The office party principle

There are many measures by which you can judge a newspaper group, such as profit, return on sale figures, circulation success and editorial awards.

But I am adding a new one to my list – the office party. In this day and age of cost control and shareholder value, paying for staff to have a bloody good knees-up can fall by the wayside. Yet if it is done right, it can be a great way of thanking staff for their performance – as well as getting everyone feeling warm and cosy about working as part of a large group.

So thumbs up to Archant Newspapers, whose recent awards party sent it shooting up my league of successful companies.

That’s not to say it was not a success before, but Archant, formerly Eastern Counties Newspapers, has never been regarded as one of the big hitters – mainly due to its size. In fact, the group has expanded in the past few years and owns a host of daily and weekly newspapers, lifestyle, business and consumer magazines all over the country, not just in East Anglia.

As one of the judges for its annual awards in Norwich, I was surprised to see that several weekly and paid-for newspapers I had worked for in the early days of my career are now under Archant’s umbrella.

But let’s get back to the party.

Following the judging (meticulously organised, I have to say – and I have plenty to compare it with) the company invited all its staff to the awards ceremony.

No cheapskate affair this, with warm wine and nibbles followed by the chief exec handing out a few photocopied certificates. No, this was an extravaganza – 1,200 staff accepted the invitation to be transported to Alexandra Palace in north London for a Seventies night.

It’s a brave company that chooses a fancy dress theme for its party. If you are a bad employer, workers may still turn up to a free do, where they will huddle together disdainfully and slag off the management, but they most certainly will not turn up in costume.

Archant’s Seventies night included a big percentage of people straining to pop out of their man-made-fibre costumes and sweating under a variety of fantastic wigs.

And these people were not all from telesales (Ipswich Evening Star editor Nigel Pickover looked particularly groovy), but were simply determined to enter into the spirit of it.

The company did its part to reinforce the theme. As well as hiring a huge venue, it employed DJ Tony Blackburn to host the event (presumably much more expensive since his celebrity jungle victory) and had a top Abba tribute band as well as a Seventies disco.

Even the food and drink continued the Seventies theme – with prawn cocktail, coq au vin and black forest gateau on the menu and Black Tower wine to toast the award winners.

“So what?” you might say. Group puts on do, staff get hangover and get back to work.

But events such as this can help to unite a growing group. Rewarding success through awards and putting your money where your mouth is shows staff you know they have helped the company’s financial performance.

As a sober guest at the party, it was one of the few times in the past 18 months I have missed working for a newspaper group.

One of the things I have not missed is the fairly regular tantrums from football managers about newspaper coverage.

One of my former managers, Bobby Robson, made the headlines again recently by criticising the media (and he was one of the more reasonable managers I had dealings with).

Sir Bobby used Newcastle United’s programme notes to attack the irresponsible and destructive attitude of media pundits towards Premiership managers. He accused television and newspaper commentators, including former professional footballers, of abusing their position by criticising working managers.

Robson wrote: “Let no one underestimate the power of the media. It plays a great part in shaping public opinion for, if several million people are told that Joe Bloggs is no good and ought not to be there, a lot of people are going to believe it.

“That’s why I think those people in the media should treat the position of power they have with greater responsibility.”

In a sense, I can see where Robson is coming from. It must be hugely irritating for people in his position to read, see or hear a host of less successful football people criticising what they do on a daily basis.

But he seems to forget about the fans. Many thousands go to live games every week – and they are the best pundits to express opinions on where their team is going right or wrong.

Any newspaper deciding to take a contrary line to public opinion soon finds itself out of favour with a huge bulk of its readers. They have got to tell it as it is and that will generally concur with all but the most biased fanatic.

Robson also misses the point by criticising newspaper polls set up by papers asking whether a manager should stay or go. “With the greatest respect, who are these people to put such a question?” he asks.

If a manager has nothing to fear, there should be no problem with a newspaper asking the fans what they think. I recall the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle conducted a poll asking who should be the next manager after the departure of Ruud Gullit.

The paper put forward a few names and Robson won with a huge percentage.

I’m not saying this got him the job, but I remember him being hugely pleased with the poll and the result, which gave him a very public endorsement.

Either fans have a right to have a voice, through the media, or they don’t. You can’t pick and choose depending on your popularity and that of your team at a given point.

Seventies style: Archant employees don wigs and flares for the awards do

Apart from the Seventies party, the other highlight of the past few weeks was the Society of Editors’ well-organised conference in London.

I pulled the short straw by having to speak at the final session, a breakfast seminar after a big hack night out. To compound matters I had to follow Piers Morgan, Simon Kelner and Kim Fletcher on the subject of why the public do not trust journalists.

All those who managed to drag themselves out of bed were rewarded with a statesman-like Morgan and an amusing spat between him and Kelner on the broadsheet versus tabloid debate.

Whoever organised the conference running order deserves a promotion as it certainly ended with a bang – and was sufficiently entertaining to keep even the most hungover alert.  Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle.

E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

Next week: Chris Shaw

by Alison Hastings

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