Category Archives: advertising power

How Smart is Tim being?

Invariably I find myself examining the way in which large organisations seek to deceive us by using evasive and misleading language.

But there are occasions when senior executives speak directly and with clarity – and that, not least because it is so rare, can be just as revealing.

And it is particularly interesting when the senior figures of one organisation change the approach from the former to the latter.

Take what has happened this week at the Southern Health Authority when its chairman was questioned on the BBC about the decision to give a new job to the organisation’s chief executive Katrina Percy.

Ms Percy had been under pressure to resign since the publication of a highly critical report last December on Southern Health’s failure to investigate hundreds of death.

Initially Southern Health resorted to a long and evasive statement in which its lawyers and PR department used every trick in the book to evade responsibility. I highlighted this at the time –

Eventually the trust’s chairman was replaced but, despite robust criticism from relatives of those who died and politicians, Ms Percy remained in her job until last week; then she was moved to a new £240,000 a year job which had been specifically created for her.

What is particularly interesting is the way Smart, who took over as chair four months ago, responded to questions on Ms Percy’s new job.

And I should say here that Smart has worked in senior positions in the public and private sector for many years so knows what he is doing when he appears before a television camera – and he also many lawyers and PR executives to provide him with evasive answers to every possible question.

Look at this exchange with a BBC interviewer.

  1. Did the new job exist before Katrina (Percy) took it?

Smart. The work needed to be done.

  1. That is not a yes or no. Did the new job exist before Katrina took it?

Smart. No

  1. Did you advertise that job so other people could apply?

Smart. No

  1. Was Katrina the only candidate?

Smart. She is uniquely qualified for it.

  1. Was she the only candidate?

Smart. Yes

  1. To many people that is not the case. The case is that over the next few months the work that we have asked Karina to do needed to be done in any event.


There is enough corporate evasion in some of these answers to demonstrate that he had been well rehearsed by his minders.

These answers include phrases such as “the work needed to be done” and also saying that Percy was “uniquely qualified.” The latter remark is meaningless as the job was not advertised – you only find out if someone is uniquely qualified by testing them against other candidates.

But most interesting is the way he only went through the motions of corporate evasion and gave direct answers after only the slightest pressure.

Those of us who have listened to politicians and business leaders answer difficult questions over the years know that even the clearest answer is submerged in enough verbiage to disguise its true intent.

It may be that Smart has decided on a new strategy of openness – probably not. Or that he panicked and blundered – unlikely.

Or it could be that his direct answers are designed reflect his unhappiness at what has been done. His intervention has certainly ensured that Ms Percy will be under much greater pressure that before he gave the interview.

So it is at least worth a sporting bet that there may have been a division of opinion about whether to give Ms Percy her new job.

And there may be some interesting revelations to come about this decision was eventually taken.




Food labelling is not enough

The demand for more food labelling is once again growing following a couple of recent initiatives. But I remain unconvinced that – on its own – this approach can deliver healthier eating.

The first initiative came from Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health. She argues that products should have a label stating the exercise needed to burn off the calories created by the foods. This, she says, will help people maintain a healthy weight.

Then the food manufacturer Mars warns that some of its sauces are so high in salt, fat and sugar that they should be eaten only once a week.

It is hard to disagree with Ms Cramer’s advice and Mars’s admission is certainly welcome – though the cynic in me wonders if Mars would have done this if it really thought there would be a significant impact on sales.

But, as an outside observer, I do have reservations about the emphasis on labelling.

First adding ever more rules and regulations is a job creation scheme for the expensive parasite trades, as any quick google search of ‘food regulation’ will show.

There, you will find lawyers and software companies offering to help clients meet minimum legal requirements. Their emphasis is on complying with the law rather than providing healthy food!!

Secondly, I wonder how effective labelling is on its own. When one set of rules fails to change behaviour, the labelling lobby respond by demanding even stronger warnings and advice rather than asking whether a more broadly based strategy would be more successful.

Surely experts like Ms Cramer need to look beyond their own bunker – particularly when they appear in the media.

The interviews she gave about her latest initiative contained lots of headline grabbers – for example that it takes about 43 minutes to run off the calories created by eating a quarter of a large pizza.

But nowhere did she suggest that the healthier option in many cases was to try the home-made option.

Surely the best way to ensure you are not stuffing yourself full of fattening salt and sugar is not to ration your consumption of Dolmio but make the tomato sauce yourself – which is hardly difficult. Instead of ‘occasional’ use, as Mars recommends, the healthiest option is ‘never’.

Ms Cramer’s approach illustrates the way in which those who take on the food industry seem focused on their area of expertise, while the supermarkets operate a much more coherent strategy.

Sometimes it appears that investigative journalists, food labellers, scientists and marketing specialists are too happy ploughing their own furrows rather than working together to challenge the supermarkets with a cohesive strategy.

If you doubt the shared interest of the supermarkets, look at the way the promote themselves. In my local Tesco, there appears to be many more industrial products on sale than ingredients.

Yet the shop has EASY, FRESH and CHOICE, emblazoned several times on its external walls.

The supermarkets have seized ownership of these words. The goal must be to reclaim those words for home-made food and change the perceptions the food industry fights so effectively to present.

Of course this includes examining the contents of their products, but it also means challenging the image they present of themselves.

Perhaps a first step would be to persuade customers – by repeating the message time and again – that they should ask this simple question when they go round their supermarket shelves: “If I made this meal myself would it be cheaper cheaper, healthier, tastier and as convenient.”

The answer won’t always be yes because we all have busy lives. But if we get into the habit of making our own meals more often, then there will be less need for us to worry too much about the contents notes on the product labels.

The Telegraph: misleading its readers again

It was hardly a surprise to read today that the Telegraph is again in trouble for blurring the distinction between its editorial and advertising departments.

This is only the latest in a series of instances in the last year which have exposed this trend. Of course commercial organisations and governments do try to exercise their influence over editorial content – it is though a scandal when a newspaper is so ready to acquiesce.

In this instance the Telegraph has been reprimanded by the British advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority, for running a “misleading” advertorial for Michelin tyres.

It ruled that the advertorial could not appear again in its original form, saying that the Telegraph had failed to make it clear enough to readers that it was a paid-for advert as the overall layout and look of the advertorial was too similar to a standard Telegraph article.

Some might see this as an unintentional error. But the Telegraph itself gave the game away earlier this year when it referred to its “advertising partners” which implied an intimacy that would have been unacceptable in the newspaper industry only a few years ago.

The Telegraph is not alone in doing this and the corporate world is only too keen to exploit this news weakness in the media. I have traced the way in which the meaning of the word partner has been corrupted and distorted in an earlier blog.

In the case of the Telegraph, the relationship between the paper and the international bank HSBC so enraged its distinguished political commentator Peter Oborne that he resigned.

He argues that the “coverage of HSBC in Britain’s Telegraph is a fraud on its readers. If major newspapers allow corporations to influence their content for fear of losing advertising revenue, democracy itself is in peril.”

The Telegraph’s response is revealing. “We aim to provide all our commercial partners with a range of advertising solutions, but the distinction between advertising and our award-winning editorial operation has always been fundamental to our business. We utterly refute any allegation to the contrary.”

It is impossible to reconcile the two halves of the paragraph. By referring to those they have a commercial relationship with as “partners”, they are saying they are on the same side as them. To preserve the integrity of a media organisation from allegations of favouritism, every part of it should be firmly on the opposite of the table to those it deals with.

How indicative of the modern Telegraph it is that the words they use to defend their independence actually have the effect of reinforcing Oborne’s argument.

And anyone who is blase about the dangers of too close a link between commercial and journalistic coverage should look at the Telegraph’s regular Russian and Chinese sections. Mihir Bose noted in a tweet in April that “The Daily Telegraph’s Russian pull out has articles praising Stalin, including his pact with Hitler and press freedom under the Soviets.” He warns that “The Telegraph may say thè views are those of the supplements but would most readers understand that?”

The message is clear: you can no longer take it for granted that any article in the Telegraph is based on news values alone.