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Apostrophe Now!

Is “abrupt” punctuation going out of fashion... and does it matter?

An unlikely grammatical debate was recently sparked by a tweet which stated that Generation Z found the use of full stops in emails both “abrupt” and “unfriendly”.

Writer Rhiannon Cosslett’s statement – posted in the course of discussing how Millennials had changed the English language – ignited the latest flare-up in the UK’s ongoing culture wars, with very angry people (and no doubt the odd bot) on both sides rushing to denounce/support the idea.

Opinions split broadly in line with views on Brexit, wearing masks and declaring one’s preferred personal pronouns. (And, of course, the vast majority of real people who don’t use Twitter simply didn’t care.)

The story was picked up last week by various newspapers which gleefully seized on the latest evidence of the jelly-like spinelessness of a younger generation of “snowflakes”.

As a former journalist who trained in the dangers of dangling modifiers and considered the arguments for and against splitting infinitives, the row intrigued me.

Its timing was relevant too, as my agency had just taken a brief for a business that wanted to communicate effectively with graduates (firmly within that Gen Z category).

For those dismissing the “unfriendly full stop” theory, I ask this: have you ever received an email written only IN CAPITAL LETTERS? If upper case feels intrinsically aggressive and shouty, it must be possible that a full stop could carry negative meaning to others.

Conversely, I once worked for a boss who indicated their cold fury by sending emails entirely in lowercase with no punctuation. These unwelcome messages didn’t contain full stops but they certainly weren’t friendly.

Other grammatical affectations can also elicit strong opinions. An excess of exclamation marks can drive some to distraction.

Communication evolves

Many of those outraged by the concept of a world without punctuation lamented the state of modern education.

But who is the poorer communicator in 2020: the person who doesn’t know how to use a semi-colon or the person who doesn’t know how to use emojis, let alone what they mean.

Language, grammar and punctuation develop as the forms in which we communicate evolve.

You don’t write a WhatsApp message in the same style as you write an email. You don’t write for LinkedIn as you would for Instagram. And you don’t write a letter in the same style as anything because no one writes letters any more.

Punctuation pedants may wince at a grocer’s apostrophe saying “Cheap potato’s for sale” but as long as potential customers understand that potatoes are being sold cheaply – and aren’t put off from buying them because of grammatical snobbery – why should the grocer care?

There is a caveat to this. If you’re going to be a professional communicator, you need to understand the rules to know when, how and why you’re going to break them.

It’s a bit like Les Dawson* playing piano off-key for laughs. It only worked because he was a genuinely talented pianist and knew which bum notes sounded funny.

What really matters in communications is that the people you’re trying to communicate with understand what you are trying to say and the tone in which you’re trying to say it.

If that means ditching full stops in some instances, so be it

*Gen Z note: Les Dawson was a northern comedian popular in the 1970s and 80s.


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We are hiring

Ready to take the leap into a brilliant comms career?

We're looking for the next superstar in communications to come and join us at Harpswood.

We're after a smart, ambitious, collaborative and sociable account executive who eats news for breakfast, writes like a dream, is fascinated by the media and loves to learn. If you've got experience, great. But a can-do attitude is more important.

What do you get in return? An agency that invests in your career with coaching and training from experienced media professionals; a friendly, supportive and inclusive culture; and a chance to get in on the ground floor at a communications consultancy that's going places. (Not forgetting money in the bank too - we'll pay a competitive salary.)

More about us, the role and our culture and benefits below 👇👇👇

If you think it's for you, send an email telling us why you'd be great to james@harpswood.com

About Harpswood

Harpswood is a new business PR agency that aspires to do great work for great clients. We believe in putting people first. We foster a culture that promotes listening to each other, collaborating in everything we do, supporting our collective goals and sharing in success.

Our founder is James Clench, a former senior national journalist who spent 17 years in newspapers including a period as Head of News at The Sun. James has an in-depth understanding of communications and is well-connected in the media. He ran a successful business PR team at a top 20 independent London PR agency before setting up Harpswood.

He is focussed on building an agency that values honesty, integrity and clarity of communication – and needs the right team in place to achieve that goal.

Harpswood is comprised of two brands: Harpswood Employer PR and Harpswood. We are backed by Blackbridge Communications, a people communications agency launched in 2004 which has a number of blue-chip clients on its roster, including Amazon, Aviva, KMPG and Clifford Chance. Harpswood Employer PR works closely with Blackbridge, adding a media relations element to employer branding and talent attraction engagement. Harpswood, our other brand, is a business PR agency which helps clients communicate with stakeholders through the media.

About the role

The new account executive will become a vital part of the Harpswood team. They will have a rare opportunity to help create the culture of an exciting new agency that is in a hurry to make an impact. They will be based in Harpswood’s offices in Shoreditch, east London, and will also have the opportunity to work flexibly.

They will support with the PR delivery for some of the UK’s most exciting, progressive and fast-growth businesses.

They will also be part of the agency’s drive to win new clients, receiving training and support on strategy and tactics.

Responsibilities:

Harpswood will give its people the responsibility they crave with the support they need to ensure rapid career development.

A Harpswood account executive will want to show their brilliance at:

  • building relationships with clients
  • building relationships with journalists
  • drafting press releases, comments and op-eds
  • delivering coverage for clients through regular media sell ins
  • collecting and measuring coverage
  • helping compile weekly reports
  • building media lists
  • pitching and presenting

 Attributes we’d love to see:

  • enthusiasm
  • can-do attitude
  • ideas
  • genuine excitement/passion for clients
  • a love of media and awareness of the news
  • desire to learn

And here’s what we can give you:

  • friendly, supportive culture
  • the chance to get in on the ground floor of an ambitious business
  • a path to career success
  • training from genuine media experts
  • access to successful business leaders/clients

Working life:

  • standard hours are 8.30am to 5.30pm
  • finish at 4pm on a Friday (see our Benefits & Rewards)
  • flexible working

Salary:

  • competitive

Harpswood culture & benefits

Culture is everything. We think work should be fulfilling, thrilling, challenging and enjoyable. Here’s our commitment of what we offer when you join the Harpswood team:

  • Opportunity to learn and grow
  • Empowerment to do your best work
  • Great team spirit
  • Meaningful work/life balance

Career accelerator

You’re our greatest asset. We want to help you grow to become the best professional communicator you can be. We’ll do that by ensuring you have regular catch ups with your line manager to keep you on track with agreed objectives. You’ll have quarterly one-on-one meetings with our MD James to talk about your progress – and that’s on top of the constant informal access to everyone in the business.

Harpswood “How To…”

From writing better thought leadership pieces to improving how you present, our Harpswood “How To…” sessions will help develop your skills. We use both internal and external experts for these masterclasses.

Comms Voices

Learn from some of the most interesting people in media and communications as they come in to Harpswood HQ to talk about what they’ve learned in their careers, what skills you need to master comms and what’s coming around the corner in the industry.

Flexible working

Armed with a Harpswood MacBook and a wifi connection, you can work from anywhere. We think you’ll want to spend time with the inspiring team at our Shoreditch HQ, but we trust you to work from wherever. (It’s what grown-ups do.)

Harpswood Hangout

East London has the pick of the best bars, restaurants, galleries and events in the capital – and it would be a crying shame to waste them. Harpswood Hangout is our regular team social… and you could be choosing the next one.

Early Friday Finish

Get out the door at 4 on a Friday – every Friday – and add an extra 90 minutes to your weekend. (Why are you still here? Skedaddle!)

Holidays

Grab the sun block and the surfboard or a bag of books to read by the pool with a cool drink. You’ve got 25 days’ holiday a year to kick back (plus Bank Holidays of course). Enjoy.

Pension

Wake up at the back, it’s important. You’ll be automatically enrolled into a government-led pension scheme.

Your Culture

As we grow as a business, we want your ideas on how we can make our culture better. You are part of the culture, shape it!

Get in touch

Don't procrastinate, apply: email james@harpswood.com

 

 

 

 


Most powerful PR tactic? Case closed

If you doubt the power of employer PR, here are two words to convince you: Rachael Trigg.

Ms Trigg, a 24-year-old maintenance and repairs hire for Thames Water at its Chieveley Sewage Works plant in Newbury, Berks, appeared in five different national newspapers to illustrate a story about the importance of language in job adverts.

Thames Water, it was reported, had changed the wording of a job ad for the £13-an-hour technician role to transform the masculine coding into a form more likely to attract women.

Words like “competitive”, “confident” and “champion” were ditched and phrases like “we welcome people who want to learn and be team players” were included.

Results showed that applications from women had risen by an impressive 46 per cent.

A good outcome and also an interesting example of using inclusive language, an innovation that, while not universally followed, is certainly widely known.

Masterclass

So why did this story cut through when thousands of other businesses are doing exactly the same thing to ensure diversity?

When analysed, it’s a PR masterclass from Thames Water.

The story was pitched out to coincide with the seventh annual Women In Engineering Day. While journalists can be deeply sceptical of awareness days, they do provide a hook for a story and some eventually start to gain traction.

Thames Water had statistics to show their new job advert had been effective in doing what it had set out to achieve.

The business had sensibly picked a spokeswoman, Lucia Farrance, part of Thames Water’s women’s network, to talk about why the language in the advert mattered. (It seems obvious to select a spokesperson appropriate to the subject matter, but it is surprising how many businesses get it wrong.)

She landed a cast iron key message: “We are extremely passionate about championing the importance and benefits of a diverse and equal workforce. Gender should never be a barrier.”

Cut-through

But above all, the story cut through because of Rachael Trigg.

Wearing a hard hat and high visibility jacket with her arm leaning on an industrial pipe (possibly flowing with raw sewage), she told a journalist: “There might be certain things I can’t do, like heavy lifting, but we’re a team so we help each other out. Women are really missing out if they think a job like this isn’t for them.”

News editors do not have much time to pitch a story to their editor and here was one that could be summarised and sold easily: “A water company changed the wording on its job advert at a sewage plant to attract more women. It’s worked and they’ve hired a young mum. Here’s the picture.”

The result of all this was widespread national coverage, showing that a relevant case study with a compelling image is a powerful tactic.

It also demonstrated that nothing beats the power of earned media for impact in getting your message across.

Interested in seeing what employer PR can do for you? Get in touch: hello@harpswood.com


Flushed out: why privacy beat compliance in home worker software controversy

PR is about the framing of ideas and winning people around to your point of view.

Get the positioning of your new employment policy right and you might land a sympathetic hearing for your plan. But get it wrong and it may never get off the ground.

Rarely has this been better illustrated than in the news coverage of the facial recognition software developed to monitor the thousands of City employees forced to work from home during lockdown.

Financial News, the Dow Jones-owned news site, broke the story that accountancy firm PWC had developed such software to log employee absences.

Compliance rules in the City exist for good reason. The likes of Nick Leeson, Jérôme Kerviel and John Rusnak lost their respective institutions billions of pounds thanks to rogue trades.

Dubious dealings in the years running up to the financial crisis of 2008 led to demands for greater scrutiny, for records clearly showing how and why decisions had been made.

As a result, bankers are used to the idea of their work and communications being monitored, reluctantly accepting it as a necessary evil in the office.

Placed within that framing – that compliance needs to cover you when working from home too – PWC’s software does not seem an unreasonable leap.

But spin the argument around and change the language and it suddenly seems very unreasonable indeed.

One person’s “safeguarding of personal time” is another person’s “huge intrusion on privacy”.

George Stylianides, the PWC partner chosen to speak with the press, no doubt sensed the way the story was going when asked by Financial News if the new tech would capture bathroom breaks.

He responded with some circumspection: "There is that danger, of course, there is with all these things. This is about how you tune it to actually find the information that you're looking for without being too intrusive on people."

A cautious answer, but not an unequivocal “No”. And certainly not enough to stave off the headline “PWC under fire for tech that tracks traders’ loo breaks”.

The story revealed that traders would have to provide a written explanation for breaks from their screen of more than a few seconds and focused heavily on concerns over the privacy rights of employees.

The story was followed up in The Times and The Telegraph with similarly negative headlines, including the stark “Is your boss spying on you?”

Faced with this negative coverage, it is not surprising that PWC has already been forced to ditch the element of the software that tracked background noise.

A development in working policy that creeps into employees’ homes and private lives is always going to be controversial – no PR in the world could change that.

But PWC could, perhaps, have packaged the innovation differently.

It could have been armed with figures estimating the vast sums of money that have been lost in recent years as a result of weak compliance.

It could have lined up an independent, credible expert to put its side of the argument and explain why, on the sliding scale of privacy versus compliance, this software was a reasonable compromise.

It could have shown evidence that it had consulted extensively with privacy campaigners during the development of the software to take into account their concerns.

And it should definitely have prepared for the tricky questions which any journalist worth their salt would ask, starting with the entirely predictable inquiry about loo breaks.

Don’t be surprised when this software or similar is eventually rolled out – but perhaps with a more rigorous comms plan.


Putting the purpose into a CEO profile interview

It isn’t rare to see an interview with a chief executive in the media.

Every weekend, they fill newspaper business pages informing their inquisitor of the brilliance of their latest product or service, the strength of their balance sheet or their plans for the future.

And all of these are strong messages to land when given the opportunity to spread the message about your organisation.

But hearing a CEO speak with authenticity, conviction and evidence about the culture and values of their workplace isn’t such a common occurrence.

The frustration for their HR teams must be immense.

In a media interview with a national paper or broadcaster, their leader has the platform to articulate their employer value proposition, to shout about all their great employee initiatives and to attract top talent to the business.

More often than not, the opportunity is spurned.

But some leaders don’t waste their chance.

If you doubt the power of employer PR, reading through a recent profile interview with Louise O’Shea in The Independent may change your mind.

The chief executive of Confused.com used the high-profile opportunity to speak with conviction about improving gender diversity within the business.

She told journalist Zlata Rodionova how the comparison site had joined the Tech Talent Charter, the non-profit organisation driving greater inclusion and diversity in technology roles.

She spoke of her own actions, revealing how she took her eight-week-old baby into the company’s Cardiff office with her when she started as CEO.

Her focus was on the company’s culture and values, she said, and she told how she put recognition of employees and good communications at the forefront of her work.

She proudly lauded the agility and adaptability of staff who had taken to working from home in response to Covid-19.

There was high retention at the business because of its core purpose of helping Confused.com’s “David” customers taking on some of the “Goliath” businesses that weren’t giving them the best deals or service.

If you were trying to attract talent to Confused, you wouldn’t hesitate to wave that interview under the nose of a candidate.

Lousie O’Shea isn’t the only leader who knows the importance of speaking externally about internal culture.

Angela Cretu, the CEO of Avon, used a profile interview in The Times to highlight how she was transforming the business by putting inclusivity front and centre.

Referring to Avon’s five million representatives, she said she wanted to “destroy the idea of a global company… transform our culture and become five million small companies.”

She told Retail and M&A Editor Ashley Armstrong that she had dismantled the corner office at Avon’s HQ in Chiswick, West London – a powerful metaphor for her inclusive leadership style.

And she explained that she was a passionate advocate of empowering women – but did not believe in burdening them with the unfair “superwoman” tag, calling it an unfair expectation.

Again, it was an interview any HR lead would quite happily frame for the boardroom and point out to prospective talent as they considered whether to join the business.

Perhaps the most impressive recent example of conveying company values in the media belongs to David Potts, the chief executive of supermarket Morrisons.

In a profile interview with The Guardian’s retail reporter Sarah Butler, Mr Potts paid a heartfelt tribute to Morrisons colleagues.

He lauded them for “putting their bodies on the line” for the public and said that next to public health, his workers provided the most important service.

He spoke powerfully about the business’s purpose, saying that it had “galvanised over 100,000 people – to serve people of Britain.”

And possibly with one eye on a headline quote (if so it worked) he said: “Our people are the new rock stars. They are working with the British public and doing their thing in society.”

He managed all of this against the backdrop of a shareholder revolt over the proposal for a 24 per cent pension contribution rate for himself and Morrisons COO Trevor Strain.

The potential controversy was swatted away at the end of the piece with the 63-year-old saying that he never thinks of retirement because, “I feel fully employed in my job of feeding the nation.”

To speak with Harpswood Employer PR about leadership EVP media training or other employer PR services, contact hello@harpswood.com


You can’t stall in a crisis, Zuckerberg finds to his cost

Sometimes in business, a hand grenade lands in your lap. You know that grabbing hold of it will be perilous – but you can’t ignore it.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was left such an incendiary problem when Donald Trump posted on the world’s largest social network about the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” the US President wrote, tastelessly invoking the words of bigoted 1960’s white police chief Walter Headley.

When Trump had posted the same message on Twitter, the platform responded quickly by hiding the tweet behind a label warning that it glorified violence and stopped it being shared.

Zuckerberg had a crisis on his hands that left him balancing ethics, political interests, PR, internal communications and employer brand.

Censor the message and be attacked by Trump. Leave the message up and anger millions of Americans, including his own employees. Was the post tolerable in a land of free speech? Or was it incitement to violence at a time of intense civil unrest?

His dilemma was further complicated by his long-standing insistence that Facebook is a platform, not a publisher.

Twitter’s swift and decisive action piled on the pressure. Messaging app Snapchat followed suit, refusing to promote the President’s account because it would “not amplify voices who incite racial violence”.

Zuckerberg tried to steer a middle course, writing that while he had a personal “visceral negative reaction” to Trump’s sentiments, he (Zuckerberg) was also the leader of an institution dedicated to free speech.

This did not play well. The argument did nothing to assuage the anger of civil rights leaders, the American people or his employees. Four hundred staff staged a virtual walkout and two resigned. Senior leaders in the business called for Zuckerberg to change his mind and remove the post.

In a bid to win them round, Zuckerberg held a virtual Q&A for 25,000 Facebook employees where he reiterated that it had been a tough call.

He took questions from employees, including one who asked if any black people were involved in his decision. Zuckerberg confirmed that one – but only one – had been among the small group who took the call, according to US news site Vox.

Zuckerberg said Facebook would not take a knee-jerk decision on the Trump post and said it was considering labelling posts, rather than taking them down. He pleaded that policies needed time to develop.

But the man who became a world powerbroker by inventing the social network – ironically the very medium that sped up communications – has discovered that time is the one thing you can’t buy in an explosive crisis.


Does your business need communications help in a crisis? Get in touch: hello@harpswoodemployerpr.com


The good, the bad and the ugly of corporate communications in lockdown

“I’ve never seen so many businesses wasted so badly,” is no doubt how Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name would have summed up the months of economic damage wrought by global lockdown. But which corporate gunslingers rode off into the horizon with their reputation intact… and which were left scrabbling in the dust? We take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of lockdown communications and the vital lessons that can be learned from them.

Good

Admiral: The insurance industry came in for heavy flak during lockdown with some major firms refusing to pay out on seemingly legitimate business interruption claims. But Admiral bucked the trend. It garnered praise for refunding its 4.4million car and van insurance customers £25 each based on the fewer claims it expected during in lockdown. Cristina Nestares, chief executive of UK insurance at Admiral, linked the refund to the national mood, saying: “The Admiral Stay At Home Refund was launched to recognise the considerable efforts people are making by staying home as much as possible and as a result driving less.”

Comms lesson: Admiral was seen as fair and in touch with the public mood. Its move was praised by journalists and led to awkward questions for competitors as to whether they would follow suit.

British Land: In a tough time for commercial property, British Land – owner of the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield – got on the front foot. CEO Chris Grigg gave an interview to The Telegraph’s Economics Editor Russell Lynch at the end of March and landed some powerful messages: British Land had “bent over backwards” to help small players because corporate reputation mattered to them; he wasn’t going to let the big supermarkets off the hook on rent; the business had breathing space due to its low gearing and strong balance sheet; and he quelled talk of succession in the business to show stability. Even though the business lost a significant chunk of its value due to factors out of its control, it fought a good comms game and protected its reputation.

Comms lesson: Show that your reputation matters to you. Even when the climate is unforgiving and there are difficult times ahead, talk about the positive initiatives your business is taking and your strengths compared to competitors.

McDonald’s: Craving the instant hit of a Big Mac became shorthand for the vision of life after lockdown. Salivating journalists wrote of the simple pleasures of “the magical golden arches” as McDonald’s came to symbolise the pleasures we were collectively being denied because of the pandemic. When the fast food chain opened 33 of its drive thru restaurants in late May, videos and pictures of snaking queues filled social media. A spokesperson explained that company was working with local authorities to ensure the queues didn’t cause traffic disruption. In the run up to lockdown, McDonald’s offered free hot drinks to all NHS, council and emergency service staff.

Comms lesson: McDonald’s position at the heart of UK culture is final proof of the success of its rebranding as a modern, clean, family restaurant. The queues don’t lie.

Bad

Dyson: It’s hard to believe you could be having a bad time of it when you have just been placed number one on the Sunday Times Rich List. But James Dyson’s frank admission in May that he had spent half a billion pounds developing an electric car which would never be made compounded the feeling that the middle of an economic crisis was not the time to be shouting about wealth. Dyson’s business then ordered its staff back into work against government guidelines, leading to widespread criticism and an inevitable U-turn.

Comms lesson: James Dyson couldn’t help the timing of the Rich List but his business’s heavy-handed treatment of employees added to a sense that he was out-of-touch.

Ovo: Energy challenger Ovo entered the big league when it bought SSE’s retail division at the start of the year. Pete Wishart, the local MP in Perth – home to bulk of the SSE workforce – was quoted as saying that he had been “reassured that all of the 8,000 staff will be transferred on existing terms and conditions and there will be no job losses.” Two months into lockdown, Ovo asked staff to apply for voluntary redundancy as it tried to shed 2,600 jobs, blaming the “new reality” of Covid-19. Unions described it as a “betrayal” with the pandemic being used as a convenient excuse.

Comms lesson: There is never a good time to communicate job losses. But Ovo left itself open to criticism and claims of opportunism by apparently giving reassurances to key stakeholders that roles were safe.

Ugly

Easyjet: The airline jettisoned its crisis communications manual at 35,000 feet and washed its dirty lifejackets in public. Founder and largest shareholder in the business Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou. He stated that a multi-billion pound Airbus order was both a terrible deal and alleged it was the result of bribery. He said the deal should be cancelled – and for good measure tried to oust four key directors at an extraordinary company meeting. He failed, but Finance Director Andrew Findlay, one of his targets, resigned at the end of May. Days later, the airline announced it was cutting staff by up to 30 per cent.

Comms lesson: Keep your disagreements behind closed doors and speak with a unified voice. Try to keep vocal founders and activist shareholders inside the tent.

Hammerson: Unlike competitor British Land, commercial property giant Hammerson suffered a dreadful lockdown. The owner of North London’s Brent Cross and Birmingham’s Bullring had gone into the pandemic on the back of two bad calls. The first in December

2017 was an attempt to pay £3.4bn for rival Intu, which was scrapped thanks to an investor revolt. Intu – also having a terrible pandemic – has since seen its value collapse to around £60million with £4billion of debt. Shortly after the Intu deal fell apart, Hammerson refused to engage with a bid approach of 635p-a-share from French rival Klépierre. As its value plunged at the start of the year, it announced a £400million deal to sell seven retail parks to a private equity firm – but that collapsed thanks to the pandemic. CEO David Atkins came in for severe media criticism, not least from The Times’s business commentator Alistair Osborne. When Atkins finally announced his departure at the end of May – with the share price down to 74½p - Osborne’s stinging commentary was headlined “Hammerson horror lurches to climax”.

Comms lesson: PR can’t make bad decisions look good. But you should engage with your fiercest critics and make your best case