Category Archives: Blog

Farewell Nelson Mandela

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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 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?


The horsemeat scandal and reputation

Photo of beefburgersThe horsemeat scandal has given all self-respecting commentators an excuse to put pen to paper, usually with one or two horsey puns thrown in for good measure.

But, as I want to address the importance of reputation, maybe I am best leaving out the jokes. I wouldn’t like to ruin my own reputation.

Much of the debate about this horsemeat scandal has focussed, quite rightly, on the issue of food safety, especially given the fact that the banned human drug phenylbutazone, commonly referred to as bute, has been found in horsemeat destined for the human food chain.

From a public relations perspective, there will be currently dozens, if not hundreds, of PR managers in food companies, trying to put into action everything they have rehearsed about crisis management.

Both Morrisons and The Co-operative have so far been the most visible food retailers on the news, with a recent Channel Four News interview with Peter Marks, Chief Executive at The Co-operative Group , giving his organisation the opportunity to publicly reaffirm its commitment to providing unadulterated food, the very reason the Co-operative Movement was established in the first place.

But crisis management is only one aspect of managing reputation. Once a crisis hits, all hands are needed on deck to deal with the media (and public) onslaught that can follow. Especially now, with our 24 hour rolling news, PR managers will be kept on their toes with requests for information, press statements and interviews.

But during a crisis, one eye needs always to be kept looking to the future. Sometimes in the middle of a crisis it is hard to imagine that the media frenzy will die down again, but inevitably it will.

Organisations, ideally with input from their marketing and PR professionals, have to establish their route out of the crisis and put strategies and policies in place that can build their trust and reputation again.

This horsemeat scandal has hit reputations hard. Consumers are rightly worried that they can no longer trust the information provided by retailers and manufacturers on their food packaging.  If horsemeat can be passed off as beef, or pork end up in beef meatballs, who is to say that we can trust the list of ingredients on any other product?

The food industry now has the perfect opportunity to massively simplify both their supply chain and their products themselves as one way to rebuild confidence. Retailers and manufacturers need to know where all the ingredients in food products come from and consumers should be able to easily read, and understand, the ingredients contained in the products.

The highly processed and complex formulation of many foodstuffs these days has resulted in consumers having to put their trust in the retailer.  The simplification of products, so that they contain fewer ingredients, combined with better labelling of where products actually come from, rather than just where the product was ‘assembled’ , could be a useful strategy in rebuilding consumer confidence.

But such fundamental change is not easily embraced by complex large businesses.  The likely focus for any rebuilding of public confidence is surely going to be testing. A rigorous regime of food testing – with the results published – is likely to pay dividends in terms of reputation and trust. Trust is built slowly by the aggregation of years of positive experiences and if the food industry and government get behind transparent testing, consumers are likely to once again be confident in their food.

Although there has been a reported 30% increase in sales in butchers’ shops around the country, the predominance of the supermarkets means that consumers will increasingly move back to them as trust in their products increases. However, supermarkets and food producers will now need to operate for a prolonged period with no further issues or scandals in order for the trust-o-meter to rise.

Honesty has always been a key element in a business’s reputation, and openness and greater transparency about the food they sell will help supermarkets win back the hearts and minds of consumers.

Time to change the way we teach foreign languages

I might be something of a communications geek, but I adore the challenges and excitement of communication. Humankind is, as far as we know, the species with the most highly developed sense of communication and language and so, to me, communication is part of the very essence of being human.

I am interested in the whole range of communications from technological developments such as blogs and Twitter, to corporate communications and foreign languages.

Learning a foreign language enables us to communicate with fellow human beings in other countries and from other backgrounds and cultures. The teaching of foreign languages has always interested me, though not being a teacher, I can only speak from the perspective of a learner.

The world has changed a great deal since I studied German. Back then it was not uncommon to pick up scientific journals – I also studied chemistry – in which research papers were published in German, French or Russian, with only a brief English abstract, if you were lucky. I remember once ‘deciphering’ a pharmaceutical paper that was published in Danish. Today, almost all such papers would be published in English.

Although, I no longer use my German in the working environment, I still value its use when I visit Germany as I gain so much more, I believe, than if I relied on the English spoken by the locals. And as I socialise with a number of Germans, it is so useful to be able to speak German. We often have great debates about the finer nuances between the two languages. I remember a recent discussion in German about the difference between ‘naughty’ and ‘nasty’ in English. My German friend was intrigued by the difference between ‘You naughty girl’ said to someone of six years of age and someone of 42!
Foreign language teaching
What has always concerned me about foreign language teaching in the UK is the way it has typically focused on one or two languages. In countries which do not have English as a mother tongue, it goes without saying that the first foreign language you teach should be English, as the lingua franca for most of the world’s business community.

For the UK, however, the decision is much more difficult. For historical, cultural and geographical reasons, the first choice of foreign language here has been French, German or Spanish, with Russian and Mandarin coming in a distant second place.

But in reality the needs of our population is not to learn a language in great detail. I know plenty about the use of the extended attribute in scientific German. What I believe would be better for students is to learn half a dozen languages more superficially.

Not only will this increase the chance that, when visiting a foreign country, you have some basic grasp of the local language but, from a commercial point of view, future business people will be able to at least understand some of the deliberations taking place around them.

I am convinced that the general reliance on English has not stood the UK economy in good stead when it comes to exporting to overseas markets.

Obviously, there will always be a need for some students to study one or two languages in depth, in order that they can become translators or journalist or whatever, but what I’d like to see is that the first two years of language teaching, as a minimum, focuses on basic salutations in languages including Welsh, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian and Spanish.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter which languages they are, the key is that we empower people to have a better understanding of their fellow human beings, wherever on the globe they are.