Government communicators have been asked not to do anything unless it’s based on data.
The argument goes that this cuts out the vanity campaign or the SOS – the Sending Out Stuff – that sees press releases and other things shovelled out the door because some action is better than nothing.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see real merit in having a get out of jail free card when faced with a senior request ‘for stuff.’
But I’m starting to think about if we need to create some space for experimentation. Things like Trojan mice. These are things that see you try something out low budget just to see if it works and you can learn from.
One example of this skunkwork lab is the excellent Torfaen Council Elvis gritter YouTube that’s been around for a while. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the low budget Elvis impersonator from the Valleys singing about how the council can’t be everywhere and not to panic buy bread. It’s brilliant. It was done on a shoestring to make people smile, to tell them some important things and done entirely without research.
It works because it’s human and is entirely without strategy.
I was helping train a local government comms team last week when this clip came up and we showed it just to see the reaction. There was disbelief. Then laughter. Then real affection. It works. It just works. I rememberdiscussing it 12-months ag with someone who works for an authority who ruthlessly apply the research-led ROSIE logic.
“It’s really, really good and I love it,” she said. “But of couse we could never do it where I work.”
So how do you create the space needed to make the Trojan mice flourish?
Google famously give staff a day a week to work on their own projects. Some of those projects have become key to their future strategy.
Tectonic plates in the world of communications are shifting. The centre cannot hold. Different channels are emerging and with them the demand for new skills. If you want the evidence, more than 70 per cent in our survey four months ago said the job was getting harder.
So, the task facing the the comms leader is how to create some safe space to experiment.
And if you are a comms person in the trenches, how are you going to carve out some Google time for yourself to look after your future?
Creative commons credit
Try to be happy. I’ve left local government so I can do more in local government and the rest of public sector.
For the past eight years I’ve been proud to be at Walsall Council helping to put them on the digital map and at times doing a bit to define what that map looked like. It’s been exciting. But it feels absolutely the right time to move on. March 31 was my last day and yes, I realise that breaking news on April 1 before midday carries risks. But this is no April Fool.
I’ve now become a freelance digital communications consultant turning comms2point0 into a start-up which means I can bring my expertise, drive enthusiasm and insight to help you do a better job for your organisation. That’s something I’m really, really excited about.
Three moments of epiphany
Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans once said that he loved newspapers but he was absolutely intoxicated by the power and possibility of the internet. Me too. My first of three moments of epiphany came in 1993 when I discovered that I loved the art and craft of piecing together a story for a newspaper.
The second moment came in 2008 as a press officer when I heard the line: ‘With social media we no longer have to go through the Priesthood of journalists to talk to our residents’ and the third in 2011 when a chief executive spoke of the need to stop evangelising about social media but bring solutions that may just have some social media in.
In the next phase of my career I want to bring all three of those together and I’m massively excited and not a little nervous.
My proud moments
In leaving Walsall Council, I’m intensely proud of what I’ve helped do there. I was massively fortunate enough to have worked with a head of communications Darren Caveney who saw what the future would look like and trusted his staff to learn, grow and innovate. We both saw early that social media was not just a communications function. We shared the sweets with others. In leaving Walsall I leave more than 70 social media profiles and more than 100 staff trained. Some of them have gone on to develop into nationally significant digital innovators in their own right. Countryside ranger Morgan Bowers, for example. Environmental health officer David Matthews too. Dan Carins. And Kate Goodall. I’ve worked with some amazing people during my time there too numerous to list.
I’m proud I listened to Darren and Kate and that we were the first council in the country to use Twitter for 24-hours during #walsall24. We won the first LGComms social media gold award for that but best of all we shattered glass ceilings and in a day we embedded social media overnight. That makes me smile.
There’s a record industry giant you’ll not have heard of called Steve Jenkins. He was MD of Jive Records and was a key part in the success of Pete Waterman and Stock Aitken Waterman. He’s from Walsall and I got to know him quite well. He’s proud of the place. He used to have a railway sign from the town’s station over his desk in his office so people who came in would have to acknowledge it. “Where’s ‘Walsall’?” they’d ask. He’d fix them with a steely glare and say: “It’s nine miles north of Birmingham… it’s nine miles north of Birmingham.”
Walsall is big enough to be it’s own place and has a digital community whose vibrancy that will surprise you. The YamYam is a news aggregation site that brings together traditional newspaper websites with the websites of clubs, societies and bloggers. There’s more than 100 sites linked to it. Some are good, some are bad, some are contrary, some not.
It’s not always been straight forward, but I’ve grown to genuinely respect and admire many in that digital community. They care about their town. Their voice is part of the borough’s debate and discussion. At Walsall Council I’m leaving a stack of people who deserve to be garlanded daily for trying to make a difference in sometimes grim circumstances.
On local government comms
For those left behind in local government communications I’d say be proud, be determined and be very clear that you are a professional bringing value and demonstrate that value. Be the grit in the oyster and challenge. That’s your job. There’s a whole load of stuff I’d like to write about that.
So, what’s the very exciting what’s next?
I’ll be working at comms2point0 full time. It’s now a company. Three years ago my colleague Darren floated the idea of comms2point0. It’s an idea we kicked around and shaped one sunny day watching a cricket match. We mapped it out with sticky notes, pens and paper. What is it? We post six links a day for comms people on Twitter and we have a blog which has mushroomed to more than 400 case studies ranging from 10 Downing Street, Unicef, Orkney Council, Unicef and the EU. We now have reached 30,000 unique users a month. That’s a bit crazy, really.
We’ve helped run events, we’ve trained people and for IEWM we’ve written the best whitepaper on using social media in the public sector that has ever been written (disclaimer: I’m biased.)
I’ve been nominated to be a Fellow of the RSA and I’ve been appointed to The Guardian public leaders editorial board. I want to carry on with pro bono work for the localgov digital group.
When I’ve been working late at night on comms2point0 I’ve joked with my wife that this would help me get my next job. It’s now become my job and with Darren continuing to play a big role I’m nervously bouncing with excitement at what it will help people to achieve and is already helping.
I’m working and will be working with IEWM, Public Health Wales, the LGA, a number of councils, the Langstone Society and several others. I’m grateful to those people on my journey I’ve asked for advice and who have been generous in giving it.
The free element of comms2point0 will remain. There will be links. There will be a blog – now more than 400 – there will also be a reactivated regular email. But other rather good things are in development. If I was American or younger I’d be calling them: ‘awesome.’ I’ll still be blogging on my own blog that’s in its fifth year.
So, in saying goodbye I’m also saying hello. It would be good to hear from you to hear what your challenges are and maybe see if I can help. Or maybe just to wish me luck. You can do that via @danslee or @comms2point0 on Twitter or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m excited but nervous which is just how it should be. I’m taking a leap but it already feels like the right one. But if you’ve gained something from something I’ve written or shared I’d love to help you further and tell your friends too. I’ll get you a slice of cake next time I see you out.
Creative commons credits
Hello, Lionel https://www.flickr.com/photos/79294591@N00/5506213445/
There was an event the other day in Whitehall which looked at this very topic which I would have loved to have got to. But I work in the West Midlands so that wasn’t going to happen.
It’s a good question and one that I’d given a lot of thought to just recently. Not just because the LGComms Future Leaders course I’d been involved with was asked just this question and asked to come up with a presentation.
One of the good things about being in the public sector is the ability to share ideas and approaches. This doesn’t happen in the private sector. As one person recently put it, they’ll tell you what they did but they’ll just leave out a vital piece of information so you can’t follow. It’s like handing over a car without the spark plugs.
So here are some things that should happen.
6 things to bring local and central government comms people together
1. Realise that each side isn’t the enemy. You’d be forgiven for thinking sometimes reading the Daily Mail that local government was to blame for the banking crisis, Northern Rock and the nationalisation of the banks. Just think what would have happened had local government mis-sold products. Step aside from the headlines and realise that there is more to bring civil Service and local government comms people together. We both face the question ‘what does communications mean in 2014?’ for example.
2. Paid secondments both ways. A few years ago a secondment from local government into the civil service could have been do-able. Not now. There isn’t the spare capacity anymore in local government. But funded posts could help backfill and share the knowledge. Even better if they are French-exchange-style two way affairs. Better still if they involve co-operation on the same project.
3. Open up central government training to local government. The Goverment Communications Service (formerly the Government Communications Network) stages a range of good training opportunities. It would be great if this was open to local government too.
4. Open up local government seminars to central government. Places like LGComms put on some excellent sessions. The different perspective of a Whitehall comms person would be useful. Just as the comms person more used to dealing with the community would be a benefit to a central government person.
5. Encourage events like commscamp. In February last year more than 130 comms people from Whitehall and local government came together in a joint event for what must have been the first time. There were more than 400 on the waitlist when it was turned off. The agenda was decided on the day by those who went. Anarchy? Not really. It worked beautifully. It was organised by people in central and local government in their own time. (Disclaimer: I’m biased as I helped co-organise commscamp.)
6. Realise that neither side is better. They’re just different. As government departments put more focus on stakeholder groups local government listens to residents more. At a time when the Foreign Office is putting more effort – rightly – into answering queries on Twitter there’s pr people in Staffordshire or Norfolk who could tell them a few things. They are two different skills. It made me realise that neither side is better. We’re just different.
7. We both work in the public sector and should be proud of that. Sure, the private sector does some good things. But we delivered the Olympics, we save lives, we keep the roads running, our children educated and a whole load of other things too. How much better is that than flogging toothpaste?
EDIT: GCS courses are also now available to local government people. That’s welcome.
Creative commons credit.