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.
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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.
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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.
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It’ll be staged Bond Company in Fazeley Street, Birmingham.
This place used to be a warehouse that shipped ice to London. I mean. How cool is that?
Now it’s a meeting space and offices for Birmingham’s creative industries.
Commscam will see more than 150 people come to put their collective heads together for a barcamp around comms, pr, marketing digital stuff. You can mention the word ‘press release’ too. That’s allowed.
I’m pleased to say there’s a real mix between local government, government and people outside these fields and a mix too between unconference veterans and newbies. That’s just how it should be.
Why am I biased? Because I’m helping organise it with Ann Kempster from the Cabinet Office and Darren Caveney from Walsall Council two quite brilliant people.
Why are we doing it? Because we’ve seen enough of how unconferences work to see that they can be hugely successful and we think there’s things to be discussed and ideas to be shared in our field.
So, what’s the agenda? There isn’t one. It’s a big blank sheet of paper that those who are coming along will help to shape. That’s the beauty of an unconference. It all gets pulled together by those who are coming along. You can find out more about the event at it’s website here and if you haven’t already feel free to mention a session here. You don’t even have to have a ticket as we’ll be livestreaming some of the sessions and we’ll be tweeting too on the #commscamp13 hashtag.
So why are we doing commscamp?
Well, I can’t speak for Darren and Ann but for me…
We need to share ideas and inspiration. In 2013 it can be tough working in comms in and around government. But those who work in the field can be a hugely passionate bunch. A good idea at the FCO could well work somewhere in local government. Without big budgets sharing the ideas can work.
You don’t have to be an unconference veteran to get something out of it. Just last week I was up in Manchester for the LGComms social media event. Rather bravely, they tried a loose unconference element. Of the 60 in a room about six had been to an unconference. Was I worried? Yes. People were only too keen to suggest the 12 sessions we had. Commscamp was roadtested and passed.
You need to plug into the West Midlands. Okay, so I’m a bit biased (but I declared that right there at the start) but there’s been a stack of good things in the West Midlands for some time around digital and innovation. Perhaps it’s the beer or the geographical closeness but there’s ideas to be had and shared.
You need to learn from people outside comms. Some of the best ideas and approaches I’ve had have come from talking to bloggers, engineers, police officers and coders. Listen. Talk. Learn. While there’s a focus on PR people there’ll be some input from those outside the sector too.
Local government people need to talk to government people once in a while. There are ideas in Shropshire that may shape what’s done by a government department to communicate to people. Vica versa too.
Our sponsors are lovely. There’s a big list of them down the side of the blog here.
If you’ve ever been told: ‘what we need is a comms plan’ and wanted to scream you’ll be in good company. There’ll be a session of primal screaming just to get over this, I’m sure.
Cake is good. Underpinning any unconference is the cake table. Baking is the first social media, I’m sure of it.
Here’s your call to action right here:
1) If you’ve got a ticket say ‘hoorah!’ and think of something that you’d like to see cracked or maybe think of something you are proud of and would like to share. Post it here on the discussion thread.
2) If you haven’t got a ticket go to February 26 in your calender and put the date in your diary along with the words: “Dammit, I missed a ticket but I can still follow #commscamp13 on Twitter.” There’ll be a livestream posted to this hashtag on the day too.
3) If you’ve a ticket and you can’t go tell us, say: ‘oh no!’ Tell us and we’ll release it to the frankly large waitlist.
4) Take a look at the commscamp blog here.
5) Can you help? See how you can help here and share the buzz. Or as we’re in Brum, point people where to catch the buzz. Take a look here to see how you can help.
Back in the day, you’d get a big ruler, a sheaf of cuttings and work out column inches.
Then maybe work out who could have read them.
Proudly, you’d boast of how 500,000 would have seen your campaign.
Then everyone would pat themselves on the back.
Only thing is, that nice as that is that just doesn’t prove a hill of beans.
How many turned a page and ignored it?
Add social media into the landscape and things get even more complicated. That niche Facebook page with 200 liking it? A waste of time? Not at all. Not if its the right number for that niche activity.
How do you measure success?
What counts? Likes? Retweets? Twitter followers?
Maybe the number of press releases you wrote or the tweets you sent?
The impact of communications – traditional or digital – must be not the passive audience who glanced at it but what people did as a result of it.
So, in other words, it’s how many people signed up for that course or how many used a web form instead of calling a help desk.
Frustratingly, that means it’s not a universal measurement. Getting 12 people signed-up for basket making session could well be just as much a success as getting 100 to join a library.
But it’s more than that.
One thing that’s always irritated me about measurement – particularly social media measurement – is a the vagueness of the results.
Take Klout. Break the news to your chief executive your organisations’ score is 55 and they’ll more than likely look at you strangely.
Other monitoring that produces a notional number also leaves me cold.
Your rating has gone up by 2.2. So what?
But it could well be that comms people already have the answer to all this right under their noses.
The cost of things counts
A few years ago, web standards organisation SOCITM did some research into the cost to local government of doing things for residents when they got in contact.
Doing something face-to-face costs £8.62, by telephone £2.83 and the web 15p.
Accountants PWC apparently also did some similar work calculating the cost of local government replying to a letter was around £10.
So maybe one way to evaluate some comms activity was to look at the situation before you got involved and then look at it after.
In other words, helping channel shift, that act of going from the expensive offline to the cost effective online.
Did the number of phonecalls dip? Did the letters fall? Did more people use the web to report it?
That’s a figure that really start to pass the chief executive credibility test.
That’s also a language that officers can understand too.
That could well be the beginnings of an argument not just to better evaluate but critically to help explain and justify the role of communications in the public sector in 2013.
That’s quite a powerful idea.
Dr Gerald Power’s white paper for Govdelivery on channel shift which is here.
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