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What #Boris should’ve said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

When even the usually pro-Johnson Daily Mail joins the now deafening calls for our wannabe Prime Minister to say something about that row, the MP and his advisors will know that saying nothing is no longer an option. Not that it ever was in my view. Questions, however intrusive, have to be dealt with. Because until they’re dealt with it’s nigh on impossible to move on.

But there’s a world of difference between dealing with questions and answering them. And it’s in this gap that if I was coaching the MP I’d seek to find some wriggle room to do six things:

  1. Say sorry.
  2. Say thank you.
  3. Offer some context.
  4. Concede some ground.
  5. Make a promise.
  6. Sound contrite (but without completely losing the BoJo mojo – whatever that is).

So here’s what Boris should’ve said:

“First of all thank you to our publicly-spirited neighbours for being concerned about our welfare and doing the right thing when they couldn’t raise us by ringing the doorbell. And secondly thank you to the police for responding so swiftly. Better safe than sorry is, very sensibly, their guiding principle. 

What Boris Johnson should’ve said but didn’t

“The police were quickly assured that this was nothing more than a full and frank but otherwise run-of-the-mill exchange of views between two colourful adults. 

And I would like to reassure you in turn that our only sin was to fail to realise that we were discussing matters – yes animatedly and at the end of a stressful week – a little louder than we’d realised and a little louder than is sensible with thin walls and open windows. 

Now I don’t mean to make light of matters but this was nothing more than one of those ding dongs that many, many couples have when they let off steam. To read anything more into this whole affair, to impugn my character and, more importantly, to impugn Carrie’s character is plain wrong. So too is questioning the motives of our neighbours. They did what is right and I commend them for it. To condemn them  is again plain wrong. 

I apologise for having drawn them and you all into this. In most circumstances this kind of lovers tiff would be forgotten with the kiss and make up. But I accept that running for PM is not most circumstances and you have a right – up to a point – to inquire into my private life. That’s why I’ve said what I’ve said today. I shall be saying no more on the matter if for no other reason than to give poor Carrie a break. She and I both agree that there are very many more important matters which we should be discussing and it would be a crying shame if those issues weren’t properly aired because the two of us had aired our difference of opinion so vocally. 

So forgive me if I move on.

I call this my deal with and move on approach. Compare this to the one he tried which might loosely be called the ignore and move on technique. It rarely works except where the questions you’re ignoring are trivial and the audience agrees they’re trivial and sides with you instead of the journalists asking such trivia.


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Top tips for dealing with difficult callers

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

People are getting angrier. Or certainly less reasonable. That’s what our clients are telling us as we travel across Britain delivering our dealing with difficult people training. So why? In the local government sector (and others) it’s probably linked to a decade of austerity which has led to services being reduced or withdrawn altogether and service users getting frustrated as a result. It’s also down, I’d suggest, to the general coarsening of public discourse fuelled, if not sparked, by Brexit. People hear our so-called leaders slinging insults at one another across the floor of the House of Commons and elsewhere and they, quite understandably, follow suit. After all that’s how leadership works isn’t it? Leaders lead. The rest of us follow. Leading by bad example as it were. 

Social media hasn’t helped either. Facebook, Twitter et al have led us to believe (wrongly) that we can get pretty much instant gratification. Instant likes. Instant thumbs ups. Instant responses to our problems. But so many sectors don’t run at the same dizzying speed. Complain on Twitter about your local authority in just seconds, then sit back and watch your blood pressure rise as the complaint takes days, weeks or even months to resolve.

All of which means there are more difficult people to deal with numerically and there are more difficult people to deal with behaviourally. So pity the poor people at the other end of the line getting sworn at, threatened and generally mistreated.

And I should add that frustration doesn’t just lead to anger. Sometimes it leads to tears. Callers are crying out for help – literally. Both, in their different ways, are hugely challenging for call handlers who, if they’re not managed properly, can suffer what’s called vicarious traumatisation a result. Heck, it can even lead to mental health issues if not properly addressed. Sad, mad and bad callers lead potentially to sad, mad and bad call handlers!

At ACM Training we equip call handlers with a range of tools to deal with difficult people and challenging behaviour. And we help them deal with the impact it can have on them personally and professionally so they can avoid the attendant stress and potential burnout. Here’s a list of call handling tips we drew up with the help of delegates who attended a series of short workshops at a local authority in the North West of England.

  1. Don’t interrupt them in full flow – it’ll only make matters worse.
  2. Remember angry callers are a bit like fireworks – they’ll fizzle out eventually and that’s the time to interject.
  3. Fireworks can flare up again.
  4. Try to establish why they are angry – by listening carefully and asking the right questions
  5. Agree with them – it can defuse an awkward situation, even if you only agree with a narrow part of what they’re saying.
  6. Say sorry – it costs nothing and, phrased carefully, isn’t an admission of guilt or wrongdoing.
  7. Concede some ground or stand together on the common ground to avoid shouting across the gulf of your differences.
  8. Don’t state the obvious – it antagonises angry callers.
  9. Don’t promise the undeliverable in the hope that it’ll satisfy them – they’ll see through your ruse.
  10. Make the most of what you can offer.
  11. Listen. You’ve got two ears and one mouth – use them in about that proportion!
  12. Interject regularly with little noises (uh, oh, I see, yes etc) to let them know you’re still listening.
  13. Remember their anger may be perfectly reasonable in the circumstances.
  14. Try not to take it personally – it’s not you they’re angry with but the situation or even themselves.
  15. Keep your eye on the bigger picture – they may have or need vital information.
  16. Set ground rules as soon as you reasonably can to help reduce/manage expectation and heighten appreciation.
  17. Empathise by trying to picture yourself in their situation.
  18. Sweet reason – try explaining why you need what you need from them or why you can’t help.
  19. Perspective – help them see the bigger picture and that in the scheme of things their circumstances aren’t so bad after all (assuming they aren’t!).
  20. Don’t tell them to calm down – it’ll probably have the opposite effect.
  21. Instead get them to do something practical – in concentrating on the task in hand they’ll be diverted from their anger which often springs from a feeling of impotence and helplessness.
  22. Remain calm yourself (or at the very least try to sound calm). If you respond to anger with anger the call will quickly descend in a downward spiral. Speak deliberately and clearly (not too slow because it can be read as patronising) and you’ll find there’s a chance they’ll mirror your demeanour and calm down themselves.
  23. Abusive or threatening calls should not and are not tolerated in everyday call handling and it is perfectly acceptable to terminate such a call if the abuse continues after an initial warning. However, in a genuine emergency there may need to be more flexibility and tolerance.
  24. Avoid burn out by taking frequent breaks and have a chance to offload any personal stress onto colleagues and/or supervisors. Remember a problem shared really is a problem halved. 

This post first appeared on our sister blog Difficult People.

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Dealing with difficult people (and presidents)

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

In May 1998 ACM Training’s sister company, ACP Television, filmed Bill Clinton arriving for the G8 Summit in Birmingham. The Lewinsky affair from a few years earlier was still dogging the US President. So much so that there was huge speculation surrounding the arrival of the First Lady separately aboard Air Force 2. So much so that the media were keen to secure pictures of Clinton outside the Swallow Hotel (use your imagination) where he stayed for the duration of the conference not far away at the ICC. And we thought he was a controversial figure!

So seeing Donald Trump touchdown at Stansted for his rather more controversial UK visit made us think what a difference 21 years makes. And gave us a great excuse to delve into the company archives. What we knew then but were too polite to say was that Boris arrived smelling heavily of drink (no, not that Boris, the Russian President Boris Yeltsin). What we also knew was that there was a mad scramble to find any two star fuel for Yeltsin’s Communist-era ZiL limousine and that the motorcycle outriders from West Midlands Police were convinced the car wouldn’t make it to the city centre giving them a massive security headache.

But what we didn’t know then was that our dealing with difficult people suite of courses would all these years later be our best-sellers. So for old times’ sake and in the spirit of entente cordiale we’re offering Trump (and his entourage) 10% off any of our difficult people sessions such as managing difficult teams, handling awkward conversations and tackling trade wars (actually we made up that last one). We’re convinced they’ll make an enormous contribution to world peace. And office peace for that matter. Which is why we’ve decided to extend the offer to non-Trump delegates like you. To secure your discount simply enter #TrumpUKVisit in the promotional code box when you make your next booking. But hurry – the offer ends seven days after Trump leaves UK territory.


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Formal or informal language? What toilet signs can tell us about writing for the web

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

This is the tale of two loos. Both of them at venues we use at ACM Training for our open workshops. One of them – Ort House Conference Centre in Camden – at the more traditional end of the market. The other – Waterfront Meeting Rooms in Bristol – at the funkier end. Now I’ve nothing against traditional or funky per se. But it’s funny how the signage at the two venue follows suite.

“We will endeavour to fix the issue in a timely manner,” asserts the sign from the Building & Facilities Team (their capitals) at Ort House when, in truth, the team is probably just a bloke with a spanner who doesn’t speak like that in real life – the bloke, that is, not the spanner.

By comparison the Waterfront sign is much less formal and the writer has even thought about the audience by appealing directly to younger gents (I can’t vouch whether the same sign appears in the ladies) with the “or your parents’ home” line.

Now you could argue that a sign on a toilet wall doesn’t really matter because people’s impression of the venues is based on so much more – the friendliness of the reception staff, the cleanliness of the facilities, the airiness of the training rooms. And that’s certainly true with face-to-face businesses. But what about those businesses whose customers only transact with them online in a virtual sense? Or those where the initial contact is via a website or blog? Then words really matter because, like the reception staff in this example, they are for many people the first point of contact. And first impressions matter.

So if you’re writing for websites instead of toilet signs you need to think long and hard about the most appropriate use of language. For most organisations conversational but purposeful is best. That and plain English. Have a ponder next time you visit the loo.

By the way, I have endeavoured, on behalf of ORT House, to fix the linguistic issue in a timely manner so here, for what it’s worth, is my alternative…

If it’s broke we’ll fix it. You just need to let us know.

If your website is broke (linguistically that is) we’ll help you fix it.Or, better still, we can train you to fix it yourself. Either way you just need to let us know.


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“Right Royal chump leaves BBC” – how Danny Baker became Twitter’s latest twit.

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes
Danny Baker: still smiling as he’s doorstepped by reporters following his sacking by the BBC.
Image credit: PA

He’s not on the BBC’s list of top earners, so we can safely assume Danny Baker was paid less than £150,000 a year for his Saturday morning job at Radio 5 Live. But getting the sack for tweeting a picture of a smartly dressed chimp captioned “royal baby leaves hospital” was an expensive mistake all the same – both financially and reputationally.

Of course, he’s not the first to, dare I say, make such a chump of himself on the social web. And he definitely won’t be the last. So what is it about Twitter that leads so many people who should know better to say silly things?

“Facility and immediacy combined are a toxic mix.”

Richard Uridge, social media trainer, ACM Training

Facility, that is ease of use, is the first part of the problem. Speed is the second part. The two together make a toxic mix. The ubiquity of mobile phones with their always on apps leads to what I call instant quips: words and images that we realise, too late (post post if you will ), are really not that funny or, worse still, potentially offensive. If we had to go home or back to the office and login via a dial-up internet connection (remember them?) we’d have time for reflection.

There’s a third component in the Danny Baker case. Journalists and, in particular, those working in live broadcasting thrive on the buzz. Believe me I’ve been there. It’s like a drug. In fact it is a drug – just a naturally occurring one called dopamine. So tweeting leads to a natural high. And, just like junkies, the more you tweet the more you need to get the same level of high. Until one day you overdose.

So what’s the answer? Short of coming over all cold turkey and deleting your Twitter account(s), I recommend you follow my seven minute rule as a part of a social media policy. It works a bit like a longer version of the seven second delay on early radio broadcasts which meant that bloopers and profanities could be stopped before they made it to air. Wait seven minutes – you really won’t miss the party – and if the tweet still works* for you and, crucially, your target audience then by all means hit the tweet button. And if it doesn’t? Then use the next seven minutes to change it until it does.

*By works for you I mean is the tweet or social media post purposeful in that it helps move you even a small step towards your personal or organisational objectives? By works for your audience I mean is the tweet likely to be received in the way it was intended. If the answer to one or the other question or both is no then at best you’re simply adding to the white noise on the social web and at worst you’re going to land yourself a P45. Just ask Danny Baker.


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How #tweetyourthesis can help academics prepare for media interviews

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

The #tweetyourthesis hashtag has been doing the social media rounds in higher education since it was coined by Susan Greenberg, a lecturer at Roehampton in 2012. Or that’s what my own very cursory and possibly unreliable Google-based research tells me. Whatever the hashtag’s origin, it quickly caught on as a way of letting off a bit of steam between postgrads to relieve the pain of knocking out (😭) a 50,000 word research paper. But after spending an enjoyable and productive afternoon media training scientists at the University of Birmingham (including a PhD student about to start writing up her thesis), it struck me that this harmless bit of fun is a brilliant way of helping prepare all academics for media interviews whether they’re talking about their actual theses or some other research.

Why? Because turning your thesis into a Tweet (even if you don’t publish it) can help you synthesise what your research is about from a layperson’s perspective and become a better communicator to external audiences as a result. After all, #sciencecommunication is vitally important but that’s another hashtag! Back to #tweetyourthesis …

It’s a highly reductive process. Turning 50,000 words or more into 280 characters or fewer is a challenge. But doing media is a challenge. Not least because it too is a highly reductive process with that 20 minute interview (at 3 words per second approximately 3,600 words) being edited down to a 20 second soundbite (of about 60 words). So better get used to it before the interview and, if you actually #tweetyourthesis , crowdsource advice from others who’ve been there, done that, got the Today programme tee shirt (it has a picture of John Humphries on the front and a Rottweiler on the back).

Here at ACM Training I use a planning matrix to help academics (and others for that matter) prepare for interviews. It sounds rather lofty and students of a certain age are often disappointed when I don’t conjure Keanu Reeves from my training tool box. But when all is said and done it’s simply a piece of paper or screen divided into three columns. Column one is where you jot down the three most important features of your research – let’s call them key messages. These shouldn’t necessarily be what’s most interesting to you but what’s most interesting from the audience’s perspective. Column two is where you choose up to three facts or figures to evidence those messages. And column three is for the narrative or stories that provide illustration. Think of column one aiding brevity, column two understanding or rationality, column three the emotionally engaging stuff and all three together the clarity and relevance. I then ask my trainees to practice extemporising a series of 20-30″ soundbites from their matrices using the stopwatch or countdown timer on their smartphones to keep them honest.

I like playing #tweetyourthesis too, although, of course, I wouldn’t dream of actually Tweeting your thesis (and I haven’t started mine yet). So here’s my effort at taking the editor’s proverbial red pen to the academics I met earlier this week. You know who you are. And, if I’ve done a half decent job, your colleagues should recognise you from what I’ve written. Feel free to copy, paste and Tweet what follows from your own social media accounts – using the #tweetyourthesis hashtag, naturally. Or, better still, come up with your own version and Tweet that instead.

A quantum clock so accurate if you set it to midnight at Big Bang it’d only be a second out nearly 14 billion years later. (That’s today). One that potentially could make navigation systems more accurate especially in remote areas hidden from the gaze of satellites. [266 characters]

Birmingham University quantum physicist

A contact lens-size sticking plaster with tiny grooves on its surface that encourages collagen (think human scaffolding) to heal without scarring, could save the sight of million and reduce the physiological and psychological impact of other scars. [248 characters]

Birmingham University biochemical engineer

Atoms harnessed to measure tiny changes in gravity to help us “see” below the surface. Like Newton’s apple but smaller and colder. Research that could be applied to roadworks and save us hours sitting in avoidable traffic jams and £ millions in lost productivity. [263 characters]

Birmingham University metrologist

It’s worth noting the #tweetyourthesis hashtag started when Tweets were limited to 140 characters. Now you’ve got 280. Easy innit?

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Blogging – the perfect excuse for working from home

Approx. reading time: < 1 minute
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The #Gatwick #drone part 2 – what the policeman should have said

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And yes, it’s easy to be wise after the event. But in my previous post on the Gatwick drone incident I promised I’d suggest an alternative – and hopefully better – response to the one that prompted lurid headlines and landed Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley in hot water with his Chief Constable and the Government.

The BBC News presenter asked him, you may remember, what turned out to be a trick question: “Are you even considering the possibility that there may not have been genuine drone sightings in the first place?”

By answering it the way he did – conceding the point – Det Ch Supt Tingley set a proverbial hare running which proved hard to stop. Denying the journalist’s contention outright wouldn’t have been advisable either because (mixing metaphors hopelessly) he’d have boxed himself into a corner if it turned out there wasn’t, in fact, a drone. My version doesn’t ignore the question but lets the facts speak for themselves and, in turn, allows the audience to draw its own conclusions.

Police officer:  “We’re investigating more than a hundred sightings – not just from members of the public but from police officers and airport staff too. Some of those sightings may, of course, be duplicates (several different people reporting the same thing). Some may be genuine mistakes (people seeing what they think is a drone but which turns out to have been something else – a bird of prey for example). Some could be made up for malicious reasons. But all that said we have to act on the information given.

“Aviation is, quite rightly, a risk-averse industry. A collision between an aircraft and a drone could be calamitous. So we have a duty to do all we can to keep people safe. We exercise what we call the precautionary principle – better safe than sorry in other words. Now I understand that the impact of all this is huge and I’d like to add my apologies to those of the airport and airlines for the disruption caused. I’d also like to thank the public for their continued patience and understanding. I’d like to pay tribute to my police colleagues, airport and airline staff, the Civil Aviation Authority and now the Army for their hard work in getting Gatwick back to normal as soon as it’s safe to do so. And I’d like to reiterate my determination to bring those responsible to justice. Let me be absolutely clear. We are investigating a crime.”

Compare this to what Det Ch Supt Tingley actually said.

Now I fully accept I had several hours to carefully consider my response compared to the detective who almost certainly only had several minutes and was also shouldering heavy responsibilities as the SIO (senior investigating officer). That said the purpose of media and crisis communications training it to have the benefit of foresight. Foresight, of course, is not as good and never as accurate as hindsight but it’s certainly better than being blind-sided. Plan for the worst, hope for the best and be flexible.

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Schrödinger’s drone – three crisis comms lessons from the Gatwick closure

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley probably didn’t have the best of breaks. He’s the Sussex police officer who admitted in an interview just before Christmas that there may not have been a drone at all – despite the numerous reported sightings that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill over two days, disrupted 1,000 flights and affected 140,000 passengers.

Following a hastily arranged conference call with Government ministers, Tingley’s remark was explained away as “poor communications.” His press office issued a clarification. And then his boss, Sussex Chief Constable Giles York, appeared to contradict him, stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed.”

Giles went on to say that his officer “was trying to describe an investigative approach, that asks ‘how can we prove the presence of the drone in the first place?’” But he conceded Tingley’s remark had “amplified the chaos” surrounding the incident.

So what can be learned from the curious incident of the drone which, not unlike Schrödinger’s Cat, appears simultaneously to have been both present and not present? Here’s my analysis of the original exchange on BBC News and three lessons for all of us involved in media, PR and communications. Once you’ve had a look a what I have to say please subscribe to our blog and the ACM Training YouTube channel (if you haven’t already).

So what should the Detective Chief Super have said? I’ll be making a suggestion or two in the next post.


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#O2down – 11 crisis comms lessons from the mobile company’s data outage

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

I was one of the estimated 32 million customers affected by O2’s data outage. And like many of those customers I took to Twitter under the hash tag #O2down. But in my case not to criticise the company. No, I wanted to thank O2 for providing me with a crisis communications case study. There’s a lot, I believe, other organisations  can learn from its approach – whatever sector they’re in: high tech, low tech; for profit, not-for-profit.

  1. Acknowledge there’s a problem as soon as it’s evident there is a problem. These days there’s nowhere to hide – especially for data companies like O2 whose very business model is information exchange.
  2. Monitor social media. For bigger organisations at least, keeping an eye on social is a great way of staying as close to the proverbial curve as possible (despite what others may tell you keeping ahead of it is nigh on impossible in crisis comms).  In our always-on world (or nearly  always on in O2’s case) the initial indication of trouble often comes from customers rather than from colleagues.
  3. Apologise. Saying sorry costs nothing. Not saying sorry costs a whole heap more in the long run. Saying sorry isn’t an admission of guilt. It’s a strength, not a weakness. And, contrary to popular belief, it won’t make a scrap of difference if or when it comes to litigation. In fact, damages are likely to be lower as a consequence of an early apology. 
  4. Don’t blame. Nobody likes a snitch so blaming somebody else for your travails will only exacerbate the problem. In O2’s case it looks as if the problem was with expired software licences at one of its suppliers, Ericsson. So it might have been tempting for the company to say, in effect, “not our fault guv.” But I heard nobody from O2 say anything of the sort. That said O2 didn’t hide the fact that Ericsson was involved which leads on to my  next point…
  5. Be open and honest. Don’t dissemble. Keep your “customers” (or other stakeholders) in the loop. Let them know what you know as you know it. And also let them know what you don’t know. I know this sounds suspiciously Rumsfeldian but there’s no shame in the  early stages of a crisis not to have the complete picture. It’s the inevitable fog of war. There is shame, however, in holding back important information like the loss of sensitive customer data. You don’t want them to feel as if critical information has been dragged from you. 
  6. Actions speak louder than words. Words are all very well but they can sound rather hollow if they’re not backed up with action. O2 apologised almost immediately (see point 3) but very quickly followed that up with an offer of compensation. Now that doesn’t just sound like sorry if feels like sorry too.
  7. Be generous. Most of O2’s customers lost only a day’s data. But they were offered two days worth of credit as a gesture of goodwill. That’s likely cost the company millions of pounds more than if it only made up for the actual loss. Now, it may yet recover the cost from Ericsson so you could argue it’s being generous with somebody else’s money. But nonetheless this goodwill will almost certainly be worth every penny. And while we’re on the subject, offer compensation (it doesn’t have to be financial) before it’s demanded. 
  8. Get the tone right. It’s not just what you say but how you say it. Saying sorry through gritted teeth grates. So does telling people you’re being open an honest with them but with your arms folded firmly across your chest. Your verbal, para-verbal and non-verbal communication are pulling in different directions.  Have some humility. Don’t be overly apologetic (it can sound insincere). But don’t be flippant either. O2 made sure its communication – digital and analogue – struck the right tone, walking the fine line between light  (on social especially) and heavy. The outage was inconvenient for most, serious for some. But ultimately nobody died and the tone conveyed that.
  9. Don’t overpromise. It’d be crazy for O2 to tell us it won’t happen again. But the company made it clear it had learned from the situation conveying the more realistic and credible message that it’s less likely to happen again.
  10. Don’t under do the thanks. Thank your customers for their patience and understanding. Thank your staff for working hard to resolve the problem. Even thank your suppliers – even if they were to blame (see point 4)!
  11. Turn a negative into a PR positive. The episode will end up costing O2 and Ericsson millions. Giffgaff (one of the smaller providers affected) has made it easy for it’s customers to donate their compensation directly to charity. It won’t change the Giffgaff bill – its financial capital will decrease. But its social capital will increase. Smart move. Cost neutral. PR positive.

This post is also available as a podcast in ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series. You can listen to the original there or below.


If you’d like to join Richard at his next open, public, crisis communications workshop in either London or Manchester he’d love to see you. And as a follower of the ACM Training blog you can book your place for just £99 between now and December 31st – a Christmas saving of £80.