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/
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.
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.
That was the iconoclastic view of London Fire Brigade’s head of comms Richard Stokoe.
Back at the annual LGComms Academy earlier in the year he spoke eloquently about the challenges the public sector is facing and his take on what it should do. We shouldn’t pretend that things are fine when they’re not, he says. Neither should it try and bea cheerleader for business as usual because business as usual is over.
Richard pointed to the example of the fire strikes in the capital in 2011 when far fewer appliances were available for use. Normally, there are 167 covering the capital but on the day of the strike just 27 were mustered. That’s around 20 per cent of the usual number and the potential for problems it posed was immense.
So, instead of saying how fine everything was London Fire Brigade instead pointed to the number they would have during the strikes and asked people to be more responsible as the level of service would be so much different.
PR was targeted at the areas of London with a historically high number of incidents.
What was the outcome?
A thin red line?
Zulu Dawn with fire engines?
Actually, no. Fewer calls.
According to the stats, 999 calls were 32 per cent lower than 2004 when Bonfire Night last fell on a Friday. Smaller fires were 56 per cent lower than the 2004 yardstick and 30 per cent down on the previous year.
It’s an approach that goes against the grain for many public relations people. Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to talk up what we do?
Certainly, his organisation took a bit of a battering for being so honest.
But I think Richard Stokes has a point.
If we’re doing less we should be telling people. If we’re not doing services at all we need to be telling people.
We risk far more in the long term by pretending that nothing has changed. We need a slab of honest realism. Residents would be better informed.
That’s something that public sector comms people are having to wrestle with up and down the country.