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How I fell for the Great BT TV scam

10 Dec

I live in the country and never experience any doorstep selling.

I’ve learned to screen calls on my landline and mobile – and have never been prey to a sales scam.

I’ve been online for a long time, and have learned to become better at avoiding phishing attacks and protecting my security – though I have to keep continually alert.

So I’m shocked and angry that I’ve fallen prey to a scam from an unexpected source – from BT itself.

I’m a phone and broadband customer, and started paying my BT bill by direct debit nine years ago.

So I didn’t immediately notice that BT had started charging me a monthly fee for BT TV and for BT Sport – services I didn’t ask for, don’t want, and don’t even know how to use.

How did this happen? It seems that all broadband-only customers have started being charged for BT TV unless they opt out. In my case, when amending my phone and broadband package a year ago I accepted the offer of a ‘free’ TV box. I can see now that it may have been ‘free’ for 12 months, at which point charges of £25/month kicked in. I never even opened that box.

The month these charges kicked in was the first month in many years I went over my overdraft limit – but still I did not spot that BT was to blame.

I’ve called the bank to renegotiate my overdraft. I’ve called BT and demanded out of BT TV and BT Sport.

But those adjustments aren’t enough. How many others are paying monthly amounts to BT by direct debit for services they didn’t ask for and don’t use?

The expensive acquisition of Champions League football is headline-grabbing for BT Sport. But how many even know how to watch BT Sport? I certainly can’t given the speed of my rural BT broadband.

Why should loyal BT customers be taxed to pay for elite football and its overpaid players?

Are BT shareholders aware that profits are being bolstered by this racket and that there’ll be a price to pay when customers realise they’ve been scammed?

I confess I never found the Payment Protection issue all that concerning – but it certainly is now to the banks and their shareholders.

The Great BT TV Scam seems potentially a bigger deal. It’s magic money for now for BT – but there will be a price to pay.

Had I been scammed by overseas spivs I would have had to shrug my shoulders and hope to learn from the experience.

But to be scammed by BT plc, a business I’ve trusted with my bank details in the form of a direct debit, is a different matter. I want to tell others so they can check their accounts and take action.

I’ve taken action. I’ve cancelled my direct debit and have asked for paper bills (at my expense). I don’t trust BT with my bank details anymore. There’s a price to pay for loss of trust.

It seems I’m not alone:

Spot the difference

3 Nov

Here’s a list of clever-sounding (and often new) terms that are all more or less synonyms for public relations. How many more have I missed?

  • Content marketing
  • Inbound marketing
  • Internal marketing
  • Native advertising
  • Permission marketing (from the book by Seth Godin)
  • Punk marketing (from the book by Richard Laermer and Mark Simmons)
  • Relationship marketing
  • Search marketing
  • Social marketing

Does this matter? Only that it’s ironic that when marketing and advertising are rapidly reinventing themselves in the image of public relations, PR practitioners so often reveal a lack of confidence in what they’re doing.

There may be trouble ahead

15 Jul

Graduation We have a problem. There's a perfect storm approaching for students and universities. Oversupply of graduates is meeting a shrinking jobs market just when the cost of higher education is about to jump.

What's a young person to make of this? They should shop carefully and decide whether and when higher education is the right decision for them. Education is priceless and the opportunity university brings is valuable. But it's not about the degree certificate alone; it's about the journey. Where should you begin your journey (which city, which university)? What should you study?

Students will have to become more businesslike, starting with 'brand me'. Most are already holding down one or more paid jobs while studying, and should gain credit for their work outside the classroom where it adds to their independence and employability.

What's a university to do? We have to prove our value in a crowded and competitive market. Value starts with staff and buildings but extends to alumni and other networks. What have former graduates gone on to do? What do they say about the course? What do employers think of our graduates?

There's more to education than money and more to degrees than careers. But we can't ignore the cost-benefit analysis that young people and their parents will be conducting.

I anticipate a shift from 'full-time' education of 18 to 21 year olds towards different patterns of adult education, workplace learning and continuous professional development. None of this is new, but there will be renewed impetus from 2012. University buildings will need to be occupied for more than half a day for half the week and half the year.

I also anticipate a shift in emphasis from producing employable graduates to developing entrepreneurial young people. This is exciting – but very problematic for business schools. Would an entrepreneurial young person be better advised to invest £50,000 in their business or in their education (an approximate cost of tuition fees plus living expenses over a degree course)? It depends…

A suitable candidate for company graduate schemes is likely to be a conventional team player. The successful  entrepreneur is likely to be a stubborn, thick-skinned individualist. Which personality type suits the classroom better?

Then there's a cultural problem. Mass higher education has worked hard to reduce failure and so operates in a fail-safe culture. Innovation requires lots of experimentation – including much failure. Since failure is the necessary flip side of success, we will need to learn to embrace it. Risk will need to be taught as a good thing, not as a problem as now.

Trouble ahead? If I think as an entrepreneur, I see plenty of opportunity in education. In the meantime, we're celebrating another batch of graduates next week.

Photo by digitalkatie on Flickr (Creative Commons)

New thinking in public relations

11 Mar

Where do the best ideas appear? In textbooks, in business books, in academic journals, in conference papers, on blogs, in conversation, in white papers?

The answer, of course, is in all and any of these.

In the last week, my attention has been grabbed by:

  • Philip Sheldrake's keynote address at the Euprera Spring Symposium
  • Consultant Martin Thomas's new book, Loose (review to follow)
  • Public Relations 2011: a free e-book of essays edited by Craig Pearce

Public Relations 2011 Public Relations 2011 contains essays from well-known public relations educators, consultants and bloggers.

In this uneven but interesting collection, Australian public relations academic Jim Macnamara calls for the teaching of more theory – in an explicit plug for his forthcoming book Public Relations Theories, Practices, Critiques.

In apparent contradiction, Southampton Solent PR course leader Catherine Sweet explains how educators should use practice examples to engage students.

Her point is that we should go beyond textbook case studies and engage through storytelling.

"My teaching has made me realise the power of ‘story telling’ as being the best form of PR and communication there is. As humans, we are hardwired to listen and learn; it’s how we acquire language in the first place."

Macnamara and Sweet are both right; there is no contradiction. Public relations educators should not oversimplify, though they should engage. Practice illustrates theory, and theory (as Macnamara argues) informs practice:

"Because theories are established through collection of substantial empirical evidence, extensive experimentation, testing and rigorous analysis in many different situations over many years – even decades in many cases – they provide a vast knowledge resource available to practitioners. Being unaware of or ignoring the body of knowledge accumulated by others before us and in other markets and societies is short-sighted and even foolhardy."

Key themes for 2011

8 Jan

Looking back on 2010 allows us to predict some of the main talking points for the year ahead.


I have previously argued that the Stockholm Accords were a milestone event. This document qualitatively articulates the value that public relations provides to organisations at a macro level.

But can we quantify this value? The hyperactive and always challenging David Phillips will attempt this at a conference this year, from his perspective that the PR business has been failing to reach its full potential for years.

Though these questions may sound academic, this will be a year in which practitioners in all sectors will need to prove their value to their clients and employers. So they would be well advised to take note of these discussions.

Within higher education, the new fees regime from 2012 will challenge universities to demonstrate the value of their degree courses. My humble effort is a project to document how graduates have benefited from their PR degrees over the past two decades.


Remember Gordon Brown forgetting his mic during the election campaign? The problem was the disconnect revealed between the public and private person (a problem some of his senior colleagues had been concerned about for years).

Now consider the implications of WikiLeaks (and the parliamentary expenses scandal). These challenge the assumption of private, and make a presumption in favour of information being public. We've not heard the last of the tussle between public and private, national security and civil liberties. (There's also a civil liberties argument in favour of less being known about us, not more).

Public relations, concerned as it is with matters in the public sphere, has a role in defining what should be known in the public interest, and what should be concealed for private reasons. Expect public relations teams to be auditing information flows and anticipating what would happen if and when the private becomes public. The intention will be to inoculate against further Gordon Brown moments.

Guest lecture series: all welcome

15 Oct

Here are the remaining talks in our autumn public lecture series 2010, open to students and visitors.

Lectures are 5-6pm in Lecture Theatre A, Rose Bowl, Leeds Metropolitan University, LS1 3HB.

'Getting a coherent social media strategy off the ground'
Dominic Burch, Head of Corporate Communications, Asda (Wal-Mart UK)
Monday 18 October

'Future proof PR'
Paul Matthews, Corporate Media Relations Manager, Unilever plc
Monday 1 November

'PR in the boardroom'
Victoria Tomlinson, Chief Executive, Northern Lights
Monday 15 November

'PR in a changing world'
Justin McKeown, Regional Director, Grayling
Monday 29 November

'PR through the looking glass'
Rob Pittam, BBC Business Correspondent delivering the Claire Mascall Award Lecture
Monday 6 December 

Google in China

23 Mar

Tinananmen square google Google's move into China was justified on business grounds, though the company's idealistic 'don't be evil' motto suffered through the compromise of delivering censored search results.

But at least the censoring was made apparent to Chinese web users, and among the many obligations imposed on business, obeying the laws of the land is an important one.

Now Google has moved its Chinese search engine to Hong Kong, where search results are currently uncensored. Google is winning the PR war at this stage (by publishing information on the extent of any blocking), though the Chinese authorities have shown that they're acutely aware of their international reputation – and they've shown that they're learning lessons in public relations. It will be interesting to see what their next move is.

More openness or more control? And what role do the many thousands of Chinese students studying in the west play: they can be powerful international advocates for their government, or useful intermediaries in a potential clash of cultures.

Wispa it quietly

21 Jan

It's been ironic reading so many positive comments about Cadbury, in a batch of essay assignments, in the week its directors recommended the proposed acquisition of the business by Kraft.

Wispa One comment in particular seems worth revisiting. The now-famous bring back Wispa campaign was cited as a good example of relationship management (in the way the company apparently did a U turn and responded to its customers' wishes). The same campaign is also named by Phillips and Young as a good example of  'groundswell' – using social media channels for campaigning purposes.

What if it's neither of these? What if the bring back Wispa campaign was an example of an old-fashioned PR stunt out of Barnum & Bailey, or from Grunig and Hunt's bad old press agentry/publicity model.

You see, our transparent age of social media is meant to make the old-style PR stunt ineffective (unacceptable too). So it's awkward to find an example of it working so well – and the source of the campaign being able to cover their tracks.

So, based on a nudge and a wink more than hard evidence, I name Borkowski as the PR brains behind the Wispa campaign. (He continues to deny it publicly but he's probably made the commitment to do so to the client). Let's please stop using it as an example of the crowd versus business. It's an example of PR orchestration simulating (and stimulating) public opinion. We think we're so sophisticated, but it seems we're still suckers for the old gags.

Freddie Starr ate my wispa.

Domain Renewal Group, it may be legal but it’s not ethical

5 Jan

In a world of email and electronic communication, an official-looking letter carries extra credibility.

Domainrenewalgroup  When what looks to be a bill reminding me of the need to renew the domain arrived, correctly addressed to me, I wondered whether I needed to act. I had only changed the registrar last year so at first sight this letter looked believable.

The only thing is, it's not from my registrar. The information that gave the letter credibility (the domain name, my name and address) are all in the public WHOIS record – exposing the limits of transparency.

This is an attempt to snare business unwittingly. On re-reading the letter it's carefully worded ('as a courtesy to domain name holders…') to avoid untruths – but you can be legal and still unethical.

It's another example of legal advice running counter to public relations advice. This is a reputational issue: Google search results give many warnings of this attempted scam, so I'm posting this to add my voice.

Prediction: 2010 will be the year of the blog

22 Dec

IainDale'sDiary You might think I'm five years behind the times, but the impact of technology is not linear, nor is it always predictable.

The Economist tells how commentators predicted in the 1840s that the telegraph would challenge newspapers. Instead, faster transmittal of news led to the era of the great newspapers.

Today, newspapers face bankruptcy. As The Economist article concludes:

The internet may kill newspapers; but it is not clear if that matters. For society, what matters is that people should have access to news, not that it should be delivered through any particular medium.

So we don't have a crisis of news; we have a crisis of news distribution and the need for a viable business model.

Here's my thinking about blogs. The first phase, championed by Blogger, Typepad and others enabled easy personal publishing. Yet growth in and buzz around personal blogs slowed as first social networks (like Facebook) and then microblogging (Twitter) satisfied most people's needs for expression and interaction.

Blogging hasn't gone away, but it has become less visible as the early adopters have been exploring new new tools. Yet quietly, this personal publishing platform has been developing into professional publishing. Open-source WordPress has been leading the way in this, as personal blogs give way to group blogs and sophisticated content management systems.

This development should not be surprising as it has a precedent. Newspapers emerged from the explosion of pamphlets enabled by the printing press (a disruptive technology in its day). At first, these pamphlets were personal and amateurish; in time, they became more professional and evolved into the newspapers whose names we're still familiar with.

So, in predicting that 2010 will be the year of the blog, it's not personal, amateur blogs that I have in mind. It's well-researched, professional blogs in specialist niches such as politics and business. The UK general election campaign will provide a local boost to the political blogs, and the challenge of the recession will boost the adoption of low-cost approaches to marketing and communications.

There's another factor in this trend. For many individuals, social networks and Twitter are alternatives to blogging. For the more professional bloggers, these networks provide valuable 'push' channels for attracting readers and encouraging the creation of communities of interest.

We've long been familiar with the role of the public relations practitioner as content creator. There's work here for those who are far-sighted enough to establish strategies and rationales for blogging engagement along with robust systems for writing, editing and moderation, while avoiding the obvious pitfalls of ghost-writing and the constant conflict between transparency and disclosure.

Then there's the emergence of a new role: the public relations practitioner as community engagement manager (with a blog one possible hub for the community).