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