What we think

PSA: anti-racism is not an Instagram challenge – by Lucy Devine

I was prompted to write this by a conversation I had with a group of friends around a week ago, following the tragic murder of George Floyd. We were all desperate to demonstrate our support and solidarity, but posting on our story felt somewhat disingenuous. As immensely fortunate white individuals, and having never posted on social media about the Black Lives Matter movement before, it felt awful and wrong to hop on the bandwagon just because it is now ‘trendy’ and ‘fashionable’ to do so. We didn’t want to be silent, but also didn’t want to project a performative ‘white saviour complex’.

While I was absolutely horrified by George Floyd’s senseless murder, I was not surprised. The persistence of systemic racism, not just in America but worldwide, is by no means a new phenomenon, which is perhaps why this new wave of anti-racist activism can come across as hollow in many instances.

The recent trends that have emerged over the past couple of days have arguably proven this to be true, whether it be tagging 10 people on your story alongside the hashtag Black Lives Matter, or posting a black square as part of the blackout today. As white people participating in these challenges, particularly if it is our first time posting about BLM, we are diminishing and reducing the very real struggles that black people face every single day. It reeks of white saviourism and often stems from a selfish desire to be seen as assuming a moral high ground.

‘Blackout Tuesday’ should not just be a checkpoint, a moral box to be ticked. It should not be something that stays on your story and in your mind for 24 hours, only to be forgotten and buried after that. It should not be a ‘challenge’ to stand up for equality and anti-racism. This performative activism fulfils a self-serving purpose and enables us, as white people, to maintain a clean conscience.

Participating in these trends without any taking further action is not only ignorant and lazy, it perpetuates the problem and demonstrates our inherent privilege. We must acknowledge that, for black people, this is so much more than a post on social media; this is their everyday reality. In turn, we must make fundamental changes in our everyday behaviour. We may be able to switch off from social media and the BLM movement, a privilege afforded to us by the colour of our skin, but this should not be the case. Yes, these online conversations are vital, but consistent and constructive dialogue with family and friends offline is equally as important.

This is not intended to come across as a preach about racism and white privilege, as I am certainly not the best equipped or educated to do so. Instead, it is just a reminder to be mindful of your intentions before posting on social media. Are you posting in order to inform others, or to prove to others that you are informed? Is your post stand-alone virtue signalling or is it matched by tangible action? This is not to say don’t post at all — but don’t post simply because you feel left out, guilty or under pressure. Use your privilege in other ways: educate, donate, protest, implement real change.

Do not let the consciousness that has been generated over the past couple of weeks become futile and in vain. Continue to educate yourself and hold yourself, and those around you, accountable for your words and actions.

This was originally posted on Medium by Lucy Devine on 2 June 2020.

NEWS: PLMR and Park Street Partners announce Strategic Partnership

Leading communications agencies PLMR and Park Street Partners have announced a strategic partnership with effect from 1st June 2020.

The new partnership will allow both agencies to collaborate closely on new business development and joint work for clients, as well as supporting each other’s growth plans.  The agencies will share resources, talent and insights, working together or operating independently depending on client and business needs.

PLMR and Park Street Partners, both of which are shortlisted in the PRovoke Awards for EMEA Agencies of the Year 2020 (as Best Public Affairs Consultancy and Best New Consultancy respectively) have already this year worked together on joint campaigns for clients across a number of shared sectors including energy, housing and transport.  The new partnership takes these relationships to the next level.

The agencies will cooperate on new business where there is mutual benefit, sharing experience and skillsets,  working on marketing activities, and supporting their growth and company cultures.

“We see this as an important initiative which will benefit staff and clients alike,” said PLMR’s Kevin Craig.

“Our approaches to clients and our work are very similar.  This partnership will not only benefit our business’s  progression and development, but working with someone of Gavin Devine’s calibre means we are adding an additional dimension and wealth of agency experience to the operation of PLMR’s senior team in a crucial phase of our growth.”

“The partnership is a reflection of both agencies’ desire to stay forward looking even during the most challenging business climate.”

“This new partnership will bring major benefits to both agencies,” said Park Street Partners’ Gavin Devine.

“Being able to support one another and collaborate across all aspects of our work will bring very significant benefits, in the case of Park Street Partners by adding a top drawer full service element to complement our existing network of experts approach.”

“The PLMR senior team have a compelling vision for growing their business strongly over the coming months and years.  I hope to play my part in helping them realise their ambitions to grow both organically and through strategic acquisitions.”


PLMR is a fully integrated public affairs, PR, crisis communications and digital agency was founded in 2006. It has offices in London, Birmingham, the East of England and Scotland, and is one of the fastest growing communications companies in the UK. The agency delivers award winning work across a range of sectors including social care, energy, education, FMCG, health, planning, transport and technology.

Park Street Partners was founded in 2018 and is a virtual agency based on a network of experts across a wide range of communications disciplines.  It was set up by Gavin Devine, the former Chief Executive of MHP Communications who between 2004 and 2016 was part of the senior leadership team that took public affairs boutique AS Biss & Co through mergers, acquisitions and major strategic recruitments to establish MHP as a nearly 200 people strong agency in London, Hong Kong, Brussels and Edinburgh.  He was then Chief Executive of Newgate and COO of Porta before founding Park Street.

Gavin is a well-known senior public affairs and corporate communications professional who has advised some of the biggest UK-based and multinational companies and other organisations.  He is on the board of the PRCA and is a member of the Executive Committee of the Public Affairs Board, and was awarded an MBA in 2004.

So imagine what it would be like, if we never took risks: Why it is so hard to balance upsides and downsides when it comes to public policy

In these coronavirus days we spend a lot of time talking and thinking about risk. Is it okay to meet someone if I stand two metres away? Will it be okay to send the kids back to school? What about going back to the office? Am I better off avoiding the Underground? What will happen if I go to Tesco twice a week rather than once? Our days are filled with weighing up the pluses and minuses of decisions we might take: what is acceptable and what is not.

The Government, too, is apparently trying to measure risks and make policies accordingly. At one point it looked like the NHS might be overwhelmed so in we went to lockdown. Now the bigger risk is to the economy so Ministers want us to start heading back outside. But unfortunately they did too good a job of scaring us in the first place, and now 71% of the public say that they are nervous about leaving the house even if businesses are allowed to reopen and travel restrictions are lifted. The on-going controversy over re-opening schools in a week also reflects this widespread concern.

So alongside taking ‘hard’ decisions about what is allowed and what is not the Government is going to have to mount a ‘soft’ campaign to reassure people that it will all be okay. The problem is this will be hard, because public discussions about risk are rarely illuminating. And for that politicians, the media and ultimately all of us are at fault for our inability to think rationally and balance the pros and cons of any decision, particularly if some of the associated risks are immediate and some seem far off.

This problem is not new. As an example, many years ago I was the Clerk of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee in Parliament. At the time debate was raging about whether genetically modified foods could or should be planted in this country, and the newspapers were full of headlines about ‘flava savr’ tomatoes and other Frankenfoods. The environmental fundraising lobby was in full voice promoting something called the ‘precautionary principle’, an insidious argument which was presented as sensible and necessary: we were weighing up the risks and concluding that even the slightest risk to the nation’s health wasn’t worth taking.

Except that this was far from an intelligent debate about risks. Instead the precautionary principle was used to kill off debate. Arguments about reducing food waste, or reducing pesticide use, or increasing yield were steamrollered by the juggernaut. Suggestions that GM might be part of adapting to climate change, or of improving the health and livelihoods of people across the world, were poo-poohed. The argument was that these future benefits were not worth taking even a tiny risk now. Policy-making became hostage to the concept that we should only ever make decisions when we are absolutely certain of the outcome. This is a recipe for never making any progress at all. And our politicians went along with it because they know they are less likely to get blamed by the media and the public for *not* taking a decision than for taking one with even a fraction of 1% of a chance of an adverse outcome.

We can see this unwillingness to be honest about risk in a host of policy areas. There are few decisions that don’t involve some sort of trade off, some balancing of competing priorities, some risks. But politicians rarely try to explain this, instead feeling they have to suggest we live in a fantasy world where there are no downsides to anything. Taxes can go up without affecting the job market or enterprise. The NHS can focus on reducing waiting times in A&E without impacting on other services. We can indulge in an orgy of austerity without undermining our capability to deliver public services. If any politician acknowledges that there is a balance of risks in any decision they are all too often castigated by the media and ultimately by the electorate.

Coronavirus is forcing Ministers to be a little more honest than usual, with all the talk of R rates and hard choices being made. But it is still far from an adult conversation – and who can blame them for that when they face a media is full of ‘scandals’ about decisions made on testing and everything else and shrieking headlines about keeping us safe. Only recently has there been any serious public discussion about the fact that yes, lots of people die every day, even in normal times; and only in the past few weeks has it become mainstream to admit that lockdown is already having a terrible impact on the economy, on mental health, on physical well-being, on education and on lots more. The on-going campaign to see all the advice given in SAGE, with the implied hope of finding a smoking gun, contributes to this backdrop of finger-pointing and blame. Is it any wonder that politicians find it hard to speak honestly about balancing risks?

And yet they are going to have to try, because all they face now is hard choices. Some decisions will lead to increased numbers of deaths. Some will mean hundreds of thousands on the dole. It is time for Ministers, starting with the PM, to acknowledge and explain this openly and honestly to the public. This is the most adult-to-adult communication exercise the Government has had to undergo in decades, and it will taken leadership and clear messaging to do it. So far Government communications about coronavirus has been characterised by missteps and sloganeering. Time now for a more grown up approach.

And once they’ve pulled that off Ministers can move on to another topic they find it hard to talk about: taxes. How will they turn the Thursday night clapping and chants of “pay them more” into public willingness actually to cough up more? Let’s hope they continue to treat us like adults then, too, and don’t pretend everything can be solved via sleight of hand and a levy on a few billionaires. Maybe they will pass the ultimate test and admit that increasing both the higher and basic rate of tax is going to be needed to plug the hole in the national finances. I am not holding my breath.

Hancock’s half hour: How the Health Secretary has helped Boris find his feet

In this morning’s Mail there is a great article by Dan Hodges about Boris Johnson. It argues that the coronavirus crisis, far from exposing the Prime Minister’s weaknesses such as his widely-reported lack of attention to detail, has in fact proved (so far) to be the making of him. I would absolutely agree.

So far the Johnson premiership has not unfolded entirely as he would have wanted. Yes, he got Brexit done but his efforts to change the narrative and ‘move the country on’ have not been wholly successful: the media persists in banging on about the pesky trade talks with Brussels. The Government didn’t handle the recent floods terribly adroitly, and the swirl of allegations about the Home Secretary’s bullying nature continues to, well, swirl. Losing a Chancellor shortly before one of the most important budgets of modern times looked a bit clumsy. And the early days of coronavirus were not well dealt with either.

Yet after those initial stumbles (scheduling a meeting of an emergency committee for a few days hence looked leisurely, to say the least) the Prime Minister has hit his stride. In many ways he was made for this moment. His blokey, friendly, reassuring persona, all washing hands and looking calm and unruffled, is well-suited to a moment when the media at least seems to think we are all hysterical. But as Dan Hodges points out, Boris being Boris is only part of the reason he is having a good crisis. The other reason is that the scientists and doctors are back.

The ludicrous demonisation of ‘experts’ during the referendum campaign might have led some to think that they would be allowed only the smallest of walk on parts during this outbreak. But instead they have been to the fore: Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, and Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, have all played big roles in recent days. And they have been calm and reassuring and the Prime Minister has appeared respectful of their expertise. It has been quite a turnaround since 2016.

Dan Hodges says that this approach results from a ‘pact’ between the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister some days ago. If so, Boris Johnson has a lot to thank Matt Hancock for, since his Cabinet colleague has created a platform on which the PM has thrived. And Mr Hancock has had a good few weeks in his own right, coming over as thoughtful and measured and pretty much on top of his brief (and his word perfect defence of Priti Patel last weekend literally made me laugh out loud). My guess is that the odds must be shortening on Matt Hancock leading his party if and when the current leader steps down. But he needn’t worry about that for now because, in large part thanks to him, Boris Johnson is currently thriving.

Hurdling the one-inch barrier: Why subtitles just don’t matter anymore

When ‘Parasite’ cleaned up at the Oscars earlier this month there was much excited comment about whether or not its victory marked about a breakthrough for foreign-language movies. Comments made by the film’s director about how “overcoming the one-inch barrier” of subtitles opens up a vast new world of content have led in turn to a debate about their use, with the BBC asking this morning whether it is better to “dub or sub” when it comes to enjoying films in another language. For me, this debate feels weird and redundant.

Why? Because subtitles have already won. They won when teenagers started watching content on their smartphones; anyone with teenage children will know that they are now so used to subtitles they often put them on when watching regular TV with the sound on. What teenagers started we all then picked up; how often do you see commuters watching clips and whole programmes on the train with subs on? They won too when Narcos taught us to switch effortlessly between Spanish and English dialogue, and when Daeneyrs first met the Dothraki and none of us could understand a word.

In other words, thanks to Facebook, YouTube and Netflix, we’re all very used to subtitles. So it is a bit of a surprise that this is still a revelation to media pundits or, for that matter, to Bong Joon-ho. And it’s not just that subs have one: dubs have lost, surely, after we’ve all seen so many horrible examples over the years. It always takes me back to the prudish ‘melon farmer’ days of 1980s television movies (shudder). Subtitles are so much better than this.

So Director Bong is right: there is a rich and diverse array of content from all over the world just ready and waiting for everyone to see. But he and all the commentators filling their column inches are wrong that subtitles are in any way a barrier; they are more of a gateway, and one that a lot of people have already taken.