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The march of AI or artificial intelligence is truly upon us, highlighted by the fact that as I type, my keyboard is predicting what I am going to type next, and is often correct. Gosh, so predictable!

At an extremely interesting client presentation recently, fund managers from the Sanlam Artificial Intelligence fund explained to us that “Things that people called ‘pipe dreams’ when the fund was launched in 2017 are now happening. The changes have been utterly extraordinary. What was impossible is now possible.”

A fascinating timeline showed how algorithms have achieved superhuman levels in chess and other games such as Go in a very short space of time, and how AI platforms were teaching themsleves to walk, create their own languages and understand human vocabulary at an increasingly exponential speed.

There’s no doubt that changes brought by AI within healthcare, agriculture, transport (to mention a very few) are literally saving lives and may help to save the planet.

However, the very night after this event, I was reminded about the limits of AI in the arena of customer service. One area where chatbots and robots haven’t quite nailed the human touch yet.

My teenage daughter and her friend had arrived at a hotel in Portugal late at night, to be told that their room booking had been cancelled by the online booking service they’d used months earlier. This was human error (or greed) on the bookings service part, no robots at fault there. However, her booking was confirmed so a bit of a disagreement ensued but as the hotel was now full, she needed to contact them as they now had nowhere to stay. So then she (in Portugal) and I (in London) tried to communicate with the bookings company to get the issue sorted. We both experienced the same fate…

The phonecall was answered clearly by a robot – who requested the confirmation number. That was easily done. There then ensued some fake typing noise, I suppose to suggest that someone was actually typing into a computer to check something out, before a robotic voice informed that they had been waiting too long for our information and would have to end the phone call. At gone midnight – and having gone through this process twice I was definitely not impressed. The situation was not resolved until the following day – and took human intervention via twitter direct messaging to sort out.

While AI is clearly the future, companies should beware that they are not jeopardising their hard-won reputations for short-term cost savings. The message is that the nuances of real life problems often need to be resolved by humans; and human customers are not happy when they have to battle with companies’ attempts to deflect issues to our robot brethren, before they are quite ready.  

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

We are all thinking about how we can do good, do better, do the right thing when it comes to our communities and our global village. In a nod to ‘giving experiences not things’ – and in recognition that when it comes to ESG – the ‘S’ has been on the back burner – companies are increasingly looking to make a difference rather than a donation. And one such difference and an experience and a donation, is the notion of the 1% Club.

Matt Norris, who runs a fund investing in Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) has written about this initiative for companies to invest 1% in meaningful projects, taking inspiration from a particular REIT, the purpose built student accommodation REIT, Unite Students.

A decade ago, Norris highlights how Unite Students created the Unite Foundation to provide “accommodation scholarships for care leavers and estranged young people.” The Foundation has a clear social purpose, seeking to “transform the lives of young people by enabling access to higher education.”

In the past ten years, the Foundation has awarded over 500 accommodation scholarships to students who lack the support of a family.

“This initiative clearly aligns the commercial side of Unite’s business with the delivery of positive social impact for students and communities over the long-term,” says Norris, adding “It’s worth noting that over this same 10-year period investors in Unite Group have benefitted from strong returns too.”

And now to increase the significance of this commitment, Unite Students now targets to invest 1% of profits into social impact initiatives annually. Norris hopes that as investors grapple with how to assess the social impact that companies are making on wider society then such initiatives may grow.

He asks whether this could be the making of the 1% Club, whereby REITs allocate space equivalent to 1% of their annual profits to relevant good causes.

For example, he says office REITs could allocate space in their latest campus developments, as opposed to the stuff earmarked for near-term demolition, with a rental value equivalent to 1% of their profits to charities. Or shopping centre REITs could allocate 1% profit equivalent space to youth centres looking for a town centre home. He adds that such actions are clearly measurable, helping to bring clarity to the ‘S’ factor and potentially move it up the ESG agenda.

And of course, it isn’t just REITs with space to proffer to communities that could take the 1% idea – on a corporate, individual, national and local governmental level where there is office or retail space (flats above shops) being under-utilised or just plain left empty – with imagination and effort we could be creating social spaces, living spaces, homes for homeless.

Now that is doing the reit thing.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

January 2021

Having to home school two supposedly self-sufficient older teenagers (again) has been challenging to say the least, but also very eye-opening.

One of the big lessons I’ve learnt is that social media is ripping up the rule book on financial education in a way which seems unstoppable. As a parent who has been in this industry for over 20 years, I’ve done my best to instil ‘financial wisdom’ in my children. Chores for pocket money, saving up, the benefits of long-term investing and compounding etc.

Recently I’ve been stunned to hear my son (17) shouting at his friends through the X-box about Gamestop and Blackberry, rather than the usual shouted directions and admonishments for getting killed on [whatever game] he normally graces his friends’ ears with.

Since the beginning of January he has been ‘advising’ (read, harassing) me to buy Blackberry shares – “they’re going to rocket, they don’t even make phones any more”, and Gamestop “there’s going to be the biggest short squeeze ever”. For a while I resisted, but his demands got so annoying I decided to go ahead, on the proviso that he can take the equivalent amount in profit, and/or take the financial hit as and when they tank.

My raison d’etre was to teach a tough life lesson, early on, about expectations and basically gambling (and losing).

So I did buy some of both of the above, purely in the spirit of lesson-teaching. So far we’re up on all counts. Do I expect that to last? No.

If the opposite does happen, and they stay up, then I’ll have learnt a lesson, although not as big a lesson than the hedge funds who had shorted GME. I have also learnt that my son was inspired to undertake a lot of research, looking under the bonnet of how hedge funds work, and about different types of derivatives and how they react in various situations to an impressive level. To be fair to him, he has heeded my warnings that there’s no such thing as a guarantee and is prepared to let it play out, come what may.

So there’s an upside to all of this; he was motivated to research something to a very detailed level. In lockdown school life, finding that sort of motivation is a big plus. The dangers, however, are more numerous. As I blogged before back in September 2019 there’s a whole generation out there taking their cues from social media outlets which aren’t regulated; often from ‘influencers’ who know nothing.

Financial education is paramount. Sensible industry players need to engage with young people in a way which will reach them; nothing we haven’t said before and something we discuss at Quill on a regular basis. It seems that lockdown is creating a need for this process to accelerate.

Disclaimer: author owned both shares mentioned at the time of writing (for purely educational purposes!)

I doubt few would have imagined back in the dark, cold days of March that three months later, the majority of us would still be working from home as we hurtle towards the mid-point of the year and pass the longest day on June 21. We have had so much to reflect on and consider, what has the ‘big pause’ meant for businesses?

It is a great national tragedy that many businesses both large and small won’t survive this enforced shut down. Some which were teetering on the brink, or new start-ups which unfortunately didn’t even get off the ground, will have fallen victim to the Covid-crash. For those of us fortunate enough to have been working throughout, it hasn’t been without its stresses and numerous practical challenges. But one thing it has done is to create an unexpected opportunity to look at what really matters for the fortunes of all businesses – the people, the human resource that ultimately makes the difference between an ‘ok’ business and a great business.

Embracing digital technology has enabled us to undertake all our daily work tasks efficiently, and how normal it all now seems. The psychology of how teams perform has always fascinated me, particularly the dynamic of how differing personalities interact within an office environment. There are days when everyone collectively seems a little low and days which are the entire opposite. That simply hasn’t been the case in our enforced lockdown. Instead of the physical proximity of the office and coworkers, everyone is reacting to different family and environmental influences and challenges.

In April when the exceptional Spring weather kicked in, I remember feeling concerned that everyone in the Quill team had some outside space that they could enjoy – fortunately they all did which I am sure is good for the soul as well as inspiring both calm and creativity. We have ensured that people have taken ‘time out’ and had at least a few days ‘homecation’, desperately hoping no doubt for a proper holiday later in the year, let’s hope so.

Whilst I am convinced that we will largely return to normal, the mind has an inane ability to ‘forget’ the bad stuff, and hopefully working practices will change for the better. It’s a given that there will be an increased use of technology, more flexi-working and a greater focus on well-being. All of which will be positive outcomes from this ‘forced manual re-set’. We have also had the benefit of getting to know our colleagues and contacts better as video calls have given us a greater insight into their homes, individual style and ‘domestic personalities’.

Let’s hope that as many businesses as possible are able to make the most of the awful situation we currently find ourselves in and come through it with their teams closer, more tolerant and more efficient.

May 2020

The crisis that has hit every aspect of our day-to-day lives brings with it a plethora of problems. Whether it is as crucial as working out how best to care for vulnerable family or friends, or simply considering how ‘home office’ appropriate the background to your Zoom calls are, these are problems I bet none of us have spent time preparing for.

The problems are amplified for businesses. With no certainty as to how long this crisis will last, nor how the world will look when we eventually emerge on the other side, forward planning seems almost impossible.

What is within our power, and all we can currently control, is how we react to the frankly unnerving situation we now found ourselves in.

For businesses, it is important to rise above the noise and continue business as ‘unusual’ as far as you are able. It also means letting people know how Coronavirus is affecting you and your team, what the impact could be on clients and customers, and what your new working conditions are.

Communication, as the saying goes, is key.

Now is not the time to hide away

The public are not holding back in their judgement of how businesses act during the crisis – and communication plays a huge part in shaping perceptions.

Three in five (61%) people surveyed by Censuswide in April agreed that they care more about how brands are behaving now than they did before the Covid-19 outbreak, and 68% said they thought it was important for brands to spread positive news.

What was even more stark was that almost half (48%) of Brits said they would trust a brand less if it ignored what was happening and did not communicate about Covid-19 at all.

Clients and customers are, however consciously, noting how your brand interacts during the crisis and ongoing public lock down. It is not the time to stop interacting, to hide away and hope for normality to return.

Now is the time to be going out there with strong messaging and following through with action.

It is arguably the best time to get your message out there and do some good. With more people watching and reading the news, around half (48%) have said they are noticing brand news more. Businesses need to be trying to be part of this ‘new normal’, not stepping back from it.

The tide can turn quickly

You need only look at Sports Direct to see how rapidly public attitudes can turn. After boss Mike Ashley announced in late March that its stores would remain open despite lockdown, YouGov polling found the company’s UK index score – a measure of the overall brand health – fell from 1.1 to -18.4 in just a week.

Its reputation (already low, only hitting -10 at its peak over the previous year according to YouGov) fell drastically, from -17.8 to -46.3 over the same one-week period.

True, this is more a sign of poor judgement from a brand that has courted controversy in the past than a lack of communication, but it shows just how quickly poor messaging and output from a business can drag on the public’s perception – particularly when it comes to something as emotive as the nation’s health. The public are unwilling to give you the benefit of the doubt when lives are at stake.

Offer the answers

Everyone is looking for answers, and often looking to the brands and companies they interact with to provide them. Rather than burying your head in the proverbial sand, it is crucial to stay in contact. Explain what is happening, and how you are dealing with it. It is even better if you can be proactive and positive in your engagement. Have you involved the business in any charity or community efforts? How have you reached out to customers to help them if they are feeling vulnerable?

It may be something as simple as a scheme to boost your remote-working office’s moral, or as straightforward as making charitable donations, what is important is that you keep people informed and, better yet, spread some much needed cheer and goodwill in these anxious months.

May 2020

During the course of lock down it has been fascinating to watch how companies have reacted differently to the Covid crisis and how corporate culture is being tested to the max under the spotlight of working-from-home technology. A new etiquette is emerging as we all quickly adapt to new ways of working together. The unwritten rules around Zoom calls vary enormously, from clients that prefer their spokespeople to wear a jacket and tie to those who have positively embraced the ‘kitchen casual’ look.

We all have our challenges with the new remote working. Who needs a video call at 9am? For those juggling home schooling with little ones or having to negotiate on which partner gets the best backdrop it can be a logistical nightmare. Perhaps there is an elderly relative who insists at having day-time TV on at full volume – we all have our challenges.

Obviously there are times when only a Zoom or Microsoft teams call (why did Skype lose out so badly by the way?) will do, but ironically we have found using the good old fashioned, and reliable telephonic device extremely efficient when talking to both clients and journalists. Some find themselves at home alone and really missing the office buzz and seem grateful for a familiar voice on the end of the phone.

There are also those that insist on group video calls – a real pain for us ladies considering the big dilemma of face of make up on or off? Trust me, “digging the land girl look” on an unexpected video call did not go down well!

If anything, video calls come with inevitable distractions. Who else finds themselves scanning others reading choices in the carefully curated bookcase behind them? You could try book bingo – how many copies of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ have you spotted? Shock, horror – some have even colour coded their libraries. Perhaps you find yourself wondering if their art is real or fake, worrying about their interior design choices or realising that in normal times hairdressers really are a master of their art! A good old-fashioned conversation down the phone really can often work better.

There is no doubt that the novelty of WFH is waning for many, you will have noticed a dramatic reduction in the number of funny memes doing the rounds…

Another creeping trend, especially as boredom truly sets in as for many we are fast heading into our third month in lock down, is 24/7 working. People are sending e-mails day and night. Maybe this is symptomatic of juggling home-schooling or other domestic challenges, it is difficult to say, but it could equally be an opportunity for people to prove to their partner how busy and indispensable they are. Nonetheless it is increasingly difficult to switch off. Don’t get me started around the new ‘rules’ for being OOO. Most of us are now OOO and quite possibly for some time yet. But when people are allegedly ‘on holiday’, or as we now refer to it, taking a few days ‘homecation’, it’s a minefield.

There is no doubt that the novelty of WFH is waning for many, you will have noticed a dramatic reduction in the number of funny memes doing the rounds now. There is a weariness and collective malaise setting in – thank goodness this didn’t happen in October so we do at least have lighter evenings and warmer weather to look forward to. We may even get to hug our family and friends soon albeit it in a ‘bubble’ which will be similar to choosing a netball team at school – now that’s going to be interesting!

So, whichever device you use, communication is key. Keep talking and engage with all your stakeholders and colleagues and don’t forget that a little humour goes a long way. We WILL get through this and come out of it closer and stronger as working teams, hopefully more tolerant and if nothing else with greater insight into each other’s lives – choices in books, art and dodgy curtains!

Photo credit: https://www.microbizmag.co.uk

April 2020

What a difference three weeks makes, it’s fascinating to see that we have an entirely new working regime, and to see how psychology and remote working behaviours are developing. A number of recent experiences and observations might suggest that we urgently need to inject some different working practices if we are going to stay sane over the next weeks or possibly months. Was it just three weeks ago that we were chatting over the coffee machine or water cooler? (By the way is anyone remembering to drink four litres of water a day?!)

What has struck me most is the number of people desperately trying to fill their days with Zoom or Microsoft team calls, perhaps trying to avoid doing any actual work. Then there are the more senior people who can get away with saying “I can only give you 15/20 minutes as I have got to ‘jump on another call’”. A brilliant strategy for ducking out of the 12-person conference call when several are hell bent on impressing their partner and/or children with just how knowledgeable and important they are. Many drone on for an age, laboriously outlining, often in tedious detail, what we all know already or discussed on the same call last week.

Then there are those people who insist on video calls. Why? Surely it can’t just be to check that you’re not still in your PJs and wearing bunny slippers but are in fact office ready – don’t these people realise that hairdressers have been closed for weeks, give us a break!

Have you noticed the TV interviews where so many ‘experts’ make sure they are talking in front of their bookcases to show you how well-read and intellectual they are?

We have heard of some innovative ideas such as a virtual business lunch (great as no one has to pay and it gets around the financial inducement rules) but which also becomes a ‘kitchen-off’ and a battle over whose wine choice is best! But maintaining relationships is crucial so go for whatever works for you.

Working from home can be more efficient with more more free time at either end of the day when – joy of joys – we’re not commuting so we can get on with other things. We are all struggling through this lockdown in some way, whether because we are in isolation on our own, having the kids at home, or perhaps looking after a sick or elderly relative.

The occasional WFH day is one thing but now we are all doing it are multi-person remote conference calls really the best use of everybody’s time? Of course it’s important to keep in touch with colleagues – we have been doing 30-minute team calls firstly to make sure everyone is OK and to flag any key operational or tech issues. Teams then have separate client update calls to discuss ideas and divi up specific tasks. However, we feel it may be time for a new working-from-home etiquette.

So here are six key ground rules for conference and video calls under this new WFH paradigm for those of us fortunate enough to still be working and not furloughed and confined to quarters. We hope it is useful for our business efficiency and, most importantly, our sanity:

1. Set a clear agenda, what needs to be achieved

2. Designate someone to lead the meeting

3. Put a time limit on meetings and stick to it

4. Keep attendees to a minimum – e-mail others with an update if necessary

5. Give everyone on the call a chance to give their view

6. End with an action plan

However, in these scary and challenging times it is also important to chill out and have an opportunity to connect with colleagues in a virtual social gathering through apps such as Houseparty. Our Friday afternoon virtual drinks trolley gave everyone chance to unwind and chat about the lighter aspects of our new WFH experiences at the end of the week, I can thoroughly recommend it.

April 2020

A lot can change in a week. We are all now having to come to terms with a world that looks very different and dramatically change how we live our daily lives and, most importantly, interact with those around us.

At Quill PR we have been picking up the phone to clients and the press, choosing to talk to each other in these isolated times rather than rely solely on cold, hard emails. We have been concerned about our friends in the press, who are on the reporting front line not only dealing with a constant and unforgiving stream of often depressing news but who may also be worried about job security.

As one journalist recently said, we could be looking at potential ‘job decimation’. Pre-Covid-19, the media was already facing huge challenges. A plethora of problems such as falling advertising revenue resulted in regular rounds of redundancies. We also saw the consolidation of the editorial and production teams at the likes of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, as well as The Times, which has led to further wholesale redundancies. Many journalists have been forced to go freelance or look for new careers. The knock-on effect of the coronavirus pandemic is only amplifying these problems.

All of this comes at a time when reporting the news has never been more important, or more relied upon by the public. Data from research agency Censuswide has revealed that nearly half (46%) of all Brits are reading national news at least once a week and 48% say they are reading publications more than they usually do. Most are reading to keep up to date with the coronavirus pandemic (77%), but a fifth are doing it simply because they now have the spare time to spend reading papers, at a local, national and international level.

At a time when we all feel more isolated and anxious, access to well-researched and trustworthy news is vital, and this makes the pressure facing the industry all the more unnerving.

A key, but perhaps overlooked, part of the media workforce that are particularly susceptible to these industry crises are freelancers. At Quill we have always been great supporters of the freelance fraternity, many of whom are very experienced and well-regarded journalists, but who often live a tough and unpredictable existence. In times of uncertainty they are often the first people to be let go. Worryingly, we are already seeing this happen in the current global emergency.

Most freelancers rely on their core income from corporate work working for various companies writing newsletters, factsheets, investments notes and website content. However, it is commissions from newspapers and magazines that is the most prestigious and keeps their name out in the market that are the first areas to be cut when budgets are under pressure.

With publications such as the Evening Standard reducing their print run and its morning equivalent City AM cutting print altogether to go digital, the Covid-19 crisis could be the final straw not just for journalist jobs and freelance work but also for some of the print publications. Digital, real-time consumption of information and news is what people want now.

We will continue to talk to all our friends and colleagues in the media to support their access to quality commentators and useful and insightful content for their readers. The media has always been resilient and steadfast in providing an essential public service during times of national crisis. Let’s hope that in the post Covid-19 landscape the UK media – which is admired and respected around the world – will be alive and kicking, we are lucky to have it.

As a public relations agency we’re regularly asked to pitch ideas for reaching women on financial matters. Many of our clients (and potential clients) have realised that there is a growing need to inform women directly when it comes to matters of personal finance, not least saving and investing for our futures.

Among the plethora of research examining women’s relationship with money are figures which suggest that they will control 60% of UK wealth by 2025.

When it comes to PR, happily there are more opportunities for reaching women directly than there were even a couple of years’ ago, let alone further back. Hearst Magazines’ Financially Fabulous initiative is ensuring personal finance matters reach the pages of its glossy women’s titles, and other publications are following suit. Personal finance bloggers – a relatively new phenomenon – reach women through their mobile and computer screens. Now we just need to get the messages out there.

Surveys on women and finances throw up a medley of responses, some of which can be contradictory. You can find data to show that women feel less confident about money than men; that they don’t consider themselves knowledgeable; that they make better investment decisions; they care more about ESG… and every scenario in between. One finding that often comes up is that women don’t like to talk about money – for a variety reasons, depending on the survey.

This has to stop if society is to improve women’s financial resilience. The Chartered Institute of Insurance’s new campaign Talk 2 10k is aimed at doing just that, encouraging financial advisers and insurance professionals to talk to more than 10,000 people about money over the course of a week. As a female in the financial services industry I’m happy to spread the word.

The campaign particularly highlights the ‘Moments that Matter’ in a woman’s financial life: namely education, entering work, motherhood, new relationships – and possible relationship breakdowns -retirement, and ill-health/care. At these points, timely intervention can make a real difference to financial outcomes.

One of the biggest disparities between women and men is the pension deficit. You can trace the origins of a woman’s pension deficit back to almost all the ‘moments’ up until retirement. First job? Gender pay gaps mean you may earn less than a man. Motherhood? Take some time off and don’t accrue pension contributions. Divorce? Good luck trying to get your share of your spouse’s pension.

With one of the lowest savings rates in the world, women in the UK are not starting off on the retirement journey with our best foot forward. If we want to arrive in style, then let’s start thinking about the ‘moments that matter’, and above all, talk about it.

Recently, I was quite taken aback to be asked, “Mum, have you heard of [insert name of well-known trading platform]?” from my 16-year old.

“Er, yes, why?”

“Because I’m thinking of opening an account with them!”

Now, I’m all for getting Generation Z to engage with their finances. Indeed, reaching a younger base is an aim we share with a lot of financial services firms. The much-touted intergenerational transfer of wealth is something that the industry has been talking about for a long time now. What I hadn’t banked on was how many of the much younger generation are doing it for themselves.

Unfortunately, they are not taking their cues from the balanced, sensible advice being offered by the stalwarts of the UK financial services industry; rather from reality TV celebrities and similarly financially un-savvy people.

They are also (horror!) not taking a long-term, considered approach to investment. Well, no surprises there, they are teenagers. Instead they seem to favour daily trading, particularly forex.

I tried to explain to my son that his friends couldn’t be trading forex because you have to be 18, so he then proceeded to show me his Snapchat feed, and I saw that indeed forex trading does seem to be a big trend among very young people.

That former Love Island stars are promoting this type of high octane, short-term trading (including launching their own forex businesses) sends a dangerous message to impressionable young people. Yes, money can be made in the short term, but money can also be lost, very quickly – and a lot of it.

Copying other traders’ strategies and ‘learning how to trade’ are popular methods of luring in the young folk. Of course, often hand-in-hand with pictures of flashy watches and a mythical, ‘Fyre Festival’ lifestyle.

Instagram and Snapchat are full of this type of stuff. There needs to be a counterpoint. The secret is to make the message about long-term, sensible investing equally as attractive to younger people (and I do mean under-18s as well, otherwise we’ll lose them to the quick-buck merchants.) Credibility is one part of the puzzle. The second part is to deliver it in such a way that they will see it and take notice of it. Relying on a corporate website these days, no matter how groovy, just doesn’t cut it.

It’s all very well creating a fantastic programme aimed at younger investors. The key is to make sure that they actually encounter it by communicating it effectively.

As an industry, we’re at the beginning of a long journey when it comes to educating younger people in a way that resonates with them. It’s something we’ve been discussing more here at Quill. There is a lot of work to do, but cracking the code of reaching younger investors something we are keen to play a leading role in.