Read into it what you will

First published in FM World, March 2009
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Read into it what you will

In the penultimate episode of the fourth series of the deservedly acclaimed HBO series The Wire, Tommy Carcetti, the fresh-faced, new, Democratic Party mayor of run-down Baltimore, is waiting outside the office of the Republican governor of Maryland. He’s sitting on burnished wooden benches, hoping to persuade his political opponent to stump up $54 million to fill a hole in the budget of B-more’s ailing school system.

He waits. He waits. He’s kept waiting for more than hour; but in fact it seems an eternity.

There are no copies of the Baltimore Sun to while away the time. There’s no Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, or the Harvard Business Review – some of my favourite media, and stuff that’s too widely ignored in British boardrooms, let alone British reception areas.

At least there’s no flat screen TV, blaring out sports coverage at high volumes, and turning me into a Grumpy Old Man stretching upward for the mute control. There’s just the quiet, reverential atmosphere of the state capital’s version of the White House.

A radical all my years, I’d now rather have some silent copies of the Wall Street Journal in reception areas than the football news (I can’t get away from it in my local Putney bistro either). Just some quiet reading would make delay acceptable. At my club, the Adam Street Club, reception knows how to do it. They bring in fresh copies of the Evening Standard, on top of the quality broadsheets, and Tatler, if I’m not mistaken (I’ve never opened it, honest).

Or go to a hip communications/PR company like Ketchum, near Liverpool Street. There they have a whole table of magazines, as befits a firm in the media business: Marketing, Marketing Week, Management Today, you name it. Makes me feel I’d like to drop in without an appointment. It’s welcoming, informed, professional.

At the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, near Holborn Circus, they have both the New Statesman and The Spectator, which strikes me as magnanimous and faintly cerebral. Also, as you’d expect, New Scientist. They have Nespresso coffee, and Wi-fi that works.

At the BBC in Portland Place, they have the company magazine, Ariel, which I would take seriously if it wasn’t excerpted in Private Eye so much.

Now Private Eye – that would indicate an independent spirit on the part of the facilities manager.

Me, I’d like to see big screens with websites both tough (www.spiked-online.com) and hilarious (www.theonion.com). When you’ve done all the inane signing in, complete with what company you’re from (I write ‘Myself’, or do an arrow going leftward back to my name), you want something to cheer you up. Instead, you get unopened copies of the company’s annual report.

In fact staff newsletters, such as Ariel, are much more revealing. If it’s a real or potential client, I always steal a few recent issues. Employee communications, a burgeoning field, don’t tell you the whole true story, but they give a hint of the inside story. That can prove to be good intelligence.

I wouldn’t mind a bit of Le Monde, or Corriere della Sera, even if it was just for the headlines. From most reception areas, you’d never know the company did business in Europe. And what about China Daily, People’s Daily, or The Hindu? They’re all in English, have enormous circulations – and you don’t have to believe them any more than you do the News of the World. They represent the future of British reception areas.

As the working population ages, and people get more worked up about dementia, expect to see more Sudoku puzzles to keep brains from mouldering. Or maybe exercise machines that generate the usual pitiful amounts of Green energy. Or yet another New Labour lecture about avoiding salt in the canteen. But despite the esteemed Lord Mandelson’s belated call for real engineering, not the financial sort, don’t expect to see New Civil Engineer, Computing, or Scientific American any time soon.

Now for the furniture. Those back-rub machines they have at airports, or those shoeshine machines they have in hotels – that would be a nice change. A few design classics, complete with dates and the Danish or Italian geniuses behind them, would also be terrific. But don’t overdo it. The day I passed estate agent Foxtons and saw rows of bottled water and Arne Jacobsen’s Swan chairs (1956), I knew a housing crash was coming.

To see where journalism really does meet the management of reception areas, go back to signing in, and The Wire. You sign in so the HSE will know you’re dead after a fire. But don’t ever write ‘people were evacuated’. As an old-timer hack on The Sun explains to a new blood in The Wire, evacuation is something that happens to buildings.

Evacuating people? Don’t go there.

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