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  • Dark forces in the departure lounge: a seven-point guide to resignation

    July 22, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    With institutional corruption in the British media / police / parliament becoming increasingly difficult to veil in shabby apologia, the personnel involved are falling over each other to fall on their sword – well it’s better than falling into custody. Rebekah Brooks, Les Hinton, Sir Paul Stephenson, John Yates… all of them have clocked out with varying degrees of haste, style and dignity. But getting your resignation right is about more than securing a golden goodbye sealed with a loving confidentiality clause.

    You can resign to spend more time with your family, like a 1990s Tory minister, or to spend less time with your family, like David Miliband. You can be the first out of a revolving door, like Siobhán Donaghy, the first popstar to claim the title “ex-Sugababe”. You can cite principles, like crisp salesman Gary Lineker, who quit his column at the Mail on Sunday after it secretly recorded the head of the FA – only to sign up for the, er, News of the World instead.

    You can declare that there are “dark forces” at work, like one of 2011′s leading sexists, the ex-Sky Sports presenter Richard Keys. Or you can attempt a temporary blaze of glory like Steven Slater, the Jet Blue air steward who upon landing announced his resignation via the plane intercom, grabbed a couple of beers from the trolley and activated the emergency inflatable slide – only to later change his mind about wanting to quit.

    For those who have the opportunity to figure out the best way to shuffle off the official payroll, there’s a menu of eclectic exit strategies to choose from:

    1. A distraction, not a disgrace.

    Classic PR manoeuvre: Attribute your resignation not to your alleged mistake/offence, but to the public outcry about that mistake/offence, then follow this up with a bold claim to selflessness. In a spot of medal-winning rationale, Met commissioner Stephenson felt it best to go now rather than get stuck into the security preparation for the London 2012 Olympics with a Murdoch-shaped cloud hanging over him – that just wouldn’t be fair to Londoners. Similarly, Anthony Weiner, the former US Representative obliged to resign after sending what we will politely call a graphic tweet, regretted that “the distraction” had made it impossible to continue “to fight for the middle class and those struggling to make it”. He was abandoning the cause, he said, “so my colleagues can get back to work”.

    2. Stylistic flourish 101

    While the Twitter monster has doubtless not yet claimed its last scalp from office, a tweet can also be the medium by which you announce your sacking departure. Jonathan Schwartz, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems edged out last year when Oracle bought Sun, decided to merge social media platform with historic cultural artform when he tweeted his resignation with a haiku. “Today’s my last day at Sun. I’ll miss it. Seems only fitting to end on a #haiku. Financial crisis/Stalled too many customers/CEO no more.” The poetry must have sapped his inspiration, however, as @openjonathan hasn’t tweeted in quite some time.

    3. Stylistic flourish (Honours)

    It’s always a good idea if you can combine your resignation letter with a de facto application for your next career. This, essentially, is what ex-Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt did when he decided he’d had enough of reporting fantasy as news. “I see a cascade of shit pirouetting from your penthouse office, caking each layer of management, splattering all in between,” he wrote to proprietor Richard Desmond. Nice. If you’re a man who wants to write for a living, rather than spend your days impersonating Muslim women for the sake of an inflammatory headline, it’s a smart move to make sure everyone knows you can master such basics as a) rational argument, b) sentence rhythm, c) dry, cutting humour and d) the personal touch. Peppiatt’s letter was published by more than one “quality” newspaper and he is now found frequenting television studios providing an insider’s commentary on all things dodgily tabloid – thanks to News International, he is a pundit much in demand.

    Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks appears before a parliamentary committee on phone hacking on Tuesday. But was it her tardy resignation that did the most PR damage? Photo: REUTERS/Parbul TV

    4. Scorched earth policy

    Sarcasm and contempt are cheap if you’re so rich you never have to pretend to work again. Hedge fund trader Andrew Lahde made an 866 per cent return in 2007 by betting that the US subprime market would collapse. His farewell open letter on quitting the industry in 2008 was withering about “the low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA”. They were “there for the taking”, he said. “These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behaviour… only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America.”

    5. Exit, pursued by Ant and Dec

    With so many household villains seeking opportunities for redemption, the contestant wishlist of the producers of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here must be getting longer by the day – and if you think it’s unlikely that, say, an ex-head of the Metropolitan police would venture into the jungle in order to be dowsed in kangaroo saliva, then consider that former deputy assistant commissioner of the Met, Brian Paddick, did almost exactly that three years ago. Paddick, whose resignation from the Met falls into the “jumped after being pushed” category, survived the Queensland cameras with minimum humiliation and was last seen making a return to the more serious endeavour of being a London mayoral candidate for the Liberal Democrats.

    6. Leverage your experience

    As Bank of Ireland governor, Richard Burrows must have learned a thing or two about toxic industries. So upon leaving the bank in 2009, what better career move than to take up residency as chairman of British American Tobacco? Former Halifax Bank of Scotland chief executive Andy Hornby swapped mortgages for moisturisers when he joined Boots, only to resign from that job less than two years later, saying he needed a break. This week, he was appointed the boss of bookmakers Coral, making him the ultimate casino banker. In a corporate culture where the former head of risk management at Lehman Brothers can get a job as treasurer of the World Bank, it’s hard to sneer whenever someone whose career seems in the toilet talks about “pursuing new opportunities” round the other side of the U-bend. The chances are they will. 

    7. Why not get your life back?

    After the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s entire lexicon, his entire demeanour, seemed like one big long resignation monologue staged to attract maximum levels of transatlantic opprobrium. The man dubbed “Big Oil’s Mr Bean” notoriously declared he would “like his life back” not long after the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig killed 11 workers. The leak from its rig was still pumping thick black crude oil into the gulf at a rate of up to 60,000 barrels a day when Hayward decided to spend a day watching his yacht compete in an Isle of Wight boat race. His inevitable resignation statement contained a peerless mea non-culpa: “I will always feel a deep responsibility, regardless of where blame is ultimately found to lie.”

  • What does the future hold for Superquinn?

    July 19, 2011 @ 11:39 am | by Laura Slattery

    The tills have rung for Superquinn, sold to one of its main rivals, Musgrave Group, after the chain was placed in receivership last night. That the company, founded in Dundalk by Feargal Quinn in 1960, has secured a buyer is undeniably positive for both its 2,800 employees and the Irish grocery market alike, especially as Musgrave chief executive Chris Martin cited comforting phrases like “excited by this opportunity” and “supports our growth agenda”.

    The Superquinn bakery (still glazes ahead of its competitors) and Superquinn sausages (coveted by generations of emigrants) will remain on sale for now.

    But many questions remain. How will the Competition Authority assess the transaction? If the deal goes ahead, Musgrave, which owns Centra and Supervalu, will become the biggest retail group in the country, overtaking Tesco. Musgrave has its strongest presence in Munster, while 16 of Superquinn’s 24 stores are in Dublin. This geographical spread may be enough to assure the authority, and in any case, it will be under severe pressure to prevent retail jobs falling by the wayside.

    An outside entrant may have brought more price competition to the market as a whole, but then Superquinn is not Dunnes Stores – it has traditionally branded itself as upmarket, with the prices to match. Competing on price rather than product would change the essence of the brand. Indeed, recent economic times have seen it attempt to chase value-conscious customers in a manner that has perhaps muddied perceptions of its core offering. With its market share slipping to just 6 per cent, it probably felt it didn’t have much choice.

    Which way will Musgrave push the company? Can Ireland afford an indigenous Waitrose-type chain, especially with Dublin already well-served by Marks & Spencer and a smattering of quality standalones? The Superquinn name will be retained, but will the stores be developed by Musgraves into quasi-SuperCentras? What does Musgrave mean exactly when it says it will use “its significant brand expertise to develop the Superquinn business by investing in the stores and bringing value to the Superquinn shopper”?

    One possible solution to the gap between Superquinn’s old brand identity and the state of the economy would be to rebrand those stores that are located in struggling areas as Supervalus, but keep the Superquinn name above stores located in areas where disposable incomes have held up.

    For Irish grocery suppliers, the deal means a further concentration of retailer power and the risk of missed payments for goods already supplied. But it could be worse. Musgraves has committed in its statement this morning “to providing existing Superquinn suppliers with the opportunity to continue to supply Superquinn stores”. Contracts may be renegotiated. But an overseas buyer looking to scale up by expanding in Ireland could have decimated the supplier base altogether.

    How much has Musgrave paid the receivers? The only thing we know for sure is that it will be significantly less than the €450 million that Select Retail Holdings, a group backed by property developers, reportedly paid Senator Quinn and his family for the chain in 2005. It is this debt that prompted the receivership, rather than trading difficulties, though trade has been going in reverse of late. As a private company, Superquinn did not disclose its sales or profit figures – the group that it is set to become a part of does, however, and made a pretax profit of €72 million on sales of €4.4 billion last year.

    Musgrave, which managed to increase its profits by 3 per cent in 2010 despite a 3 per cent drop in sales, includes “not being greedy” in its list of corporate values. Customers, suppliers and staff of Superquinn will soon find out if this statement holds true.

  • Corporate dress codes are back in fashion – but so is rebelling against them

    July 12, 2011 @ 8:30 am | by Laura Slattery

    Are we back in the 1950s? Stories about female employees expected to conform to arduous standards of self-presentation are rattling around the news schedules like misplaced hairpins, betraying the perfect image – of the companies, that is, not the women themselves. Earlier this month, we heard the story of Melanie Stark, who worked in the HMV outlet in Harrods until it was made clear to her by the department store that her unmade face did not satisfy the store’s requirement for full make-up.

    This week, we have the case of Sandra Rawline, suing for discrimination after she was fired from a Texan firm allegedly for refusing to dye her grey hair to comply with its “upscale image”. The firm, Capital Title, flatly denies the claim. But if the allegation is true, then Capital Title’s concept of corporate presentation is not only discriminatory but also behind the curve. This is a month, after all, when Christine Lagarde has ascended to the position of head of the International Monetary Fund sporting a silvery crop that no right-seeing person could describe as anything other than a visual enhancement of her status.

    IMF managing director Christine Lagarde. Photo: Reuters / Kevin Lamarque.

    Corporate dress codes extend to men, too, of course, but – as with the much-mocked and now scrapped 44-page dress code of Swiss bank UBS – their instructions to women often seem to involve specifications that are either creepier (UBS told its female employees what colour underwear was acceptable), more time-consuming (The Guardian beauty writer Sali Hughes calculated Harrods’ make-up instructions to female staff is a 45-minute job) or simply more expensive to follow (though admittedly UBS did tell male employees to get a professional in to iron their shirts).

    Reading feminist objections to Harrods, UBS et al is an exercise in déjà vu. It’s been over two decades since third wave feminists declared women could wear high heels, mascara and underwear-as-outerwear and still confidently call themselves good feminists – because it was campaigning for equal pay, fracturing the glass ceiling and securing the option to sidestep pension-free domestic slavery that counted, not how much you chose to embrace or rebel against the beauty industry.

    Assailed by years of what Ariel Levy dubbed raunch culture, postfeminists like Natasha Walter later revised their earlier positions and said, yes, there was something to fight against here too – women weren’t controlling their image, their image was controlling them. For if employers are going to treat female staff like they’re 1950s housewives who just happen to be on secondment to the workplace, then the old arguments of rebellion are going to have to be dragged out for a revival, too. Women like Stark, Rawline and the “slutwalk” protesters all, in different ways, want the same thing: the right to choose how they appear now, without having to give testimony later.

  • News of the World flight of the advertisers can be replicated by any pressure group

    July 8, 2011 @ 6:40 pm | by Laura Slattery

    News International’s surprise decision to close the News of the World has meant the natural life of a consumer campaign was stopped in its tracks. We will now never know whether advertisers’ decision to abandon it this weekend would have led to a more permanent distancing, or was merely a temporary response to a public outrage that may have lost its currency over time.

    The early, speedy success of the campaign has been attributed to the Twitter users who consulted lists of the paper’s major advertisers and tweeted versions of “dear @advertiser, will you be reconsidering your advertising spend with #notw given that we now know they hacked Milly Dowler’s phone”. Registering their feelings was as easy as pressing control + C, control + V. And indeed most advertisers who pulled the plug cited the contact they had received from customers, proving that advertisers’ values don’t exist in abstract, but are like a mirror, reflecting the views of the society in which they operate.

    The News of the World’s flight of the advertisers differs from that of celebrity endorsements gone wrong, where sponsors linked to scandal-afflicted individuals such as Kate Moss and Tiger Woods will more likely cite brand image incompatibility than direct customer contact as the reason for their P45s. In 2009, Associated Newspapers’ Mail Online division removed ads accompanying a column by Jan Moir on the death of Stephen Gately, following a public outcry about her comments, which were judged homophobic. However, the closest comparison comes courtesy of the US television networks.

    Here, the loss of advertisers’ support is a fast-track to cancellation. But it’s not just the Twitterati who can form a fast-mobilising ethics police. As MTV’s recent dropping of the Americanised version of teen drama Skins indicates, Christian lobby groups retain plenty of edge when it comes to orchestrated campaigns to impose (their) principles on the creative industries, via the seemingly easy manipulation of advertising dollars. News of the World campaigners took a stance against illegal activities that any right-thinking person would also deem horribly unethical. But it follows their victories in persuading advertisers may be replicated by any well-supported group hostile to political philosophies or lifestyles, legal or otherwise, with which they disagree.

  • HMV lines up tablets, festivals and paraphernalia

    July 1, 2011 @ 1:52 pm | by Laura Slattery

    “You can’t wrap a download for Christmas,” HMV Group chief executive Simon Fox noted yesterday, as he signalled that it will not completely abandon the CD format. But you can slip an iTunes gift card into an envelope, which HMV accepts well enough, as it stocks them. Is there any product on its shelves so representative of its capitulation to the imminent end of the physical entertainment product?

    By Christmas, a quarter of the floor space in 150 HMV stores will be dedicated to consumer electronics, from high-margin accessories like headphones and iPod speaker docks to rising markets like tablet computing devices. Racks devoted to CDs and DVDs will be scaled back as part of a grand re-fit – the Dublin Grafton Street store already resembles HMV’s blueprint for future stores, with Dixons-like tables of electronic paraphernalia in the prime ground floor area where once the music A-Z was located.

    There will be mitigating factors in this evaporation of the physical entertainment market: gifts, the penetration of Blu-ray and 3D and sales of pre-played games all help counteract the trend. But it is technology products, which currently account for 8 per cent of HMV’s sales, that are its future, Fox has decided. One in five pairs of headphones bought in the UK are purchased in HMV, though its current market share of MP3 players and speaker docks is a less impressive 5 per cent.

    By 2014, HMV wants 32 per cent of its sales to come from consumer electronics. By this point, it expects CDs, now a quarter of sales, will decline to 15 per cent, while sales of DVDs and other visual entertainment units, now 44 per cent of turnover, are expected to drop to 30 per cent. It also plans for a greater focus on links with live music events – festival shops, in-store performances and ticket deals are all lined up in its calendar.

    Electronics retailers have not been having a wonderful time of it lately either, of course, and HMV Group’s presentation to investors effectively sought to assure that HMV is not and has no plans to become Harvey Norman. Its stores will not be located out-of-town, nor will they have “counter-only” service, the group said. Instead, they will have a “fun, young, ’buzzy’ urban store environment” – which is more or less code for hipster staff, softer lighting and more of those handwritten staff recommendation notes.

    HMV has attracted plenty of criticism for not waking up to the download reality fast enough, but it remains the last specialist CD/DVD retail chain standing, for which it deserves some credit. But after a downbeat year in which it lost share in various declining markets, it will be hoping that the tempo of sales quickens pretty fast. If it doesn’t, its pink lettering and red sales balloons will disappear from the streets for good.

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