January 1, 2016

In society, I think the trend we’re all going to start noticing more is around giving up individual ownership. Not new, but increasing – as it will do for years to come – and changing the way we live our lives.
People – us city dwellers, at least – are already aspiring less to own cars. Car clubs mean we don’t need to own, tax, maintain, and find parking for a car. Technology means we can find one on a nearby street and just go and let ourselves in electronically – no traipsing to a car hire shop and signing for keys. More than that though, we have Uber – where we’re not even bothering to drive ourselves any more.  
The old order is fighting back – all this nonsense about over-regulating Uber so they have to sit outside for a few minutes ‘to review maps’ before picking you up. The cries about passenger protection are undermined by the solutions proposed clearly being about trying to stop the trade, rather than make it safer – and this is a real shame, as passenger safety is an issue that warrants someone focusing on a solution rather than using it as a stick to beat off competition and innovation – particularly when it comes to ride sharing, which should be the next quantum leap in cost reduction and carbon reduction alike. I’m equally worried that the cries of Uber being environmentally damaging are demeaning legitimate issues in pursuit of protectionism. I genuinely don’t know whether or not there is a reliable evidence base indicating that Uber is bad for the environment or in fact good. I just wish that the debate (and political position taking) was somewhat more objective and forward thinking than reactionary.
Beyond that though, I think the trend in not buying white goods is going to grow to the point where more people notice. Already, 20-somethings are less fussed about buying a washing machine or fridge than renting one. They need it when they need it, they want it upgrading and replacing when necessary, they want to share it when they’re sharing a home, and they don’t want to be schlepping it from house to house when they move. Rental agreements for white goods are now increasingly less the preserve of hire purchase agreements where people are having to compromise on ownership because they can’t afford outright purchase, and are now actual positive, long-term choices. There is a market there beyond the rip-off merchants abusing those on low income, but it’s not always that visible. I think the market, and its visibility will grow, as it becomes more of a middle-class phenomenon.
This is linked, of course, to the long-term reality for the younger generation that buying your own home may simply never happen – and sharing a rental property is increasingly the norm.
Other trends in the year(s) ahead – hmm, well, on the food and drink front, I’ll say a continuation of UK produced spirits – particularly smaller-batch, premium brands. Where we’ve seen the gin explosion I predicted a few years back, followed by vodka, I think there’ll be more growth – including around English sparkling wine. Champagne, I read in today’s Times, has been overtaken by Prosecco. Spain needs to get its act together with Cava. I think UK sparkling wine needs its own generic term too – if it comes up with one, then ordering a pre-dinner glass of Prosecco might face more serious competition.
Not sure it’ll be UK-produced – but I’d be intrigued to learn otherwise – but I’m guessing that the spirit growth we’ll being to notice in 2016 will be around rum. The US relaxation of decades-old tensions with Cuba will see Havana Club growing (apparently called Havanista in the US, as Bacardi own the Havana Club marque there). Bacardi should start seeing more competition in the white rum market, but the real noticeable growth will be in premium brands, particularly dark, aged and spiced. Kraken – the breakthrough brand.
Also watch out for autumnal fruits – in foods (cakes, tarts etc.) and drinks (flavoured spirits, cocktail mixers). 2016 will be the year of damsons, plums and gooseberries. In staples, I’ll hold on to my earlier prediction of pearl barley. I’ve seen it on a few menus, but I think its influence will spread.
In world affairs, I’ll predict a Clinton/Cruz general election, with a relatively comfortable Democrat win. Watch out for running mates – I guess Clinton will choose Julian Castro (or equally, his twin brother Congressman Joaquin Castro). No solid idea of who Cruz will run with, but wouldn’t surprise me to see a woman on the bottom of his ticket (a tea party hack – but not Palin!), making both slates truly ground breaking.
Russia will continue to not only sabre-rattle, but also get busy internationally with tanks, ships and planes, and Putin (and Putinism) looks secure. Obviously the middle-east will stay a violent, unstable mess (duh!).
Biggest prediction though will be that Asia is the place to watch in 2016.
My earlier prediction of Chinese expansionism into Africa looks pretty good about now – in 2016 we might notice more. (Did you notice that the Yuan is now (an) official currency in Zimbabwe, for instance? Surely 2016 will see Mugabe die though.)
Interesting and hugely encouraging to see South Korea and Japan normalising relations, and I’ll have another prediction that Korea North and South will finally reunify in the coming year, as the Pyongyang regime finally collapses under the weight of its own ridiculousness and brutal oppression.
Equally reassuring to see Myanmar smoothly transition from military dictatorship to full-on democracy. Almost. Just hope that it consolidates that in 2016, rather than slips backwards.
Hopefully Thailand will remain pretty stable, though one does worry. I guess we’ll hear more of Vietnam too – in an opening-up, good kinda way.
Modi visiting Pakistan on Christmas Day seemed a bold and massively encouraging move too for South Asia – but Kashmir isn’t going away as an issue, and Modi’s pretty rampant Hindu nationalism is hardly a recipe for calm in South Asia. Maybe it takes that though, in having his own ‘Nixon to China’ moment.
Turkey is genuinely worrying though, particularly on border clashes, as 2016 would not be a good year for a Russia/NATO armed spat.
In world affairs, generally, as the UK and global economy has a relatively stable year of modest growth (and there’s a bold prediction in itself!), I estimate that 2016 will see the global warming agenda re-climb our common consciousness.
I can’t bring myself to make many UK politics predictions for the year ahead other than that I will repeatedly have a sore forehead from banging my head against a desk. I will though get off the fence and predict a Goldsmith mayoral win in London and a Ferguson mayoral re-election in Bristol, as well as the ongoing Labour meltdown in Scotland, and c250 council seat losses in England.


#bigin2015 – my predictions of trends for the year ahead

January 1, 2015

It’s that time of year again when I dust off my crystal ball and predict what’ll be big in the next twelve months. A lot of it – most of it – not brand new. Most of it has either already crept up on us – or exploded full-on in our faces. I’m not pretending I’m the one who talent-spotted Benedict or anything silly – just that 2015 will be the year (or I hope one year of many) of ‘peak Cumberbatch’.

Some of them are even recurring trends over the decades, where the cycle has turned and I think it’s their turn again. But these are my predictions of what will be the pervading themes, topics of conversation, habits, tastes and smells that will define 2015, both St home and abroad.

Obviously all as seen through the lens of a middle-aged, middle-class gay white guy living in London who misses the days of Blair, and for whom ‘The West Wing’ was when TV hit its peak.

Looking back at my trend predictions for 2014, I did OK. My boldest prediction was that North Korea would fall. It didn’t, but was that a near miss? Remember when the Beloved Leader disappeared from sight with a sore ankle? And the jockeying for position? And the Sony hacking etc.? And the subversive stuffed animals? Maybe 2014 was the beginning of the end. Hence I’m rolling over that prediction to 2015.

I was far from first to spot Foodbanks as the most signal sign of UK society, but I was amongst those who were, sadly, right.

Looking ahead, I asked Twitter for help with this trends blog too. @zakmensah says there’ll be less money everywhere [in the UK public sector] and he is right. @johoharper seconds that theme, and predicts more organisation mergers.

I wrote this reflection a bit ago on what this means for local government in the future, and I stand by that.

@MichBS3 predicts pretzels will be big in 2015. I hope he’s right! @anjclarke (rightly) prompts me that the summer art trail based on Shaun the Sheep statues – in both Bristol and London will be huge in 2015. Bristol of course well worth visiting as its European Green Capital 2015 and there’s loads going on.

A really interesting food/drink prediction here, courtesy of my mate Kim: birch sap. Apparently birch sap is the new superfood drink. Birch sap is the new coconut water. Not that I ever quite got coconut water. Nor almond milk. It’s a bold prediction though, so if it comes true, all credit to Kim.

My mate Robert predicts economic doom worldwide and political turmoil, but a warm spring. His idea of a shit sandwich, maybe. Depressing either way.

My brother Gary thinks Iran will be big – and unstable with it. I’m gonna go the other way there – I think Iran will inch in from the cold a bit more. Iran is one of those ‘two steps forward, one step back’ kinda places though, so even in twelve months, we might argue over who was right depending on the trend versus the latest forward/backward step.

First then: food and drink. This’ll be the year when blackcurrants kick the arse of blueberries. I mean, c’mon, it’s been a long-time coming, no? Blueberries deserve respect – but only for their PR. All this superfood anti-oxidant perception they’ve spun. Line ’em up against their smaller, darker, pluckier cousin though, and they are tasteless mush. Get your bite-back on – time to reinvest emotionally in the blackcurrant instead. Use ’em wherever you would a blueberry. Even if they’re not homegrown in your garden (though they could be) – they’re not as American a food as the blueberry – think ‘blueberry pie’. Or then again, don’t….. ick.

Except in Twin Peeks, which is to return. Yay!

Blackcurrants is just a product prediction. The underlying trend here though to watch out for is British-themed produce. It’s a bold and brave prediction (in the ‘Yes Minister’ sense), but I think we’re going to take more pride in food and drink with a home-countries vibe. Can I call it ‘Brit-produce’? Apparently (though that needs some more thought, and some PR help).

On the drink front, this’ll doubtless include more ales and ciders with Union Jacks on – or often as not an historic county/district/town image. Of more interest to me personally will be the tipping point reached in 2015 for UK-produced spirits – especially vodkas, guns and liqueurs. If you haven’t already bought Sipsmith, Chase or Bramley and Gage – then 2015 will be the year that you do. Or at least should.

Some of the sense surrounding this trend will be war-years. There’ll be more home pickling going on. You might not have grown your own red cabbage on your own allotment (though allotment waiting lists will grow substantially I predict, so maybe more of you will), but you may well shred and pickle the one you bought. Sales will go up in vinegars and pickling spices and big glass storage jars. Sandwiches will be all piccalillied-up, salads will have a crunch, and no barbecue will be without a new backing singer. Take away curries will be adorned with home-made chutneys.

Those nice white/clear glass ramekins you saved in the cupboard after eating the mini cheesecake from the mini-supermarket and thought they were too nice to chuck. Pickles and chutneys are their new life-partner next to your dinner plate.

There’ll be more crumbles, more lattice tarts, more custard too. Mary Berry has done her work.

She is still the new Nigella (who was the new Jamie who was the new Delia etc. etc.). Mary Berry tanked up with a microphone at a big football match. A whimsical daydream, not a prediction.

Gooseberries, plum and juniper berries though.


Rhubarb is the new mango, rosemary the new lemongrass, damson the new quinoa*.

You read it here first.

[*Well – OK – actually I’ll desperately recycle a failed earlier year trend prediction and say again that pearl barley is the new quinoa. More in vain hope than confident expectation. Heh ho.]

Yes. 2015 will be when we stew, bake and casserole for all we are worth.

There’ll be more communal food experiences too. More office bake-offs. More communal food tables in the workplace where colleagues leave their spare home-grown produce for you to help yourself.

Bruised apples will find loving homes.

More picnics maybe? Who knows – I don’t predict weather.

More pot-luck dinners anyway.

A modest reflection of sub-conscious (well-earned) shame at the ever-growing network of foodbanks.

Will this bleed into the rest of society? Is it a metaphor for a new government containing UKIP MPs?


Keep calm and carry on.

UKIP will not have ministers. MPs and influence but not ministers.

I don’t know who will win the general election, but I firmly predict no ‘kippers with red boxes. Nor Greens, nor Nats (Scots or Welsh) nor DUP.

Seriously, by the way, as an aside – what were Plaid, SNP and Greens thinking when they made ditching Trident a ore-condition of supporting a Labour minority government?!? No Labour PM-wannabe could make that deal without giving up all prospect of electability for the next generation.

Like ’em or not – at least the Northern Ireland parties know how to screw cash out of governments of all shades rather than stick hopelessly unrealistic policy price tags all over the shop.

My politics prediction here in a nutshell then: the phrase ‘death of the old politics’ will itself die an ignominious death in May 2015, when a majority government will be formed.

I predict I’ll vote Labour (safe bet there, in fact!) but I’ll do so out of despair at what the Tories would do rather than out of excitement at what my party will do.

Turning to world affairs, US politics will be much more interesting. I predict a relatively smooth ride for Hillary to win the nomination, where the GOP will knock chunks out of each other. I wonder whether Obama’s Cuba move, on top of his immigration decree will prove a master stroke as a legacy to his party by edging the Republicans into fighting on issues that just won’t resonate more widely, giving the Dems the chance to fight instead on the economy (stupid!) and cruise through speaking to the middle class through their pocket books. That, and 2015 should be the year the U.S. Supreme Court addresses some social issues (wedding equality, workplace healthcare bias, maternity rights) that enrage the social conservatives but turn off swing voters. As Obamacare gets well past the tipping point that would make it electorally disastrous to dismantle, is the US right mad enough to pick that fight and lose those votes? I predict yes – yes it is – and so 2015 will see the first woman on course to be elected as leader of the biggest superpower, just in time for China to overtake it on most measures.

By the end of 2015, we should all know why MINT is as important globally as BRIC. Of course, I predict we won’t know that, which is why although the UK will overtake the French economy in size, and edge closer to Germany too, the long-term prognosis is that the G7’s time has passed.

2015 will be a big year for energy at the heart of world affairs. Maybe every year is really, but in 2015 we’ll all learn why the oil price isn’t just relevant to the price of petrol at the pumps. In fact, seems not to be relevant at all when crude prices dip. But when Venezuala’s national budget for the year ahead was predicated on a price of $162.5 a barrel, and yet oil is trading stubbornly at $60, this is a big deal. When Putin’s macho instincts are to overcompensate militarily, this makes it important too. Not just for his adventures – Crimea must be a write off for a generation, and I predict that Ukraine will be bounced internationally into begrudgingly tolerating this (for now), just so relations with Russia can be normalised. Maybe. If we’re lucky. Before gas pipelines are turned off, and Western Europe experiences brownouts.

When the $60 price is fixed largely by the Saudis, who knew that they’d be such big players like back in the 70s? Except unlike the 70s, maybe the deeply oppressive house of Saud will fall, then who knows what the hell will happen. The nasty Iranians (our, err, allies against IS?) lock up women for watching men’s volleyball matches, but downtown Tehran is more cosmopolitan I understand than Jeddah, where Saudi women are still locked up for driving cars. Like CJ said.

No prizes for predicting that the Middle-East generally will be an unholy mess. Again/still.

I predict Mugabe’s passing followed by much bloodletting in Zimbabwe. Maybe the fall of the appalling dynasty in North Korea, from an uprising from within and the military shedding their uniforms PDQ. I reckon South Korea has both the cash and the passion to reunite, mirroring the reunification of Germany. That’d make the world a much better place.

I have no idea what or why, but I just have a sense that Indonesia will be pivotal in 2015. Something really, really big.

A phrase that will enter the general consciousness for 2015: non-state players. File that one in your mind next to IEDs, RUSI and asymmetric warfare. Right next to them, in fact.

Whilst you’re at it, file resilience next to sustainability, contingency planning and business continuity. Do you have bottled water stocks at home and work, wind up radios and torches? A fire escape plan at home? A zombie apocalypse strategy?

Remember BoJo waving that broom in the shattered-glass strewn streets of Clapham junction a few years back? Clear some space in your mind just there for more things like #illridewithyou too.

Unifying world figure of the year in 2015? – Pope Francis. Again. More big signal moves. Except, you know, we won’t actually see the Catholic Church sanctioning condoms in sub-Saharan Africa’s battle against AIDS. But he’ll say some right-on things that make us feel good. Fleetingly. Francis is the new Bartlett. Kinda. Great at PR though.

Turning finally to culture, I ain’t got much for you here in 2015. I spent too much of 2014 exercising and binge watching US series soaking in the bath afterwards. I’d even missed that Danny Dyer was in ‘stenders til Ed M made a berk of himself. I knew Michael Buerk (or ‘a jerk’ as my iPad autocomplete wanted to spell his surname there!) was on I’m a Celebrity etc. etc. because Radio Four mocked him every day. Bless them.

I could predict that 2015 will be the year of half marathons and assault course cross countries, but that will be me, not society generally.

And Benedict Cumberbatch. He’ll win his first Oscar this coming year, as well as get married and take a step to his inevitable knighthood. Eddie Redmayne is going to tip into collective consciousness; however he is *not* the new Cumberbatch. #bigin2015 #thatisall

Keeping our nostrils above the waterline

October 23, 2014

There’s a fascinating report out from Grant Thornton and the always-insightful Inlogov (the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government), drawing out six possible scenarios for the future of local government in 2020, as councils work through the next few years of austerity.

It’s as well worth a read for local government communication professionals as it is for policy anoraks and wonks generally.

The six different scenarios seem scarily plausible – and indeed, I have to wonder if some of these outcomes won’t be reached substantially sooner than 2020.

The ‘adaptive innovation’ scenario is clearly going to be most councils’ choice for themselves from this menu – each reinventing itself into an important new role in the community, not just coping with a substantially smaller budget to spend on services, but actually thriving. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, it seems that although leading figures in local government tend to assess themselves as being on the ‘adaptive innovation’ track – most don’t seem to have the same degree of confidence generally that the sector is making this journey.

I for one find this underlying lack of confidence rather worrying.

A second scenario from the report – ‘running to stand still’ – seems an equally-valid policy choice for a council. Staying largely true to the existing vision of what a council is for (in so far as here is one) and just working harder and smarter to achieve it, albeit with rather less resource. There’s an honesty and optimism about that as a positive choice.

The other four scenarios though – let’s just say they strike me as rather more gulp-inducing. Who wants to be steering a council to a future where it ‘withers on the vine’ or has its ‘nostril just above the waterline’ where the very next choppy wave is going to swamp it? Who wants to be handing back the keys under the ‘just local administration’ scenario, or welcome in the shadowy, ill-defined future of ‘imposed disruption’, where government steps in to impose its will on a failing organisation?

Council communication professionals are at their best when we’re central to the changes their authority is steering its way through, understanding the destination, so that they can help craft the words to tell the story of the journey.

Council communications can help engage people – you know, real people – in shaping the future vision, and when it gets down to the devilish-detail of what comes next after old-style service delivery, we can help greatly with the process of co-creation. When long-standing service users need to be informed about the new reality, again, communications comes into its own.

Not that working in communications always has to be fun, but one of the more rewarding parts of being a communicator in my own experience is when I get to shape a behavioural change campaign, influencing citizen behaviour. This kind of nudge work shows that we’re not just those people who put out press releases explaining budget cuts and service reductions, but that we can help solve problems by contributing to demand-reduction – solving problems before people get locked into long-term, costly and these days, frankly, unaffordable patterns of service reliance.

A council committed to adaptive innovation needs its communication people to be at the table, showing how they understand the direction of travel, and giving confidence that they can not only explain what is going on, but that they can actually help deliver that vision.

Now of course, sometimes the invitation to sit round that table appears to get lost in the internal post. My advice to communications professionals in such circumstances is simple: invite yourself. Get your act together to show how you can add value, and then sharpen your elbows til you get in the room.

Life rarely actually delivers gold-embossed invitations. Get over it.

It’s maybe helpful in this process to spare a thought as to the politics of the matter. Obviously as politically-restricted officers who work for whoever the voters put in as the administration of the day, it’s not our job to meddle in politics – but it is absolutely our job to understand the politics. A council led by a party in opposition nationally – quite acutely in the case of the Greens running Brighton and Hove, very vocally hostile to austerity measures and cuts – is in making its choice of which scenario to head towards going to position itself perhaps differently to a loyal Tory shire, even if facing similar pressures. Although our behavioural change campaigning work as communications professionals may be little affected, the narrative and underlying tone of voice is going to be impacted as a result – right down to subtle nuances around phrasing (e.g. the acceptability or otherwise of pithy little ditties like ‘We’re all in it together’).

I hope this insightful report helps stimulate an overdue conversation – and that council communicators make sure they join in.

Zombies in City Hall

October 10, 2014

A(nother) tired critique of local authority bureaucrats plodding their way through making your life more difficult?

No, not at all!

Instead a tale of how it’s OK to take your sense of humour into the office with you, and to use it in furtherance of an otherwise rather more mainstream corporate objective. How to top up your prose with poetry.

And how to leap opportunistically onto the bandwagon of someone else’s groundwork to gain yourself (your organisation, that is) some topical publicity. Like Lidl did after Sainsbury’s recent poster faux pas.

So it’s 2011, and some joker in Leicester puts in a Freedom of Information Act request to Leicester City Council asking if they have any contingency plans for coping with a zombie outbreak in their fair city.

This is just the kind of thing that gets quoted by the Local Government Association in their regular run-down of how expensive and time consuming it is for councils to have to administer the provisions of this Act.

To their immense credit, the officers at Leicester City Council answered the enquiry with humour and good grace. No, they don’t have any *special* plans for zombies, but their general plans should help them cope with any eventuality.

It was a modest story, covered by BBC Leicester, and I think I noticed it because my FoI colleagues in Bristol mentioned it to me.

Here’s where I put two and two together.

Bristol, you see, has an edgy zeitgeist, and one of the ways that is played out is through zombies. There’s the annual zombie walk, in which thousands (no seriously, thousands) of people dress up in elaborate costumes and make up and shamble their way through the city streets each Halloween. It’s not a sanitised thing – it’s very anti-establishment. Though hey do have their own zombie crossing guards to help the undead cross busy roads without, err, becoming further dead.

If you happen to be in Temple Meads station before or after he zombie walk, you’ll see how many visitors it attracts. You can’t miss them.

Bristol also has a pervasive gaming culture. People – yes, adults – who several times a year take to the streets and parks and run round playing unusual games. It even has its own festival igfestthe interesting games festival.

Bristol has festivals for everything, most of them free. Several of them are run by the City Council in support of both the tourism offer, the local arts scene, and to give local people a great free/cheap day out. The majority of festivals are independently run, but supported by the City Council with advice and occasionally funding – and as the majority of outdoor festivals take place on public land, they’re licensed by the authority too. These festivals are collectively a huge tourist draw to Bristol, and contribute substantially to hotel, retail and entertainment income for the local economy.

The biggest element of the interesting games festival is an annual zombie chase game. A commercial event, in which hundred of people come from all over and pay about £30 a head to be chased by volunteers dressed up as zombies. Run over several night, that adds up to thousands of people. The firm that runs this is Bristol based, and by 2011 they were beginning to take their games (including the zombie chase game, 2point8 hours later) on tour.

So – you’re seeing how my thinking was going?

A quirky use of the Freedom of Information Act, an extension of a story that had already proved it could capture some media interest, locally at least, and a legitimate objective for a local authority: stimulating tourism and supporting a local small business in exporting their, err, product.

And so it was born, one wet Sunday afternoon. Bristol’s Official Zombie Contingency Plan.

As a communications professional, I’ve seen enough contingency plans to know how they sound, complete with jargon and calm, matter-of-fact understatement.

So I wrote one. For how Bristol would cope if ere were a zombie outbreak. I even redacted several sections, to imply further spicy details ‘withheld for reasons of national security’. I’d obviously been spending too much time on FoI requests generally, getting myself in the redacting mood.

I then myself submitted an FoI request to Bristol City a Council under an assumed name like the one sent to Leicester. They were beginning to trickle into councils around the country anyway. More than that, I submitted the FoI request via the public website whatdotheyknow.

On which the public can see all enquiries submitted and answered, searchable by keywords/topics and local authority. It’s a site that journalists trawl to find interesting stories.

I asked my FoI colleagues to forward the enquiry to me to answer, which I duly used to release the redacted zombie contingency plan to my not-de-plume self.

I then sat back and waited.

After ten days of impatience, and no nibbles, I casually mentioned it to local news website Bristol 24/7, who duly ran a light-hearted piece.

The Bristol Post picked up in this, and at that stage I had to persuade he journalist that I wasn’t a hopeless dilettante with nothing better to do. It helped that I could assure him – honestly – hat I’d done this in my own time on a wet Sunday afternoon. And so the article first appeared in print.

That’s where the slow-burn story exploded.

The Guardian and Metro were first out of the blocks and within a couple of days I was giving interviews and quotes to media from Buenos Aires to Sydney to Seattle. A colleague returned from holiday in Thailand where she’d seen the story on the Thai news in a bar, her eye caught by pictures of Bristol and stock footage from zombie movies, struggling to work out through the language barrier what her home city had gone and done now.

I particularly enjoyed (?) the interview with a Genoese journo, much of which was in schoolboy French, as that was the best we could manage.

At that stage, I had to quickly reassure senior internal stakeholders that they were going to start seeing stories about zombies, and that they needn’t worry about anything. The then Leader Cllr (now Baroness) Janke gave me a piercing stare and what I would refer to as a ‘loud blink’ before a reassuring shrug. She of course knows Bristol well, and isn’t easily phased.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance phoned to ask why I shouldn’t be horsewhipped for such frippery on the rates. I paraphrase. Slightly. On hearing the explanation, they backed off. Who’d have thought it!?

Social media of course also went mad for it. This is when I discovered that there is a daily limit on the number of Tweets one can issue. I forget how many hundred it was, but I hit it. All in character, with @BristolCouncil assuring concerned citizenry talking about the story that the council ‘liked to be well prepared’ and linking them through to the document public ally available on whatdotheyknow.

It was this social media interaction that seeded the story – it was how most journalists and bloggers got in touch to source follow-up material, as the story spread through old and new media alike. This was particularly important to the campaign objectives, by getting into the networks of zombie enthusiasts (no, really there *are* such networks, they take it semi-seriously, and they have money to spend on holidays and chase games).

As well as a huge media international splash, this gimmicky little activity has helped Bristol grow into being amongst the international zombie-enthusiasts’ cities of choice – and it helped the 2point8 chase game folks at SlingShot export their game around the UK, and them export their specialisms as far afield as Berlin and New York.

Learning points as a communications & marketing professional?

1. Be confident in your permissions. Don’t get sacked. Remember though, if you have a legitimate purpose, even the Taxpayers’ Alliance folks have a sense of humour. (I’m glad I wrote it in my own time on a wet Sunday afternoon though.). If it’s just a vanity exercise to show how wacky and creative you are without adding any actual value, you’ll be (rightly) vulnerable to criticism. Make sure you have a deadly serious campaign on a more mainstream topic ready to launch at the same time too.
2. As ever, have your campaign objectives matched in advance by your evaluation measures. Be ready to know – and show – whether it worked.
3. Don’t be afraid to be opportunistic. I took the modest Leicester success and took it to the next level by Bristol-ising it, and adding in some quality content as the extra media hook.
4. Remember to have fun at work – if the two are incompatible, then go work somewhere else.
5. Always leave them wanting more. I left Bristol in 2014 without yet developing the sequels I trailed towards the end of the zombie plan – contingency plans for a pirate outbreak (Bristol has a big historic/contemporary pirate ‘scene’) and for space alien invasion disguised as hot air balloons (Bristol being the UK capital of ballooning). However big the zombie fan community is – it is dwarfed by UFOlogists! These sequel opportunities are my gift to my successors.

Good policy, bad politics?

September 25, 2014

As a career public sector communication professional working for democratically led organisations, it’s long (and regularly) been my job to cope with both those occasions where a good policy is on the table, but it is ridiculously bad politics to pursue it – and also those times where something that does (or is expected to) play well politically, is in practice a really, really bad policy.

In my professional career, it’s my job to understand both perspectives, and to offer my advice accordingly. As they (rightly) say though, ‘officials advise, politicians decide’. Or in other words, if a politician wants to pursue an initiative because of its (hoped for) political gain, then (within the legal limits of probity) it’s my job at some stage to stop counselling them otherwise, and just hand them the rope with which to (electorally or reputationally) hang themselves.

This tension sometimes plays out in funny ways though.

I’ve found over the years quite a number of fellow senior officials who just don’t grasp this distinction. Town and county halls are populated with well-motivated professionals who think that the very definition of a good political leader is one who cares nothing about the politics and only about the policy. They are though prone as officials to come unstuck when dealing with people whose decisions are more heavily influenced by the demands of a four-yearly electoral cycle – or worse, an electoral cycle three springtimes out of every four years.

Chief officers who think that how an issue will play out on the doorstep is none of their concern aren’t earning their place in the top tax bands. They are people who understand life through the eyes of a wholesaler, far detached from the end user, and are not good at doing business with their political bosses who are engaged in retail politics, winning one vote at a time.

Happily, there are many more professional colleagues who do get it, but their numbers are not as close to the 100% of their class that we should hope for. The support, development and training offered in this regard is miniscule though – people who ‘get it’ generally learn from having their fingers burnt – or astutely learn from the mistakes of ousted colleagues into whose empty shoes they step. If they’re lucky, they’ll have a mentor who’s walked that path before them.

Equally, I’ve come across a goodly number of council cabinet members who struggle with the inevitable complexity that comes with being the non-executive head of departments spending tens (or often hundreds) of millions of pounds on services upon which thousands (often hundreds of thousands) of their neighbours rely.

I’m certainly not a member of the camp that considers this a fatal flaw of our political system. Instead, I think it’s a positive merit having people at the top taking the decisions who are closer to the user experience than those with the world-view of senior suppliers. Retail politicians being in charge of wholesale-minded professionals can serve as a really stimulating balancing act. Happily again, there’s a decent and growing amount of support and training in place to help politicians fulfil these leadership roles, both from councils themselves and the LGA group, but also from within their own parties.

Sometimes councillors ‘go native’ though, abandoning their critical faculties, trying too hard to become quasi semi-professional officials. Sometimes this plays out in trying to micro-manage. Often it plays out by them focusing disproportionately on middle-management decisions, because that is the level of professionalism they can get their heads around. Too often it plays out by them giving up their ability to question the organisation’s operational lapses, with their first instinct to any criticism being to defend their council right or wrong. As a school governor, I was coached explicitly in my role as ‘critical friend’ – as a newly-elected councillor, I was not (though that was over 20 years ago, to be fair).

When (in what I like to think of as my mid-spent youth) I was a councillor myself, I really enjoyed learning on the job, and I think grew into my role as the non-executive head of a social landlord with 11,000 tenants, mentored by my brilliant predecessor, and working alongside some stunning and admirable professionals.

As an example of this different perspective, when I chaired the council’s housing committee (you remember committees!), the officers got used to me dividing things in reports down to a unit cost, so that I could compare it to my individual experience.

It was a sensible and ultimately fruitful conversation when the officers’ annual rolling capital programme proposal to replace the old, drafty windows in a few hundred homes on St Helier Estate in Morden boiled down to a unit cost of (from memory, something like) £4,000, and I asked why this was several times more than the adverts all over the radio for a big double-glazing company offering to install 7 double glazed windows in your home for the much lower sum of £1,199. Did the St Helier homes have many more than seven windows each, I asked? No, came the researched reply two weeks later, they had an average of 7.2 windows each. Why the difference then? Ah, came the researched reply, another few weeks later – our new windows are a much better spec, will last much longer, and will save much more energy. Are they over three times better quality though, I asked? It’s taking us years at this rate to replace all the windows that need replacing, I argued – isn’t it better value to replace three times as many sooner, and even if they need replacing in 10 years instead of 20, doesn’t that still make them better value? And so this creative tension played out, constructively.

Of course, I was motivated as a politician by what represented good politics (in a finely balanced authority which has swung from party to party several times in recent decades, and as often as not been hung in between). I did this though with due regard to what was also good policy. They engaged equally well as top officials in driving forward good policy with appropriate regard to the realpolitik.

Retail met wholesale, and the consumers won. Of course, I would say that though, wouldn’t I?

Since giving up politics way back in 2002 to focus instead exclusively on my professional career, I’ve seen many occasions in my politically restricted roles working for successive administrations of different parties to my own background, of this balance working well from the other side of the table. I’m far too professionally discreet to share the tales of when it’s worked badly, but there have been a good few (and indeed, rather too many).

I’ve even channeled ‘Yes Minister’ when helping both officers and cabinet members consider that equation between good policy and good politics. I have come to think of it as my ‘nuclear option’ in advice giving, saying: “In the words of Sir Humphrey, proceeding with that policy option would be a ‘very brave’ decision minister.” I deployed that phrase in a private briefing session, after four cabinet members had all voiced support for an officer recommendation. There was a collective intake of breath. A few nervous giggles. A few daggers looks flung in my direction. And then the jugonaut stopped. A pause was announced. Two weeks later a tweaked proposal had been worked up and was agreed, avoiding the particular elephant trap of which I’d warned in such theatrical-yet-stark terms.

Politicians are getting younger – or more to the point, now I’m 46, I’m a long way from being the youngest person in the room. It’d be good to be able to update my tactic with a Malcolm Tucker-ism, but I can’t carry off that kind of language.

Looking elsewhere though, I’m not privy of course to any of the behind-closed-doors conversations there will have been in Whitehall over the last couple of years, and I think it is right that such officials can continue to discuss policy options with ministers in private.

I am though scandalised to have heard that the Cabinet Secretary explain that the UK civil service had, on the instructions of ministers, not made any contingency plans for a Yes vote. This struck me as the height of irresponsibility.

A genuine failure. I’m not easily or often shocked. I was by this.

It has long been established practice that the civil service maintains contact with opposition parties, and works privately with them ahead of elections to contingency plan in case of change of government. The government of the day has always been mature enough to respect this – and indeed, will have benefitted from it themselves.

So how dare the PM have instructed this (as it would seem he must have) and even so, how dare the Cabinet Secretary have accepted it? That strikes me as an issue worth threatening to resign over. That this burying of head in the sand was ordered and obeyed strikes me as a signal failure of the proper interaction between policy and politics, and of officials and politicians alike.

So my learning point or conclusion from all this self-reflection and huffiness? Politically-led public services work well and serve citizens best when both the elected members and the politically-neutral public servants working professionally for the administration of the day understand their different roles, and each grasp the creative tensions that can be worked through when trying to match good policies to good politics.

Big fun on the Bayou?

September 21, 2014

Of course one of the joys of living back in London is the restaurants. There aren’t many cuisines I’ve been unable to access in the other UK cities I’ve lived in over the last ten years, but if Belfast, Newcastle or Bristol offered Cajun or creole food, I sure as hell missed it. So a birthday dinner with friends definitely called for my choice of food, and that meant wanting to rediscover the joy of New Orleans signature flavours – piqued by the recent movie Chef.

So Google did what it does, and we booked in at Bayou in Camden, which opened this summer. Maybe a visit to Trip Advisor would have helped (my fellow diner consulted it, but didn’t say anything as it was my birthday choice). I don’t like to give in to the cynicism that I worry infects such ratings anyway.

So, the plus sides: a lush, unpretentious menu evoking taste memories (and cheesy song lyrics) jambalaya, crawfish, gumbo, shrimp étouffée, beignets – Louisiana’s greatest hits.

The crab cakes and crawfish beignets starters promised so much, but delivered so little – two flat disks on an avocado emulsion the rationale for which baffled me. The mango salsa in top looked like mango, but appeared to have been somehow subtly altered to remove flavour. The crab cakes were kinda crabby I guess, the the overwhelming descriptor was ‘sawdust’. Who knows what happened to the accompanying savoury beignets.

My friend’s calamari starter looked and smelled better, and was more generous.

I’d been savouring and anticipating my blackened catfish main for weeks – and was relieved that it had survived the menu reshuffle. After the starter experience, my expectations were by now heavily downplayed, which is just as well.

The plate looked good, steaming on arrival, and well-stacked with a nicely coloured pile of fish. Not blackened, but it smelled good. It tasted OK, though the garlic in the sauce lingered (and I thought unnecessarily heavy anyway for a blackened catfish dish). The unexpected side dish of crawfish salad was pleasantly fresh, the skinny fries were good, and the smothered greens were a real highlight. My two friends had onion rings as a side, which they rated amongst the worst they’ve had, and my fellow diner’s half rack left him under-impressed.

The drinks menu was nice when we saw it (half way through the meal, having just been offered a happy hour list on arrival). My attempt to switch from a house variant on a hurricane (the Camille, which was pleasant if creamy) to an actual hurricane was frustrated when another Camille turned up. I’d waited so long by then that I just accepted it. My friend’s drink order was also messed up, and considering the place was still nearly empty (we’d booked in very early) I worry for later customers when the place is busy, seeing as our second round took over 20 minutes.

The waiting staff were charming, chatty and attentive, and I liked the vibe of the place.

So – I don’t want to be unfair, as my hopes were so high before arrival. The food was though really no better than OK, and at £16 for a main course dish before adding on sides, it really was over-priced for what it was, I’m afraid. It certainly didn’t feel like a £53/head meal.

I will give the place a second try for the gumbo or étouffée, but I really hope that they inject more flavour, or else it won’t get a third go I’m afraid. In the meantime, please feel free to point me at other Cajun or creole joints in town, as good though Jackson and Rye is, I want the taste of the Big Easy, not just the South generally.

My Night With Reg

August 9, 2014

So – it did come to pass that I turned up at the Donmar to see My Night With Reg on its opening Saturday; front row seats, no less. My mate clearly has the ticket-buying knack, as well as (it turns out) good taste. Although when he got us tickets to see Urinetown, he at least wished he hadn’t bothered – but that’s a whole other story.

My first time at the Donmar Warehouse, I was seriously surprised how small it is. Is this really the place that Hollywood stars flock to to tread the London boards? 251 seats and not-for-profit. But I can see how it stays achingly cool.

No sooner had I ordered a bottle of fizz for the four of us for pre-theatre drinks (no intermission in this three-act play) than I ran into the long-lost ex from the last millennium, and his husband. Heartbreak (mine) long since healed, this civilised encounter nonetheless added a piquancy to the play itself – a tale of love and lust amongst a small circle of friends. Plus after meeting my ex and his other half, my own mates’ consensus was that ‘he certainly traded down after leaving you’. Which is not true at all, but was waspishly, lovingly supportive, and could have been a line from the performance itself.

So – the play.

Once I was past the temptation to stretch out my legs onto the stage itself, the single-set is simplicity itself. [There – that’s the compulsory alliteration included – like that bizarre, oft-tedious floor move that he gymnasts have to include in their floor routines before they get back to the proper tumbling.]

A suburban flat front room, with conservatory off. The 70s look wasn’t over-stressed, to go with the original writing, but it was stylishly retro nonetheless. Adding a fondue set to the table or a soda stream to the bar would have nailed it time-wise, but maybe they’re quietly avoiding that particular prop in solidarity with the Trycycle Theatre.


The writing has aged well. Very well, in fact. Effortlessly acid, flirty, longing, – all in the right places. Without giving too much plot away (I hate that – my place on the spectrum elevates plot to a high plane), the outdated central premise – that becoming HIV Positive leads inexorably and inevitably to full AIDS and thus a speedy, painful death – doesn’t detract at all, even without considering this explicitly a period piece. The characters were real, the emotion raw, and I swear you could taste the hormones from the front row. [Three front-row mentions, should I stop now?].

The double full nudity wasn’t at all gratuitous, but let’s face it, a glimpse round showed that around 220 of the 251 full seats were occupied by male couples and groups, so it added a certain something to the evening’s enjoyment.

Julian Ovenden was great as John. Apparently he’s been in Downton Abbey. He’s a good prospect for a future Bond I’d say – you read it here first. He could also leave his wife and audition for the role of my husband if he likes. #justsayin

Lewis Reeves is one to watch too. I’d forgive him his comedy-Brum accent here, as the role called for it.

Matt Bardock was also rakishly charming in his supporting role.

So – get yourself a ticket and fill your boots.

Blog relaunch

August 8, 2014

Time to refresh my blog approach, I reckon – and start sharing more.

So – I’ve had a think, and been inspired by mates’ blogs like jaketriesthings and beautykinguk – and I’ve worked out the kinda stuff I’m going to write about.

There’ll be lots of reviews – food and drink; movies, plays and books; places I’ve been; stuff I’ve bought and so on, both high and low tech.

There’ll also be a range of professional reflections. I’m a career communications professional, so I’ll share my thoughts and analysis on behavioural change campaigns, media coverage, and infographics. I *loves* me a good infographic. When sharing campaigns I’ve been involved with, I’ll do my best to be mature enough to share learning about things which didn’t work so well alongside the successes.

There’ll also be random comments and posts on any old thing I happen to like or hate – so long as it inspires me to write.

There’ll also be personal reflections – plans, ideas, and dreams even.

I probably won’t talk about politics a lot. Not because I don’t care or am not interested (I do and I am). It’s because I’m now in a period of my life when I earn a good living from advising public sector bodies (and the politicians who run them) on their communications. They have a right to my professional discretion, there are political restriction rules I need to follow, and I am accountable for what I say. If that means that my blog posts make me look like a hopeless dilettante, whose life is full of flavoured vodkas, zombies and art galleries, then I shall have to rely on your understanding, dear reader, that they reflect a small part of my life, and that the serious stuff is something I don’t choose to talk much about on here.

My review policy is simple. I’ll be honest; if you disagree, that’s fine – I’m not here to try to persuade you, or to sell you things. The majority of things I review will be things I’ve bought with my own money. The odd one will have been a gift. Anything I review that was given to me free for the purposes of me reviewing it will be declared in that post – and as you’ll doubtless see, giving me something free may earn a review, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee any favouritism or positivity.

My tone will doubtless be more positive than negative. I’m a cheery guy, and life’s too short to get angry over little things. Also, I will tend to try things after maybe having reviewed them, had them recommended, or because I’ve enjoyed similar things before – which means I’m more likely to enjoy them anyway. If someone buys me a gift (distinct to giving me something free to review, where they just have to have faith in their product) and I hate it, then I probably won’t review it on here at all, so as not to offend the giver.

My comments policy is equally straightforward. I welcome comments – positively encourage them, in fact. Please feel free to agree or disagree as strongly as you are moved to. I’m not easily offended, so won’t worry if you say I’m a dick for loving a particular restaurant or hating a particular movie. If you get overly offensive, aggressive or off-topic, I’ll delete your comments and even block anyone as necessary. You’re still welcome to your views, but this is my teeny corner of the interweb – the net is plenty big enough for you to go post your extreme views on your own bit if I don’t like them dirtying up my blog. If you see anyone else’s comments that offend you, please draw them to my attention – as I post-moderate by exception only.

My sharing policy is succinct. Please feel free to quote me as extensively as you like – I just ask that you link back to my blog, so people can see for themselves. It’d be nice if you didn’t reverse the meaning of what I say e.g. by missing out ‘not’ when quoting me though. Fair enough?

What I talk about is down to me. I am open to suggestions though, and like to try new things, broadening my horizons. Please feel free to suggest things to me, or you can contact me at peterholt99@yahoo.co.uk if you are promoting a product, show or service you’d like me to review.

2014 Trends Blog

January 12, 2014

So – here again is New Year trends blog – a wild stab at what we’ll be doing, eating, buying, watching, talking about, understanding and questioning for 2014. Again – I claim nothing novel in my thinking – this is more what I think will reach a tipping-point of collective consciousness rather than spring new and un-heard of.

First, a review of my 2013 trend predictions:

Salted caramel – yes – it is on menus more an it was. A lot more. I think this was a sound prediction. It may not grow that much more, or even endure through 2014, but I think I called it right last year.

Barley as a staple – not so much. Connoisseur gin and elaborate tonics to go with them – only partially.

Foreign language TV – yes, I’d say I got that right, e.g. The Guardian naming Returned as the TV event of the year.

So here are my 2014 trend predictions:

In food trends, I say look out for more sourdough (esp sourdough toast), basil, and cucumber in drinks. I’m also for a second year going to keep faith with barley and the aromatics. I’ll add seeing more cucumber in drinks. A regional food trend that will (I selfishly dearly hope) break through in the UK in 2014 is Southern US cuisine. Although chicken fried steak and grits are I think dispensable, I am salivating in expectation of Cajun and Creole tastes. Blackened catfish and shrimp étouffée – that is all.

Watch out also for Diageo’s marketing push on DeLeon tequila, in a second joint venture with P Diddy.. This may see the start of the eclipse of the (often ugly) Jose Cuervo, following the success of their earlier joint venture over Cirroc vodka.

In a link between my food and my politics predictions, I cite the well-established scandal of food banks. As GPs sound the alarm bells at rises in malnutrition diagnoses, food is going to continue to make the political divide than in generations – just look at the fury in response to charity Church Action Against Poverty’s poster campaign Britain isn’t eating based on the seminal 1979 Tory election poster.

In geopolitics, just for a change (no points here for prescience) it’s going to revolve around China – including a greater awareness of China’s influence further afield, particularly in Africa, which I guess will play out in civil wars and border disputes over mineral rights (though aren’t they all?). China vs Japan is an ugly prospect too, though hopefully in no more than skirmishes and megaphone posturing.

Who knows though what little random confluence of events can set things off – a chef balloonist nationalist or an allegedly exploited nanny setting India against the U.S.

I fear also for yet further strife in the Indian sub-continent, particularly Pakistan and Sri Lanka – not that assassinations in India, or border eruptions in Bangladesh are unlikely (not uncommon). I predict that the UK public by the end of 2014 will have heard a lot more – through bloodshed – of the ‘Stans, and be getting their head round nationalism in it’s ugliest and bloodiest forms. Putsch will be a word of 2014, as will pogrom. I fear that even if the 2014 Winter Olympics are relatively terror-free, the domestic backlash once the cameras have gone will be brutal. 2014 will see tanks firing in cities.

Although China will be the big thing in global politics, we’ll all end 2014 knowing our MINT from our BRIC.

If I have to go out on a limb and predict one single thing I haven’t seen touted with confidence anywhere, it is that 2014 will see the fall of North Korea (though this will only be because China finally loses patience, and agrees privately not to occupy or land-grab. Well – maybe a little land grab as their price). Who knows what the hell happens after that, but I guess The South Koreans have well-established and well-funded reunification plans.

Aside from food and politics, a lifestyle/tech observation – we’ll by the end of 2014 be as familiar with the internet of things as we already are with 3D printing.

You read it all here first.

If I’d seen this a long time ago, I’d now be an economist – or maybe I am anyway

July 13, 2013

It’s a sunny Saturday morning. I woke too early to be ready to get up. So I reached for the trusty iPad, searched YouTube and found myself a Yale lecture on something I only know a little about, but have nonetheless found intriguing enough to want to learn more about. After an hour’s lecture, I’m upgrading from intrigued to fascinated; in fact, perhaps, to inspired. It’s confirmed something I think I knew about myself – in fact, I have for a while said it out loud occasionally when explaining my approach to real-life situations, and that’s this: by nature, I’m an economist.

Now I’ve never heard anyone else say that, at least that I recall, and I don’t know any economists by profession, so I’m not following a particular role model. When I say it, I definitely don’t mean a macro-economist either – someone who predicts inflation rates or the balance of payments or GDP figures. I mean someone who understands models of motivation and values of wider systems and of the individuals therein.

So – there’s a modest personal epiphany shared with you. I may not change my life over it, both because there isn’t an obvious career path for a by-nature micro-economist, and because I’m in that luxury prison of earning far more money in my current job than I’d like to give up to start a whole new career from scratch. So – here’s the lecture; enjoy!