COMMS ADVICE: Be Bold, Be the bit of Grit in the Oyster

3875021320_445f89a757_b (1)If there is one piece of advice I came to late in my career that I value  it is this… the role of comms is sometimes to be the bit of grit in the oyster.

It was Paul Willis of Leeds Metropolitan University who I first hear use the phrase.

Really?

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?


PROTEST PR: How Comms Should Answer Cuts Questions

8544982977_36a47ac99a_oYou’re a public sector PR person and you’ve got to answer a question from the media about cuts, what do you do?

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 

Dog protest https://www.flickr.com/photos/16230215@N08/8544982977/


FAIL SUCCESS: It’s time to celebrate failure

5131407407_626de3a9d0_oLadies and gentlemen, I want to celebrate failure.

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?

Successful failures

  • 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.

Document1 - Word 03042014 072500

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/

 


FUTURE TACKS: Why every organisation needs a digital comms specialist

6701931811_e69e5e0f1e_bRight, I’m going to say something bold and then directly contradict myself. But just stay with me on this, okay?

We all need to be doing more of this digital communications stuff from the hard-bitten pr to the frontline officer.

There shouldn’t be a digital comms team and a traditional comms team in a different part of the building.

There should be one. Which doesn’t mind if frontline people use digital too.

But this is the tricky bit. Every organisation now needs a digital communications specialist to help make this happen.

Let me explain.

Why there shouldn’t be a divide between digital and traditional comms 

Back in 1998 the newspaper I was worked at with reluctance set-up email addresses. Our office of 12 reporters had one email platform rigged up to one machine. We gathered around like a bunch of Marconis as the first e-mail landed. “Oooooh!” we cooed as it landed and someone plucked up the courage to type a reply. When the inbox filled we didn’t know what to do.

Back then email in the office I worked in email was seen as specialist job trusted to just one person. Times change and now every new reporter there gets an email address. Which is as it should be.

When digital communications emerged to greet the social web a whole new series of skills were required. Cutting and pasting a press release didn’t work so people re-discovered conversation and informality. It became clear that the language of each platform was different to each. People’s media use splintered and people could no longer be found in one place but several.

This is something I’ve blogged about before and others have too and GCN’s Ann Kempster has written:

I don’t see how a modern press function can operate in isolation, not taking up modern communication methods and solely relying on press cuttings and column inches. The world just does not operate this way anymore. We all need to be able to operate across comms disciplines. That goes for digital too – we need to grasp marketing and press and internal comms.

7830838870_5a934c4e1b_bAnd also Jeremy Bullmore in Campaign was at it in 2008:

As soon as everyone realises that digital is nothing to do with digital and all about interactivity and that interactivity allows brands and people to interact as no other medium does then trad and mod will all regroup under the same roof.

To communicate over a range of platforms needs new skills

According to Google, 90 per cent of our media consumption takes place via a screen. Sometimes several screens at once as the Newsnight TV audience contribute via their smartphones to the debate on the #newsnight Twitter hashtag, for example.

Acording to Ofcom’s annual survey, in 2012 more than 50 per cent of adults have a social networking profile with 78 per cent of those aged 15 to 24. It makes fascinating reading.

In short, if you want to communicate with people you need to use a variety of channels.

A press release is no longer your gateway to the media.

A press release, web update, a picture of a nature reserve posted to Twitter on a mobile phone, a sharable Facebook image, a Soundcloud audio clip of a politician speaking or a LinkedIn group contribution from a named officer is. But the thing is. It’s not always all of those things. Knowing the landscape means knowing which will be relevant.

Which is why we need a digital communications specialist.

But won’t a digital comms specialist mean that people think ‘oh, that’s their job?’

I’ve heard it said from people I rate that having a social media officer or a digital comms specialist means that things get chucked over to them to tweet, or whatever. That’s certainly a fair point.

6754500383_898d6ab22d_bBut the specialist whose job it is to share the sweets, advise and train others is vital and won’t let that happen. Think about the teams you’ve worked in. If you are lucky you work with great people who come up with great ideas. But not everyone in the team is always like that. Often, you can only be as good as your least enthusiastic employee and if their grasp of digital comms is poor their delivery will mirror it.

The pace of change in technology is frightening. It’s unrealistic to think that everyone will be equally across it.

Which is why we need a digital communications specialist.

What a digital comms specialist should look like…

1. A trainer…

2. A geek…

3. A solver of problems that aren’t problems yet…

4. A horizon scanner…

5. A builder of an internal community…

6. A source of help…

7. A winner of internal arguments…

8. Someone who knows the channels. Trad and digital…

If you have someone who is already doing this full time you’re quids in. If you’re not your organisation risks falling behind.

Some great work has been done adhoc with digital communications across local government. But without mainstreaming the advances at best will be patchy.

Creative commons credits

TV logo http://www.flickr.com/photos/jvk/6701931811/sizes/l/

Talking http://www.flickr.com/photos/yooperann/7830838870/sizes/l/

Screen http://www.flickr.com/photos/mr_t_in_dc/6754500383/sizes/l/


COMMSCAMP: Die Press Release! Die! Die! And six other things PR people need to know…

There was once a horror train crash that claimed the lives of 56 and changed communications forever.

In 1906, a de-railed train plunged into the icy waters close to Atlantic City railway stations. Within minutes thousands of onlookers lined the banks to witness the rescue attempts. Journalists were close behind.

As every PR student will tell you Ivy Lee of the West Jersey and Seashore Railroad Company persuaded his employers to issue a statement direct to the gathered hacks… and thus the press release was born.

But in 2013 that trusty war horse, the granddaddy of comms channels is no longer the only show in town.

Shaped for journalists often by ex-journalists it has intro, headline, quotes and notes to editors. It works best as a means of providing content for print. Cut, paste and stick it into other channels it works far less effectively. It’s like starting a telephone conversation: “Dear Sir, With reference to your letter dated June 10…” it’s the wrong language for the wrong platform.

That comms teams – can we call them Press Offices these days? – are so geared up for press releases and print has troubled me for some time. In a digital landscape where digital by default is the aim not just of newsrooms but any forward thinking organisation they appear as outdated as the idea of getting your football scores by waiting in the newsagent at Saturday tea time for the Pink football final to arrive.

All this worrying about press releases isn’t new. Former FT writer Tom Foremski wrote his seminal blog post ‘Die Press Release! Die! Die!’ in 2006. I only came across this a year or two ago but it captured perfectly an iconoclastic wish.

He wrote:

I’ve been telling the PR industry for some time now that things cannot go along as they are . . . business as usual while mainstream media goes to hell in a hand basket.

You can read the original here and I suggest strongly you do.

Now, I don’t agree with all of what is written. And yes, I think the press release still has a future. If a declining one and part of the mix rather than being the only ingredient of the mix.

At LGComms in Manchester I gave a presentation on this and six other things every press officer should know. Some of the points me or others have blogged about them. With commscamp imminent it’s high time I chucked it up onto the web for wider debate.

Six other things…

Every organisation needs a digital comms specialist – I’ve heard the theory that we should all be doing this stuff so we shouldn’t have people specialising in it. In practice, this is cobblers. To make this works every member of the team needs to be as keen and forward thinking as the keenest. Look around yours. That’s not quite true is it? Every team needs someone who is passionate about it. Whose job it is to hunt out new platforms, try them for size and then… share the sweets.

Share the sweets – Because it’s important that comms shouldn’t be the only people to be using social media. The best content comes from people in the field and at the coalface. Look at Walsall Council countryside officer Morgan Bowers, for example, and tell me that’s not brilliant, engaging and wonderful. https://twitter.com/walsallwildlife Footnote: tell the measure-all comms people that this stuff is supposed to be conversation and they can get their tape measures out for when Morgan sells out her courses using Facebook and Twitter pretty much alone.

Marry the traditional with the digital – Don’t just do one channel. Or all. Do the ones that are likely to work. A press release about a street being evacuated is just silly. A web update and a tweet isn’t. Look at Gatwick Aiport. They tweet snow disruption and post children’s stories to Soundcloud so fractious parents can keep their offspring occupied. You can see what they do here. http://www.gatwickairport.com/at-the-airport/gatwick-and-social-media/

Evaluation: Channel shift – It’s not the 100,000 people who read the press release that’s the measure. It’s the 150 who signed-up for smoke detectors as a result that’s the measurement. Even better is the £10k – or whatever the figure is – not spent on call-outs because the smoke detectors give better cover.

Be human – Sometimes comms people in their quest for evaluation forget that being human really works. Or as blogger Adrian Short says: ‘Speak Human.’

Innovate – Experiment, do things differently, see what works, look at what people are doing outside comms for ideas too. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll learn. Go to an event like commscamp. See what ideas are bouncing off people.

Lastly, a quote I love from 20-something PRO Jarrod Williams on what the new generation of comms people offer. You can read his post here: 

 “My generation of the Web 3.O PR will be a digitally native team with skills… yes there will be the specialists, but I’ll be the cost effective one, the one who will build your campaign, take the photos, make the videos, stick it on a web site, tweet about it and get your brand the press attention you want.

“The future is diverse, and the industry needs people who can adapt and change across all platforms, digital and otherwise.”

If that’s not a wake-up call to experienced comms people then for heaven’s sake what is?

The 1906 Atlantic City train crash.

The 1906 Atlantic City train crash. Pic: Wikipedia

Creative commons credit:

1906 train crash http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1906AtlanticCityTrainWreck.jpg


YOU AND ME: Why we’ll all make #commscamp13 fly

bond3A passion for tea, cake and sharing brilliant ideas work is what will make the first unconference for communications people work (disclaimer: I’m biased.)

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.

5847098219_83ee1f5deb_bYou 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.

6743879607_578df3e4aa_bOur 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.

Sounding good?

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.


BE FUN: Elvis, Star Wars and comms with a smile on its face…

3413093866_4ab6e43e70_bSometimes, there’s something that just works brilliantly as a piece of communications.

There’s been three of late that have caught the eye. One from NASA about a petition for a Death Star and one from an Elvis impersonator singing about council gritting. One about using Star Wars to make a point.

Elvis? This was a YouTube clip made by Torfaen Council’s comms team the clip features a local singer who sings – or maybe croons – about the job the council do to keep the roads clear. You can see it here.

Yes, we can use Elvis to be human…

It’s January 2013 and Neil Jones and his team should clear their mantlepiece for the silverware for that film that will rightly come their way. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ben Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings rolled into one. Best short film, best PR on a shoestring and best use of a Welsh Elvis tribute act. Step forward, Torfaen Council.

In a fine blog post for comms2point0 Neil says they’ve had more than 250,000 views, 7,000 Facebook likes and more than 2,000 Facebook shares. They’ve also batted away FOI requests demanding how much (budget: zero) and made the BBC TV news.

But what was the success? You can read the full post here but as Neil says:

‘In the depot’ goes global using a simple, sticky message which ticked all the viral boxes.  People love discussing the weather, people love discussing snow, people love Elvis and people love having a laugh.  The final viral ingredients were a sprinkle of planning and perfect timing.

Fun is the key. Fun makes people smile and remember and share.

Yes, the White House can use Star Wars to be human…

I’m struck by how much it chimes with other things that work. I’m also struck by a post by Philadelphia blogger Jim Garrow who writes the fine ‘Face of the Matter’ blog points to the quite brilliant response from the US Government’s Paul Shawcross who is Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

That’s a grand job title but in ruling out a request for the US Government to start work on a Death Star Paul writes:

The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:

  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.

  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.

  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

Yes, council gritters can use Star Wars to be human…

The third? Lincolnshire County Council’s skillful editing of a snowy scene to shot an At-At (that’s an enemy walking thing that’s not to be messed with) that is walking across the road with a reminder to stay safe on the roads.

It was picked up by the @starwars official account and re-tweeted to 300,000 accounts in one go.

Hats off to Jonathan Fitzgerald and the comms team there.

“Our gritting teams are receiving overwhelming support and praise on our @LincsCC_Winter gritter twitter and on @LincolnshireCC for their efforts in the 2013 Snow Wars; we’re proud to give our residents – and, it seems, half the planet now, the benefit of our timely advice, warnings and updates, along with a smile.”

So in short, being human is a good way to talk to people and to ask people to listen.

That’s not rocket science.

Picture credits:

Elvis http://www.flickr.com/photos/52499764@N00/3413093866/

Star Wars: 


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