival. Smart cookies, these politicians.

The visit only lasted an hour. By the end of it – not even a day after the first phone call telling us of the visit – I was exhausted. I said as much to the media rep. “That’s every day for me,” was his reply.

It’s made me hold politicians and their PR people in much higher esteem than I used to. And while there was no excuse for those radio interview screw-ups by the Labour Party, I’m willing to cut them all just a tiny bit more slack.