Category Archives: Blog

Centre for Alternative Technology Revisited

In his latest blog Sean looks back at visits to the Centre for Alternative Technology

It must be about 16 years since I was last at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)  near Machynlleth in Mid Wales.

For those that don’t know of it, it’s a pioneering education charity based in a former slate quarry, which has used the site to trial a number of alternative technologies over the years, and today it is using many of them still to power the site.

When I visited the Centre for Alternative Technology in the early days of Ethos public relations it was to discuss an ethical online web portal, which one of our clients was involved in. Times have certainly changed as far as the internet is concerned and, no doubt, that’s true in the field of alternative energy technologies too.

View from water balanced cliff railway at Centre for Alternative TechnologyI remember arriving at the site of CAT the first time, after a beautiful train journey from Manchester, and being impressed by the water-balanced cliff railway which takes you from road level up to the visitor centre.

As with many of the technologies showcased at CAT, the cliff railway works using the simplest of technologies, namely gravity. The two carriages are linked by a steel rope and when one goes down due to the combined weight of its passengers and water tank, the other carriage travels up the cliff face, with some stunning views.

On my recent visit, another ancient technology was being displayed, though with a modern twist. Burning wood for cooking and heating can hardly be described as an alternative technology, given that millions of people around the world rely on it day in and day out, but at CAT there is an innovative display of boilers that use wood pellets to produce both electricity and heat. Obviously, managed properly wood is a sustainable fuel and so provides an alternative to fossil fuels. If we want to work towards a zero carbon economy, then this might be part of the solution.

For many years, I have thought that solar panels for domestic and industrial premises should be fitted as a matter of course instead of roofing tiles, rather than on top of an existing roof. At CAT, that’s what they have on the café.

Solar panel roof at Centre for Alternative Technology

Over the past 16 years many things have changed dramatically in the field of low carbon energy generation, whether that is the growth of offshore wind energy generation or the increasing number of homes with photovoltaic cells on their roofs, but what we still have not seen is a widespread belief in using alternative technologies from the start of a project rather than as an add on.

But there still seems to be a lot of antipathy to wind and solar, in spite of their obvious benefits. Ethos public relations has worked with community biodiesel and community wind energy operators in the past and have, in a very small way, helped get the message out about the benefits of reducing carbon dependency. There is still much to be done.

So keep up the good work CAT, keep promoting the alternatives and helping to put sustainability into practice…

Happy birthday to Ethos public relations

We are 18 – again.

Ethos public relations ChampagneEthos public relations is celebrating 18 years in business today. Over the past 18 years, we have worked with a huge range of businesses, charities, individuals and others to help them get their message out to a wide variety of audiences.

We have helped our clients launch new products; deal with a number of crises; produce videos, magazine and leaflets; create new websites; manage social media; prepare for newspaper, TV and radio interviews and engage with their employees.

The list of clients we have worked with over the years is a long one and the number of passionate individuals even longer. With hardly an exception it’s been fun, fulfilling and worthwhile.

We have helped raise awareness of issues as diverse as knife crime, disability, co-operation, Fairtrade, products made in the UK, tourism, credit unions, social enterprise, vegetarianism, local food, recycling, social housing and the closure of pubs.

Each of these issues required differing approaches but we hope we dealt with them all with the same commitment both to the subject, and as importantly, to the ethics with which we were founded back in 1998.

Our ‘ethical’ approach was adopted to try and counter some of the perceived negativity towards the public relations industry. Our approach was based on honesty and having an open dialogue with clients and the media. At times this was tested and back in 1998 we couldn’t have imagined how it would be the media itself that would become the focus of unethical practice. It seems both sides of our industry have work still to do.

We have written before about how things have changed, almost unrecognisably, since we first started trading. Posting out press releases and photos being replaced by email, faxes now defunct, far fewer local (and a couple of national) newspapers, not to mention the rise of bloggers and social media – the PR landscape is very different now.

However, our honest and ethical approach to the way we undertake PR has remained the same, and is so much part of who we are that it will remain. As we get near to the end our teenage years, we are wiser and a very different ‘person’ to the Ethos public relations of 1998, but hopefully our friends and colleagues will still recognise us.

So thanks to all our previous and current employees, clients and suppliers. We’ve had a great first 18 years. Time to crack open the fizzy wine – Fairtrade of course.

The top three hotels in the world

In his latest blog, Sean looks at customer service excellence in the hospitality sector.

Recently,  a discussion in the office turned to the number of hotels we have visited since Ethos public relations was founded in 1998.

Over these 17 years we must have stayed at hundreds of hotels, both for business and pleasure.

We have stayed in budget hotels to get our heads down after a long business meeting; big conference venues in Brussels, Prague, Berlin and Birmingham, to name but a few; small bed and breakfasts with friendly owners, and corporate chains with less than friendly temporary (and overworked) staff.

It didn’t take long before we started comparing the various stays and, rather than focusing on the negatives of any particular stay, we thought about the top three hotels we had stayed at.

Now, the results, which we tweeted recently, are not very scientific. There was not a tick box questionnaire, review website or analysis of value for money, but rather we thought about the best overall experience in a hotel.

Before we repeat the results, it’s true to say that we cannot recall staying in any really awful hotels. It’s true we have experienced bed bugs, bins being emptied at 6am, reservations cock-ups, loud guests and un-adjustable heating/air conditioning but, in general, hotels and their staff are very capable.

Our shortlist of our top three hotels in the world – yes we know that’s terrible PR hype – is: the Gran Melia Victoria in Palma, Mallorca, the Holiday Inn, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire and The Hadley Park Hotel in Wellington, Shropshire.

Hadley Park Hotel

Hadley Park Hotel

In many ways these hotels couldn’t be more different. One looks over the Mediterranean, another the Manchester Ship Canal and the third is surrounded by a business park.

 

 

Holiday Inn Ellesmere Port

Holiday Inn Ellesmere Port

But the similarity is in their focus on customer service, or at least as we received it. Public relations, we always tell our clients, is about the way customers and guests perceive you and the experience they receive when interacting with your business.

Gran Melia Victoria

Gran Melia Victoria

In these three hotels we have received customer service that made us feel valued, as though the employees of the hotels really enjoyed our visit. Now of course we know the hospitality industry spends a fortune on guest customer service training and the service we received might be down to that. But somehow, I think it is down to something much more basic. I think these hotels employed nice people. And that is worth so much more than corporate brand, stunning location, posh grub or free wi-fi.

What price honesty?

In his latest blog, Shaun looks at the role of honesty, following his relocation to Shropshire.

Honesty boxMoving to a small village in Shropshire recently, I was struck by the number of ‘honesty boxes’ – people charging for flowers, vegetables, eggs etc by leaving an unattended box at the front of their gardens and trusting people to leave the appropriate amount of money in return for what they take. It was a nice reminder that there are places where this still happens.

In turn, this got me thinking about the ‘price’ of honesty, and the role of honesty in society. Economically, for example, a high level of honesty and trust results in lower transactions costs. If you leave your produce at the end of your garden, there are no costs involved in setting up a shop, transporting goods to market or delivering them to customers.

Of course, for low value home grown produce, if people don’t leave any money in the honesty box, the seller isn’t left very badly off; they just didn’t make anything on the fruit and veg they had grown anyway. For higher value items, people are going to be much less likely to leave them out for passers-by to help themselves!

However, honesty and trust are symptoms of a society’s wider attitudes and therefore reflect how communities behave – whether in a village, a town or a country. A community that leaves out honesty boxes is a trusting one and studies show that more trusting societies perform better economically, as well delivering a better quality of life, reduced levels of crime etc for their citizens.

How often have we heard people hark back to the past when you could “leave your door open” without fear of been burgled? It’s a clichéd way of implying that the past was better because it was more trusting and honest.

Perhaps the point is better made when you think that the less trusting and honest a society is, the higher the social and economic costs – whether it is fear of walking down the street, or locking your wares away so that people can’t steal them. These days, I believe that not enough emphasis is put on trust and honesty – from politicians downwards – and society suffers because of it.

However, it was interesting to read recently that Richard Branson is going to allow his private staff to take as much holiday as they like, leaving it to their own integrity to decide how much time to take off and when. Hopefully this demonstrates the growing recognition in business that the more trust you place in people, the greater the rewards for the company and its staff.

The role of honesty and integrity in society is, of course, a matter of much debate and study. In this blog, I just wanted to get it off my chest that I think trust and integrity can bring many benefits and a more honest society is a more pleasant one to live in.

Now, what can I buy next time I go along the village high street?

No to HS2

Let no one say I jumped to rash conclusions on HS2.

Ticket office - HS2

HS2 cash might be better spent on other routes

 For the last year or so I have genuinely not been sure if I should say no to HS2 or not. I have been unsure if HS2 is a good or bad idea for the country. I found it very difficult to reconcile the needs for a modern, low carbon means of transport with the unavoidable extra environmental damage. But as the rail route to the South West of England reopened today, it seems to me that we are addressing the wrong transport needs.

I am no Luddite and fully recognise that our current transport infrastructure, not least train lines, would not have existed had it not been for people who doggedly fought in some cases to build their lines. The main motivation back then was profit for all the competing train companies but I am sure it was mixed with excitement for a brand new, shiny technology.

Until recently, I could see plenty of reasons to be both for and against HS2.

Reasons for included:
•    Meeting future capacity
•    Better connections to ‘The North’
•    Business benefits to UK trade

Whilst on the no side the following springs to mind:
•    Loss of habitat
•    Even more energy use to power the trains
•    A focus on London

To some extent the environmental considerations can be reduced by judicious use of tunnelling, avoiding areas of scientific interest and the like, but this island that we share with thousands of other species is already carved up enough by rail, roads and canals.

Just imagine how large species such as deer, wild boar and others are unable to move across this country. Effectively this island is split north and south by the M62 and M4, not to mention by numerous canals. Similarly, it is divided East and West by the almost impenetrable M1 and M6 and the West Coast and East Coast mainlines.

But my last trip to London from Manchester by train made up my mind on HS2. Now I say ‘No to HS2’. On both legs of the journey, I would guess the train was a third to half full and that’s without the four sparsely populated First Class carriages which could have offered extra capacity if needed, and at over £400 return, no wonder they were under-occupied.

The train was comfortable and got me city centre to city centre in a fraction over two hours. Obviously, a quicker journey would be nice, but not at the huge environmental and landscape cost that HS2 would demand in order that we could save perhaps half an hour on the journey.

At a time when the debate about global warming and flooding has never been more topical, it seems to me we need to be rethinking our approach to business. Surely, we shouldn’t be shaving off minutes on already fairly quick journeys, but perhaps the estimated £100 billion budget for HS2 could be better spent on re-engineering our economy so people don’t all need to travel in peak hours.

But please don’t think that I am against all high speed rail. I am certainly FOR increasing speeds on existing tracks and I’d even suggest that I’d support HS2 if it were designed to connect two parts of the country that are currently poorly served by transport connections. Certainly, a Penzance – Glasgow service would sound attractive, helping Cornish regeneration and better rail infrastructure.

In the final analysis, my views will not have much sway in this particular debate and I am open minded enough to reconsider – so if you want to let me know why I should reconsider, please do!

An uphill PR struggle for fracking

Wind turbine

More needs to be done to develop renewable technologies such as wind energy.

Latest blog from Shaun.

News that the Government is stepping up its campaign to promote fracking through financial incentives to local authorities and communities has reignited the debate about this controversial energy source. However, in my opinion, supporters of fracking will have an uphill struggle to persuade the public.

From a PR point of view, it all starts with the name. Has there ever been a more apocalyptic sounding source of energy?! Even if it was the most benign process ever, it would still ring alarm bells to me. The thought of doing “fracking” or “hydraulic fracturing” to anything makes me think that some serious damage must be being done somewhere.

The second thing is that it is likely to take place mainly in the countryside, often on the edge of villages or towns. Recent research shows that the overwhelming majority of people don’t want fracking on their doorstep, and we’ve already seen significant demonstrations where fracking is proposed, which are only likely to get worse.

In addition, evidence demonstrates that fracking causes earth tremors and may also lead to water contamination and pollution. Until we know more, I think most people would be pretty alarmed to think that fracking could lead to problems like these where they and their families live. In fact, as fracking has been banned in France, surely the process itself should be a cause for concern in this country too?

These days, most people accept that human-made climate change is taking place, so it is puzzling why the Government is looking to subsidise new and controversial fossil fuels which contribute to carbon emissions. It’s a shame that, despite all the warning signs, they are still thinking more about short term profit than protecting the environment for future generations. There is no guarantee that fracking will bring down energy bills and, given the set up of the energy market, I should think lower bills are highly unlikely. Besides, is cheaper energy from fossil sources something we should be aiming for?

Of course the obvious question after all this is, if not fracking then what? A head-in-the-sand energy policy in this country for many years has left us desperate for new energy sources. However, I still think much more needs to be done to develop renewable, carbon-neutral technologies, rather than new fossil fuels, and I for one would much prefer a wind turbine at the bottom of my street than a fracking rig!

Farewell Nelson Mandela

Latest blog by Sean

Flag of Soth Africa

By Flag design by Frederick Brownell, image by Wikimedia Commons users [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The sad news about Nelson Mandela has refreshed many memories for me that go back more than three decades.

I am not writing this as someone who knew Nelson Mandela of course, although I was at a lunch with him that Leeds Co-operative sponsored in 2001. Nelson Mandela was in Leeds to accept the honour of becoming an Honorary Freeman of the City of Leeds and thousands gathered in Nelson Mandela Gardens to welcome him to the city.

For that crowd, and millions of other people like me, Nelson Mandela was a beacon that shone across the world and proved that life can change for oppressed peoples.

But we should all remember that change for the black people of South Africa did not come quickly or without individual human sacrifice. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for some 27 years and many of his ANC comrades were killed, including Steve Biko.

I remember being in Germany in 1988 and watching the Anti-Apartheid Movement concert from Wembley that celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday. The song ‘Biko’ by Peter Gabriel was one I would listen to for years afterwards. And more or less at the same time I read the book ‘Biko’ by South African journalist Donald Woods – in German.

Before going to Germany I had attended many anti-apartheid marches in London and elsewhere and spent many hours in Trafalgar Square outside South Africa House, long before it became fashionable to do so.

Nelson Mandela was only one person and he will be sorely missed, but his enduring legacy will be as a symbol that the world and its peoples can change.

The younger generation in the West have grown up in a world where, although racism still exists and is as pernicious as ever, there is no longer a state like South Africa that discriminates against its own black majority.

There is still much to do to ensure that all people can live in peace and be free of discrimination because of the colour of their skin.

Thanks to Nelson Mandela we know the colour of a person’s skin shouldn’t matter.

Farewell Nelson.

Buy British, I would if I could


Latest blog by Sean

Jeans with a hole in themI try to buy British whenever possible. Not because I am excessively patriotic or xenophobic, but simply because it seems to me buying locally produced goods must be better for the economy.

Recent news that the economy might be slowly recovering on the back of a consumer boom would be so much better, surely, if it was on the back of a consumer boom in British goods.

Last week in London, I searched out a shop selling British made jeans. All well and good, except they didn’t have my size nor is there currently any stock to be had by ordering online. Can’t fault them for that, hopefully they will soon have produced new stock and I can then get hold of a pair. I am getting too old for the holes-in-jeans look!

Trying another shop that proudly refers to ‘London’ on its label, the shop assistant pointed out one pair of jeans that was ‘made in the UK’ while another pair, somewhat cheaper, was ‘made in their Chinese factory’. But once again my size wasn’t available. This turned out to be a close shave though, as when I spoke to their head office to see if my size was available online, the previous information was corrected to say that both styles were produced in China. Can’t buy British there then.

Obviously, any company is entitled to make its products wherever it likes, but I do wish that brands that proclaim their ‘Britishness’ could at least make it clear where their products are made. A bit more staff training might not go amiss. And if more people take the trouble to ask where products come from, manufacturers will hopefully provide more information.

I suppose I will have to wait to get my hands on a new pair of jeans made in Britain and, in the meantime, my money is burning a hole in my pocket – to join the other holes – rather than helping the economy.

UPDATE: Since posting this blog, I managed to get a pair of jeans when I next went to the shop. And more recently, a new brand of English menswear has hit the scene. Take a look at http://www.quantockclothing.com/jeans. I’ve not tried them yet, but great to see them!

Mind the language gap…

file5981249389157Latest blog from Shaun.

News that many universities are giving up teaching foreign languages is shocking to me. I think a strong modern languages education sector is vital not only for the skills and knowledge it provides, but for helping to create a more positive attitude towards other countries and immigration.

The value of speaking a foreign language cannot be under-estimated, in my opinion. As well as giving people an ability which can prove useful on holiday or in business, as the world gets ever smaller, learning a language and gaining a qualification in it demonstrates a good deal of hard work and dedication that can be put to use in many other areas of life, from getting a job to moving abroad.

Apparently modern language students are being put off at both GCSE and A Level because the grades they get aren’t as high as they would be in other subjects. This raises two questions – surely all subjects should be marked and graded on a level playing field, or are other subjects marked more leniently? If so, that seems unacceptable. On the other hand, if modern languages exams are more difficult and a qualification harder to come by, surely universities should recognise that in the grades they ask for?

It seems to me that, as with many science subjects that are no longer taught at universities, there is a drift towards offering ‘easier’ courses so more students get top grades, regardless of how valid the qualification is in the wider world.

As a French and Economics graduate myself, I think a degree in modern languages is far more worthwhile in life and for a career than some of the more ‘unusual’ degree courses now available. So, rather than cutting modern language degrees, much more should be done by the education establishment and the Government to give these courses the support they deserve. This might help to provide more young people with the skills and qualifications they really need for getting a job in today’s global economy.

Of course, we are forever reading about the number of European immigrants coming to the UK, most of whom are able, let’s face it, to speak a certain amount of English. If more British people spoke a foreign language, perhaps they would be tempted to try emigrating to other parts of Europe themselves, so the flow of traffic wouldn’t be so one-way. We might learn more about our European neighbours, respect them more and appreciate the barriers that immigrants to Britain have had to overcome in order to offer their skills and improve their lot in this country.

Social media hits new heights

Photo of Ethos public relations Twitter feedRecent news that YouTube now has over 1 billion users a month is another milestone in the remorseless growth of social media. In the autumn, Facebook hit the 1 billion users a month mark and Twitter celebrated its seventh birthday, with 200 million active users and 400 million tweets a day.

All this sounds incredible, but really it’s not surprising, as these networks are very addictive. I never thought I would say it but, for me, life without social media is now unthinkable.

Social media in all its forms is rapidly becoming today’s most accessed communication platform. News often breaks on Twitter, for example, minutes if not hours before it reaches traditional media and stories spread around the world in seconds.

Of course, with 400 million tweets a day, there’s bound to be a lot of trivia – from what you’ve had for dinner to what your pet has done – and I’m sure many of us get exasperated about the sheer volume of tweets, which it is almost impossible to keep up with. However, for organisations, it is still a fast and effective way to reach an interested audience.

Facebook offers the scope for greater depth and interaction and allows businesses to create a more personalised and accessible resource for customers and potential customers to refer to. Posting well-made videos on YouTube on the other hand is an effective way to engage your target audience and entertain them. A video can often have much more impact than a photo.

Sometimes I think to myself why do I need (and use) all these social networks? But, like most people I am sure, I tend to use them in different ways. I check my tweets for what’s happening in the world, I go on Facebook to “talk” to family and friends and get the latest news from organisations I support, and I use YouTube for listening to music and for entertainment (which often then involves seeing adverts and videos made by organisations).

With audiences now in the billions, only an ostrich would ignore the communication potential of social networks. Now where’s that dancing pony video again?