COMMS TIP: Why You Need to Challenge Like a Three-Year-Old

P1030315I’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.

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s a tin of beans, Jimmy.’

‘Why do we have tins of beans?’

‘So the food doesn’t go off.’

‘What’s ‘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.

Why?

Because it’s a good idea.

Why?

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?

Picture credit

My daughter.


COMMS ADVICE: Be Bold, Be the bit of Grit in the Oyster

3875021320_445f89a757_b (1)If there is one piece of advice I came to late in my career that I value  it is this… the role of comms is sometimes to be the bit of grit in the oyster.

It was Paul Willis of Leeds Metropolitan University who I first hear use the phrase.

Really?

What the heck does this mean?

My take on it is that sometimes, the role of the comms person is to politely stand your ground and to challenge and to point out where things won’t work.

The chief exec of the water company blamed for water shortage taking questions with a clean bottle of water, British Gas staging a Twitter Q&A on the day of a price hike or senior officer hellbent on back of bus ads… because that’s the way they’ve always done it.

I was reminded of the need for this a short while back in a comms planning workshop where one attendee mentioned the pressure she was under to come up with evaluation weeks after the launch of a campaign to encourage people to sign-up to volunteer for a specific task.

“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I’m getting pressure to show if the campaign is a success but we know it takes six months for it to work.

“It’s been a month and the thing is, it’s really difficult, because it’s a senior person who is asking.”

Of course, in an ideal world that senior person would immediately see the folly of asking how many cars the Forth Bridge had carried after just a week into its construction.

But life is not like that.

So, if tact and diplomacy don’t work, sometimes your role as a comms person is to be the person to draw a line in the sand and point out where something, in your professional opinion, doesn’t work.

When I worked as part of a comms team I’d often find it useful instead of directly rubbishing an idea directly just spelling out the logical sequence of events that decision would bring.

“We can have a back of bus advert by all means,” it’s better to say, “but do we know if the Primary school children we’re trying to get through to drive? And how many signed up for that course last year as a result of it? Could we talk to some parents and teachers to see what the best route may be, too?”

Be professional, be polite but never be afraid be the grit in the oyster. It will almost always be the harder path but if you take it you will almost always win respect. Involve your boss if needs be. Or their boss.

If you don’t are you sure you aren’t just being a glorified shorthand typist?


IMAGE RIGHT: 5 Ways Pictures Can Work for Organisations on the Social Web

We are all publishers now, we know that, as the internet gives organisations the ability to have a voice in the media landscape. But how to use it?

A good picture is worth 1,000 words and in the medium of short status updates a powerful picture is content that will be shared.

I’ve been an advocate for years of ‘sharing the sweets’ and for comms teams to give social media access up to those on the frontline. Why? Because what you are doing should be shared especially if only a few people are seeing it.

With a smartphone in your pocket this ability has never been easier, so what are you waiting for?

Here are five ways

BIG EVENT SPECTACLE: North Yorkshire Police at the Tour de France

When Le Tour came to Yorkshire people scoffed. But this image brilliantly sums up why those at the frontline are exactly those who should be getting access. A brilliant photograph. A wonderful piece of content shared widely around the web with a quick message on what the police were doing. Pic: https://twitter.com/NYorksPolice/status/485420729631260672/photo/1

Twitter  NYorksPolice Unbelievable scenes #Buttertubs ... - Google Chrome 05072014 213859

TO FLAG UP POLICY ON THE GROUND: Caution: Bison on the Road

Flagging up a link to the YouTube channel with this arresting picture of bison being restored to Yosemite National Park this image makes you smile and invites you to marvel at the work of the US Department of the Interior. How can you stage this? With difficulty. How can you capture it as it happens? With a smartphone close to hand. People don’t care about the piece of paper the policy was written on but they do care about the effect the policy has. So, show it to them.

https://twitter.com/Interior/status/484719451703894016/photo/1

Twitter  Interior Restoring the bison, @YosemiteNPS ... - Google Chrome 05072014 213828

 

IN A CRISIS: West Midlands Police

In summer 2011, riots were spreading across the UK. Rumours were being circulated over the web and in particular Twitter. Some forces and politicians called for the web to be banned while others correctly knew that the right way was to engage. This tweet scotched a rumour that Walsall Police station was on fire. The rumour was scotched in minutes by an officer taking a picture and posting it to his force-approved Twitter stream. The image was shared to harness the power of positive networks. http://twitpic.com/63jj73

Walsall Police Station at 1911 today, not on fire. Look how ... on Twitpic - Google Chrome 05072014 215019

Walsall Police Station at 1911 today, not on fire. Look how ... on Twitpic - Google Chrome 05072014 215234

POP CULTURE: Star Wars and gritting and Linconshire County Council

All too often organisations can appear aloof and remote. A photo-shopped image of a Star Wars At-At was a good way to get a message across that the roads were icy to motorists.
Twitter  LincolnshireCC Our cameras show Lincs drivers ... - Google Chrome 05072014 221130

HUMOUR: English Heritage

The sight of a Roman, a Knight, a First World War soldier and a Red Coat on the underground arrests the viewer and makes them smile.
Twitter  EnglishHeritage Delays of up to 2,000 years ... - Google Chrome 05072014 221540

 

So, what are you waiting for?


FUTURE COMMS: A comms plan to help people sleep at night 

4131391566_f24e225475_o

Well, it’s had a great innings but can we now finally bury the idea that using social media ad hoc in an organisation is going to change the world?

But what great days we did have.

We had a mantra of JFDI in local government – just flipping do it – and we did things under the rader without permission.We would chuck up a Facebook page knowing that IT didn’t know what it was so they couldn’t block it.

We could tweet election results without too much interference, snigger behind our hands and we could push the envelope.

But those days are over. We learned lots but no, we didn’t take over the world even though it felt as though we would. Today, many public sector teams have been cut back too far to have space to innovate. Even more worryingly, teams haven’t found a way to tackle the big issues that really matter to make a difference. They haven’t found a way to get the resources to do so either.

Sure, the trojan mouse idea of testing out four or five ideas to see where it’ll take you is one I enthusiastically believe in to help you experiment and see what works. But to really make a difference bright communications people need to take all that experience and find out what is keeping senior people awake at night. Then go hell for leather to tackle that, that and only that. But make sure the senior people know exactly what you are doing by reporting back using every means neccesary. Infographics are particularly good. Make yourself a sandwich board if you have to but just flipping do it.

Here’s a few ideas to help you…

Are you helping senior people sleep at night?

Here’s an exercise I came across during the LGComms Future Leaders programme at a session at Leeds Metropolitan University with Anne Gregory and Paul Willis. It was the best piece of training I had in the eight years I spent in local government and I suggest you do this quick exercise.

  1. Get a piece of paper and draw a blob in the middle. 
  2. Think of six people you do most of your work for in your organisation and write their names on the paper… the more important they are the closer to the blob you can write their name.
  3. Write down some things – let’s say six things – that keep those six people awake at night.
  4. 5612074901_1378aec493_bAsk yourself, are you really spending time with the really key people? 
  5. Ask yourself, are you really doing things to help the really key people  sleep at night?

My own conclusion to doing this exercise was that I wasn’t really tackling the issues that matter for the people that matter and I’ll bet you a slice of Victoria sponge that you aren’t either.

The goal of the bright communications team should not be vague ‘reputation’ or ‘awareness’. It is to prove in pounds, shillings and pence if needs be the value of the team before it is too late. It’s why I’ve long been convinced that channel shift and customer service are things that comms teams need to be closely involved with.

So how can we help tackle the issues that keep senior people awake?

If I had a pound for every time someone told me the words: ‘What we need is a comms plan,’ I’d have been rich. What they meant was they wanted you to tick a box for them. What they really wanted was to outsource the responsibility to you when we all know to be effective it should be a joint thing.

What you really need is a comms plan agreed jointly with the senior people around a table. This can take many forms but they need to have the following:

  1. Where they are now.
  2. Where they want to go.
  3. Something measurable and tangiable to show when they’ve got there.
  4. Who they want to talk to and how they can do it.
  5. Some ideas of resources.
  6. Some idea of evaluation.

Some of what’s in your plan will be traditional comms and some will be digital. You’ll have a mix of both and you’ll be working to make a difference to your organisation for the people who are going to be making big budget decisions in the not too distant future.

If yuo get this right your bosses’ boss will sleep at night.

And you won’t be sleepwalking towards a cliff either

By the way, I’m now available to help you with all of this and would love to do so. I’m dan@comms2point0.co.uk and @danslee on Twitter.

Creative commons credits

3:33 http://www.flickr.com/photos/7774088@N08/4131391566/

We will awake https://www.flickr.com/photos/25028863@N00/5612074901/


POST RELEASE: Life After the Press Release Dies

LandscapeIt’s seven years since the ground-breaking post ‘Die! Press Release! Die! Die!’ was written.

Tom Foremski’s this-can’t-go-on wail reads as powerfully as a Martin Luther deconstruction of one of the central pillars of the public relations industry.

“I’ve been telling the PR industry for some time now that things cannot go along as they are,” Tom wrote, “business as usual while mainstream media goes to hell in a hand basket.”

There is no point, he says, in writing slabs of text in journalese, and sending them to journalists when the traditional newspaper industry is dying and the news landscape is undergoing a digital revolution whether it likes it or not, Tom argued.

He’s right. The future is the message being shaped as web content and as social media conversation that has to be two-way and authentic, fun and interesting. Public relations people, no, communications people need to realise this if they are to still be relevant.

But that’s not to say that the press release is dead overnight. It’ll be here but diminishing.

Twelve months ago at an LGComms event I pointed to Tom’s post in a presentation and explained why this was something people needed to know. For five years I’ve been pointing to rapid change from my very small corner of the digital allotment.

Other louder voices have seen what I’ve seen too.

Government director of communications Alex Aiken made a similar point although more forcefully in a speech to the PRCA conference reported by PR Week. 

Ashley Brown, Coca Cola’s global director for social media and digital communications, recently talked about the wish to end not just the press release but the corporate website too.

“For the first time ever, our PR teams are being asked to think beyond a press release or beyond a toolkit or beyond a launch package. They had to think: ‘Wow, what is a two-minute really high quality video that someone would really want to share with the friends?'”

“We’re finally breaking the last connections to the corporate website. I think the corporate website is over.  I think it’s dead. I think everyone needs to start thinking beyond it. How can you turn it into a media property and hopefully the age of press release pr is over as well.

“I’m on a mission. If there’s one thing I do it’s to kill the press release. We have a commitment to reduce the number of press releases by half by the end of this year. I want them gone entirely by 2015. That’s our goal.”

That’s fine for Coke. But how easy is it if you work somewhere else?

Actually, press release murder is a pretty tricky subject to raise amongst comms people. It’s akin to telling people the skills they’ve spent a career crafting are now not so important. It’s telling a room full of sailors to put down their 8301863218_bdbac61ef4_oreef knot and lore and learn how to service an outboard motor. PR people are often former journalists who have in any event spent years as juniors crafting the ability to write press releases. Every word is pored over and shaped by committee. That control gives power. To attack the use of the press release is to launch a personal attack on the career history of PR people.

In the UK, the Government Digital Service published a fascinating study - the half life of news – of more than 600 press releases on gov.uk that looked at the traffic they got. Many spike quickly then fade like digital chip paper.

But if the battle is to be won it’s probably not the revolutionary cry of ‘Die, press release!’ that will win in it. It’s not even a study of how effective the numbers are in getting a story across that will lead the victory, although that will be important. It’ll actually be you, me and the people you went to school with who vote with their feet and share the sharable content.

There is nothing so boring, I’ve heard it said, as the future of news debate amongst journalists because what they say will have no bearing whatsoever on what the outcome will be.

It’ll be things like Oreo’s mugging of the Superbowl with an image of a biscuit created on the spot and tweeted and Facebooked within minutes to take advantage of a powercut. It wasn’t the lavish TV ads that was talked about. It was the real time marketing team who made the sharable image and the 15,000 retweets and 20,000 likes it achieved.

Oreo-Expion-Screenshot

What’s real time marketing? It’s people making content that capitalises on real time events. Look it up. You’ll need to know it.

All this is why I’m finding communications utterly fascinating right now.

And you have to ask yourself the question, if you are not thinking of what post-press release life looks like now, what will you be doing in five years?

Creative commons credits

Sorry, no gas http://flic.kr/p/7vtFzZ

Coke http://flic.kr/p/dDBdGJ


#LGCOMMS: the digital debate: is traditional comms dead?

1664489869_3fadab9f95_oIt’s the LGComms Academy in Cardiff this week. A three day event looking at where we are, why we are and where we’ll be going in communications in local government.

There will be some excellent speakers and there will I’m sure be much to learn. You can take a look at the line up from May 21 to 23 via a pdf here. The line-up is not available in a more a ccessible format, I’m afraid.

Last year, there was the profoundly depressing experience of a panel on social media being glibly introduced with the words: “There’s only two things wrong with social media. It’s not social and it’s not media.”

Thankfully, the person who uttered these words has since spoken of his sea change in attitude. There’s also a lot of digital on the agenda. There’s even an unconference slot with Lloyd Davis on Thursday afternoon which should be interesting.

Is traditional comms dead?

There’s also a Think Tank discussion I’ll be chairing on The Digital Debate: Is Traditional Comms Dead? That takes place at 6.30pm on Tuesday May 21. On the panel will be Eddie Coates-Madden of Hull City Council,

Eddie Coates-Madden, Assistant Head
of Service: Communications and Marketing, Hull City
Council, Gavin Sheppard, The Media Trust and Sara
Moseley, Cardiff University
Kuku Club, Park Plaza Hotel

With that in mind here’s five links that may fire some thought. See? I’ve even highlighted some key points to save you the bother.

Are comms the blockers?

Catherine Howe, of Public i wrote a useful summary of the commscamp unconference session in Birmingham asking if comms team are the single biggest block on good social media un local government.You can read the full text of her post here.

I think we have to conclude that communications are often blockers to social media activity but that they have good as well as bad reasons for acting this way. As the use of social media becomes more entrenched then I would speculate that this will become increasingly a question of organisational leadership rather than any specific practitioner groups and that it will be important to start discussing where that leadership should come from. If we want to start to see social media operating outside of comms then arguably that leadership needs to be external as well.  The question of being good organisational customers of digital projects will perhaps be the next challenge we have to collectively face in taking some of the excellent best practice we see around us into more mainstream use and out of the ambit of a single team.

In defence of the press release

Local government press officer Kam Mistry wrote a defence of the pr here sparked by a different debate at commscamp in Birmingham earlier this year.

When you dissect it, you realise that the press release is a fantastic form of communication. You grab someone’s attention with a good headline, they then read your first paragraph and, assuming it’s still interesting, will continue to 97220057_bdf73cb248_bread the rest of it and then publish it. I suppose it’s a bit like the mating game – initial attraction, stimulate interest, maintain interest and then… oh dear this is turning into a Swiss Toni metaphor.

Yes, the press and media are having to evolve but they will be there for many years to come. Newspapers – in print and electronic forms  – will continue to be key channels for effective communication and we really should not see them, or press releases, as anachronisms.

Put it this way. First there was radio and then television came along. Have we all thrown away our radios?

You can read the full text here.

PR is dead and so are newspapers

Eddie Coates-Madden is part of the LGComms panel and wrote this on the challenge that traditional pr and newspapers face and a presentation he gave:

And I ended with my prediction of the future for journalism; that it will be fast, fast, fast; that stories are everywhere, not on a Press Release; that everyone can be a journalist (not necessarily a good one, but everyone can break stories and has the tools to publish); that journalists have become a brand in themselves; that  broadcast without response is dead; that there will be ever more accountable journalism, more easy disgust, more easy offence and that accountability is every organisation’s to handle, and that there are more easily targeted campaigns and more moral tensions. activism is clicktivism and that might mean more and more difficult challenges, to freedom of expression, politically unpopular views, financial security, even – when wrongly done – to personal safety.

You can read more here. 

Death to the campaign!

Jim Garrow works in public health in Philladelphia. He writes a blog and updates it prodigiously. He has the uncanny ability to nail things. This post may be uncomfortable – nay challenging – reading for comms people at LGComms. But that’s why you should read it. He argues that campaigns are counter-productive and switching things on and off don’t work with people.

First, it assumes that our audience is there, available, placid and interested, during the time we decide they should hear our messages. If they are otherwise ready to lose weight, or set up a communications plan, or change the batteries in their smoke detectors, except for some family crisis that happens during our predefined “campaign time,” then they don’t get the message that they need to change their behavior. (This is a HUGE reason I despise days, weeks and months 2911854766_250af8cebe_othat celebrate or raise awareness for something; what, tuberculosis doesn’t matter the other 364 days of the year?

The other reason only communicating through campaigns is harmful is, in my estimation, infinitely worse. Say your timing works out and you get lucky and actually find someone who was patiently waiting for your message. Not only that, but the message is specifically tailored to the group she self-identifies with (because you’re still marketing to audiences and not everyone), and she takes action on it. She’s moved from Contemplation to Preparation based solely on your messaging. Congratulations! But, what happens when you end your campaign? Specifically, what happens to this wonderful person that you’ve prepped to be ready to move forward and actually change her behavior? Does she not move to the Action stage? Does she resent your messaging for leaving her hanging, alone? Is she willing to wait another year for you to become interested in her problem again? Will she even listen next time?

You can read more here.

Creative commons credits

Newspapers http://www.flickr.com/photos/53531820@N00/1664489869/

Movable type http://www.flickr.com/photos/cibergaita/97220057/sizes/l/

Yellow wall http://www.flickr.com/photos/notsogoodphotography/2911854766/sizes/o/


PRINT TRUTH: ‘Newspapers in print are clearly going away. I think you’re an idiot if you think that’s not happening.’

3377807208_20a6bc04b9_b

Fail to understand the changing landscape and very soon you won’t have a job.

It’s something I’ve been banging on about for some time now and It’s true whether you are a journalist, comms person or a fifth generation pit prop maker in 1983.

A bright person a few weeks ago told me that there would always be newspapers because they’d always be there.

I disagree.

People thought that about coal mines once too.

There’ll always be news but there’ll always be print newspapers? Really?

As the rise of Twitter as a breaking news medium and sites like BBC that’s just not the case.

Here’s an interesting few quotes from John Paton, CEO of Digital First Ventures who own, as their website says, more than 800 print and digital products that reach 57 million customers a month.

If you aren’t taking it from me take it from a news organisation that has a $1.3 billion turnover.

They are quotes that comms people need to know about because they represent more evidence of the seismic change in the media landscape.

But why switch to Digital First as a company name?

“Digital First is my name. I’ve been saying it long before I got here. The name originally was to say very loudly — in a headline kind of way — that what we thought we did in newspapers, we had to change 308550289_b8a4be2d44_odramatically. And that, of course, meant digital first.

“And actually “digital first, print last.” I wanted to hammer home that this idea about the Web as something else we do was ridiculous.”

“The Web was and it should be what we do. Print is something else that we do, which happens — at this moment in time — to have almost all the revenue. But that’s not going to be our future. It was something that I named to try to hammer home that message. It’s kind of funny — I don’t think they have a “digital first” strategy at Google. They have a strategy. The name, hopefully, if we’re successful, becomes very dated.”

On paywalls and digital dimes…

“I don’t think paywalls are the answer to anything. If we’re swapping out print dollars for digital dimes, I think paywalls are a stack of pennies. We might use the pennies in transition to get where we’re going.”

On newspapers going away…

“Newspapers in print are clearly going away. I think you’re an idiot if you think that’s not happening.

3588867138_ec00e587e3_o“I don’t think that news organizations are dying but are newspapers going to stop running in print? Yeah. Absolutely.”

On making the shift…

“I think we still are too afraid to take the kinds of risks we need to take because there’s so much money tied up in print. We have $1.3 billion in revenue. And of $1.3 billion, $900 million is advertising and $165 million of the advertising is digital advertising. Four years ago, that was almost nothing. That $165 [million] is going to have to more than double in three years. To do that, we’re going to have to take some risks on the print side. That’s the one thing that scares the [expletive] out of everybody.

“I love newspapers. I’m a newspaperman. My father was a printer. I started off as a copyboy. I love newspapers. But they don’t love me anymore.”

You can read the whole interview here.

That’s something worth reflecting on.

Creative commons credit 

News stand http://www.flickr.com/photos/chicagogeek/3377807208/sizes/l/

Reading http://www.flickr.com/photos/maong/3588867138/sizes/o/


FUTURE TACKS: Why every organisation needs a digital comms specialist

6701931811_e69e5e0f1e_bRight, I’m going to say something bold and then directly contradict myself. But just stay with me on this, okay?

We all need to be doing more of this digital communications stuff from the hard-bitten pr to the frontline officer.

There shouldn’t be a digital comms team and a traditional comms team in a different part of the building.

There should be one. Which doesn’t mind if frontline people use digital too.

But this is the tricky bit. Every organisation now needs a digital communications specialist to help make this happen.

Let me explain.

Why there shouldn’t be a divide between digital and traditional comms 

Back in 1998 the newspaper I was worked at with reluctance set-up email addresses. Our office of 12 reporters had one email platform rigged up to one machine. We gathered around like a bunch of Marconis as the first e-mail landed. “Oooooh!” we cooed as it landed and someone plucked up the courage to type a reply. When the inbox filled we didn’t know what to do.

Back then email in the office I worked in email was seen as specialist job trusted to just one person. Times change and now every new reporter there gets an email address. Which is as it should be.

When digital communications emerged to greet the social web a whole new series of skills were required. Cutting and pasting a press release didn’t work so people re-discovered conversation and informality. It became clear that the language of each platform was different to each. People’s media use splintered and people could no longer be found in one place but several.

This is something I’ve blogged about before and others have too and GCN’s Ann Kempster has written:

I don’t see how a modern press function can operate in isolation, not taking up modern communication methods and solely relying on press cuttings and column inches. The world just does not operate this way anymore. We all need to be able to operate across comms disciplines. That goes for digital too – we need to grasp marketing and press and internal comms.

7830838870_5a934c4e1b_bAnd also Jeremy Bullmore in Campaign was at it in 2008:

As soon as everyone realises that digital is nothing to do with digital and all about interactivity and that interactivity allows brands and people to interact as no other medium does then trad and mod will all regroup under the same roof.

To communicate over a range of platforms needs new skills

According to Google, 90 per cent of our media consumption takes place via a screen. Sometimes several screens at once as the Newsnight TV audience contribute via their smartphones to the debate on the #newsnight Twitter hashtag, for example.

Acording to Ofcom’s annual survey, in 2012 more than 50 per cent of adults have a social networking profile with 78 per cent of those aged 15 to 24. It makes fascinating reading.

In short, if you want to communicate with people you need to use a variety of channels.

A press release is no longer your gateway to the media.

A press release, web update, a picture of a nature reserve posted to Twitter on a mobile phone, a sharable Facebook image, a Soundcloud audio clip of a politician speaking or a LinkedIn group contribution from a named officer is. But the thing is. It’s not always all of those things. Knowing the landscape means knowing which will be relevant.

Which is why we need a digital communications specialist.

But won’t a digital comms specialist mean that people think ‘oh, that’s their job?’

I’ve heard it said from people I rate that having a social media officer or a digital comms specialist means that things get chucked over to them to tweet, or whatever. That’s certainly a fair point.

6754500383_898d6ab22d_bBut the specialist whose job it is to share the sweets, advise and train others is vital and won’t let that happen. Think about the teams you’ve worked in. If you are lucky you work with great people who come up with great ideas. But not everyone in the team is always like that. Often, you can only be as good as your least enthusiastic employee and if their grasp of digital comms is poor their delivery will mirror it.

The pace of change in technology is frightening. It’s unrealistic to think that everyone will be equally across it.

Which is why we need a digital communications specialist.

What a digital comms specialist should look like…

1. A trainer…

2. A geek…

3. A solver of problems that aren’t problems yet…

4. A horizon scanner…

5. A builder of an internal community…

6. A source of help…

7. A winner of internal arguments…

8. Someone who knows the channels. Trad and digital…

If you have someone who is already doing this full time you’re quids in. If you’re not your organisation risks falling behind.

Some great work has been done adhoc with digital communications across local government. But without mainstreaming the advances at best will be patchy.

Creative commons credits

TV logo http://www.flickr.com/photos/jvk/6701931811/sizes/l/

Talking http://www.flickr.com/photos/yooperann/7830838870/sizes/l/

Screen http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/6754500383/sizes/l/


COMMUNICATE BETTER: On putting the show on right here

8509492809_a9766a9e56_bIt’s like a line from a Sixties ‘B’ movie: “Hey everyone, let’s get a converted banana warehouse next to a canal in the West Midlands and put on an event! With no agenda! It’ll be a sell out!”

Which is pretty much what we did with Commscamp the first unconference for communicators in and around local and central government.

Held at The Bond Company, a lovely converted warehouse in Birmingham’s creative quarter of Digbeth, we drew people from all over the country. It’s 135-capacity we could have sold four times over.

More than 170,000 saw the tweets on the day, a tweetreach survey revealed, and more than 500 joined in the debate on Twitter. More watching the sessions which were livestreamed.

People left the day fired with ideas with connections having been made with the unconference format allowing debate to flow over the tea, coffee and cake.

What is an unconference? It’s attendees deciding what gets talked about and voting with their feet to choose the break-out sessions they want. Want to crack a problem? Pitch a session and help run it yourself.

A revolutionary approach? Not really. It’s based on the success of sister events like UK Govcamp, localgovcamp, librarycamp and Hyper WM with many of them being staged in the highly networked city of Birmingham.

Why has there  been such an explosion? Simple. A perfect storm of budget cuts, new technoplogu and people excited a little by the new and better things they can do with them.

A couple of years ago I talked to Home Office press officers.

“Why would I bother with a few thousand people on Twitter when the frontpage of the Sun gets read by two million?” one asked.

A few months later the riots struck and those organisations without a Twitter presence were hopelessly exposed.

I thought of that press officer when the streets burned.

But commscamp was far more than just geeks needing to understand how the web has changed.

It was also about the real human day-to-day problems of how not just to do better for less but how to do completely different for less too.

There was the central government comms person sharing in her session how they coped when their team was cut by two thirds almost overnight.

There was the local government officer talking about how comms people should be letting go of the reins and allowing frontline staff to use social media to tell their day-to-day story.

I’m biased, but people like Morgan Bowers, Walsall Council’s tweeting countryside ranger should be revered and held up as an example to every organisation. You can connect with people with a realtime picture of a newt. Morgan does.

There was the heated debate over the future of the press release. Some thought they had just as important a role as ever. Me? I’m not so sure. Not when you see what things like Torfaen Council’s excellent singing Elvis gritter YouTube can achieve with its 300,000 views. That’s just brilliant.

There was the local government press officer who button holed me with the words: “I just didn’t know comms people could help democracy” or the central government comms person almost drunk with the ideas and possibilities they’d breathed in the asking anyone who would listen how things like commscamp could be repeated.

But the simple answer is it can. With enthusiasm, some volunteers and a smidge of sponsorship you can run your own and it was heartening to hear how others were planning their own.

The fact that it was planned by three people – two local government people myself and Darren Caveney – along with the Cabinet Office’s brilliant dynamo Ann Kempster really shows the power of a good idea, drive and some free social media platforms. The helpers who helped on the day showed that too.

The real value of unconferences is not just the lessons learned on the day and there are plenty. But it’s the connections made and the experiences shared that will still be paying back in 12 months time.

There’s no question that local government and central government have got so much in common and can learn from one another. Fire and rescue people too. And NHS. And the voluntary sector. We need to work with each other more because we face the same problems.

But the golden thread that ran through everything was a determination to do things better by sharing ideas. That, people, is just a bit exciting.

A version of this appeared on The Guardian.


FIRE ALERT: A slideshare and 12 things you can learn from fire comms

5870635462_d5997a095a_bSo, are you up to speed on how you’d handle the internal comms if two of your members of staff killed in a fire in a tower block? 

Or maybe you’d have it covered if there’s an explosion in a quiet street?

For the most part public sector communications can be pretty difficult. But with more than 500 deaths a year in fires in the UK there’s something uniquely challenging about handling the comms for a fire and rescue service. Especially at a time of tighter budgets.

How digital channels have utterly transformed communications is something that absolutely fascinates me. Forget six hours until the press conference. It’s now six minutes until the first tweet from an eyewitness and six hours until the first Facebook page set-up by residents.

You simply have to have social media in your emergency plan. It’s something I’ve written about before.

A few weeks back I was asked to speak at a FirePRO event in Manchester put together by the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue. It was a rather useful event that gave an insight into the challenges. You can read the Storify the excellent Sam Thomas here. http://storify.com/samontheweb/fire-service-communicators.

Multi-agency use of digital media in a crisis

There’s a few small scale examples that have helped my thinking in Walsall. There’s the excellent use of social media by West Midlands Police and West Midlands Fire Service. It works because people on the ground have been given permission to tweet. So, when there’s an emergency there’s a network of people on the ground who can create an authoratative voice.

The approach in Walsall amongst police, council and other areas is simple. In a crisis, if it’s a police thing others with retweet. If it’s a council thing, others will share it.

The example of the Pheasey floods where 150 homes were flooded is an example of this. The presentation takes you through some of the tweets from that day.

Here’s 12 things that struck me.

1. There’s some cracking examples of social media case studies.  It’s at the sharp end and an ability to use different channels is essential.

2. In an emergency the first pictures will come from a resident. The Shaw gas explosion wiped out one house and damaged others. The first image didn’t come the day after in the evening paper. It came within minutes from a resident posting to Twitter.

3. Having a presence on Twitter helps get the message out in real time. Tweet within minutes and you’ll create an authoritative voice that people can home in on.

4. In an emergency think like a journalist. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue sourced stories and content in the days after the explosion. The evacuated pets return. Families return.

5. In an emergency the traditional sign-off is dead. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue kept partners up to speed but such was the speed that they needed to respond far quicker than waiting for sign-off from everyone concerned. The leisurely approach to news is over. Minutes count.

6. In a fatality put the organisation first and not the news media. When two firefighters died at a fire in Southampton Hampshire Fire & Rescue made a conscious decision to think about what they released. They decided to consider the needs of the dead employee’s work mates first. Then the needs of the organisation. Then the Press. That’s an important decision to make.

7. In a fatality put internal comms first. I’m massively impressed at the way Hampshire Fire & Rescure kept staff informed with things like daily updates from the inquest. That involved two comms officers rotating their coverage in the court.

8. There’s a need to have hard news skills in fire comms teams. Death sells. Death makes the media interested. To have the knowledge of how the media works and will react is an essential skill in this life threatening area of comms.

9. There’s a need to have digital skills in fire comms teams. With the changing news cycle social media is massively important.

10. Google hangouts are rather good. The line to Hampshire worked rather well.

11. Communications should be a job for specialists. It wasn’t an issue mentioned here but there’s a pressure in other parts of the country to create desk jobs for firefighters. Like PR. Or to make the cuts away from fire stations. Like in PR. But this is a fundamental mistake born from not knowing the value of proper communications. That’s actually an internal comms challenge for the whole of public sector communications.

12. It’s not just hard news. Much of the day-to-day centres around asking people to take greater care and not set fire to things. Digital communications can only be vital for this.

Hats off to speakers Bridget Aherne from Greater Manchester, Rachel Stanley and Dave Thackeray from Hampshire, Stuart Jackson and Paul Williams of Ice Creates and to Shelley Wright and Sam Thomas and her team for putting on an excellent event. There’s a seperate blog post about the Ice Creates work alone.

Picture credit

Fire hoses


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