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
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
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:
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
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.
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.
PRINT TRUTH: ‘Newspapers in print are clearly going away. I think you’re an idiot if you think that’s not happening.’Posted: April 12, 2013
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.
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 dramatically. 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.
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
Two days I spent going through old editions of the paper in the corner of the aircraft hanger of a newsroom.
Proudly I picked up the next edition to read a double page spread with my name on. What do I recall of that? Very little. There was a nun who got charged with drink driving and the Holstein prices at Uttoxeter were especially high in March that year.
Over this past year I’ve read scores of blog posts and news pieces links. At times I’ve been stopped in my tracks by a turn of phrase, a perceptive argument or just a good piece of writing. Here are 14 from 2012 that I’ve rated particularly highly.
CAMPAIGNS ARE DEAD: Nobody has done more than Jim Garrow in 2012 to challenge my thinking. He has a skill of turning a vague idea you may have had into a compelling argument engagingly written. He also asks questions of things people take for granted. Jim does public health emergency planning in Philadelphia in the US. He’s brilliant. His blog is worth subscribing to and there’s plenty of good ones to choose. This one here on the death to the campaign is particularly good. Comms people love campaigns. It makes them feel as though they’ve changed things. No they haven’t he argues. You can read it here.
WEEKLY BLOG CLUB: If no one single blogger has done more to challenge than Jim then the Weekly Blog Club is the website has been the best collective source of writing and inspiration. The idea is simple. You blog something once a week and post it on Twitter using the #weeklyblogclub hashtag where it finds a ready audience and will be collated into aweekly round-up. Janet Davis has taken this idea, polished it, showered it with love and made it something that brightens my timeline. You can read it here.
RAILWAY INSPIRATION: Good blogs shouldn’t just be about your corner of the world. John Kirriemuir is a librarian who often writes creatively. This carefully observed piece on a fellow traveller in Birmingham New Street Station is powerful. All too often we can pass through without looking at who we’re travelling with. John does. You can read it here:
RE-SHAPING PRESS TEAMS: Ben Proctor is a digital specialist who has experience in local government and working as a consultant. His modest proposal to get rid of press offices suggests that change is inevitable and gives a few ideas on what this may look like. You can read it here.
FUTURE COMMS: The Cabinet Office’s Ann Kempster sparked a creative and much-needed debate on the future of press teams and digital teams with this cracking post which generated a cracking set of comments that show the vibrancy of debate in the public sector in 2012. You can read it here.
FACEBOOK IS DEAD: A former colleague Matt Murray is now doing great things in local government in Queensland, Australia. For a while I’d been wondering uneasily about the turn that Facebook had taken when Matt wrote a post that spelt out why it is no longer the go-to platform. You can read it here.
DIE PRESS RELEASE: This is actually from 2006 but I’d only chanced upon Tom Foremski’s Die Press Release, Die! Die! post earlier in 2012. It spells out why the traditional press release is dated and what the thing that should replace it should look like. You can read it here.
CASE STUDY: Hackney Council’s Al Smith doesn’t blog enough. This post from his time at Cannock Chase District Council shows why he should and spells out the steps he took tio help crack down on domestic violence one Christmas.It’s imaginative and effective stuff. You can read it here.
GOOD WRITING: Tom Sprints‘ post about a chance encounter in the shadow of a mountain was lovely writing. If you missed it you can read it here.
DIGITAL STATS: Emer Coleman of the Government Digital Service wrote this cracking piece on the measurement of social media and what we should be looking out for. For anyone looking to get a handle on the changing landscape it’s essential. You can read it here.
A GOOD REMINDER: Sometimes we can spend too much time online. Sometimes we can spend too much time not doing the important things. This short post from Phil Jewitt asks us to re-assess and think of those around us who matter most to us. You can read it here.
FRONTLINE BLOG: People on the frontline should be given access to social media. Comms people are often resistent. Walsall police officer PC Rich Stanley is a case study of why access should be opened-up and the sweets shared. You can read one of his posts on his day job here.
OLYMPICS GAMESMAKER: Jo Smith founded Vindicat PR in what has been a difficult year for her. She spent time as a London 2012 Gamesmaker and saw close-up how the city fell for the games. Volunteers like her were part of the secret. How did they manage it? Good internal comms. You can read it here.
DAN HARRIS: If London 2012 was joyous then the memory of seeing BBC News 24 carry pictures of medal triumph with the confirmation of Dan Harris‘ death on the ticker was a bitter memory. I’d met him a few times and corresponded often. His death devastated those who knew him far better. He’d agreed to write for comms2point0 a website I help with and had written this fine post a few weeks before. You can read it here.
GANG MEMBER: Digital can bring people together and can share stories. Steph Jennings of Podnosh’s account of meeting a former gang member at a social media surgery was arresting. You can read it here.
ANOTHER LONDON: Gillian Hudson of 10 Downing Street’s digital team wrote a cracking blog to capture some of the work she had been involved with over the Olympics. It spoke about comms with a human face and it was cracking. You can read it here.