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 think this will work for comms and PR people but we think this will also be valuable for people who are working in your organisation on projects big and small that need communicating.
We could just give you a list of speakers but want to tell you about how this came about.
We had a conversation with someone a while back about big public sector projects and what separates the good ones from the bad.
As we talked we pictured a very real scenario and we came up with two options to choose from.
First, the scenario… part of your organisation has a great idea that could change how something is done, save money and lead to a better service.
What could go wrong?
Well, here are the options…
Option one: Project team don’t really bother with the comms until the end because they’re too busy and anyway, they don’t see the point. The comms team get left in the dark by the project team until the end… and the idea fails. “Clearly, it was the comms team,” the project team mutter. “There was nothing wrong with our idea. That was brilliant.”
“If only they’de spoken to us earlier,” the comms team mutter back.
Result: failure, unhappy project team, unhappy comms team and an angry chief executive.
Option two: Project team sit down with the comms team from the start. They shape a comms plan that they both know will work. There’s a project objective. There’s a comms objective that’s identical. There’s something to measure to know if the comms is working. The idea gets well communicated by the comms team. It’s a success.
“Hooray,” say the project team. “Our idea that we had in a room with six people in it has become a success amongst thousands,” say the project team.
Result: happy project team, happy comms team, success and a happy chief executive.
Of course, we’d all choose the second scenario, wouldn’t we?
The thing is, life is not like that, and we can all reel off a long list of times when it hasn’t and fewer times when it has.
What you’ll get out of #commsforchange14
So, at the end of our conversation we grew convinced of the need to put on an event that would set out the reasons for getting the project team and the comms team together early to make the thing a success.
We wanted comms people and project people speaking to share how they did it.
We wanted comms people to be fired up to go back and knock on the doors of big project people so they could get involved to help make a difference.
We wanted the event to be partly traditional, with speakers and slides so the success stories could be articulated and you’d know what you’d get.
But we wanted an unconference element in the afternoon because we’ve run them before at commscamp and for LGComms and with PSCSF and we know they will work. This sees that part of the agenda drawn-up based on what the people in the room wanted to talk about. Maybe there were lessons to be shared.
We wanted an event that showed why getting comms involved early and them being on the top table will help the organisation.
Of course, the great thing about doing comms2point0 is being able to turn a conversation and an idea into reality and with the excellent Nick Hill of Public Sector Customer Services Forum we’ve done just that andon Wednesday September 24 at the Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham #commsforchange will become a reality.
Who will be speaking?
There’s a range of hand picked people for you here:
John McPherson, Internal Communications Manager, Leeds City Council
Iain Patterson, Chief Technology Officer, DVLA
Adrian Capon, Senior Communications Manager, Yorkshire Housing (TBC)
Dan Slee, Co-founder, comms2point0
Darren Caveney, Co-founder, comms2point0
You can find more out about the event on Wednesday September 24 at the Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham by clicking the link here.
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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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.
- Get a piece of paper and draw a blob in the middle.
- 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.
- Write down some things – let’s say six things – that keep those six people awake at night.
- Ask yourself, are you really spending time with the really key people?
- 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:
- Where they are now.
- Where they want to go.
- Something measurable and tangiable to show when they’ve got there.
- Who they want to talk to and how they can do it.
- Some ideas of resources.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and @danslee on Twitter.
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We will awake https://www.flickr.com/photos/25028863@N00/5612074901/