A view of the changing face of journalism and PR from a motorsport perspective

I should preface this post by pointing out that I spent many of my childhood weekends surrounded by racing cars.  When I wasn’t watching my father trackside, I was watching the sport on TV.  While my brother has continued the family tradition, these days, besides the annual trip to Le Mans, my motorsport habit is mostly sustained through traditional and social media.

Maurice Hamilton is a veteran journalist who has been covering Formula 1 since the mid-seventies.  In the video below he talks about how he got started in journalism in the 1970s and how that world has radically changed over the intervening decades.

For anyone with an interest in motorsport it’s recommended, for others, well your mileage may vary Smile.

Book Review: Onward… eventually

I limit the number of books I agree to review because I always have a long queue of books to read, and I find that agreeing to review a book changes my relationship with it from being a joy of exploration, to yet another task to be completed – a task that’s now four months overdue…

However, when Katarina Hicks from Fortier Public Relations got in touch about the latest Howard Schultz book – Onward – I made an exception.

Mr. Schultz and Starbucks have fascinated me for some time.

It’s a little known fact that I made my first visit to the shores of the continental United States in 1994, spending two fantastic weeks travelling between Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. It was the first time I came across a Starbucks store and I was hooked immediately. It was cool, yet functional, stylish yet welcoming, and they also sold good coffee.

I was so impressed that when I returned to Ireland I made the Starbucks Coffee Company the offer of a lifetime. I wrote to them and gave them the opportunity to leverage the skills and experience of a twenty something – with no experience of retail, no knowledge of running a business, but someone who appreciated a good cup of coffee – by giving me the exclusive Starbucks franchise in Ireland. Amazingly they turned down this very kind offer but they did take the time to respond and I recently discovered that their first overseas store wasn’t opened until 1996 in Japan and of course it wasn’t a franchise.

Despite Starbuck’s foolish and potentially catastrophic failure to let me bring their coffee to Ireland I have long admired the company. For me they are a company that has that rare combination of a strong focus on innovation – across products and services – and a real commitment to corporate social responsibility – just think of the health, pension and stock benefits they pioneered for part-time staff. And yes I know they’re not perfect, but then who is?

So that’s a very long preamble about why I accepted the offer to review the book, and as expected I saw a number of self-imposed deadlines passing by.

So finally…


Onward provides a brief potted history of Starbucks but primarily focuses on the company’s stumble in 2008 and Howard Schultz’s decision to return to the company as CEO eight or so years after he became chairman.

The real focus of the book is on the company’s ‘transformation’ from the lows of 2008 to its recovery.

It has all the elements of a great story. Man transforms a small Seattle coffee company into a global retail powerhouse. He steps upstairs as chairman and the company continues to grow and expand until suddenly, eight years later, it hits a wall. Man returns to salvage his life’s work.

It’s the perfect set up.

I have to admit it took me a lot longer to get into this book than I expected. However, in the end my perseverance was worth it. The second half of the book moves along at a faster pace and provides a more interesting insight into both the company, including decisions that were taken to address the company’s stalled growth and profitability, and a personal view of the events from the returned CEO.

Of course one’s fine-tuned PR senses tell you that a book co-written by the current CEO of a global brand and listed public company carries a health warning. You’re not getting the unvarnished inside track, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t interesting and a worthwhile read, in fact I think it is.

Schultz deserves great credit for sharing his more vulnerable moments and underlining the importance for everyone to keep growing and learning, to ask others for help and listen to advice. That’s a great message; I think we all sometimes forget that we don’t have all the answers.

While the book is co-authored by Joanne Gordon, Mr. Shultz’s voice is loud and clear and he comes across as authentic, not shying away from self-criticism, accepting blame and acknowledging where he and the company have failed.

Schultz takes you on the voyage of recovery, from difficult decision to slash costs through closing stores and redundancies, to increasing productivity, believing in the potential of innovation to drive revenue and ultimately how the company regained profitability and growth.

Aside from the day-to-day struggles of correcting the company’s course, as you’d expect with Starbucks corporate social responsibility is front and center. To quote Schultz:

“Starbuck’s mission from the beginning was to build a different kinds of company, one that would achieve a healthy balance between profit and social conscience.”

He provides some interesting insights into the work of the Starbucks Foundation and like every executive at every major corporation that has long standing CSR commitments, he struggles with how to educate and inform people about the breadth of activities the company supports.

He talks in detail about the rise of social media and its growing importance to Starbucks, from the leaking of his internal memo (see below), to the rise of Starbucks related blogs and latterly how Starbucks is using social media to drive loyalty and revenue.


“More than just a marketing tool, our digital presence further engages our customers, which is an essential element in our growth model moving forward.”


There are a few weaknesses in the book.

Reading it there were a number of times, for me anyway, you really have to suspend disbelief. For example Mr. Schultz’s surprise that a company memo he wrote in 2007 detailing the company’s shortcomings and the challenges they faced was leaked externally. Now you may have to accept his word on this, but I struggle to understand how anyone could be surprised that a critical memo from the President of a high profile global brand wouldn’t make it outside the company. The leaking of such communications has been rife since the late 1990s and it’s now expected that sensitive internal communications will reach audiences outside the organization. If I were a more cynical person I might suggest that the memo was purposely leaked to raise awareness of, and pressure around, the issues facing the management team. But of course I’m not cynical at all.

There are other areas which are glossed over, such as the transition of the incumbent CEO, and while you can understand why, it’s still a little dissatisfying.

Lastly the transition from troubled global enterprise to successful recovery at the end of the book happens a little too quickly, and while you can piece together the various elements that heralded the transition, it seems a little abrupt or maybe even accidental to me. It’s a little jarring.

These are pretty minor criticisms. I recommend this book for anyone interested in getting an inside view on the turnaround of a global brand and the very personal story of how a founding father returns to fix what’s gone wrong and drive large scale organizational change.

Howard Schultz and Starbucks are both intriguing subjects and the journey continues onward.

Disclosure: Fortier Public Relations provided me with a review copy of Onward on behalf of the publishers Rodale.

Quick Tip: Fixing video

OK, this one is off-topic but I thought I’d share. 

I’m sure you are far more clever than I, but last night I shot a video of my daughter with my phone.

When I finished I realized that I had shot the video in portrait rather than landscape, which meant when it was posted online you’d have to cock your head to one side to watch it:


To try and rotate the video I had visions of having to surf through forums, download some specialized software etc.


Thankfully it was far easier.

It turns out Windows Live Movie Maker (free download) fixes it with one click of the mouse.



For what it’s worth Smile

Respect the brand this Christmas/Holiday Season*

I love seeing creativity.

Mixing creativity with humor to poke fun at an institution is better again.

It’s why I love the Santa Brand Book.


Serious kudos to Quiet Room on their magnificent work in support of one of the world’s truly enduring mega-brands. I will never use unapproved Santa® related vocabulary again.


*I really don’t want to be verbally (or physically) beaten up about the usage of these terms. It’s far too confusing and frankly you and I have better things to be doing.

Sometimes it’s good to stop and take stock

Blog notification: This is one of those self-indulgent rambling posts that I do from time to time. Part-introspective, part-grumpy…

We “office” workers are probably are working longer and harder than ever before.  We deal with more information from more sources, we juggle meetings, calls, work, e-mail, IM, social media and of course most important of all our commitments to family and friends.

There are many milestones in life and as I’m approaching one myself, I think it’s a great opportunity to stop and take stock.

I find this piece in the New York Time on sensory overload really interesting.  We’re trying to cram so much into our days that we try and use every minute without taking some time to let your brain coast.

The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: When people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting down time that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.

When’s the last time you sat, took a deep breath and did nothing but let your mind wander? It is surprisingly relaxing.  You find your mind going off in a whole range of different directions.

Personally speaking, it’s something I plan to do more of. 

The challenge is the hectic pace of work, the endless social media consumption, and all the other things you need to get done every day. It would tire you out just thinking about it. Oh… well never mind.

Social media is part of this. It can be a challenge. But a worthwhile one.

The reality for most people is that traditional tasks haven’t gone away, and now – particularly for the communicators amongst us -  we are integrating a whole new set of channels, tools and relationships to our existing day job.

The reality is that something has to give. Everyone is having to make rapid decisions about where to invest precious time.

Being clear about your personal and professional objectives is a great starting point for making those decisions. But again, we probably don’t spend enough time thinking strategically.

We’re too busy running.

I think that’s one of the reasons that the Windows Phone 7 ad has hit a nerve. (Yeah yeah I work for Microsoft) It resonated with me.

Windows Phone 7 Ad–Really?


Your best work comes through combining passion, hard work, great execution, strategy and creativity.

Running faster, running harder, running longer isn’t the answer.

The medicine show

Social media is a case in point.  The signal to noise ratio is high.  Don’t get me wrong, it is incredible to see people sharing knowledge and opinions freely.  You can find incredibly valuable insight and advice across social media (and a lot of funny stuff too), but there’s also a lot of waffle, a lot of unsubstantiated theories presented as fact, and a lot of pseudo-science where there isn’t any.

You’ve got to have a filter on.  The problem isn’t just technology, it’s how you use it.

There is far too much over-engineering going on – presenting pretty simple concepts and practices as something akin to brain surgery.

The basics of successful social media engagement and execution aren’t difficult. It doesn’t require an 6 foot by3 foot color flow chart with 800 components. It doesn’t need to creation of fictional terms which dress up basic knowledge and tactics as though they have been envisaged and developed in a laboratory over 10 years by people who in a previous generation would have been involved in sending metal objects to foreign planets.

Social media is awesome (I may be in the United States too long at this point).  It enables people to connect with one another.  It provides access to an incredible array of information and resources (Twitter), it connects friends and colleagues and let’s you keep up to date with what’s important to you (Facebook).

From a communications perspective, it demands that you combine great traditional Public Relations practices – strategy, great writing, great interpersonal communication, measurement and planning – with a greater focus on person to person communication and a lot of creativity.

It takes time, it takes resources and it costs money. It needs to be integrated with your overall marketing and communications.  It needs to accrue to your objectives and goals.  You need to measure it.

The tools aren’t complex, the rules or engagement aren’t difficult to master or understand.  Anyone who tells you different is lying.

Yes it changes some things.  Where issues or crises were once rare and often unexpected.  Social media creates a perfect breeding ground for mini and major issues.  People present whiplash analysis and opinion as fact.  This is the reality.


So where does that leave us?  Well from my perspective there’s a couple of core things I will (continue to) focus on – all common sense:

Start with what’s important

Although I am not as good at it as I would like, starting with clarity on your personal and professional goals and objectives is key.  What roles do you play? What do you want to do (more of? less of? new?)? What time will you invest? What will you prioritize and more importantly deprioritize.

Take the first step

Look at those objectives and work out what you need to do to achieve them. It may be a project, series of projects or just a couple of tasks.

Monitor, Review and Maintain

Build a habit of reviewing those goals and roles.  Habits are essential.  Critically review your progress and how effective you have been in keeping on track. (I’ve found workflows like Getting Things Done very useful for building an effective review/action system)

Spot your failures

There’s so many potential hazards. Procrastination, avoiding the difficult but important task, not taking a time-out.

Stop and think about your time and how you are spending it.  What can you stop? What can you do more of? Where can you give yourself quality time – either with others or yourself?

Smell the coffee

Stop from time to time.


Take a deep breath.

Close your eyes.

Take a look around you.

Get off the treadmill and live life.


Sermon over.  My thirty ninth year is nearly compete and of course that’s better than the alternative – now there’s positive thinking.

Now you can get back to Twitter.


Posted by Tom Murphy


True life is always stranger than fiction…

I previously wrote about my love of language in general and the writing of the vintage UK TV series “Yes Minister” in particular. Yes Minister for the uninitiated was a sitcom based around the relationship of a UK government minister and his daily struggle with his civil servants.

Well a story in the UK Daily Telegraph over the weekend caught my eye. It details leaked civil service memos that were prepared to brief civil servants ahead of the arrival of the newly elected government:

The documents, instructing senior officials at the Department of Communities and Local Government how to woo their new bosses, give a checklist of what are called “hot button”, Tory-friendly words, to be dropped into conversation whenever possible. These include “families,” “radical,” “neighbourhoods” and “progressive.”

and the advice continues:

civil servants are told to “talk of efficiencies / value for money without prompting” and advised to deploy blatant flattery, with suggested phrases including: “Congratulations! I had so much confidence in you, I might get complacent!”

The documents order mandarins to “smile!… Lean forward!… Be interesting!” They are told to engage in “supportive listening,” and “take cues from the Secretary of State.” Officials are advised that “eye contact [is] the real currency.”

Yes, life is stranger than fiction.

Bloggers Note: Guest Posts

General note to all those people kindly sending me offers to write guest posts.

Unfortunately this blog only gets about 5 visitors a month (and that’s if I hit refresh a couple of times) so you’re probably better spending your time pitching and writing for a real blog like the Huffington Post or Engadget or something like that.

That approach has the upside that there’s a chance that someone other than you and me will read it.

Secondly, even if this blog did get visitors and I did take contributed posts, I’m not sure hands-on tutorials on scripting, or business transformation really float my boat, so to speak.

If the policy changes, I’ll let you know, don’t worry.


PS: Thanks to everyone who keeps sending me random press releases. I read all of them, they are a constant source of solace in a sea of irrelevance.

The joy of… language

During a meeting earlier this week I spotted a well thumbed copy of Eats, Shoots & Leaves on an office book shelf.  This discovery sparked an enjoyable conversation on the power of language. Of course if you’re working in Public Relations then language is occupational currency.

Later in the week I was absent mindedly browsing Netflix and happened upon an old gem, the entire series of Yes Minister.

For the uninitiated “Yes (Prime) Minister” is a 30 year old BBC television comedy that follows the career of a Minister in her majesty’s government (and later as he assumes the role of Prime Minister) and his daily struggle with the powers of the civil service.

If you love language then this is something you should watch.

“No buts,” the Minister snapped. “All I get from the Civil Service is delaying tactics.”

“I wouldn’t call Civil Service delays “tactics”, Minister,” Sir Humphrey replied.  “That would be to mistake lethargy for strategy.”

In today’s climate of “transparency” and “plain English” the use of language in the series – purely for the sake of obfuscation and deceit – is truly a joy!

From a PR perspective there’s an interesting potential parallel between the Minister’s relationship with the Civil Service; and a dysfunctional client-agency relationship.  (Obviously this doesn’t reflect any of my client relationships when I worked on the agency side, or god forbid my agency relationships since I crossed the table :-))

Witness a memo between two Civil Servants:


A Minister’s absence is desirable because it enables you to do the job properly:

  1. No silly questions
  2. No bright ideas
  3. No fussing about what the papers are saying

One week’s absence, plus briefing beforehand and debriefing and catching up on the backlog on his return, means that he can be kept out of the Department’s hair for virtually a fortnight.

Furthermore, a Minister’s absence is the best cover for not informing the Minister when it is not desirable to do so – and for the next six months, if he complains of not having been informed about something, tell him it came up while he was away.

Substitute “Minister” for Client and “Department” for Agency :-)

Watch the series or better yet, exercise your mind and buy the books which give you time to savor the plots, the thinking, but most of all the language.