Category Archives: Public Relations

Branding: people don’t believe you, even if it’s true

The new Audi A4 “compact executive” saloon is due out early next year. Already the blurbs are appearing in the car magazines about how it will have a “drastically improved driving experience” aimed at “seizing the BMW 3-series’ crown” as “best car to drive” in the class.

I have to wonder at Audi’s PR team. Why would they allow such a thing to be written in advance of the launch of the model? Why are they prioritising “driving experience” when its main rival has been accepted as the “ultimate driving machine” for at least two decades (i.e. as long as the typical target buyer has been driving)? Because here is the thing: even if Audi were to produce a model which was clearly a better drive than the BMW equivalent, no one would believe it!

This is the power of branding – it builds on a perception which once had justification, but which is maintained in the public’s view long after it is objectively valid. Thus BMW is the “ultimate driving machine” even though other makes do better in sports and touring car racing; Volvo is the “safe” option even though in fact Renault was the first make to have a five-star Euro NCAP rating; Toyota is rock solid reliable even though it has had more recalls globally in the last five years than anyone.

Audi has enjoyed phenomenal success – outside North America at least – with its strategy of using only four basic manufacturing points to build over 50 different models. In other words, there are fundamentally only four Audi models, but they are reshaped, redesigned and re-powered into a vast combination, allowing almost anyone to find an Audi that suits while maintaining the “premium” brand. It’s brilliant. But trust me, no one will ever believe they are better to drive than the equivalent BMW – even if some of them are…

The scourge of retrospective nonsense

“Exit polls are usually [quite reliable], but of course in 1992 they were wrong – the exit polls said a Labour victory, it was actually a Conservative victory” – so said elections expert Anthony Foley at the start of the BBC’s 2005 General Election coverage. The problem is he was utterly wrong. The exit polls in 1992 actually suggested a hung parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest party – they were out (as the Conservatives actually had an overall majority), but nothing like as far out as retrospective “expert analysis” often claims. Indeed, no polls at all in 1992 pointed definitely to a Labour overall majority.

ESPN, in its coverage on English top-flight football’s “last day dramas”, started in 1968 with Manchester United needing to beat Sunderland to secure the title, but crumbling to a narrow defeat and thus handing it to City. This certainly counts as drama – but, upon checking, it’s not actually true. Even if United had won, City would still have taken the title on goal average.

There is, of course, a natural tendency to dramatise and exaggerate. However it does, when taken to this extent, give us often a significantly erroneous view of the past, and of the motivations of people acting in that past. In this age of instant information – both given and taken – it pays to be a little more careful.

NI’s “liberal” media really don’t get it, do they?

One political correspondent suggests Peter Robinson’s comments on not trusting Muslims were an “error of judgement”. Only in the Liberal world 10% of us inhabit. Another suggests there was a “backlash” against him – but again, only from those Liberal ten-percenters. The Liberal media don’t get it, do they?

On Thursday, almost one in four of those entering the polling booth voted DUP first preference. Not a single one of those will now be regretting that decision. That is the real issue here – why can the media not understand that?

In the traditional conservative religion-centred world Peter Robinson inhabits, his comments were far from an “error of judgement”! Having seen 15% of the European Election vote disappear to his right (and similar at Council level where they stood), Peter Robinson the master tactician has instantly looked in that direction to shore up his vote.

After all, no one who voted for Anna Lo would ever contemplate voting DUP. But those (more) who voted for Jim Allister might. It’s that simple.

This has nothing to do with demands for resignation (which only make the DUP cult stronger) or the Ministerial Code (which they’ve already torn to shreds without penalty around the flag protests). It has to do with the fact that making comments like this make you more popular in Northern Ireland, not less so! (The Equality Commission has come out against you? Easy, point out no one elected them. Sinn Féin has come out against you? Easy, no terrorist apologist gets the high ground. And thus the votes return…)

Peter Robinson represents a much larger segment of the Northern Ireland population when he says these things than I do when I oppose them. That is the stark reality – and is the reason for my own appeal to Progressives to face that reality and unite to grow the rational centre ground.

It is astonishing that Liberal hacks in the press have so little understanding of the country they live in. That’s probably why no one buys their papers any more. The rest of us have to make sure that, in future, we offer stuff a significant chunk of our population (and electorate) are going to buy…

Be highly cautious with Northern Ireland “polls”!

I am a big fan of the polling company Lucid Talk which deserves credit for trying to break into a market which simply does not exist in Northern Ireland – namely polling.

The company itself has been consistently clear about its methodology, and has openly warned that much of what it does is not “polling”, or at least is not to be compared to what is referred to as “polling” in Great Britain.

It is not for me to promote a particular company, but the simple fact neither Lucid Talk nor anyone else will be able to deliver polls of real value until they are paid properly to do so.

Polling is in fact an incredibly complex thing. Most obviously, it has to be properly weighted – to take account of voting intention in the past, voting likelihood, social background, gender, age and so on. This in itself requires an enormous amount of research – I have already cautioned that even in Scotland it may be way off with regard to the forthcoming referendum.

With more limited resources, the trick really is not to overstate your case. My own company did an exit poll (purely for research purposes) at the last Assembly Election, after which we were able confidently to predict that Anna Lo would top the poll in Belfast South; the Ulster Unionist vote was down in some places but not in others; the Alliance vote was up in some places but not in others; the DUP and Sinn Fein vote was roughly stable; and (the late) David McClarty would be elected. Here’s the thing, though: with the exception of the latter, I would have confidently predicted all of those things anyway! In other words, I was reading the poll through my own instinct before declaring what I felt it meant – a vast amount of interpretation utterly unacceptable (rightly) to a professional pollster.

As it happened, I was fairly confident (but not confident enough to state overtly) that Steven Agnew would be elected. I reckoned (again not with huge certainty) but had got wrong that David Ford would be on 18% (he was on about 14%) - however, this turned out to be not far off as we did that particular section in Ballyclare, where the Alliance vote in the Local Election did increase markedly (by an amount which, if repeated across the constituency, would have seen it reach 18%). But then, I also reckoned that Mr McClarty would take the seat from the DUP not from the Ulster Unionists – our poll in Coleraine was actually quite good for the Ulster Unionists, when in fact their two candidates came last and second last. A mixed bag at best, in other words…

One thing that I would like to research again that stuck with me was that 29% of those polled had changed their vote in the Assembly Election from the General Election the previous year. In fact, it was striking how many could not remember how they had voted in the past (indicating no affiliation to a particular party). That one is maybe to be pursued next year – but it’ll be a voluntary activity, I suspect.

If we want real polls of real value, frankly, someone is going to have to pay proper money for them.

Unionists fall into Sinn Fein’s trap on parades/past

Nelson McCausland said violence after Friday’s “Republican” parades in Belfast was inevitable. Mike Nesbitt opposed the Castlederg IRA parade with constant reference to, and I quote exactly, “our own PUL community“.

They have fallen – hook, line and sinker – into Sinn Fein’s trap through which history will be re-written to the benefit of the IRA. They may both be Oxbridge-educated, but when it comes to parades and the past their innate sectarianism makes them fools.

Here are a few facts which it doesn’t suit populist, sectarian Unionists (or “Republicans” for that matter) to point out:

  • as a result of the “Troubles”, more Catholics were killed than Protestants;
  • during the “Troubles”, more Catholics were killed by the IRA than by anyone else; and
  • at the end of the “Troubles”, more Catholics were unemployed, in poor health and on low incomes than Protestants.

In other words, a terror campaign for which the IRA was primarily responsible resulted in hell for all of Northern Ireland – but particularly for Catholics.

Thus, Sinn Fein is engaged in a long-standing campaign to make all Catholics believe that the IRA’s terror campaign was not only justified but even glorious. It accepts that Protestants will never believe this, but by pushing this view among Catholics it can then include acceptance of the justification of IRA terror as part of an “equality agenda”, whereby Protestants are generously “entitled” to believe the IRA campaign was unjustified for as long as Catholics are entitled to believe it was justified. Mike Nesbitt is one of many foolish Unionists who fall into this trap by suggesting that the only people opposed to IRA terror, and indeed implicitly that the only victims of it, were Protestants (or members of “our own PUL community“) – thus reinforcing the very dichotomy Sinn Fein is attempting to pursue! This is where buying in wholly to the blinkered sectarian approach gets you.

At the same time, Sinn Fein is also engaged in an attempt to reduce the number of parades and bonfires – an outcome which will gain it kudos in its “own community” with the added benefit, for some at least, that this will predominantly annoy Protestants. After all, Protestants do over 80% of the parading in Northern Ireland and nearly all the bonfires, so any blanket restriction to either will particularly affect Protestants. It just so happens, this summer, that “Republicans” have started pushing the limits on both, particularly parades, causing Unionist politicians both to call for the parades to be banned and to blame the parades for subsequent violence. Thus “Republicans” can very neatly tie parading to violence and move gradually towards a position where there is growing public support, particularly outside the inner cities (among all communities), for parades to be banned altogether or at least severely restricted; a useful by-product of this is they can attempt to tie the Orange Order to Loyalist paramilitaries to the extent that this becomes part of the accepted narrative, even though it is no less ludicrous than tying the GAA to the IRA. By coming out and presenting (presumably paramilitary-inspired) violence as an inevitable consequence of parades, Unionist politicians foolishly enhance Sinn Fein’s narrative. Indeed, we now have a precedent for a parade being diverted from its route by the PSNI due to a violent protest – such a precedent will now be expected to be matched by future parades organisers, very few of whom will be “Republican”.

All of this is beneficial to Sinn Fein because it serves to make it the natural follow-on of the Civil Rights Movement rather than of a needless terror campaign which cost thousands of lives; it has the additional benefit of making professional Protestants, essentially aware of what is going on, give up on Unionist leaders as the fools they are for falling into all these traps, with the consequence that suburban Unionists increasingly stop voting.

This is indeed a calamitous failure of Unionist leadership. Why? Mainly because good leaders listen, but Unionist politicians don’t.

Attwood’s laws will make roads no safer

I have long suspected the Department of the Environment’s proposed various legal changes – particularly around “graduated driver licensing” and reducing the drink-drive limit – were a complete waste of time.

Wesley Johnston is too polite to say it directly, but his excellent analysis confirms my suspicion.

Yet again, as in yesterday’s post, we have: a) a misreading of the evidence; and b) proposed solutions which are neither practical nor viable.

Firstly, proposals were brought forward by the previous DUP Minister for “graduated driver licensing”, because obviously young people are at more risk on our roads.

Or are they…?

2012 NI road fatalities per billion km travelled (Credit: Wesley Johnston)

2012 NI road fatalities per billion km travelled (Credit: Wesley Johnston)

Well, er, no, not any more. In fact, males over 60 are by far the most likely group to be killed on our roads. That is not to say that the bleedin’ obvious does not apply at all – young drivers are marginally more likely to cause accidents than the above would indicate. However, what was once a clear case of young and inexperienced drivers causing significant numbers of casualties no longer applies anything like as markedly as it once did – and that, with no change in the law.

Secondly, my particular bugbear is the proposal to reduce the current drink-driving limit to, in effect, half its current rate – effectively from typically two glasses of wine to typically one glass of wine. Let us ask the simple question: why?

We do not yet have the figures for 2012 but we can reliably predict them: the total number of fatalities on Northern Ireland’s roads where drugs or alcohol was a prime factor was, in all probability, just two. Two more than the objective, of course. But still two. They were a significant factor, in all likelihood, in six or seven. Now, let us ask another question: how many of those were caused by someone having had two glasses of wine rather than one? And how many were caused by someone completely ignoring the law and driving way over the existing limit and/or with drugs in their system?

Even recently, tens of people were being killed each year on Northern Ireland’s roads by drunk drivers alone. That is now single figures, and probably low single figures – tragic, of course, but a vast, vast improvement. And this, with no change in the law.

As I noted last week, Northern Ireland’s road fatality rate has dropped dramatically – much faster than in neighbouring jurisdictions and to a level which may be the lowest anywhere in the world. And this, with no change in the law.

Too many politicians are inclined to come up with changes in the law for the sake of change. In fact, Northern Ireland’s relative success in this area – and in others, frankly – was down to a change in attitude brought about by campaigns and, frankly, civic common sense. There were changes to enforcement (the police have moved more to enforcement on more dangerous single carriageways, which have become comparatively safer than any other road type as a result), and even changes to departmental policy (albeit in DRD, not DoE, through the adoption of a policy where possible to build all new major dual carriageways “left exit only”, i.e. with no turns across traffic and thus no risk of head-on collision – such as already on the A1 Newry Bypass and A4 Ballygawley extension, and soon on the A8 Belfast-Larne and A5 through Tyrone). But there was no change in the law.

We often see politicians as needing legal skills. In fact, what they maybe need most prominently are leadership and management skills. There are other areas where this applies too – tackling binge drinking, for example. Subtle changes in priority or policy can often achieve much… with no change in the law.

NI road safety record a staggering achievement

It is difficult not to enter 2013 with a sense of foreboding – both in Northern Ireland and globally (the two being more interconnected than anyone here cares to admit). There are, nevertheless, reasons to be cheerful.

My own Christmas was somewhat overshadowed by news of cancer diagnoses from various quarters. However, NI has the highest cancer survival rate in the UK.

It was also overshadowed, as are many now, by my father not even knowing which day Christmas was on. However, NI has the highest dementia diagnosis rate in the UK.

It was further overshadowed by the tragic loss of a toddler, killed by a parked car in Dundonald. It will come as no solace to the tens of families involved, but he was nevertheless the 48th road fatality in Northern Ireland this year – a truly staggering decline.

At the beginning of the century, one person was killed every two days on Northern Ireland’s roads. In 2012, that was fewer than one a week. Having falled from 171 to just over 100 at the end of the last decade, the last three years have seen figures of 55, 59, and now 48. Some entire months now pass with no fatalities at all.

Figures are not yet in from across the world, but there is a fair chance that Northern Ireland’s road fatality rate per person is now the lowest in the world.

Vehicle safety is one of the main reasons for the reduction in fatalities, of course, but that does not explain why Northern Ireland’s particular reduction has been so marked.

So here’s a thought for 2013: we may actually just be quite good at some campaigns, at some policy initiatives, and at some aspects of basic common sense.

Census – the 48%…

It is plain from recent exchanges that they still don’t like to admit it, but the census showed clearly that Unionists are now a minority in Northern Ireland – as this blog put it a fortnight ago, we are all minorities now.

Interestingly, in 2011:

- the first-preference Unionist vote at the Northern Ireland Assembly election was 48%;

- the number self-identifying as British (at all) in Northern Ireland was 48%; and

- the number claiming Protestant background in Northern Ireland was 48%.

The Unionist share of the electorate (i.e. working-age and retired population) has dipped below half; and those in the entire population from whom it can reliably draw votes has also fallen below half. And all the trends are downwards.

Ultimately, that is what the riots are all about. In the history of Ireland, Unionists have always been able to rely on artificial privilege – initially marked by religious background; subsequently by land ownership; since 1921 in Northern Ireland by virtue merely of being the “majority”. They are no longer the majority, and they no longer have any artificial privilege. They just have to use persuasion and compromise like everyone else now. It’s called democracy – and it has to be said, it is made more difficult by the fact that the largest non-Unionist party in Northern Ireland is anything but responsibly democratic.

As warned last week on this blog, Unionist Leaders have not shown even the slightest hint of reacting to the new demographic. Their first move (they act together these days) was to try to get the issue raised at Stormont – this failed due to a boycott, but if they continue to push it they will find, as will ever now be the case, that they lack the numbers to do so anyway. Their second was to hint that perhaps a bit of “Unionist Unity” would help deliver something – but the protests kept going on, not least because everyone knows it can’t deliver anything because they are not the majority and they don’t have a case that makes sense to anyone but themselves. Their third was to call for the protests to stop – a call not even their own elected representatives heeded.

In the midst of all the 48% figures, however, there was a far more significant figure – 29%.

29% is the number of people in England and Wales who regard themselves as in any way British (a staggering 71% do not).

29% is also the number of working-age people in Northern Ireland who have no educational qualifications whatsoever.

Unionists may begin to take account of the 48% figure in due course. But it’s the 29% figure that should worry them most. That it doesn’t, is the very reason Unionism is in such obvious crisis.

Belfast On The Move – Credit where it’s due…

I opted to leave most of the comment on the Belfast On The Move project (i.e. the new bus lanes) to Wesley Johnston, who universally talks sense on transport issues.

My instincts were always identical to his, and indeed I tweeted on one occasion in early September: “We want our public sector to take risks; then, when they do, we condemn them for it“. In fact, I was able to tweet it because trains now offer free WiFi (a real triumph). Few were prepared to give either of those points much space at the time, though…

I think two months on, we can now call it – it’s worked reasonably. Is Nolan covering the fact it’s worked out ok? Will the Belfast Telegraph give front-page billing to the point Belfast is moving pretty much as well as it was beforehand? Are we likely to see columns full of people praising civil servants? I doubt it – but you know, sometimes we need to give credit where it’s due.

Is it perfect? Of course not. I accept on some routes commute times have increased – but then, there was no denying they would for car users. My own main quibble would be simply that the lanes themselves are not adequately enforced; to be precise, stopping restrictions all over Belfast are not adequately enforced (only yesterday I was forced to veer clear of a van on a double yellow line outside the University of Ulster). Where before the consequent loss of a lane because of some eejit with hazard lights forced you from an easy four lanes to a still manageable three, now it forces you from a tight two lanes to an impossible one.

I would add that the communications of the whole thing were poor. Timing is tricky in NI, and sometimes you wonder if people follow the news at all, but too many people were caught completely unawares. What baffled me most of all was that the evident purpose of all these bus lanes – to make space for the Rapid Transit System – was never stated.

However, the fact is our officials took a reasonable gamble with our traffic system, and on balance it worked. We like complaining, so no one else will bother declaring this success after two months the way they revelled in declaring failure after two days. So I thought I’d better risk doing so…!

Save the Children’s campaign only proves need to define poverty

Save the Children has launched a campaign within the UK, effectively suggesting that absolute poverty now exists here and that some parents cannot afford to give their children a hot meal every day. This is not the most ludicrous campaign I have ever heard of – indeed, it has some merit – but it is still deeply flawed because of our ongoing refusal to deal properly with poverty (or even to define it).

Firstly, the notion that some children are going without  a hot meal every day is presented as if it is something new. If you have had a cushy existence all your life, perhaps it is – for most people, it is no surprise at all. However, is it because parents “cannot afford” the hot meal, or because they do not place a high enough priority on producing one (and I have phrased that very politely)? After all, significant numbers of parents do not ensure their child gets to school; do not ensure their child does their homework; so why would they ensure their child gets a hot meal? (By the way, this is not remotely a class issue or an in-work versus out-of-work division).

Secondly, we are now frequently hearing the line that “half of those in poverty are actually in-work” – as if this counters Iain Duncan Smith’s argument that work is a fundamental route out of poverty. This is misleading; put the other way around: “Everyone who is out of work is in poverty; whereas a relatively small proportion of those in work are”. And, to add some detail: in-work poverty is indeed on the rise, which makes me wonder why politicians concerned about issues such as welfare reform concern themselves only with those claiming benefits of various kinds, as if those are the only “vulnerable people” in society. In fact, those on benefits have seen very little material change in their circumstances over the past five years (likewise those working in the public sector, by the way) – but those (typically professionals) running construction firms, estate agents or management consultancies have seen their incomes collapse; and those in the retail sector were often doomed anyway. Those (and their children) are the true “vulnerable” – yet I never hear them even spoken of.

Thirdly, the underlying idea is that Save the Children will raise money and then, presumably (this is not clear), will pass it on to parents living in poverty. But how is that going to help? It is not sustainable for them to rely on hand-outs from Save the Children for all eternity. In fact, charities like Save the Children need to group together with others and state clearly with one voice: the way we have been attempting to tackle poverty (i.e. by chucking incredible amounts of public money at the problem in an entirely untargeted way) has not worked for decades and will never work because we can tell – both from logic and experience – that it is fundamentally flawed.

After all, other than with reference to inequality, we haven’t even defined poverty yet…

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