In September, some of the brightest minds in public sector comms will come to Birmingham for our rather fine #commsforchange14 event. It’s been drawn-up by comms and pr people especially for comms and pr people. Know what’s even better? We’re also publishing a whitepaper at the event and we’re launching a survey to help shape it. Can you help?
by Dan Slee
The single biggest problem with communications, George Bernard Shaw once said, is the illusion that it has taken place.
After 20 years of working for and with the media I’ll add another one. The biggest problem is that it rarely happens with enough time.
We’ve all been there. The service area who tell you via email at 6.08pm about a major project launch in the morning.
Does it have to be this way?
It’s one of the reaons why we are staging the #commsforchange14 event with PSCSF in Birmingham on September 24.
We didn’t want this just to be a run-of-the-mill go-through-the-motions conference. We care about this. That’s why we have some cracking speakers in the morning and an unconference in the afternoon where the agenda is put together on the day.
It’s why we’re putting together a whitepaper specially for the event to capture some of the expert opinion and some tips to share.
We want to give you at the event the tools to position you and your team closer to the top table and to service areas so you can better communicate change. The better you communicate the better you get to look.
What will the whitepaper tackle?
This white paper will cover:
- How soon should comms be involved?
- How can you position comms close to the top table?
- How can the relationship between service areas and comms be improved?
- How important is internal comms?
- Some cracking case studies to help you.
How can you get the whitepaper?
Attendees to #commsforchange14 get their own printed copy and a chance to chat to some of the contributors. They’ll also get an electronic copy emailed to them.
You can get a copy emailed to you within days of the event just by contributing to the survey.
We’d love it if you could take a few minutes to complete a survey to help us prepare a snapshot baseline picture that tells us where comms people are.
There’s the theory and the reality. We’d like to check where reality is before we work on the theory.
So, please do take a few minutes to complete the survey on this link here. We’d love you forever. That’s two links in three paragraphs.
So, why is comms getting involved early a good idea?
There’s a whole list of reasons why getting comms involved in a project early is a good idea. The earlier you do it the better chance you stand of winning.
Here are seven. Feel free to add more.
We look forward to seeing you at the event.
So now ‘Rotherham’ is doomed to enter the lexican of towns long shadowed by failure.
It is a town where 1,400 girls were abused between 1997 and 2013 and where a report pointed the finger of blame for failing to do enough to stop the attacks at Rotherham Borough Council and South Yorkshire Police.
Times journalist Andrew Norfolk who helped expose the story welcomed the council’s recent openness but warned the council’s successors not to be ‘tempted to chase leaks rather than act on their failings.’
This warning isn’t small town politics. It should be taken seriously.
It should echo through the corridors of town halls, police stations and hospitals across the land and the first people to stop and listen should be public sector communicators.
There will always be more bad news to emerge from somewhere in the public sector. It could be a council, a police force or a hospital. That’s life.
Let’s not forget every day lives are saved and changed by the public sector but when things go wrong the public sector is often damned more loudly than the perpetrators of the crime.
So what should public sector PR people do? Two things. First, the strategy.
In the past the default comms strategy was about painting the best picture possible. At worst this was ‘spin’ and at best it was telling the positive stories residents would often not be told of. There were stories of success to tell and investment. There still are in some cases. But after eight years of working in a local government comms team I’m convinced there needs to be a realism and honesty in public sector communications. There needs to be the ‘sorry, we won’t be able to do that anymore and here are the reasons.’
There also needs to be the ‘actually, there’s a problem here and we want to take a look at it. Will you bear with us and help us fix it?’
The feeling is that Rotherham Borough Council by ordering the report and by the resignation of the Leader is now starting to acknowledge the problem.
The strategy for public sector communications should be to listen, to be human and to accept when things go wrong. Do this and you won’t be chasing leaks and you’ll be acting upon failings.
One story from my own life illustrates the culture shift of what is needed. I’m from Stafford. Stafford is where the Mid-Staffs Hospital scandal was centred where hundreds of people suffered because of poor care. When the news broke my Facebook timeline was filled by personal stories shared by people I grew up with that floored me. The mother who had died in pain. The grandfather who was wrongly sent home and never recovered.
A few weeks later I heard two NHS comms people from another area talk dismissively about ‘whinging patients.’ ‘It would have been better,’ I challenged them ‘if some of the whinging patients at Stafford had been listened to. Some of them may still be alive.’
Of course, they accepted that. But back in their office surrounded by the culture of fear and blame I have to ask myself, would they? I’m convinced that it is the role of comms – especially in the public sector- to challenge and be the grit in the oyster. Being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description in theory. It in practice, though, I know of at least a couple of people whose careers were blighted by objecting too strongly.
One was asked to leave when concerns were raised about an appointment. Another fell foul of their chief executive and had to leave. This all points to the age old concern of public sector communicators to be near the ‘top table.’ In other words close to those making the decisions. A comms professional close to the top table may get sight of the problem earlier and can advise. They also find their words carry more weight.
Of course, it’s fine to challenge if the PR officer is in a position to know what is going on at all times. There are 700 services provided by local government alone. There is no way a comms team can be across all of these areas. Often, when I worked in local government comms office door would fly open after 5pm with an 11th hour request for some help on an issue that was about to hit the papers. My worry is that at this point it is too late.
To learn the lesson of Rotherham public sector communicators should be mindful that glossing away the problem won’t solve the problem. Honesty and openness may be a start.
Creative commns credit
We’ve all been there working in comms, marketing, web and PR… the ridiculous request that gets made of you that is dafter than a box of frogs.
A request or a comment so ludicrous, so inane and so lacking in common sense that it takes all your considerable being to stop yourself from tipping over the desk and shouting loudly: “But that’s just… STOOPID!”
But you don’t. You nod sagely and then think of a diplomatic answer while in your head you’ve tipped over the table.
For my part I was really good at the diplomacy. Probably too good. But after many years in PR teams I’ve come to realise there are phases.
Often this cycle starts at ten past five of a Friday afternoon which as we all know is the true witching hour for ‘interesting’ requests.
Stage One: The Silly Request
This is where it starts. Someone has asked you to do something impractical, stupid, immoral or ridiculous. This may involve clip art. It may involve the suggestion of putting someone really inappropriate up for interview with a really silly title. Like the time in my career when the cutting edge art gallery bod wanted to see if the Sunday tabloid would come and do a feature on their metallic vibrator that was on display because they wanted to stimulate a balanced debate on art.
Hey you there with the scissors. Put them down, can you?
Stage Two: The Response to the Silly Request
This next phase is the dangerous phase. How do you respond? A former colleague of mine had this down pat. A response ‘Well, that’s one view,’ indicated that they thought that was the most ridiculous thing they’d ever heard in their entire life and nobody sane could even countenance thinking that never mind articulating it.
The next step up from that, of course, was the occasionally heard ‘Well, that’s certainly one view…’
The alternative school of thought is to tip over the table and roar like a madman. Believe me, I’ve been inches away from it.
Stage Three: The Scuffle
You’ve reached an impasse. They want that back of bus ad campaign. They need it. They don’t know why. They have no evidence. They just NEED it and YOU are the unreasonable one.
Usually this is the point where things get escalated and this is where those personal relationships come in handy. Some you win and some you lose.
Stage Four: The War Story
Your battle with the box of frogs now becomes the stuff of legend that gets repeated in places where former colleagues or comms people gather. Often yours are madder than anyone else’s. But it is important to share these to get a sense check. No, it was them. It wasn’t you.
So here’s where this post can come in. We’ve written this post so you can share – anonymously if needs be – and you can release a primal scream of inner angst and share the pain with your colleagues in the industry.
Here are SIX of my favourites
Got asked to a meeting to discuss the comms around the signing of a major, major contract.Politician wanted CNN, Sky TV and the world’s media. Director nods sagely. Politician leaves safe in the knowledge that his instructions are very clear. Director then leans across the table and opens with: “I want none of that. If we have a press conference and no-one turns up that will be a major success…”
Got told they want to spend around six grand on an insert in the local paper. Why? Because they’ve always done it and a next door neighbour is doing it. Besides, they get it converted into a glossy brochure we can give away and we’ll get 500 copies for free. No, they have no evaluation. No, there is no purpose. Result? Six months later 497 copies of the horribly dated brochure remained in the corner of the office gathering dust. As predicted.
Got told they have got some children to design us a new logo and there it is in all its stretched logo glory…
Got asked to ‘make it look ‘whizzy’ by a person who admits they don’t know what whizzy looks like. Yes, really.
Got told that unless I say ‘yes’ to this homemade poster with clip art and a logo that’s been stretched your event that’s happening in three days will be a failure and it’ll all be my fault. No, really.
Got asked to put a piece in the residents’ magazine by one of the people who cut it just two weeks ago. No, really.
Now, here’s where you can come in.
Can you share your facepalm war stories?
Or in person?
And how you deal with them?
You may just save a colleague from being tipped over the edge.
Creative commons credit
We think this will work for comms and PR people but we think this will also be valuable for people who are working in your organisation on projects big and small that need communicating.
We could just give you a list of speakers but want to tell you about how this came about.
We had a conversation with someone a while back about big public sector projects and what separates the good ones from the bad.
As we talked we pictured a very real scenario and we came up with two options to choose from.
First, the scenario… part of your organisation has a great idea that could change how something is done, save money and lead to a better service.
What could go wrong?
Well, here are the options…
Option one: Project team don’t really bother with the comms until the end because they’re too busy and anyway, they don’t see the point. The comms team get left in the dark by the project team until the end… and the idea fails. “Clearly, it was the comms team,” the project team mutter. “There was nothing wrong with our idea. That was brilliant.”
“If only they’de spoken to us earlier,” the comms team mutter back.
Result: failure, unhappy project team, unhappy comms team and an angry chief executive.
Option two: Project team sit down with the comms team from the start. They shape a comms plan that they both know will work. There’s a project objective. There’s a comms objective that’s identical. There’s something to measure to know if the comms is working. The idea gets well communicated by the comms team. It’s a success.
“Hooray,” say the project team. “Our idea that we had in a room with six people in it has become a success amongst thousands,” say the project team.
Result: happy project team, happy comms team, success and a happy chief executive.
Of course, we’d all choose the second scenario, wouldn’t we?
The thing is, life is not like that, and we can all reel off a long list of times when it hasn’t and fewer times when it has.
What you’ll get out of #commsforchange14
So, at the end of our conversation we grew convinced of the need to put on an event that would set out the reasons for getting the project team and the comms team together early to make the thing a success.
We wanted comms people and project people speaking to share how they did it.
We wanted comms people to be fired up to go back and knock on the doors of big project people so they could get involved to help make a difference.
We wanted the event to be partly traditional, with speakers and slides so the success stories could be articulated and you’d know what you’d get.
But we wanted an unconference element in the afternoon because we’ve run them before at commscamp and for LGComms and with PSCSF and we know they will work. This sees that part of the agenda drawn-up based on what the people in the room wanted to talk about. Maybe there were lessons to be shared.
We wanted an event that showed why getting comms involved early and them being on the top table will help the organisation.
Of course, the great thing about doing comms2point0 is being able to turn a conversation and an idea into reality and with the excellent Nick Hill of Public Sector Customer Services Forum we’ve done just that andon Wednesday September 24 at the Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham #commsforchange will become a reality.
Who will be speaking?
There’s a range of hand picked people for you here:
John McPherson, Internal Communications Manager, Leeds City Council
Iain Patterson, Chief Technology Officer, DVLA
Adrian Capon, Senior Communications Manager, Yorkshire Housing (TBC)
Dan Slee, Co-founder, comms2point0
Darren Caveney, Co-founder, comms2point0
You can find more out about the event on Wednesday September 24 at the Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham by clicking the link here.
I’ve blogged about the need to be the grit in the oyster in comms and PR and to the need challenge.
That scheme the chief executive has? It’s going to fail and you need to diplomatically warn them.
That elected member who demands a press release? It’s down to you to tell them that won’t work.
Unless you do you are nothing more than a glorified shorthand typist.
Here’s one way you can challenge… by be an annoying three-year-old.
Or rather, adopt the questioning strategy of a small child who is asking questions because they are just plain nosey.
If you are a parent you’ve been there. Picture the scene in a super market right now somewhere in the world.
‘It’s a tin of beans, Jimmy.’
‘Why do we have tins of beans?’
‘So the food doesn’t go off.’
And there we have an explanation to Jimmy of food storage, freshness and the degrading process that makes food dangerous to eat.
Small children have got a brilliant quality of cutting through the crap.
A couple of times recently in a training session I’ve thought of the two-year-old interrogation strategy.
We’re doing a ‘thing’. It’s great.
Because it’s a good idea.
Because if we give people some basic information it reduces the chance of them coming back with an even worse problem.
Will that cost you money?
Yes, lots, about £10,000 a time.
How many could we stop coming back with a worse problem?
So, the ‘thing’ moves from being a good thing to a thing that is going to tangibly improve lives… and tangibly save money.
That’s win and win.
It’s also the beginnings of your evaluation because as we know, it’s not the column inches or the tweets but what people have done as a result.
‘Hey, chief executive, we’ve just communicated to a load of people and 100 have gone away with information that could stop them costing us £10,000 each.’
Does that sound better?
So, shouldn’t you be more of a three-year-old?