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?
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
Not just the small I’ve-forgotten-to-put-the-bins out fail but the epic failures that really leave egg on your face.
So, say it once say it proud, I’ve failed and I’m proud.
Because he or she who really knows the bitter pill of underachieving is dealt a golden weight of life lessons that will make them better.
‘Fail fast, fail forward,’ is a good maxim to follow.
‘Fail and do the same thing over and over again,’ probably isn’t.
So, why celebrate failure?
Let’s look at some of the great success stories, shall we?
- Walt Disney went bust twice and was reduced to eating dog food before his third attempt worked.
- Henry Ford went bust before he came back with the winning formula.
- Colonel Sanders was a failed potato farmer who reinvented himself as a Southern gentlemen with a recipe for fried chicken.
In communications, it’s not so different. Not everything you do will come off. Sometimes things won’t work. But by doing you will learn.
Now, I’m not saying go out and do stupid things. So park up the animation of your chief executive as a botherer of goats.
But in life, the risk of taking no risk is that you won’t grow, that you will live your life in a bunker getting your meals delivered on a tray.
As you can see, there is a relationship between failure and learning. Epic fail, big learning.
Epic comms fails
There are some corking comms fails in PR. Justine Sacco, British Gas’s Twitter chat and the Findus horse meat saga spring to mind.
One of the best presentations I’ve ever seen was Helen Reynolds ‘Our five biggest Social media fluff-ups’ in which she celebrated when things went on. The twitpic of Princess Margaret visiting onmouth which was cut and pasted with a digit missing and linked to a chimp is priceless. What was the learning? Post a pic from within Twitter. The online community are very forgiving if you are straight with them.
Michael Lockwood’s post on how he accidentally used an inappropriate hashtag was one of comms2point0’s most popular. He’s also a highly skilled operator who knows his onions. What was the learning? Do a quick search before you settle on a hashtag and the online community are very forgiving if you are straight with them.
Comms hero – I’ll be talking on this more
At the commsheroes event on May 13 I’ll be talking about my own fails and those of others. One of my own was to give a member of staff access to the council account when the Olympic Torch came to Walsall. He forgot he was using the council account when he posted a series of tweets blasting education minister Michael Gove with the hashtag #saveusfromtheposhboys. We were a Tory council. It wasn’t fun. What was the learning? Use different platforms to seperate work and your own streams. Politicians can be understanding.
You can book a place for the Commsheroes event in Manchester on May 13 here and there’s a rather good line-up including John Popham, Helen Reynolds, Grant Leboff and chaired by Caroline King. The event was put together by Asif Choudy at Resource Housing.
Share your fails
I’d genuinely love to hear – anonymously if you’d rather – your own fails to show that we are all indeed human and we can all learn from your mistakes. Or ones you have seen.
Feel free to post a line in the comments box below or email them to Dan@comms2point0.co.uk.
Creative commons credits
Succesful failure https://www.flickr.com/photos/18259771@N00/5131407407/
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.