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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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Blogging – the perfect excuse for working from home

Approx. reading time: 1 minute
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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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Time management for time wasters – minimising distractions

Approx. reading time: 4 minutes

Procrastination is the thief of time

The old proverb needs rewriting. It should read distraction is the thief of time. Because since the saying was penned by the poet, Edward Young, in the 18th century, distractions have grown to become the bigger criminal. In fact, I’d argue they’re now the biggest crook of all when it comes to time wasting. Way ahead of not keeping a to do list, multi-tasking and failing to prioritise.

Young wasn’t distracted by smart phones when he was writing Night Thoughts where the line first appeared. He felt no uncontrollable Pavlovian urge to scan news websites every time he heard a corny jingle. Wasn’t constantly checking his social media accounts for thumbs and hearts. Or snowed under drifts of non-urgent emails. His was a simpler life. Shorter I’ll grant you. But the price we pay for progress – for literally living longer – is that we waste more and more of that extra time on pointless, frivolous and unproductive tasks. Little wonder we’re becoming less and less efficient.

Some studies reckon we waste up to two hours a day at work by being distracted. I’d argue that in some organisations that’s a conservative estimate. Indeed, the Institute for Public Policy Research in it’s report Prosperity and Justice: a plan for the new economy, highlights the fact that productivity in the UK is 13% lower than in other G7 countries. But whatever’s being lost why waste the most precious commodity of all? So if you’re serious about getting back some of that invaluable time, to become more efficient, more productive, then learning how to manage distractions and interruptions is a really important part of time management. And as a consequence I can say, without a hint of irony, that it’s something delegates spend a fair bit of time on in my time management workshops at ACM Training.

So if you haven’t got the time to attend (and, of course, I think you should make the time) here are my top five tips for managing distractions:

  1. Recognise what’s truly distracting you in the first place by listing the source of the distraction every time you’re distracted over, say, a period of a week. The distractions are very likely to be digital – text, email and social media pop ups for example. But don’t forget to list the analogue too – a noisy office, and open door, a room with a view…
  2. Switch off, shut out or turn your back on those distractions that you can reasonably do so to. In digital terms that means going into your phone, tablet or computer settings (and preferably all three because of multi-screening) and switching off audio and visual notifications. Better still, turn off the phone entirely. In analogue terms it might mean closing your office door and putting up an old-fashioned do not disturb sign or rearranging the office furniture so that you’re not endlessly daydreaming over the view from the window.
  3. Limit those distractions that are genuinely unavoidable. For example, you may be on call and, therefore, unable to switch off your phone. You can always turn it face down to avoid visual alerts but still hear the ring (generally we’re more easily distracted by vision than by sound). Can you limit email receives to once an hour or even less frequently? The always on, always available attitude may make us feel important but it’s rarely necessary in most workplace settings.
  4. Take regular breaks. If you’re hungry or tired, getting deep vein thrombosis from sitting still for too long or out of breath from rushing about too much take it easy, if only for five minutes. Abraham Maslow was right – we simply can’t ignore our physiological needs and the harder we try to ignore them the more distracted by them we are. If you try concentrating on a really important task on an empty stomach (and, therefore, an energy-deprived brain) I can guarantee you’ll be distracted. So stop. And during your break by all means be distracted momentarily by all those things you’ve listed in point one. Think of it as your reward. I call it compartmentalising. You have a big compartment for work. You have a smaller one for distractions. Not one big noisy space where they all compete for your attention. Because the distractions win pretty much every time. They’ve been designed that way. Attractive distractions if I can coin another phrase.
  5. Schedule the most important stuff for times when you’re least likely to be distracted. That might be early mornings before everybody else has got to work (or got up if you work from home). Or it might be in the evening when everyone else has gone home (or to bed). I’m a big believer in handheld technology freeing us from the constraints – and distractions – of the desk or office. Sitting in the corner of a coffee shop where nobody disturbs you because nobody knows you. Pecking away at your tablet screen to finish that annual report. Or blog post. Now how about a slice of cake (see point 4) or, better still, a bag of nuts?

I should add that these points refer mainly to what could loosely be called external, physical distractions. But, of course, we can also be mightily distracted by the internal, mental and emotional stuff swirling around in our heads and hearts. I’ll make dealing with these the subject of a separate post in this occasional series, Time Management for Time Wasters. If I can find the time!

Sandy Keating

This poster on the London Underground reminded me there are “internal” distractions too!

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Crisis communications planning – is it a waste of time?

Approx. reading time: 3 minutesHeard of a chap called Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke the Elder? No, nor had I! But odds are you have heard of one of his quotes…

No plan survives contact with the enemy.

Actually that’s not quite what the Prussian Chief of Staff said (more of which later) but for now I want to ask if the same can be said of communications plans? Are they any more likely to survive contact with a crisis than battle plans with foes? If my recent experience working with a second tier responder to the Grenfell Tower disaster is anything to go by, the short answer is no.

Reviewing their response to the tragedy, I was astounded to be told that they hadn’t, in fact, activated their emergency plan. They’d simply been too busy in the immediate fallout of the fire to even think of it. And by the time they did, several days later, it hardly seemed worth bothering. To this day I’m not sure they’ve looked at the plan.

In effect there was no contact with the enemy, so who knows if it would have survived? Which is a pity because the plan may have worked – at least in part – and led to a better response* than the actual one. And even in failure it might have been instructive by making comms plans for future crises more robust.

What, then, can we learn from this peculiar affair?

Well the first lesson, surely, is that unless crisis comms plans are regularly reviewed and rehearsed, they’ll be forgotten or ignored at the very moment they were designed to help. Risk-averse industries like aviation and nuclear power are required, by law, to practice for emergencies so that if, or when, an actual emergency unfolds everybody is well versed in how to respond – both at an operational level and at a media, PR and communications level. At ACM Training we help a number of clients such as the nuclear decommissioning company, Magnox, achieve the realism necessary to make the rehearsals effective and the learning long lasting. For example, we provide what we call pseudo media news crews to act exactly as the media would in reality, asking awkward questions, sticking cameras and microphones where they’re really not welcome or expected. And now, with social media playing such a significant role in crisis comms, we have the ability to test an organisation’s online response to an event through our socialmediatestbed.com tool.

For the second learning point we need to go back to von Moltke and examine what he actually said:

The tactical result of an engagement forms the base for new strategic decisions because victory or defeat in a battle changes the situation to such a degree that no human acumen is able to see beyond the first battle. In this sense one should understand Napoleon’s saying: ‘I have never had a plan of operations.’ Therefore no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.

If we swap the word battle for crisis and think of victory and defeat in terms of positive and negative outcomes, what von Moltke is saying, in effect, is that no communications plan can extend with any certainty beyond the first contact with a major crisis. And I’m inclined to agree. In my experience no anticipated, planned and rehearsed version of events has ever been close to the actual version. In most cases the imagined event is a lot worse than the actual event (perhaps that’s because emergency planners have overwrought imaginations or are just plain pessimists). Rarely is the reality worse, although it was undoubtedly so with Grenfell. In all cases the reality is different. But does this mean that crisis communications planning is a waste of time?

Again, let’s turn to von Moltke for some beyond-the-grave advice. Despite what he said he wasn’t an advocate of going into battle without any plan at all. He was an advocate, however, of flexibility. And so it should be in crisis comms. Have a plan. But be prepared to adapt it as circumstances change.

Please don’t leave it in the cupboard.

* In fairness perhaps I should have said an even better response, because unlike, say, the council, my client’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire is considered to have been good including by those directly affected by the disaster.


 

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Chequers Mate – how to break the deadlock in negotiations

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesBeyond Boris’s inelegant turd-polishing outburst exactly what went on behind the heavy doors and high windows of Chequers during the Cabinet’s Brexit awayday negotiations will be kept secret under the Thirty Year Rule. And by the time the minutes are released to the National Archive Brexit may have been such an unalloyed success/disaster (delete depending on your own disposition) that only the nerdiest constitutional historians pore over them. But we don’t have to wait until 2048 to find out because ACM Training’s mediation and negotiation techniques trainer, Sandy Keating, has imagined, in her inimitable Australian way, how the discussions might have been handled…

Even before the ministerial limousines started sweeping down the narrow Buckinghamshire lanes, the most eagle-eyed hacks would have noticed an Office Depot van turn into the Chequers’ driveway. In the back a stack of flipchart pads and a dozen or so boxes of fat felt pens. You really can’t negotiate without these tools of the trade. Oh, and Post It notes. Everybody loves Post It notes although, because this was a Conservative get together, the driver was told in no uncertain terms not to bring any of those pinko lefty ones. Or orange ones for that matter because the colour would remind them too much of Nick Clegg. In fact, the only exception to the fifty shades of blue rule was to be several rolls of crimson sticky tape to mark out those uncrossable red lines.

Joking aside, the language you use in negotiation is important. All this talk of red lines is incendiary. It’s perfectly acceptable to make clear you have a position that would be difficult or impossible to give way on. But you must articulate it in an even-tempered way. Cool heads and dispassionate language are, or at least should be, the order of the day. Because, of course, once tempers flare and people start taking things personally positions tend to become entrenched.

When this happens and people are deadlocked I suggest both (or more) parties work separarely in break out groups and list what they want – which is where those flipcharts and pens come in. Then I ask them, in discussion, to put that list in order of importance. The items at the top will necessarily be the things they’re not prepared to give up. But in order to keep those things maybe they are prepared – willing even – to give way on some of the items towards the bottom of the list.

It may seem very old fashioned in this age of tablets and smarphones but actually writing stuff down – making a mark on a piece of paper – is a penny drop moment for so many of the people I’ve trained to negotiate and mediate. When the sides come back together to compare and contrast notes it’s almost always easier to see (literally) the negotiation in terms of WIN-WIN-lose-lose rather than WIN-LOSE. What’s the difference? Well I’ve used upper and lower case letters to emphasise that in order for both sides to win big they both have to lose small – rather than one side winning big at the expense of the other losing big.

The challenge with the Brexit negotiations at a UK-EU level is that one side at least doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Perhaps there weren’t enough flips charts in the back of that van. Possibly they forgot to order enough BluTack. Or, more likely, the caretaker at Chequers wouldn’t let them stick it on the antique wallpaper. That’ll be it. We’re coming unstuck literally and metaphorically.

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Choreographing your presentation – what presenters and public speakers can learn from dancers

Approx. reading time: 4 minutesImagine paying good money to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, only for the dancers to be rooted to the spot throughout the performance. Static. Unmoving. You’d demand a refund.

In ballet, beauty springs from movement and choreographers think long and hard about how dancers use the full extent of the stage, where they position themselves in relation to one another and the audience and which steps to take –  a pas de deux maybe or a pas de chat.

And so it should be in presentations, with speakers giving similar consideration to the choreography of their performances. Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that this means pulling on a pink tutu and sashaying across the boardroom floor but simply injecting some more modest, naturalistic movement into your presentation in a way that compliments your words – energises them even – rather than detracts from them.

Don’t mess with my tutu

Too many presenters I’ve seen (or rather haven’t) stay hidden behind the lectern throughout. And those who do show us their legs often pace nervously up and down an imaginary track and I end up worrying more about the carpet than I do listening to what’s being said.

I get why presenters stay close to the lectern. It’s where their notes are and, looking out at the sea of faces that is the audience, they fret that if they swim too far from this presentational lifebelt they’ll end up drowning. Trouble is that, in a big auditorium in particular, the lectern is usually stage left or right which means you’re closer to one side of the audience than the other. And while the extra distance between you and those opposite may not be an obvious distraction, subconsciously at least, it may leave those farthest away feeling somehow left out.

A lectern house left (stage right) is a long way from the audience sitting diametrically opposite in the back rows.

Mind the gap

And so it is with the people in the cheap seats at the back, again, of the bigger venues. They can feel ignored if you don’t do something to literally or metaphorically close the gap between you and them. Literally closing the gap might mean coming down off the stage (with a radio microphone if the event is that big), walking along the aisle to the back of the auditorium and delivering a section of your talk from there. Metaphorical gap closers include spoken ones – “can you hear me alright back there?” – and unspoken ones such as making eye contact with people in all quadrants of the audience, not just those closest to you. A really good tip I was given years ago is to divide the audience into quarters (or sixths in bigger venues), pick a friendly face in each section (front left, front right, middle left, middle right, etc.) and make eye contact with them periodically. Because of something called parallax it appears as if you’re looking at everybody in each section rather than just one.

Come out come out wherever you are

Now in order to feel comfortable moving away from that lectern or desk and your notes means weaning yourself off those notes, so I’ll make that the subject of another post. But before that let’s explore the consequences of too much movement.

Carpets have feelings too

I’ve written elsewhere about nervousness and posted a 10 point plan for tackling it. Suffice to say that when our mind is racing our body often follows suit. So we pace up and down. And for the audience it can be a bit like watching a game of tennis where we’re the ball and their eyes swivel from left to right and back again ad nauseam which, in Latin incidentally, means literally ‘to sickness.’ Remember audiences (and carpets for that matter) have feelings so don’t overdo the movement. With practice it’ll become instinctive. Just as the movement does for those ballerinas.

Form and function

If too much movement can be distracting, it follows that the right amount can be attracting. What we should aspire to then is movement that is meaningful. Meaningful because it grabs the audience’s attention; gives people a chance to move around in their seats (and so prevents deep vein thrombosis); adds value to your words. By adding value I mean that your movement is actually making a point. Let me explain by giving a real life example.

A Third Sector presentation I recently helped choreograph was designed to get people to stop and think about the scourge of rough sleeping. The words went something like this…

“You’re walking down the street. It’s like a minefield. You’re navigating around other pedestrians who’re paying more attention to their mobile phones than the pavement ahead. Picking a route that avoids the beggars who are up. And tip toeing past the rough sleepers who’re down.”

Now these words could have been delivered statically from behind a lectern. But I’d argue they had twice the impact because they were delivered while the presenter was walking along an imaginary pavement, the actions mirroring the words.

Actions speak louder than words

If you want your audience to stop and think about the point you’ve just made, stop and think yourself. If you want your audience to take action, be active. If your presentation needs a moment of reflection, of quiet contemplation, then slow down and stop. If you’re excited, look excited. And, of course, sound excited. Which brings me on to a subject for a future post – musicology, or how to use your voice as a musical instrument and play all the right notes in your next presentation.

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In defence of spam: why post-GDPR unsolicited email is still a legitimate and legal marketing tool

Approx. reading time: 5 minutesHere’s a confession that I bet not many company bosses are prepared to make publicly: we’re still sending unsolicited bulk emails.

Call it crazy and suicidal post-GDPR but believe me it’d be crazy and suicidal not to. Let’s face it, spam works. It works better than throwing money at Google and Facebook. It works better than enhancing one’s profile by blogging 🙂  And if it didn’t work it wouldn’t be a problem. So in my mind the question isn’t a practical one, it’s an ethical and legal one.

Like many such issues, a lot of it is down to interpretation. So who’s right? The professor of English who wrote to us “f*ck off and die you f*cking spamming c^nts.”  The professor of haematology who wrote “I don’t recall you getting my permission to send me marketing emails. That’s now illegal.” Or the professor of clinical epidemiology who wrote “I wish to recommend your training strongly to colleagues.”

This is a true story that I’m calling the Tale of Three Professors…

Professor One

I’ll say this for our first correspondent: he had an impressive grip of the Anglo Saxon vernacular. But, that aside, did he (and it usually is a he) really need to be quite so explicit in his request to be removed from our mailing list? It’s not like we tried to sell him Viagra. Or a night of unbridled passion. Maybe that was the problem. We’re a training company. Selling training, not little blue pills. Not so very different to the education his university is selling.

The first prof’s complaint (if that’s what you can call it) arrived before GDPR came into effect in May 2018. It was a golden age where we took the admittedly relaxed view that most people didn’t mind receiving the occasional unsolicited marketing email and even those, like him, who did were well worth the hassle. The gearing was something like one complaint to every 10,000 emails. Needless to say we removed his name from our prospect list (after pointing out that his institution might take a dim view of its servers being used for such colourful language) and haven’t heard from him since.

Professor Two

Our less bilious haematologist complained post-GDPR. So is, as he claims, sending a marketing email without the receiver’s consent illegal? Depends who you ask. It boils down to how you interpret something in GDPR called legitimate interest. The term is loosely defined – perhaps deliberately – as something that is in a business’s best interest to do. Chasing an unpaid invoice by emailing the head of accounts is clearly a legitimate interest – irrespective of whether or not the head of accounts has given you permission to send them that email. What is less clear is whether marketing and, in particular, sending an unsolicited email, constitutes a legitimate business interest which, in effect, trumps an individual’s right to privacy. We’d need a fourth professor – a student of law let’s say – to answer that one.

They’d need to consider whether there’s  a “relevant and appropriate” relationship between the data subject (the person you’re emailing) and the data controller (you or somebody in your business). Using the invoice example from before, clearly there would be such a relationship. But just because we’ve worked with one institution does that relationship extend to similar individuals in similar organisations? In other words could we rely on legitimate interest to justify sending an email to a member of staff in university B because we’d worked with a member of staff in university A?

Under GDPR our imaginary fourth professor would also need to bear in mind that legitimate interest has to be balanced against the receiver’s rights or freedoms. I’d argue that receiving one or two unsolicited emails does nothing to significantly infringe the receiver’s rights providing one offers clear and easy instructions how to stop receiving future offers and doesn’t continue to send unsolicited material after a stop request.

Professor Three

Our final correspondent is, in essence, exactly why we reach out to new customers. “Reach out” is, I’ll readily admit while I’m in confessional mode, a euphemism for send an unsolicited email to. But that’s exactly how we reached out to him. He’d not heard of ACM Training before. Did some research. Asked around. Took a punt. Came along one of our public training sessions. And so began a long and fruitful relationship with him and his institution. I’d argue (and I’m convinced he’d agree) that ACM Training has benefited financially and his university has benefited educationally from our training.

We need more of him, especially now. Open-minded individuals who don’t see the world in a binary way: all unsolicited email is spam; all businesses who send unsolicited email are bad; all unsolicited offers are dodgy; all spammers are scammers…

Business has had a tough time of it over the past few years and Government incompetence over the handling of Brexit is making it tougher still with many companies sitting on their money at least until there’s some clarity over the UK’s position in Europe. And GDPR has only made it even harder.

I’m not after sympathy. All I ask before you get shouty or sweary or legalistic is that consider the alternatives:

  1. So you don’t want what we’re offering or you have a rule never to buy anything from anybody who’s ever sent you an unsolicited email? That’s okay. We get that. It was always a long shot anyway.
  2. Spare a thought for the sender. Just like you, they’re trying to pay their bills, feed and clothe their families and have enough left at the end of the month for a few luxuries.
  3. Reaching out to potential new customers in all sorts of ways is a legitimate and necessary function of business. Sending emails is one of those ways. Without it employees and taxes don’t get paid. Companies go broke. The economy suffers. And ultimately roads don’t get fixed, hospitals don’t get built and universities don’t get research funding.
  4. Ask yourself if you’re (a) genuinely not interested in the product or service being offered or (b) potentially interested but not right now. If the answer’s (a) then go straight to point five. If the answer’s (b) then skip to point eight.
  5. Delete the offending email. It takes under a second. Even if you have to delete 50 that’s still a lot less time than writing to complain.
  6. Follow the remove procedure. Reputable companies will display it prominently and act upon it swiftly. Disreputable companies won’t but then writing to them won’t work either.
  7. Bear in mind that you may have several email aliases pointed to the same address and, if so, ask for those to be removed too.
  8. If after all that you still get unsolicited emails from the same source then by all means complain to the sender and, if that doesn’t work, to the ICO.
  9. Be open minded. Not all unsolicited emails are phishing for your bank details, offering little blue pills or a night of unbridled passion with the man/woman of your dreams (delete as appropriate). Some are selling goods and services that you might actually want or need or offer better value than your existing supplier. So at least have a look when you have a spare moment. And then, if you’re really not interested, go back to point five.
  10. There always has to be a point ten. Nobody has nine point lists. Five, yes. Twenty, yes. But nine? No.

Since posting this quite a few of my business friends have made an important additional point: that when it comes to e-marketing there’s a world of difference between B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-consumer). The rules, they say, were written largely with the consumer in mind and that the dimmest view will be taken of those companies that post GDPR continue to bombard individuals at their personal (my italics) email addresses. Many companies will, they believe, continue to send unsolicited email to corporate addresses.

So, once again, it comes down to interpretation. In this case what constitutes a personal email address. Is professor.pat.pending@anywhere.ac.uk personal? Or, because it was provided to him by the University of Anywhere by dint of his work there, a corporate one? We’ve taken the view that an email address that an individual has to set up – e.g. richarduridge@gmail.com – is personal and we try our very best not to send to these unsolicited. But if the address is issued by your organisation’s IT department and you’ve only got it while you’ve got the job then it’s corporate. Of course, the line between the two isn’t neat. So we’re not expecting the complaints to stop anytime soon!