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?


PROTEST PR: How Comms Should Answer Cuts Questions

8544982977_36a47ac99a_oYou’re a public sector PR person and you’ve got to answer a question from the media about cuts, what do you do?

Forecasts say there will be 40 per cent job losses in some areas of the public sector with £3.3 billion being taken from the voluntary sector over a five year period and £20 billion coming from local government and £15 billion of efficiency savings due in the NHS.

So, what stories are being shaped? If you work in the sector it’s probably long overdue time to think about it.

A)      Apply a positive gloss and insist that yes, efficiencies will be made but frontline services will not be cut.
B)      Tell people that they had their chance to have their say in the budget consultation and they blew it.
C)       Tell people that this is what cuts look like.

All too often people in the public sector have been going for a) to try and minimise panic and upset on the population. But with £20 billion worth of cuts coming down the tracks in local government we need to be above all honest. So, let’s just take a closer look at that, shall we?

What insisting that efficiencies will be made and frontline services will not be cut means

You’ve been cutting millions of pounds from budgets for years. But the frontline hasn’t been affected? Efficiencies? Clearly, you were wasting that money all along so why on earth should I trust you now?

Or, you’re trying to be a bit clever and you know that the frontline will very much be affected but the couple of hours of mobile library visit will somehow make-up for the five-day-a-week building the community used to have. People won’t buy it, or they’ll see through it. So, why should they trust you now?

What telling people that they’ve had their chance means

You’ve pinned up details of a public meeting at the church hall and you paid three times the rate for a display ad in the local paper because it’s a public notice and they’ve got you over a barrel. Twelve people turned up and the Twitter chat you ran reached a fair number but not everyone. In other words, you’ve not done a very good job of this public consultation lark. Why should they trust you now?

What telling people that this is what cuts look like looks like

In Birmingham, this is exactly what Cllr James McKay told the Evening Mail about green bin charges in the City as people were protesting against cuts. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, people won’t like it. But look yourself in the eye. This is the truth. This is going to happen more and more and public sector comms increasingly is going to be about what you don’t do rather than you do.

But at least they’ll trust you more because you are being honest.

A grown-up conversation is needed about communicating cuts and if you work in the area you need to work out which choice you make pretty quick.

Creative commons credit 

Dog protest https://www.flickr.com/photos/16230215@N08/8544982977/


SPACE LAB: We need to create time to experiment to survive

3105377322_82475318c6_oThere’s been a real drive for evidence based campaigns in the public sector just recently.

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 

Pencils http://www.flickr.com/photos/67958110@N00/3105377322/


POST RELEASE: What are you doing writing just press releases in 2013?

8663411512_c1e34869d2_bIt seems as though I’ve spent much of the last couple of years that no, you don’t always want a press release. What you actually want is a webpage, a series of tweets on Twitter or an audio clip.

Earlier in the year I presented this rather fine deck of slides to LGComms in Manchester and wrote a blog post around the subject of Die Press Release, Die! Die! A post partly inspired by the rather fine Tom Foremski post of the same name from way back in 2006. A whole load of text words and images.

It turns out I was wasting my time. What I really should have done was to just show this table from Fred Godlash from the BusinessWired blog. It talked about a post they wrote in 2007 that put the price of a press release at $5,000. The equivalent price is $7,500 they surmised. Oh, how I wish that was the case for the corner of the public sector that I work in that collectively put out more than 1,000 in the previous 12-month period. You can read the full post here.

But what really caught my eye was a table that set out the reasons for writing a press release in 2007 compared to 2013. I’ve reproduced it here:

Fullscreen capture 04072013 222814

Why? Because it really nails the motivation behind getting a message out. In the past the aim was ink inches and coverage in the local newspaper. Today, the aim for any communications person is to think both print and digital.

The question is, are you? And how are you doing it? If you are not what are you doing about it?

Creative commons credit 

Helvitica http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicksherman/8663411512/sizes/l/


PLUS ONE: Why Google+ is now part of the comms landscape

google_plus_logoLadies and gentlemen, I admit it. Google+ is starting to become a contender for comms people. 

Yes, it’s true that it has only a percentage of the users that Facebook has. But when the bottom line of that percentage is 230 million that’s a significant figure.

It’s also true that some people have been evangelising about what Google+  can do for a long time. For a quick catch-up try Stephen Waddington herehere and here.

As someone who dodged the hype of the ill-feted Google Wave I hung back when Google+ was launched as a local government comms person. A couple of things have made me re-think things.

Firstly, there is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Google+ page that has racked-up more than 200,000 likes. Shane Dillon has been a real evangelist for the platform and as one of the pioneers he deserves credit and wrote a fine post on the page here.

Secondly, there was a hugely fascinating chat with Shane as well as community web evangelist John Popham, Leah Lockhart from Scottish local government and Phil Rumens from localgov digital who wrote this fine post on what it can offer. That chat really offered up some insight.

Thirdly, there’s the Birmingham City Council Google+ page with more than 24,000 users. That moves the bar from being a global brand thing and one that my corner of local government can take a look at.

So, in Janet and John terms, what’s Google +?

For me, it’s an intelligent Facebook without the farms or a slightly longer Twitter. It’s ad free for now. It’s a place to start a discussion or share a link, a video clip or an image. When you start an account you can create circles where people from different interests can be placed so you can more easily drink from the firehose of information.

When you have your own account you can then create a page that acts in the same sort of way that a Facebook page does for the Google+ community.

So how has this big corporation attempt at social sneaked-up up on us all?

The reality is that since it was launched in summer 2011 there has been a devoted list of people who have been using it and enjoying. Niche perhaps at first but they’re growing and as Google+ develops and keeps adding features that are rather useful those numbers will grow.

Many were sceptical at Google’s record in the field. Great tech but poorly presented. Besides, this felt like a top-down invention from big business rather than something that emerged from a start-up’s bedroom. The counter argument is that neither Facebook or Twitter are exactly small business these days.

Fullscreen capture 29062013 232217

Where are the good examples?

When I asked the question 12-months ago there were few if any pages that you could look at and feel as though new ground was being made. But here are three good pages.

With more than 3.2 million followers (or maybe they’re likers? Or plus-ers?) the Cadbury page  is witty, imaginative and engaging. It’s a soft sell. There is sharable content aimed at people who like chocolate. Look hard enough and you’ll see the purple and white branding.

Furniture made out of chocolate photographed and posted, for example.

Odd as though it may sound, amongst the corporate pages there’s a rather lovely example from little business too. Ladders Online are a company that supply extra big ladders. Their page features content of inappropriate ladders badly positions and other trade advice. If ladders can be made to be engaging what is the rest of us waiting for?

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office page for me is the gold standard. There’s senior buy-in. There’s updates from the Minister and good content.

Birmingham City Council’s Google+ page went into orbit after Google reached out and made contact, verifying it and then promoting it. As I understand it from Guy Evans, the council’s social media officer, content is linked to Facebook.

When the Shropshire Family Information Service wanted to reach more more they chose Google+ as a way to do it. More knackered dads use the platform that knackered mums and elsewhere North Yorkshire County Council are starting to make some sense of it while Toronto Police used the Google hangout functionality to livestream a press conference here. In New Mexico in the US Governor Gary Johnson staged a hangout with some residents. 

Fullscreen capture 29062013 232548

What’s good about Google+

  1. Google juice. There’s extra brownie points in the search rankings for a link from Google+.  For the most part, my corner of local government doesn’t have to stress too much about such things as SEO (that’s search engine optimisation, the art of getting a website up the Google search rankings.) But for micro-sites and other projects this is rather good.
  2. Google hangouts. Back in the day video conferencing was an expensive business. With Google hangouts there is built-in video conferencing between users and the ability to run it via YouTube to larger audiences.
  3. It’s not got adverts. A refreshing change after spending time on the hyper-targeted world of Facebook. Google makes it’s money via search, mainly so doesn’t need to spam users just yet.
  4. Images and video. Realising that good images get shared it’s clear that they’ve put images at the heart of things. You post a link and the image gets posted prominently to catch the eye.
  5. How to use it is largely a white piece of paper. Because it’s new it’s not blighted by people who claim to know what they’re doing and where you’re going wrong. 

What’s bad about Google+

  1. There aren’t the numbers of Facebook or Twitter. They have big numbers but not really, really big numbers.
  2. The mobile apps aren’t great. Certainly the Android app is a bit clunky for pages although this may change.
  3. It’s 50-50. Blogs knocking it sometimes seem equally balanced with those gushingly praising it.
  4. Anyone can add your personal profile to their circles. So be careful about dissing your boss thinking you are behind a walled garden. You’re not. There are some excellent comments on this theme on this blog post here.
  5. It doesn’t have the stickiness of Facebook. People don’t stay on it for long. Just three minutes or so a month in this study compared to more than seven hours with Facebook.

In the changing landscape, Google+ is now a feature. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

Huge thank you to Mike Downes for contributing to a Google+ discussion asking for good examples and to Leah LockhartPhil RumensShane Dillon and John Popham for their continuing inspiration.


FUTURE GOVCOMMS: Training, Trust and Re-Training Ministers

So, what should the future of government communications look like? If you think it’s tweeting press releases wearing a One Direction t-shirt you’re wrong.

Refreshingly, the UK government has stood up and on The Guardian website admitted it had a good idea. But not a definitive one.

The newspaper asks readers what it would tell Alex Aiken the government’s executive director of government communications. Which is either a blast of refreshing openness or a bit of window dressing. Actually, let’s take them at face value. Because no-one really has the last word. And Alex used to be localgov as I am now.

A changing landscape

If you are interested in communications, have a look at the new draft communications plan here.

Not only that but whole swathes of the government-wide communications plan should be printed out and shared vigorously. Not least the paragraph:

“We are operating against a fast changing backdrop.

“Digital TV and broadband access at home are now the norm.

“45 per cent of viewing is now of non-terrestrial channels, three times more than ITV1.

“Half of homes now have some form of personal video recorder such as Sky Plus.

“Newspaper sales continue to decline but the growth of online versions means that some content – often entertainment related-news stories – can reach more people than ever before.

“Social media channels are playing an ever greater role in spreading news and opinion.”

That they see that the landscape is changing is a profound relief to me. The facts loom so large as to be undeliable and people are starting slowly to grasp this. Whether we are all moving as fast as we could to embrace change is something else.

“In simple terms government should continue to shift from a static or traditional view of channels and audiences to one that reflects people’s lives, preferences and influences.”

It also talks about the three things that government comms needs to do. The legal obligation to tell people about big planning matters, for example. Or the explaining Minister’s priorities. And the attempt to change behaviours.

For local government too…

It’s tempting to think that local government can do this too. At a stroke. As a sector. But that would be silly. And it also forgets that people in Devon know more about what channels Devon people use than people who live in Dudley. But it’s absolutely the path that local government comms needs to go down.

It also means that comms people need to acknowledge they may not have all the answers to comms any more. Will that undermine the profession? Not, really. A bit of refreshing honesty is vital. Besides, I’ve learned so much about digital comms from bloggers, engineers and environmental health officers.

The 37 skills a comms person will need

Last summer I wrote a post that talks about the 37 skills we’ll need. I was a bit wrong. We won’t all need those. But you can bet your bottom dollar that teams will and the more you’ll have the better it’ll be for you.

The list includes traditional, digital, community building, mapping, infographics, social media, story telling, political nous and lots more beside.

8510599726_27c28f402f_hWe’ll need generalists but digital specialists who will horizon scan and share the knowledge.

We’ll need better training. We’ll need better ways to share good ideas. We’ll need more things like commscamp where local and central government people came together to do just that (disclaimer: I helped organise that.)

But more important than that, much more we’ll need the space to experiment and try new things. That’ll come from the top. It’ll come from Ministers themselves and senior officers. Or rather, it’ll come from our ability to re-train the Minister that something on Twitter is more important than the Today programme’s running order. Or in local government terms, that’s the local newspaper.

When I was a journalist we had an amazing media law refresher. We returned to the chalk face keen to push the boundaries. We were slapped down by our news editors. Training is wasted unless the people at the top get it too.

Salvation will come from an ongoing bombardment of stats, facts, figures, reporting back and internal communications. We think training is the answer. It’s not. It’s the start. Space to fail and learn from failing is.

But we also need to think about trust. More specifically, the Edelman Trust Barmeter that talks of how trust in institutions is up. But trust in those at the top is low but trust in those at the bottom is high. In other words, we don’t believe the chief executive of Royal Mail. But we trust our postman.

We need to be able to deliver comms outside of comms and give the people on the frontline the tools to communicate like West Midlands Police do and like we do in growing parts of local government too. At this point I link to Morgan Bowers a countryside ranger at Walsall Council with 1,100 followers on Twitter who are receptive to explanations about why saplings have to be cut down.

It’ll also mean hiring bloggers for their skills. Not just journalists.

So much is made in the Government document about savings. I’d like to hear more about results and what exciting possibilities we have stretching out in front of us too, please.

Creative commons credits
Houses of Parliament http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_nige/5032302221/sizes/l/
Commscamp http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/8510599726/sizes/h/

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