'Tis the season to be guilt-tripped into saving Africa and dogs and THE WHOLE WORLD

smilieNothing reminds you that it’s Christmas like images of sad African kids or abandoned dogs. That’s what Christmas is now, right? It’s the time when all the UK’s leading charities get together to ruin holiday TV and make us feel bad about feeling good for being snuggled up with our loved ones while watching Jurassic Park and back-to-back episodes of Coronation Street. I’m not saying raising money isn't a great idea, but I’m just fed up with the way these so-called innovators go about doing it at this time of year.

Before anyone gets a bit rowdy and suggests that I’m being selfish and uncaring for not wanting these adverts to ruin my own Christmas, I just want to put it out there that I work for what is generally regarded as being a pretty big charity, Plan International. So it’s not that I’m ignorant about the issues at hand or I don’t think they’re important. I do understand the need to raise money to get this work done and I’m more than happy for this fundraising to go on in the few minutes between The Snowman walking in the air and melting in a puddle on the ground, but for the love of God, the messaging has to change.

Heal the world

I was only at my mum’s for about a week and in that time I was bombarded by pleas to save African families, to rescue lonely dogs, to fix the ebola crisis, to deliver clean drinking water for all and everything else you can imagine. There are just too many of these adverts to take seriously. Everyone is after £2 a month to do this and that, to put smiles back on those miserable faces, but how are you supposed to pick who you give money to? That’s the key here.

What these adverts are trying to do is make you feel as guilty as possible by showing how utterly shit life can be so that you will pick that particular charity to donate to. Cue camera shots zooming in on the faces of crying children. I HATE this. It’s so demeaning and pathetic. It’s like we all got in such a fuss about the whole Band Aid 30 thing and then we completely ignored all our own advice and went back to objectifying the subjects as if they’re idiots.

We clearly haven’t got out of the mindset that poverty porn is what sells. It’s like Comic Relief all over again. If we as a sector can be so creative and innovative when it comes to social media campaigns and producing neat little videos for online audiences, why does it all go out of the window when it comes to television at Christmas?

You can throw the argument at me that this is the most effective way to make money. But then we’re getting into murky territory and we’re essentially no different than a firm like John Lewis, who do most of their yearly business over Christmas off the back of a television advert.

But wait, there’s a difference there: the John Lewis advert, and the adverts of every high-street retailer you can think of, was a joy to watch. It captured our hearts and imaginations and made us all want to buy penguins. Well, kind of. But you get my point. This was storytelling at its very best, crammed into a couple of minutes of air time that stays with the audience long after the Rovers Return has called last orders.

Stories to tell

All the charities work with real people (or dogs) who have real stories to tell. These people are their own agents of change. I want to hear from them. These adverts should be empowering. They should be memorable. They shouldn’t be the blot on Christmas. There is way more to these people than sad faces, depressing music and serious-sounding voiceovers. This exploitation is just lame.

The message being sent out is that everything is terrible in Africa or wherever else these adverts are filmed. The creativity and spirit that goes into things like Save The Children's Christmas jumper ad is completely lost when the subject matter gets a bit more serious.

Charities across the world do amazing work, but when you reduce it to this whole £2-a-month thing (I know the dollar handles serve a purpose), you oversimplify what is really a very complex issue and this does a disservice to everyone, from the aid workers to the people they are working with to the audiences themselves. We’re effectively saying that people won’t give money unless they feel extremely guilty.

I get that poverty porn works, but it’s sending all the wrong messages and signals out, and these are messages and signals that the development sector has been bending over backwards to try and change in recent years. It just all comes undone at Christmas when the voices that matter get well and truly lost in the sludge. If we can’t think outside of the box at Christmas, as we seem capable of doing the rest of the year, then we’re just going to perpetuate stereotypes.

Isn’t it time we changed the channel?

If those pop stars are so wonderful and talented, get them to write another bloody song, Bob

Band Aid 30
Every few years, the bastions of British music get together to graciously donate a few hours of their invaluable time so they can sing a couple of lines of a 30-year-old pop song. Not only do they donate the minutes and hours it takes to rattle off those famous lyrics, they also donate their voices, their breath, the very essence of life, you might say, and they do it all to save Africa.

The dust has now settled on the monstrosity that was Bob Geldof unveiling #Bandaid30 on last week’s X-Factor. I mean, what better way to galvanise public support than by having a rambling, white-haired Prefessor Weeto tribute act come on live TV and tell the good people of Great Britain to “give us your fucking money”. That may not have actually happened, but you get the point: PEOPLE ARE DYING.

This is clearly illustrated in the #BandAid30 video as the first 15 or so seconds are devoted to the horrors of ebola. The harrowing images show health workers equipped with Go-Pro cameras swarm into a dying woman’s house. The first shots of the woman show her lying on her bed topless, breasts exposed. In the next shot, which is closer to the woman, someone has placed a bra over her chest. She lies on the soiled mattress, writhing in agony, before being carried out by two health workers.

It is horrific, like something out of a movie. But that is the image Bob Geldof and his mates decided would be the best way they could SHOCK the public into donating money. Whatever happened to moving aware from such demeaning and deceitful tactics? Who is that woman? Did she survive? Does she have a story to tell? Who gave Bob Geldof permission to show this near-naked lady at her very lowest, for the world to gawp at? I’ve yet to read anything about her. She gets about 17 seconds before the video shifts its tone to give those generous pop stars the remaining 4:33 of airtime.

Fuck. That. How is that empowering for the boys, girls, women, men, individuals, families whose lives have been ripped part by ebola? How is this telling their story? All these pop stars are doing is rehashing a terrible song that should have been laid to rest years ago.

All right, so they’re making a lot of money, and presumably the £1 million in pre-sales was all it took to convince Bob, Bono et al that they were doing the right thing, but at what cost does that money come? We’re 30 years into Band Aid now and some people still haven’t figured out that the song and everything it stands for is patronising, insulting, offensive.

Let’s not get too much into who is singing the song. African singers aren’t well-represented, that much is obvious, but that’s not the main problem with the song itself. The problem is that it’s always been a shit song. The lyrics were as ignorant 30 years ago as they are now — and that’s after someone apparently took the time to “rewrite” them, although whomever that person was, I won’t be hiring him or her to rejig any of my Christmas songs. Here are some of the new lyrics:

No peace and joy this Christmas in West Africa
The only hope they’ll have is being alive
Where to comfort is to fear
Where to touch is to be scared
How can they know it’s Christmas time at all

Who are these ignoramuses to say there will or won’t be joy in the WHOLE of West Africa this Christmas? Who are they to say the only hope "they" have is being alive? How arrogant is that? That’s what the whole song is like. That’s always been what the whole song is like. It presents Africa (or West Africa in this updated version) as a single entity in which there is no hope, no joy, no happiness, only misery and despair, where everyone is a victim and helpless, in need of our support.

Hasn’t Bob learnt anything in 30 years? Does Bono not have an inkling of these things after all his extra-curricular activities?

So if the song is so inhenerlty shit, why couldn’t this group of apparently the most talented, exciting and current British music stars do something radical like, oh, I don’t know, writing another song? They’re professionals in the music industry and there are rather a lot of them, so presumably between them they could maybe put a bit of effort into it all and come up with something that isn’t three decades old.

Of course they could. If they actually gave a shit about ebola or Africa or anything else other than their precious egos. To make a big deal about these pop stars taking time out of their "hectic schedules" to come to London for like one day just underscores how lazy this whole #BandAid30 thing has been.

#BandAid30 is selling by the bucketload. It’s going to be Christmas number 1 and it’s going to make millions of pounds, but the backlash against it, and there has been a considerable backlash, should be enough to prove once and for all that it’s in everyone’s best interests that this never happen again. Where are those millions of pounds going to go anyway? There’s no info on the website so we can only hope that it does get put to good use.

But once Christmas is over, let’s retire Band Aid to the annals of pop history — forever.

This song is much better. Buy it.


Putting together my first youth delegation

collage1At the tender age of 31, I still consider myself a "young person" or "youth", if you will, even though the United Nations uses a pretty strict 15-24 definition. So when I get to work with other young people on things like youth forums and conferences, it feels less like work and more like doing something amazing with a group of friends.

Being a part of the Youth Skills Forum in the Philippines and the Asian Youth Forum in Kazakhstan have definitely been the highlights of my time with Plan International, especially as I got to learn a great deal from colleagues like John Trew, Plan's Youth Employment Specialist in Asia.

Now I have a new challenge: I'm leading a project putting together a delegation of young people who will be part of the upcoming Ministerial Meeting on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS). It's both exciting and daunting at the same time.

I have seven young people from around Asia and two from Germany signed up and raring to go. Everyone has started getting to know each other through Skype, conference calls and a Facebook group. That means they can get comfortable working with each other and start developing their knowledge of the issues.

This group of young people – Team CRVS – will define their own roles at the conference and take ownership of everything they do. Their primary objective is to ensure that youth voices are heard and taken into account when governments think about civil registration and vital statistics. In Asia, this is a big deal as civil registration will be high on the post-2015 agenda.

Team CRVS are going to be involved in a number of activities, first and foremost the Youth Call To Action. This is where they will state their case to highlight the issues affecting unregistered children and young people, and call governments and relevant stakeholders to action. All this will take place at a special youth event during the conference, which will also feature a youth panel discussion led by the UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, who the group will get to work closely with.

As if that weren't enough, two members of Plan Germany's Youth Advisory Panel will also be there to present their experiences advocating for greater investment in birth registration. This campaign saw them travel across Germany collecting fingerprints as a kind of petition to present to their governments to call for greater investment in civil registration systems.

Then there will also be all kinds of youth reporter activities (blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, filming, interviewing) that will give the young people the chance to really make their voices heard across Plan's online platforms, as well as the channels of our United Nations partners.

So there's a lot to organise to put everything together. Obviously I'm not doing it entirely on my own and I have the unwavering support of my boss, Nicoleta Panta, the Plan Asia Regional Office (my trusted allies), and a bunch of other people who are helping me out on this journey. But it's hard to escape the feeling that I really don't want to let these young people down.

I'd love to hear from those of you who have worked on similar projects. What are your top tips for ensuring everything goes smoothly?

You can meet the young people we are working with on the Team CRVS portal on the Plan website.

What's the difference between a real Twitter account and a fake one?

So just recently, in my 9 things I hate about Twitter post, I vented about some of the things about my favourite social network that drive me mad. Well, I'm not done. And here's why: I want to follow like-minded professionals — people who work in communications, social media, digital media and those types of things — to expand my network and see what they're working on and what ideas they have. I want to learn from them and share my experiences too. I don't want to see spammy fake accounts or, worse yet, people who act like spammy fake accounts. I'm starting to find it really hard to tell the difference these days.

Case in point: Meet Lara William. She's one of those social media people with a bio like this:


Now, I came across Lara looking at people my connections already follow. More than 20 of my Twitter contacts follow Lara. So I saw that her tweets were mostly about social media and I thought I'd give her a shot. She had a lot of followers (78,600), although this was somewhat undermined by the ludicrous amount of people she was following (85,500). With hindsight, if I'd look a little more carefully, I'd have seen the red flags, but I don't always look, so I missed them.

Then came the auto-DM:

Thanks for Follow. Please Retweet my Tweet: LINK

No way. F that. So I unfollowed her right away. I then had a closer look at her timeline and saw that she wasn't actually tweeting, only retweeting, and only retweeting from two accounts: @trinityadam and @TerriBauman. Those two accounts were near identical to Lara's in all but the profile pics: ridiculous follower/following ratio, same bio, same tweets, same spammy auto-DM upon following.

You can probably figure out that these aren't real people. But here's the kicker: When you search Lara's name on Twitter (or the name of the other two, for that matter), you see that there there are heaps of people tweeting @ her with the same old shit:

  • Thanks for following!
  • Thank you for following us, Lara! What's your favorite #social network to market your business?
  • #welcomeTweet
  • happy to connect :)
  • Thanks for connecting! We'd love to have you connect with us on FB also!
  • etc

The spammy fake account is getting hit up by people (supposed social media professionals, some of them) who are themselves acting like spammy fake accounts, all in the name of connecting and being social and contributing to this big massive mess that is Twitter. They're forever thanking each other and welcoming each other. These people would basically try and engage a cabbage if they thought other people would see it.

Those three accounts are all cross-posting and spam sharing links to affiliate sites, like one for a Linkedin product by Lewis Howes, who's another one of these social media gurus (or rather, a "lifestyle entrepreneur") with a fancy scrolling website full of buzz words and web 2.0 and blah blah blah.

You know what, Twitter is FULL of people, real and fake, like Lara and Trinity and Terri, so much so that when it comes to social media professionals, too often there is practically no difference between the spammy fake accounts and the real ones. What am I getting at here? I guess the message is: STOP ACTING LIKE BLOODY ROBOTS!

9 things I hate about Twitter

Jesus facepalm

Remember when everyone first got on MySpace and you started adding people (oftentimes with no real purpose) and someone would write on your wall "Thanks for the add"? And then before you knew it, you had a wall full of people thanking you for those adds? That was pretty bloody stupid and annoying, right? Yet it still happens, just it's on Twitter now and people are thanking each other for the "follows" rather than the "adds". I still hate it. You don't need to thank me for following. Just tweet useful/interesting/amusing things for me to enjoy. If you really want to thank me, send me an Amazon gift card.

This got me thinking about all the things I hate about Twitter. Don't get me wrong, though. Twitter is an extremely useful tool and I love it, but there are these little habits people have that make me want to frown intensely and write a list-based blog post to vent my frustration. I'm not even talking about people posting pictures of their lunch and things like that. To me, this a list of things I consider bad practice, especially for those whose jobs are at least partly focussed on social media.

Disclaimer: I'm a cranky British guy who works in social media/comms.

1. Thanking everyone for everything

I get it. You're pleased that someone followed you or retweeted one of your tweets, but you don't need to thank them every time it happens. It just looks desperate. Save that gratitude for the times when you are actually grateful, like if you had an important message you wanted to get out or you became Twitter friends with Bill Gates or something.

2. Sneaky retweets

Some people just refuse to hit the "retweet" button and let it do its thing. Instead, they do the quote tweet, effectively claiming the tweet as their own and then getting the bulk of the credit when it gets shared on. I understand why people do it and I have done it myself before, but that quote function should be reserved for when you actually have something useful to add to the tweet. I'm still undecided on the people who reply to tweets but deliberately move the handle of the person they are replying to to the end of the tweet.

3. Auto DMs

God. Are we in 2014 or what? Why do people still insist on sending an automatic DM to new followers? If I get an auto DM from someone, that is going to make me seriously question why I followed that person (or worse, brand) in the first place. I know you didn't write that message just for me. I know it's part of a plan to want to appear like you give a shit. But it's just sad. And if there's a question in your DM that I then can't reply to because you don't follow me, that is going to make me hate you even more.

4a. Excessive chirpiness

You see this a lot with people who work in social media, especially Americans, for whatever reason. These folks just ooze happiness in the most cringeworthy, impersonal, disingenuous way. They grin like maniacs in their avatars and their tweets are littered with "Have a great day!" and "To your success!" I'm not annoyed with these people because they're happy, I'm annoyed with them because that "happiness" is part of their brand.

4b. No opinions

If you're afraid to really have an opinion and be outspoken, then you may as well be a tweeting doormat. You can't be forever afraid of rocking the boat. It's impossible to please everyone, so take a chance and say something interesting.

5. Cookie cutters

There are so many how-to guides to social media now that you get these people on Twitter who tweet like they're following a step-by-step process written for them by a high school student. They've taken all the tips on board and applied them to their accounts, but somewhere along the way, they've forgotten their personalities.

6. Stealing

This happens all the time. One day, you'll see a great picture on someone's Twitter feed. Then the next day, someone has tweeted the exact same pic, as if they were the source. And so on. People just take content and pass it on as their own. Whether it's an inspirational quote or a picture or whatever, you're going to look silly if you're forever borrowing and recycling.

7. #teamfollowback

If you're one of those people who automatically follows everyone back, you are going to end up following heaps of people you aren't really interested in. What's the point in that? There's something to be said for quality over quantity here. All too often we become infatuated by the big numbers, when the truth is that there is more value to be had engaging a smaller number of the right people than a bigger number of the wrong ones.

8. Vanity affairs

Give me a break. You don't need to retweet every @ and mention that comes your way. It does not make you look more important. Nobody wants to see that.

9. Lifeless avatars

I like it when people have interesting avatars. All right, you've got a nice headshot and you're wearing a sharp suit and tie, but save that for Linkedin. Put up something with a little bit of character. It makes you look human rather than like the cookie cutters I mentioned before.

Follow me on Twitter so you can keep tabs on how many of my own rules I end up breaking.