Friday, 13 December 2019

Hot new business trend: overpromise and under deliver

With the general election safely in our rear-view mirror, it seems only fitting to reflect on political campaigns, where overpromising from both sides on NHS funding, police numbers and infrastructure projects are staples of the daily battles that take place up and down the country. Manifestos have drawn together broad ideological ambitions into concise, neat and memorable policies: 50,000 more nurses, £1 billion for community policing, publicly owned broadband. Can any of this actually be delivered by government? 'Why not vote for us and find out.'

Perhaps surprisingly, politicians' promises often do become reality. A study from Queen Mary University of London found that, between 1987 and 2005, 88 per cent of the governing party’s pledges were implemented within the life of the parliament following the election. That’s quite a high strike rate.

If promises aren’t followed through, governments run the risk of being regarded unfavourably by the electorate next time they go to the polls. A party being dubbed ‘untrustworthy’ might make Brenda from Bristol and Suki from South London (and many others) take their votes elsewhere. Additional pressure on parties in power come from the official opposition, who rigorously scrutinise poorly planned bills, and jump on failures quicker than I jump on chances to get out of daily team meetings. Point is, politicians are held to account for promises, because if they’re caught lying, they can expect to be splashed on the front page of the tabloids and become a trending topic on Twitter faster than you can say ‘hashtag fridgegate’. It’s not a tidy nor necessarily even a consistent method of ensuring honesty from people in power, but it is a system that just about works… or it did, until recently.

We’re blasted constantly by the press howling about how the rise of social media is tarnishing proper accountability. Twitter making it harder for people to differentiate between fact and fiction; WhatsApp allowing the spread of false information through undetectable and encrypted channels; Facebook lacking transparency when it comes to political ads, and Pinterest… actually, Pinterest seems pretty much okay. Due to this, candidates running for public office have been able to inflate, exaggerate, or sometimes even outright lie to voters without being held to account. See Boris Johnson promising 40 new hospitals – something that was proved to be false -– but then avoiding the brutally forensic tone of Andrew Neil in a BBC interview. Likewise, Jeremy Corbyn exclaiming nobody under £80,000 would pay more tax if he was elected, yet having a suspiciously expensive spending plan.

Politicians have learnt that, in the digital era, it is in their interest to make bold and outlandish promises because any accountability they will face has been diluted considerably compared to the politicians who were in their shoes ten – or even five – years ago. The lack of risk now associated with overpromising and under delivering is a dream come true for people who want to lead. Unsurprisingly, this trend has been spilling into the business world too.

What never was: Apple AirPower
Whereas politicians at least faced fierce scrutiny from multiple institutions, business leaders are allowed to run wild. If a politician promises you easier access to GPs and doesn’t deliver, you can take your vote elsewhere. In a world dominated by powerful tech and media monopolies, it is becoming increasingly hard to take your business elsewhere. As for opposing companies holding each other to account, when Apple announced ‘AirPower’ (their all-in-one wireless charging port for all of their mobile devices) at one of their swanky, Fashion-Week-esque launches, but then failed to deliver, it wasn’t Microsoft’s job as a competitor to prioritise highlighting this failure – and rightly so: they’ve got better things to do. But because of this, CEOs find themselves only accountable to the media - who are increasingly distracted by bananas duck-taped to walls and dystopian exercise bike adverts.

Shareholders and stakeholders who would usually come down on a CEO who was found to be misleading the public, are realising it is in their financial interest to let their leaders make deceptive announcements or issue dubious press releases. They create media attention, drive up the stock price, and the media ‘gotcha’ moment is so minuscule that it is forgotten within a week, if not a day!

Think about it. When was the last time you had something delivered by drone – I’m looking at you, Amazon. Or when was the last time Tesla hit their production targets? Never. In 2018, Google CEO Sundar Pichai proudly bounded onto stage to announce Google Duplex, an AI assistant that could make calls on your behalf to small businesses. A year and a half later, Android’s synthetic voice is nowhere to be heard. This isn’t because Pichai lied. Rather he set expectations too high, only seeing the potential of the idea, not the logistical and ethical challenges he would face. Yet he circumvented any negative consequences.

Sometimes CEOs forgo the opportunity to loudly disappoint the public like Pichai. He made the mistake of announcing Duplex in an open-air theatre in San Francisco, broadcasting to hundreds of thousands around the world. However, CEOs are learning to be far less overt in their big promises. Tech companies are now well versed in filing patents for barmy ideas, as they know all too well that a significant proportion of the media dredge patent applications looking for scoops. Amazon’s flying warehouse, Apple’s vaporiser, Google’s ‘human flypaper’ - I’m not making this stuff up! These companies know what they’re doing and they also know that they’re not going to be penalised for this behaviour. Tech companies especially have taken the ‘big promises, small delivery’ model crafted by politicians and put it on acid.

How CEOs get away with it is not just the result of a lack of media scrutiny and disinterested shareholders. You also need to ask yourself what Elon Musk and Jeremy Corbyn have in common? Leadership cults. For every Corbynite in the world of politics, there’s a Musk fanboy in the world of business.

Whilst at the moment, the benefits of overpromising and under delivering seem to vastly outweigh the drawbacks, the risk lies in the fact that this is likely not a strategy that can be sustained forever. Punters aren’t dumb and will come to see the reality if a company has a track record of poor expectation management. As soon as customers become fed up, stock prices falter, shareholders wise up, and the accountability CEOs have been dodging gracefully for so long, will quickly catch up with them.

Surely, it’s only a matter of time before major statements with minor follow-through action ends very badly for a leader. But in the meantime, it’s a risk they are willing to take.

Darlington General Election Results (1922-2019)

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

I’m a joke: How a comedian *finally* told a story about me

Comedian Sean Collins at the comedy club in September 2019.
(He’s got nothing to do with this story.)
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
I was in an Italian restaurant when a voice came through my radio. The place was dimly lit and the hum of conversation filled the warm air. I was stood behind the bar frantically attempting to book three separate tables, for three separate dates, with a bartender whose jittery fingers kept lurching to the wrong buttons on the booking app, only putting me more on edge.

“Liam, the MC is here,” the voice through my radio exclaimed.

In my now-standard fashion, I rapidly departed the Italian restaurant, swaying to avoid waitresses and the backs of customers’ chairs (not very well, admittedly) and power-walked across Villiers street and back Under The Arches. There was no particular hurry; there was still 30 minutes until the first comedian took to the stage, but I leapt down the stairs in the entrance of the comedy club, striding 3 steps at a time and then back up the stairs at the opposite side of the box office.

The funniest person in the Midlands
The MC that evening was a comic named James Cook. A radio DJ turned comedian, James won the Spike Milligan award for being the funniest person in the Midlands in 2003 and has since performed over 1000 gigs — some of which were at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe.

The doors of the comedy club had just opened when I leapt up the stairs and into the comedy room. Only six customers had entered so far and at the bar next to the DJ booth stood a large white man with long grey hair — the stereotypical look of a stand-up comedian.

I got to him just as he was about to buy a couple of pints.

“Are you James?” I interrupted the transaction.

“Yes” exclaimed the MC with a smile.

“Don’t worry, I’ll get these”, I replied whilst handing the bartender a couple of drinks voucher. (It’s the least you can do to treat your comedians to a free pint or two).

I introduced myself to him, explained it was a sold out show so should be a goodun, and told him: “If you need anything else, just give us a shout.”

James and me then went our separate ways… bizarrely.

As I retreated to the DJ booth, James headed for the front row where a lady was sat waiting for him. As I watched him approach the seats, I muttered ‘fuck’ (rather to the confusion of the sound engineer) as it clicked that I’d just bought a random customer, who had coincidentally happened to be also called James, a couple of drinks; making a right old tit of myself.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage…”
An hour later, the actual MC is on stage after the first interval (it turned out he’d gone straight to the loo after entering the club and swerved me completely). He interacts with a bloke sat on the front row.

“Hello mate, what’s your name?”


“That’s a coincidence, my name is James too. Funnily enough, I’ve just been told a story about you…”

Tragically, I told this story to a colleague who pointed out that the middle aged bloke at the bar probably thought I was just flirting with him (after all, we were in Heaven). My radio and staff ID card were well hidden under my shirt and my ear piece wasn’t in yet. What this stranger saw was a twenty-something year old approach him at the bar, buy him a couple of drinks and say, “If you need anything else, just give us a shout.” The situation could have only been more suggestive if I’d winked at him and slapped his arse as I walked away.

This was originally published on Medium. Read here.

Facebook attempts to build public trust... and fails immediately.

A Biden attack ad from the Trump campaign
In audio leaked to US tech outlet The Verge earlier this month, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg riled against the suggestion of harsher government regulation of big tech, stating it would actually make election interference and hate speech more likely.

The CEO boasted about the company's superior ability to deal with these issues, slamming competitors such as Twitter: "Our investment on safety is bigger than the whole revenue of their company!”

As if by on cue, Facebook then proved how... urm... unsafe their platform was.

Only a week after Zuck's comments about safe elections and wanting to "build trust" with the public, Facebook refused to take down a Trump ad accusing former vice president Joe Biden of dodgy dealings with the Ukraine - a conspiracy theory spread by Trump that has landed him at the centre of an impeachment inquiry.

Facebook eventually took some versions of the ad down, showing they can deal with safety issues on their own platform. If only the ad hadn’t been displayed over 300,000 times before they decided it violated their policies…

Friday, 30 August 2019

Amazon relaunches dark-arts PR campaign powered by 'Borgs'

Amazon's small army of Fulfilment Centre Ambassadors began tweeting again last week about how great their employer is after the company's new ‘fulfilment centre' tours came under fire for appearing to be an attempt to undermine the endless accounts of ex-employees who have highlighted the poor working conditions in Amazon warehouses.

As part of Amazon's 'dark-arts PR campaign', fourteen 'FC Ambassador' accounts were launched in 2018 to join online conversations where they could fight Amazon's corner - countering criticism with monotonous talking points regurgitated with a 'nothing to see here' attitude. The accounts perk up every few months to parrot the same Amazon-approved lines on bathroom breaks, suitable wages, and competent management. And who would have guessed, they are also staunchly anti-unionisation - as they apparently make it difficult for employers to promote staff!

The accounts have been likened to zombie ambassadors, hive-minded Borgs, and have probably caused more bad PR for Amazon than they have sufficiently addressed. In January, the accounts began creepily changing ownership; an ambassador named Michelle who occasionally tweeted about her grandchildren regenerated into a twenty-something man named Rafael.

It is reported that on-the-floor workers selected to be ambassadors (of which at least four are British) receive an additional paid day off as well as a gift card in return for singing endless online praise for Amazon and its founder. For now, the propaganda accounts continue to be run by 100% real employees, however this is until they inevitably find a machine that can do it for cheaper - in true Amazon fashion!

Saturday, 19 January 2019

This IS what we voted for.

May survives a no-confidence vote... just
Why the current turmoil in Westminster is perfect

Whenever Londoners discuss the people who voted for Brexit, they always talk about working class men living in places like Sunderland, Scunthorpe, Stockton and other non-metropolitan places beginning with other letters of the alphabet. There’s usually a tone that denotes these people didn’t know what they were voting for, they were lied to, and given the opportunity they would now vote to remain.

Although I’m sure that is true in some cases, I’m sure that it is equally as true that for many, the current mayhem is exactly what they hoped would happen after the vote in June 2016.

For some people, voting to leave the EU wasn’t so much about Brexit as it was disrupting the political landscape and getting politicians to pull their weight for once. Yes, the clich├ęs about the European commission being undemocratic and the dangers of open borders played some part in how they cast their vote, but the real goal was to give Westminster a kick up the arse. A violent reminder to the 650 MPs that the rest of the country is still here - and they’re not happy.

After talking to people up and down the country, it seems there is a decent sized demographic who believe this. Many I’ve spoken to have a view of MPs that has not improved much since the expenses scandal almost ten years ago. MPs are perceived as money-grabbing, lazy, ignorant elites who are visible to the constituency about once every five years when another election is around the corner, but apart from that, just crop up in the local paper occasionally for a ceremonial opening of a new children’s park.

Nothing seems to change. "Vote Labour, Vote Conservative, they’re all the same” they echo. Then came along Europe. In the build-up to the 2016 referendum, everyone spoke about immigration figures and how much money was given to the EU, but a statistic that was thrown around just as much was the two thirds of British laws that come from the EU. This confirmed the belief that Parliament was lazy, and it was the EU doing the heavy lifting. Thankfully, the referendum provided the means for monumental political upheaval.

The Remain campaign somewhat helped fuel this backlash too, talking about the instability that Britain leaving the EU would cause. Columns inches were devoted to whether the traditional two-party system would survive Britain leaving the EU, the media buzzed about all the EU statutes integrated into British law that would be put in jeopardy, and economic forecasters were outspoken about the economic damage Brexit would do to the City. For those who wanted to see the elites feel uneasy for once, this was an opportunity too good to ignore.

So when you read the news this week and hear about Theresa May struggling to make it through another day in power, Jeremy Corbyn awkwardly trying to invent an all-pleasing position on Brexit, and the media whipped up in a frenzy of weak-predictions and endlessly pointing out how ‘not normal’ everything is, remember that for some this is ideal. This is bliss. For there are people who have felt for years that they have no control, are powerless, and lack a certain future… but now it’s the politicians’ turn.