We are facing a pandemic and the public sector are in the frontline but surprise surprise one organisation hasn’t got the memo.
To date, the BBC covid-19 death toll running total records 3,600 people have died in the UK and 38,000 have tested positive.
Nurses, doctors, paramedics and NHS support staff are taking daily risks as are social care people, bin collectors, police, fire, teachers and many others. In the private sector shop workers and those in the food and transport supply chain are working around the clock.
To be clear, the public sector is what is going to save us from this mess.
However, the one organisation that appears to have missed this.
Step forward the Taxpayers Alliance.
They specialise in spoon-feeding depleted newsrooms press releases with highly selective data.
Rather than watching the news, it appears the Tax Payers Alliance have carried on business as usual sending out freedom of information requests to local government on arcane corners of public sector spending.
This week, while public sector people are risking their lives the Tax Payers Alliance have been asking how much has been spent on alcohol.
Let that sink in.
This tweet from Polly Cziok summarises the disbelief.
Let’s be quite clear, this is offensive
Should public sector people stop what they’re doing to calculate answers on trivial subjects in a time of crisis?
This is a question broader than one pressure group.
The question of whether or not to divert resources is offensive.
It’s as vile as asking firefighters at Grenfell Tower to stop what they are doing and audit what they’ve spent on pens.
Or a passer-by at a road accident demand the fire crew stop cutting the injured family out of the car and instead come and tell them how much they spent of teabags in the last 12-months.
Or asking social care to stop looking after frail people and fill in a form about sandwiches.
It is knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
Enough is enough
Happily, it seems as though the public sector has had enough.
Step forward Glasgow City Council’s media team for responding to a media enquiry thus:
Credit: @carolyntweeting on Twitter.
For accessibility, it reads:
“This spending is not about pens, but every bill and statement, every letter, every envelope and every drop of printer ink uses to support the delivery of universal services to more than 600,000 people over five years.
“To try and present it as biros for staff is as childish as it is grimly predictable – particularly at a time when those staff are doing everything in their power to maintain critical services in the face of a global pandemic.
“To be clear, the Taxpayers Alliance is a private company and political pressure group that refuses to disclose its financial backers – which people, unaccountably insist on presenting as a campaign representing ordinary people.”
The Glasgow Times story online is here.
And frankly, the Glasgow City Council approach is long overdue.
Even the ICO’s office know there’s a pandemic going on
The good news is that the arbiter of data protection and freedom of information knows the world has been turned upside down.
In a useful set of guidance, the ICO’s office says they won’t be going after organisations that have diverted resources to combating the pandemic.
So, there is an argument for prioritising saving lives over FOI requests.
It’s about time journalists became journalists
Full disclosure, for 12 years I was a daily new reporter who specialised in local government. I’ve worked in and with public sector comms for 16 years. I know the pressures depleted newsrooms are under and know that’s got worse.
When a reporter, the tag ‘sloppy and lazy copy’ was one of the worst insults a news editor could shout down the phone.
As a general point, cutting and pasting Taxpayers Alliance press releases – or any press releases – unchallenged is not great journalism in peace time.
If only there was a brave and fearless reporter who would ask the Taxpayers Alliance who funds them and when we’re through all this put in an FOI request to see how much time and effort has been spent answering them.
And its about time public sector bodies stepped up on this
It’s fine for civil servants and media to grow tired at being asked to stop covid-19 work to process frivolous FOI requests.
At some point, they’re going to look for some leadership from organisations such as the Local Government Association, Improvement Service in Scotland, Government Communications Service, the National Union of Journalists and the Chartered Institute for Public Relations.
This isn’t a debate about transparency.
There is a role for FOI from all quarters.
This is a debate about saving lives.
There are many questions to be asked as part of a functioning democracy about how prepared the UK is. But asking about alcohol and paper clips when people are dying for me really isn’t one of the top questions.
I’m a member of society. I’m the director of my own company. I pay tax. If it helps fund a public sector that can respond in a crisis I don’t mind.
Every week, hundreds of thousands of British people open their doors and applaud for a minute the carers and frontline people who are risking their lives to save the lives of others.
Maybe we can hold a minute’s slow hand clap for the Tax Payers Alliance five minutes after the clap for carers.
No, I didn’t think so.
In normal times you probably have two or three people who have permission to use the corporate social media channel.
But these are not normal times.
If those two or three are not burnt out they very soon will be.
You need to enlist the help of anyone who can spell to give some relief to the people on the frontline.
Think of them as locum social media admins.
For the past 10 years I’ve been training people who aren’t comms to operate social media channels. Sometimes they’re a department or a library. Other times its the corporate account.
Here’s what I’ve learned and what you can pass on.
Regular admins: You need to stop being precious
In normal times if you’re a page admin worth your salt you take pride in the page, the tone and the engagement.
You need to cut that right out.
There is no way that anyone can be an admin for three months 24/7.
Your health and your sanity comes first and if that means a slight change of tone and emphasis when other people post then tough.
Besides, the need for business continuity by having a wider pool of skills over rides your ego and your sense of self worth.,
If anyone does shout remember they’re not shouting at you
In a time of crisis, people have lost all control of their movement, their livelihood and their health. They’re feeling vulnerable. The only control they do have is to shout at the person telling them their bin isn’t being collected. They’re not shouting at you the individual.
A triage system for working out when and where to respond
I’m pointing you towards this flow chart from Michael Grimes. I’ve used it to train people for 10 years. It’s codified common sense. It poses the question: ‘People are talking about you online, do you engage?’ If they’re sarcastic monitor. If they’re inaccurate then think about engaging. Even having a piece of paper makes people feel better. You can find it here.
Have a series of signposts
Have a stack of useful links and FAQs that the team can base their answers on. You’ll be able to deal with 80 per cent of relevant questions this way. Escalate if there’s a need to but remember that people’s time is precious. Have a list of people that you can escalate to. Have that info in a sharable format.
Give them a back-up
One thing I’ve found is that people feel stressed if they don’t have an emergency button that’s behind glass. So, if something really awful happened how can people respond? That may just be your number. Chances are they won’t use it. But it’ll make them feel more confident.
Flag up your social media house rules
I’ve long been an advocate for having house rules when it comes to social media. In other words, a list of acceptable behaviour. This is how you’ll use it as an organisation. This is how you expect people to behave. So, maybe you say you’ll be around from 9am to 5pm and won’t tolerate abuse. Make your own rules.
Yes, you can tackle misinformation
I’ve seen admins being increasingly bold in their take downs of snark and misinformation. I hold a candle for that but for someone who is being a locum admin keep it simple.
If someone is advancing something that’s just plain wrong, be FACTUAL and be POLITE. That’s all you need to be and no-one will touch you.
Use different channels for logging in
You can hire an expensive social media solution for maanging your social media if you like. You don’t have to. Ask people to log in on the works laptop and log out when they’ve finished. That way they won’t be talking about their tea in the corporate account.
When Samuel Pepys was an eyewitness to history he kept a diary.
Me? I binged podcasts and YouTube.
For the past 14 days I’ve had mild coronavirus symptoms. My wife went down with them two days after me.
How mild were my symptoms? A cough. Sometimes a shortness of breath. Lungs that felt like wasps nests. Symptoms that shape shift. A weird feeling of dizziness sometimes. Tiredness.
Many people have had it far worse than me.
I blog this for two reasons, to remind people that most people will have mild symptoms and secondly to give some gentle user testing insight to public sector comms people.
The news cycle is dominated by the need for clicks. I avoided it.
Instead of BBC Radio 5 live in the kitchen it was BBC Radio 4 Extra. I wanted Frankie Howerd not the fear.
The social media cycle is dominated by the need for shock. I largely avoided it.
I searched for official channels and no politicians.
The thirst for information greatly out paces the flow of information. I went to trusted sources. NHS, public health my council.
Nothing chimed with me like a story of a recovery. I wanted the flowers and grapes of good news.
I could have read about people thanking frontline workers all day.
I struggled to find the info. There is loads of info about not getting covid-19 and loads if you think you’ve got covid 19 but almost nothing when you think you have covid-19.
I got purposely distracted a lot. Hey, there is a whole sub-genre of YouTube based around metal detecting Eastern Front digs. Who knew? Finding hand grenades in the forests east of Berlin are really common. So are SS cap badges. Apparently, they buried them to avoid getting shot on sight when captured.
Elis and John’s BBC Five Live podcasts helped me through my darkest times. They kept my mind distracted.
I shopped on the internet for the things I really needed.
I got my will done online but it takes five days to be verified and returned. You may want to bear that in mind and plan ahead.
In times of crisis I draw strength from the things my Mum said that were passed down to her.
I’m grateful for what I have.
There is always someone worse off.
So, count your blessings, count them one by one and then you’ll see what the Lord has done.
All of my experience is far worse in the telling than the living.
Symptoms don’t follow a path. Two good days could be followed by a bad day so rest.
History says that we will push most of what is happening to the back of our mind. History is written by the victors and in a pandemic just who are the victors?
Some stats published by comscore this week show a marked thirst for information online since coronavirus struck.
In the UK and across Europe, people have been turning to the web to gather information.
General news media sites are outsripping social media sites for traffic.
Visits to news sites are up by around 50 per cent, according to the research Coronavirus pandemic and online behavioural shifts published by the research company.
The upward trend is also replicated with social media sites.
In the, audience is up by 20 per cent in comparison with the start of the year.
All this is useful data as public sector communicators wonder what steps to next take to combat the spread of coronavirus.
A quick reminder and a bravo to those of you creating important content on social media in these difficult times.
Try ever so hard not to just screenshot text and post it as a picture.
If you are doing that you’re unwittingly missing out a chunk of the population. Around 350,000 people in the UK are blind or partially sighted and some of your info will be badly needed.
An example of what good looks like
Heading to the excellent @NHSuk Twitter and you’ll find this tweet is an example of something that hits the mark.
It’s good because the text of the tweet introduces what is in the video. The video itself uses speech and subtitles to share information. Everything which appears on screen as an image in the video is described in the speech. And there is a link to find out more.
A handy resource
If you’re looking to create an accessible image the nice Helpful Technology people have blogged some tips you can follow: Accessible images on social media: what every government agency needs to know
If you’re a public sector communicator you’ve got one topic to communicate to your audiences right now and that’s coronavirus.
There’s a more than fair chance that the people you want to speak to are online and on Facebook.
So with that in mind, here’s two approaches that are measurably different from my local corner of the NHS in Dudley.
They break down into the government message v human comms.
The first post is a message to say that volunteers can take a parcel to the bedside of anyone in any of the combined total of 900 beds.
It has an image of volunteers – presumably their own stock shot – and the important information rounded off with an emoji.
There’s no link to drive people to to get the full message and it’s written in accessible Facebook English.
The numbers speak for themselves with almost 90 comments, 400 shares and more than 700 likes.
It shows the human side of the Trust, the fact that real people volunteer there and they’re bothered about patients.
The official line
The second post is the official line.
There’s a link straight to the relevant gov.uk website with timely important information that’s also changing hour-by-hour.
With this post, 35 shares, a single comment and 16 interactions.
Overall, less audience for what is mission critical information.
In no way is there any implied criticism from me for the disparity in the numbers. I don’t know the team there but I’m really impressed with what they are doing. It’s going to involve long hours and its right that they sign post to the right information.
But it got me thinking.
The staff who are working hard for you pic
The impact of the volunteers post reminded me of a post from the Whaley Bridge incident where a reservoir almost failed engulfing hundreds of properties.
Fire, police, local government, NHS, Environment Agency and firefighters worked long shifts to save the dam and the town from disaster.
The community was grateful and a photograph from a smartphone of firefighters working posted to a fire station page attracted an abnormally high number of interactions.
It wasn’t a news picture with an amazing eye-catching image.
It was a picture of people.
It was just a collection of firefighters with some of the pumping equipment, information about their shift and a message of support for the community.
That message of support was reflected back from the community.
I’m thinking that maybe that’s the kind of image that needs to be in the tool box. Public sector people doing their job with a message to the community.
It’s far likelier to cut through to wider Facebook.
I know that people are flat-out busy and collecting images like these takes time. But I’ve a feeling the time invested with be repaid by creating content that’s going to have a far bigger impact and reach.
At a time when there’s a deluge of misinformation that’s really important.
‘He’s an escapist’, the writer Nathaniel West once wrote, ‘he wants to cultivate his interior garden.’
What is striking is that everyone has a tolerance for coronavirus news and especially if you’re in the public sector communicating it.
At times, a 24-hour flow of information can intoxicate. If only, you think, if I keep reading I’ll stay ahead of the game. But like a drunk at the gates of the Guinness factory who is deep into their second truck you soon realise you can’t process it all.
So you move to phase two, escapism because the news is serious.
Even those who are knee deep in much and bullets need to re-charge.
It’s completely fine to take a dive into the deep end of this as that’s what will help recharge your batteries.
I’ve blogged things to take your mind off things / get through self-isolation / recharge your batteries.
12 clips of Train Guy on Twitter
He’s every man – and it tends to be a man – who is on a train loudly telling the rest of the carriage how importantly on trend they are. Have a bend back. Geoff Linton’s going to be there. Bounce back post pitch?
Five clips of animals being cute from Twitter
Because we all need animals in our life.
Penguins jumping randomly down stairs. Watch them go here.
Koalas just hanging out here.
A cat being sung to here.
A polar bear learning to balance with their Mum here.
A budgie singing into a mirror here.
Cute Dog videos on TikTok
Five shows I’ve road tested from BBC Sounds
When working, I have to have ear buds in. I’ve come to see them as a physical manifestation of the on-switch. So, here are five that I’d recommend and you can chobble through the back catalogue box-set style.
Elis James and John Robins BBC Five Live show here. It is what happens if a hip version of Swansea midfield general Alan Curtis collided with Alan Partridge.
That Peter Crouch Podcast is here. It’s what would happen if a your 16-year-old footer obsession self collided with a Radio One DJ.
In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, who must now be 108 hosts a high brow Radio 4 programme that invites experts on a subject to talk about a specific subject. Often they’re obscure topics. It’s what happens when five University professors collide with podcasting equipment. This fills you in here.
Blood on the Tracks features Colin Murray and guests who talk about music that matters to them. It’s what happens when Fighting Talk meets a record shop. More here.
The Missing Crypto Queen features a podcast-style series tracing the woman behind a crypto-currency bubble. It’s what happens when a police procedural meets the internet. More here.
Four threads from Twitter that are an excellent diversion
There are still corners of Twitter that do it for me and the thread functionality flush them out.
THREAD: ‘Tell me what its like having your kids at home from school but describe them as your co-workers.’ Here.
THREAD: ‘Holker Street is gloriously old school and deserves to be kicking with the soulless identikit stadiums in the Football League.’ Here.
THREAD: ‘As a public service in these stressful times I’d like to offer, as a palate cleanser, the most embarrassing moment of my life.’ Here.
THREAD: ‘This is the story of the WORST GIG I’VE EVER DONE.’ Here.
THREAD: ‘I heard it was an emergency, so I emerged. As an actor, I can’t do much without face to face contact. But I can read verse. If me reading a particular poem would make you happy, let me know and I’ll post it on @SoundCloud I’ll try and do at least one a day. Here.
Four Spotify playlists
I can work with this on shuffle 386 songs.
Peaceful rain sleep white noise from the rain.
1000 best songs of all time. Well, 1001 actually.
Reckless Yes. Sarah Lay’s record label.
Three accounts on Flickr to lose yourself in
Tyne and Wear museums has a cracking archive of images and people from the region. Including shots of the Tyne Bridge being built. See them HERE.
Library of Congress have thousands of images from America history HERE.
Reykjavik Museum Oh, those Icelanders… HERE
Four places to listen to on the web while working or dozing off
youarelisteningto pulls in police radio snippets and plays ambient music uploaded from soundcloud. Its an oddly compelling mix.
mynoise.net has the sound of heavy rain falling on the Irish Sea off the coast of Ireland on a loop. Endlessly.
onlineclock allows you to balance a range of noises to give you the perfect blend. Rain, sheep, wind, birdsong? Covered.
Hipstersound thinks people work better when they are in a coffee shop. So, there’s a range of cafes recorded from across the world.
Two things to explore if you’ve time to kill
Explore space with these free tools provided by the European Space Agency and NASA.
Or re-run the 1995-6 Premier League season Championship Manager-style with this android football manager app.
Pic credit: Flickr / Documerica