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Paul Brislen phones home

Telecommunications user Vaughn Davis joins Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand chief executive Paul Brislen over an excellent breakfast pie served – as God is his witness – with chips.

Telecommunications user Vaughn Davis joins Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand chief executive Paul Brislen over an excellent breakfast pie served – as God is his witness – with chips.

VD: My first Internet experience was either looking at porn on the Air Force’s one computer or listening to the dial-up while connecting to the Xtraville home page. What was yours?

PB: I was working at TVNZ as a subtitling editor in Teletext. Watching TV then condensing the dialogue into a three-line caption at the bottom of the screen on Teletext page 801.

VD: Does it still exist?

PB: It’s still there and it’s very useful. Unfortunately it’s woefully under-resourced so they can’t do the sorts of subtitles that you would hope but it’s a great service. We used to get the subtitles shipped in on floppy disks, which periodically would be completely scrambled because they’d be passed through an x-ray machine. And I said, “There’s got to be a better way of moving these files around.” So I spoke to a geeky guy at TVNZ who said, “Oh, we could put them on a bulletin board.” And that was the first time I used the Internet. It worked, so they gave us a computer. Suddenly understanding what that strange phrase was in The Simpsons was just a matter of Googling it. Only it wasn’t Google then, it was Dog Pile.

VD: And now you’re running TUANZ. Now I’m not sure if this is because I’m paying more attention since you’ve taken over, or is TUANZ in the news a bit more now than when Ernie Newman was running it?

PB: Ernie was great. My first contact with Ernie was me getting something wrong in a story and him saying, “Oh, now, let me explain to you...” That was invaluable because nobody else would give you the independent third party view. It was always vendor driven or telco driven. So Ernie was always the go-to guy for any tech reporter to make contact. But now tech’s become mainstream, and the mainstream guys ring me constantly either for explanations, background chat, who should I talk to about this, or for news. So you do see us in mainstream media more often, but at the same time we are mostly funded by medium and large businesses, rather than consumers.

VD: I wonder about that. You’re advocating on behalf of consumers to an extent, but you’re largely funded by businesses whose interests are not the same their customers’ …

PB: The past 25 years it’s been business, business, business. And now that the issues have moved into consumer land we have to move with them.

VD: But why would a big business or government department basically pay you to lobby against them?

PB: The government departments we have, joined predominantly because we can say things on their behalf that they can’t say. So they would struggle to say to the MED, for example, “We think you’re doing it wrong.” Whereas they can say to us, “You’ve really got to lobby hard on this because ...” and we do get that. Some of the more remote territorial local authorities – will say, “Look, we need to get involved, we need a rural broadband initiative. You guys can bang that gong much louder than us.” So that’s what we do. Same for big business. I’ve been spending a lot of time since February when I joined meeting them and asking, “Why are you members?” And a lot of them don’t actually need our services anymore, but they like that we’re there lobbying on behalf of their customers. I found that quite interesting. They say, “We needed you in the early days when we were smaller, now we’re big enough and ugly enough that we can pick up the phone and ring Telecom directly or the Minister directly. We don’t need you so much but we like that you’re there so we need you to do that for the next wave coming through.”

VD: On a personal level, how does it work, heading an organisation that devotes at least part of its energy to criticising the place you’ve just come from?

PB: Well, that’s remarkably easy! I was critical while I was there and had a few shouting matches with various people. I think that’s to be encouraged, not trodden on. If you surround yourself with yes men all you ever hear is, “Yes, we’re doing fine,” right up to the point where the iceberg rips the side out of the ship. I always saw my role in PR as in part counter-journalism. Finding out what’s going on and letting them know before it becomes a big story. That’s why I got into social media, because I’m quite lazy and I did not want to be taking an exec member and media-training them to go on Fair Go to apologise for something really stupid, if we could have solved things at the very beginning. I’m delighted to say I think we were on Fair Go once in my tenure and Target a couple of times. Fair Go is very easy to deal with. You apologise, you tell them you’re going to fix it, you front up and you give somebody a bunch of flowers, because most people watch television and it’s all in the appearance. Eighty percent of the message comes across in what you look like. So if you’ve got a big bunch of flowers and you physically hand them to somebody ... I say this to people and they all laugh and go, “No, but seriously ...”

VD: Was introducing social media into Vodafone your idea?

PB: It was. It has many fathers now but at the time it was me. And that was off the back of journalism. As a tech reporter – and this was quite unusual in the day – I would troll the various news groups and ...

VD: Troll?

PB: Trawl, troll … I would do both. Mwahaha! I would trawl the various news groups looking for news. So when I got to Vodafone I would trawl the groups looking for trouble and instead of writing about it I’d say, “Oh, that looks awful, how can we help?” The first time I did that I got a phone call almost immediately from Vodafone Australia, “One of your guys is on the Internet answering questions – make him stop!” And I said, “Why? What’s wrong?” thinking I’d answered the question wrong. They said, “But what if they ask another question?”

 The conversations weren’t just in tech forums though. For example, the gig guide site Biggie had a forum, and in the forum they had a general discussion section, and in the general discussion section they had a technology section, and in there somebody was whingeing about Vodafone’s pricing. There were about 500 replies, so I signed up and jumped in. That was getting a bit exhausting, so I set up a forum on Vodafone’s website where people could ask questions. I thought we might get 1,000 people a month, and the first month we had 30,000 people. It grew from there, and that was great because it also gave us a place where we could train up people to answer questions in relative safety and my role purely was as overseer of tone.

VD: If you’re the arbiter of tone it’s going to mean the brand personality starts to blur with your own personality after a while.

PB: I always saw Twitter in particular as being a way of reminding everybody out there in consumer land – punter land – that yes, we’re a corporate monolith but there are people here. It’s a humanising element so that’s why whenever I was telling people about social media I always included a slide that said, “Always tweet when you’re drunk,” because to me that’s about as humanising as you can get. So long as it’s not upsetting your shareholders, it’s brand compliant and all the good stuff you should be as human as possible.

VD: Which is why a lot of people see the Westpac Australia “so over this week” slipup a couple of years back as the best thing they ever did.

PB: Vodafone UK had one as well. They had fewer people following them on Twitter than we had at Vodafone New Zealand and somebody tweeted from the Vodafone account thinking he was logged onto his own account – another trap for young players – and his tweet was something about “I’m over beaver.” Or it might have been the other way round, but it was that kind of level of whoa!* He immediately realised what he’d done, deleted it but by then it was too late. Five thousand people went, “Holy cow, did you see this? Retweet.” Vodafone apologised to every single person who retweeted it and in the process not only did their follower numbers go up, they started having a conversation with people. They started chatting.

VD: As humans.

PB: Putting the social back in social media. It was brilliant.

*Actual tweet was "VodafoneUK is fed up of dirty homo's and is going after beaver".