RED LETTER: Why Poppy Day is a good day to learn how to bust a myth

There’s a great line about lies being half way round the world before the truth has got its pants on.

It’s actually something that cuts to the very heart of public sector communications.

We should be constantly challenging myths and half-truths when they happen before they take root as the Winterval myth has done.

A few things caught my eye this week on how to challenge effectively.

Royal British Legion’s myth busting

Every year the football Press runs the predictable click-bait of Derry-born James McLean refusing to wear a Poppy on his team’s shirt for Remembrance Day.

On the one hand, those who think he’s a disgrace and in the other those who understand his reasons.

I’ve found a piece of myth-busting from the Royal British Legion themselves really useful. Text that shoots down regular myths that surround the appeal. It’s not only useful because it’s accurate but because its also clear and shareable.

The 40,000 shares show that the message has got out.



What then makes this particularly impressive is that they don’t just leave it at that. They then go and talk with people who post on the Facebook post.

There’s the straight forward.


But also the quite challenging.


And yet

A challenging post by the excellent Stuart Bruce challenges some of the conventional rebuttal approach.

Ignore it and hope it’ll go away? Nope.

The things that Stuart suggests people do to rebut lies the Royal British Legion does.

They create shareable content.

They get in first.

They let others speak for them through the shareable content.

But what was most challenging was the idea that you really shouldn’t repeat the lie in the rebuttal. Stuart points to academic evidence that the point by point denial doesn’t cut through.

You can read the full piece here.

Playing whack-a-mole with rumour

That’s fine if you have time on your side but what to do once the lie has been cast?

Back in 2011, The Guardian ran an excellent piece of academic research Reading the Riots that traced how a handful of rumours played out on Twitter and how they dissipated.

They discovered that online, there was a need for the police to go back to rebut rumours in a four-hour cycle as people switched on their phones to discover the original unchallenged piece of fake news.

They also found the need for citizens with online reputations to be out challenging myth and rumour.

In Birmingham, one rumour centred on disorder which alleged the Birmingham Princess Diana Children’s Hospital was on fire. This was shot down by a prominent blogger Andy Mabbett pointing out that Steelhouse Lane police station was right opposite. So, that probably wasn’t true, right?

It’s that line about citizens sharing things that stays with me.

You can only really hope people will rally round and share your rebuttal if you are engaging online and are an organisation with a degree of trust in the bank already.

Being human online can help with that.

FRIENDS IMPACT: A tongue-in-cheek shoplifting appeal led to 50 per cent of Blackpool people thinking better of their police


You may have seen the Blackpool police appeal for a suspect who looked rather like Friends actor David Schwimmer.

You may have also seen the star’s tongue in cheek denial that he was involved.

Both updates were shared heavily online.

I’ve long argued that human comms should be part of the tool box online for comms people at the right time and in the right context.

It was people online who made the David Schwimmer connection rather than town police themselves.

The bright glare of publicity led to a suspect being arrested. So job done on the most important metric of all.

But aside from the arrest, what was the impact on Blackpool police of the tongue-in-cheek exchange? It’s a question that intrigued me. So, I ran a quick unscientific poll to try and capture some data.

The results were surprising.

60 per cent of people outside of Blackpool viewed the town police better

Of those surveyed, more than 60 per cent had a better perception of the Lancashire town’s police force.

Less than 1 per cent had a negative perception of the service and a third were unchanged in how they viewed the force.

IF YOU LIVE OUTSIDE OF BLACKPOOL: What is your perception of Blackpool police after reading the David Schwimmer Facebook update? 


Inside Blackpool, the stats were illuminating.

50 per cent of people in Blackpool itself viewed their police better

IF YOU LIVE IN BLACKPOOL: What is your perception of Blackpool police after reading the David Schwimmer Facebook update? 

The numbers were different but again, less than 1 per cent viewed the town force negatively.

More people were unchanged in their perception – 50 per cent – but this is to be expected if people in the town have a view on the force.

But what is striking is that 27 per cent felt much better towards officers and 23 per cent better. Or, in other words, 50 per cent felt better about their force.


More than 350 people took part in the online poll on Twitter and 27 were from Blackpool. Clearly, this is unscientific. But it does start to give some useful feedback on how people perceive a less formal tone online.

Clearly, UK police forces can’t rely on enlisting Hollywood actors to help with shoplifting appeals.

But as a broad yardstick this does show that the human approach has a positive impact with audiences.

This does have a bigger impact in those outside of the area.

But there’s a striking majority of people in the town itself who think more positively, too.

Of course, you do have to be human to carry off this approach.

FOUR LEVELS: Canny steps to take when your good advice gets ignored


I blogged this week that most dangerous words to a PR or comms person are ‘oh well, that’s what they want.’

It’s the going along with the request for a leaflet, poster or video from a more senior person even though you know its not the right course of action. You can read the original post here.

There was a fascinating response to it not least in the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group.

One question in particular was spot on… what do you do when the client doesn’t want educated?

What do you do if your client doesn’t want to be educated?

The really glib answer is to leave and get another job.

It’s something I’ve done and I know others have, too.

If the choice is to be a glorified shorthand typist knocking out posters or not pay the mortgage that’s not much of a choice.

Besides, there’s no point in heading for the door over a pretty minor disagreement.

But long term, you need to grow as a professional or else it all catches up with you.

Four levels of dealing with people

Very often the advice that you give is exactly that. It’s advice.

You can point out the open goal.

But if they really insist on kicking the corner flag instead, that’s up to them.

Level one: Try improving your advice

Come from the point of view that you’d like to help them deliver something.

More sign-ups?

More tickets sold?

More flu injections?

For this try asking two questions.

The first is simply ‘why?’

We need a press release.


Because the chief exec wants it.


Because he wants more hospital staff to get flu jabs.


Because we’ve a tough winter coming and having more people at their post would be a good idea.

It may not be a press release you are after. It sounds like a poster, reminders at staff meetings, something for managers to tell their team.

The other good prompt is to ask is ‘So that…?’

If your questions point to a good reason for something to have and an audience, that sounds like a route to take.

Level two: Seek advice

But good advice doesn’t always land.

If you are junior, ask the views of your manager or head of comms. If you are the head of comms there’s no harm in comparing notes with a fellow head of comms.

If you are being asked to break the law, talk to your union representative, HR and take a look at the whistleblowing policy.

Level three: Spell out your advice verbally

Explain your thinking face-to-face if you can or over the phone at a time when you are able. It’s easier to talk through something without an audience.

I’m struggling to think of a time when a row over email was solved by email. That said…

Level four: Spell your advice out in writing

Once you’ve articulated your ideas and they still say no, put it in writing. Politely. Just to re-inforce and formalise the advice. So if and when things blow up you can present it back to them.

Something like this maybe:

“In my respectful submission, my clear professional advice is that the suggested course of action is not effective, not the best use of money and would be exposed to justified criticism in the event of further scrutiny and FOI requests…”

Look for the chapter and verse

Maybe you need to step things up.

If the issue is political pressure in local government, you have the Government’s Recommended Code of Practice for Local Government Publicity here.

This is really clear on what you can and can’t do.

If you work for a public sector or third sector organisation you have an extra array of ammunition. It’s called the constitution. It’s the rules that govern every aspect of your behaviour and the organisation’s decision making.

In particular, if you are local government, it will set out the relationship between you giving professional advice to elected members. It’s really important to know this. You are likely from time-to-time to have the boundaries pushed either from ignorance or devilment.

You are politically impartial and you need to stay that way. Your constitution will set out how you do this.

If this is you, take 10 minutes to read yours. You may find a gem or two in it. The council I worked for included an expectation that professionals were to observe their profession’s code of conduct.

That’s gold.

This opens the door to the NUJ and CIPR codes.

CIPR Ethics Decision Making Tree is a flow chart to help you. You can find it here.

You can find the CIPR Code of Professional Conduct here.

1.1 maintain professional knowledge and competence through continuing professional development, to ensure they provide a professional, up to date and insightful service.

2.2 exhibit and role model professional and personal integrity and honesty at all times.

NUJ Code of Conduct here.

2. Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair.

The aim of this is to be the best you can and to offer the best professional advice its possible to give.

In a landscape that’s ever changing you need to be flexible, learn and evolve.

As I’ve said before, your job is to educate yourself, your client and your organisation.

In that order.

Picture credit: Nick / Flickr

OH, WELL: The most dangerous words to a comms person


What’s the most dangerous words a comms or PR person can say?

‘Well, that’s what they want.’

This thought occurred to me yet again this week delivering some training.

Circulate a list of cuttings from the local media? Rather than cuttings, web and social feedback?

Oh well, that’s what they want.

Creating a poster and a flyer without asking why?

Oh well, that’s what they want.

I have banged on about educating the client many, many times. But I do so because I absolutely believe not simply that its true but also that its life saving.

You can send through just newspaper cuttings.

But one day someone bright will spot that the world has changed and you’ve not changed with it.

And they’ll ask what the point is of someone who doesn’t think, doesn’t advise and thinks that we live in 1996.

Your job is to educate yourself, your client and your organisation.

In that order.

Picture credit: Marco Verch / Flickr

GROUP ONE: It could be easier for organisations to connect with Facebook groups


I don’t tend to blog about tech news as there’s already a whole pile of useful new sites that do that job well.

However, the exception is news from Mashable that could really change how people can connect with Facebook groups.

Facebook is trialing the ability for a page to join a group.

This is potentially huge as it gets over an obstacle where comms people have to use their own Facebook profile on behalf of the organisation to reach groups.

A quick recap: #1 Why Facebook groups are important

I’ve been banging a drum for Facebook groups for some time now.

Research in the district of Braintree shows people there are turning to groups and pages over public sector pages. There are more than 1,000 groups and pages in a population of just over 53,000.

That’s an incredible highly networked number.

A quick recap: #2 Yes, but there are barriers

The barriers that have stopped public sector people getting involved with pages are clear. Maybe comms people don’t want their personal profile to be exposed to criticism or abuse.


A quick recap #3: Current ways around the barrier

There’s two current ways to connect with Facebook groups.

Use your own profile to join a group and contribute directly.

Use your own profile to send a private message to the group admin to introduce yourself and inquire if they’d share content for you.

There is a third. Create a work profile to connect with groups or admin directly. I’m strongly suggesting you don’t do that. It’s against Facebook’s terms and conditions. There’s a slightly messy undertone of fake news and spying, too.

What the changes mean

Firstly, it’s important to stress that these are a trial.

  1. No, this won’t open the whole of Facebook’s wide ecosystem of groups to you. Group admin will have to change settings and then vet your application. Don’t expect to waltz in anywhere.
  2. Yes, a page that joins a group can still be chucked out as if it was a member. So, don’t expect to be a fixture.
  3. But if you are in, you’ll be able to post and comment in groups as the page rather than as yourself. This can give some credibility to your answers or your content. It’ll also re-assure people reluctant to use their own profile.
  4. But you could be a grief magnet. Having a corporate page talking in a group rather than a person may attract more abuse. If you’re a real person the tendency is for there to be less abuse as people mind less shouting at a logo.
  5. But you could unlock a big chunk of audience that you wouldn’t be reaching otherwise. The new Mum who doesn’t read the local paper or listen to the radio could be reached through the New Mum Facebook group she’s joined for support.
  6. But you’ll have to change your mindset. This won’t be one-and-done comms. You will need to search Facebook for the right groups, build a relationship with the admin and maybe target a dozen groups for your targeted content. The New Mum Facebook group will want to hear new parent advice. It won’t want to hear about an exhibition of Old Stafford.
  7. Yes, you’ll need to know about Facebook groups on your patch. A trawl through the towns, villages, estates and communities on your patch will surprise you. You won’t need to know all of them. But you will need to know the process of searching for the right community.

So, the answer is broadly good news for public sector comms people. But it’s also a bit messy. Just slightly less messy than it was before.

I’ve not seen this change in my role as admin of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group. I’ll keep you posted.

I’ll be talking about how to connect with Facebook groups as part of ESSENTIAL DIGITAL SKILLS FOR COMMS in Birmingham on November 6 and London on November 6.

Drop me a note if those dates don’t work for you 

Thanks to Jamie Baker from the UK Government Cabinet Office for spotting this Facebook development.

Picture credit: Book Catalog / Flickr.




RESEARCH: The huge reach of community Facebook pages and groups and how you can connect with them


If there’s one thing I can tell you it’s that Facebook groups and pages in a local area are huge. Not just a bit huge. A lot huge.

For the last 12-months I’ve vanished into a worm-hole of research looking at the digital footprint of the platform in an area.

Braintree in Essex is the area I’ve been looking at. It has a population of 53,000.

Why that town in particular? A chance conversation. I was talking to someone about the quiet spread of local Facebook groups and pages and how I’d love to carry out research on how big an impact they had, what they were talking about and how much of it was actually accurate.

Look at Braintree, they said. It’s a good mix. It’s partly urban and partly rural.

So, I did.

Researching a community

In September last year I set about counting the Facebook groups and pages in Braintree. But not just the town. Also the villages. Coggeshall, Black Notley, Bocking, Witham and Great Bardfield too.

As a former journalist, it was fascinating. All human life was there. A row about a footpath ploughed up by the farmer. A debate about parking. The latest in the campaign against an incinerator. Stones painted by children left in the churchyard. A Facebook group set-up by two people banned from a pub.

Facebook is not just a global platform. It is the world’s Parish pump, too.

A Facebook community in numbers

And I counted the numbers.

Back in 2017, there were 301 groups and 279 pages in and around Braintree. All pages are open but around 60 per cent of groups are closed.

Braintree is a town of bargain hunters. There are more than 50 buy and sell groups in Braintree alone. No wonder that the small ads of newspapers have been gutted. What would have been once for sale in the back end of the local paper is now on Facebook.

There’s a village called Coggeshall. It had more than 50 groups and pages. Not bad for a community of less than 5,000.

The pub, the hairdressers, the tattoo parlour, the football team, the community, the year five and six parents all had their corner of Face book.

So, I counted the likes and memberships, too.

There were 498,447. In other words, every man, woman and child in Braintree likes nine local groups or pages.

Events are what people talk about

I tried to classify what they were talking about, too.

The most popular topic – 30 per cent – was events. A fundraising sale. A birthday party. An exhibition. Then at 17 per cent was ‘for sale’. Then at less than five per cent everything else. So, crime, health, the environment, parks and countryside were all niche topics.

Not fake

But is Braintree a hotbed for fake news?

I’d persuaded Essex County Council and Braintree District Council to work with me on this research. They agreed to fact check every reference to local government over a seven day period just to see what was correct and incorrect.

The former local government comms person in me expected swathes of debate about potholes, parking, litter and libraries. The truth was more simple. Overall, 15 per cent of content was local government-related.

Just 16 per cent of council-related conversations held mistruths. So, blaming the district council for gritting the roads in cold weather when it’s actually the county was low level. But a false rumour about a mosque in a park was more serious.

Armed with this research, I’ve been training teams to look more locally when they are communicating. But its not without problems.

How you can plug into groups

If you want to communicate through a group you need to join using your own profile. Lock it down if you like, but it needs to be you. Not a specially set-up work one. That’s against Facebook’s terms and conditions. Some people aren’t happy doing that and that’s fine. A slightly less exposed way is to approach the admin by private message to see if they’d share some content for you. Content posted to the corporate page can work well.

But in training, not everyone wants to do this. That’s fine. The alternative is to spend money through Facebook advertising. But in a time of vanishing budgets that can be a tall order.

Braintree 12-months on

So 12-months on, I went back to Braintree to carry out some research to see what had changed.

The numbers have gone through the roof.

Where in September 2017 there was 579 groups and pages 12-months on this has soared to 1,037. Groups have risen in number by 14 per cent while pages have risen by a staggering 147 per cent.

Likes and memberships of Facebook groups have soared by 57 per cent to just short of 800,000. That’s membership of 14 groups and pages for everyone who lives in Braintree. That’s staggering.

And the village of Coggeshall? There were more than 60 groups and pages last year. In 2018, this was 95.

Public sector and groups

The public sector is starting to get smarter with groups and pages, too.

Across the country, Police are asking admin to post missing person appeals in local groups. Fire services are using groups where there are more women as a recruitment drive for more women. They’re also using groups to reach communities where there is a fire that needs a warning message.

How you can get to grips with groups

Run a search in Facebook for the area you live in. Go and join it. Chip in. You’ll learn something.

Thanks to Jeremy Sharpe for helping with gathering the data.

I’ll be talking about this and how it can work for you at two upcoming workshops. The Essential Digital Skills for Comms workshop in Birmingham on December 6 as well as London on December 9.

Drop me a line






NEW RULES: This what you need to know if you make video, social and web content


Some new regulations have quietly come into force that will have a big impact if you work in public sector comms.

They’re from the people who brought you GDPR but this time with a less snappier title.

The full title is Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No. 2) Accessibility Regulations 2018.

So, for the purpose of this I’ll just call it the PSBAR, okay?

Nice people at the Government Digital Service have produced a handy explainer here.

I’ve read through them and here’s a few things you’ll need to know. They take EU regulations and enshrine them in UK law.

All public sector comms people need to know about them and how their work is affected.

Why and when they’ve been brought in

They’re being brought in to make content accessible by those who struggle with hearing or sight. It comes from a good place. This came into force on September 23 2018 but don’t panic. This fires the gun on a few things and gives you time to get ready.

What the basic points are

Under PSBAR, your content on the web needs to be ‘percievable, operable, understandable and robust.’

In other words, can a blind or deaf person understand it?

This is seriously bad news for all those misguided people who think uploading a pdf to the web and walking away is a good idea. It isn’t and never has been. Text on pdfs are hard to navigate and are often invisible to search engines.

However, you WILL need an accessibility statement from September 23 2019 for all new websites and also from September 23 2020 for existing ones, too. So, if you look after a website you’ve been advised to pull together a full review of your public sector website to make a plan to make it all accessible and help you meet those deadlines. That means going through your site page-by-page and making a plan to make them accessible.

In other words, goodbye bad pdf.

Some aren’t covered

Schools, nurseries are not covered. So are charities unless they particularly serve the disabled community.  The rest of the public sector is.

How your video content is affected

First, the important news for video creating comms people. You won’t be forced to go back and subtitle thousands of hours of old videos and council meetings.

This is a really important point.


Because there are a set of exemptions.

  • If you are a public sector broadcaster.
  • If you make live video.
  • If your content is up before September 2020.
  • If you have heritage content.

So, the live stream from the council meeting or the Facebook Live behind-the-scenes before the opening of the new museum exhibition are not covered and nor will they be in future.


Hold on.

Basically, what the future will look like after September 23 2020

You’ve also got until September 2020 to adjust to the new way of working by having your content work as both audio-only and sight-only.

For the public sector, apart from schools and nurseries and charities if they particularly serve disabled people:

  • Your live video won’t need subtitles.
  • Your existing video won’t need audio description and subtitles.
  • Your new video after September 23 2020 will need subtitles and a version that gets the information across as audio-only.
  • You’ll still be able to carry on using social media sites. Third party apps like this if you haven’t paid for their development are exempt.

In effect, this may mean you create one video that works for blind and deaf people OR that you create two edits with one having an additional audio track reading out text.

But don’t sit back

While PSBAR doesn’t make you subtitle before September 23 20202, I’d argue that the expectation has been raised. You want to reach as big an audience as possible, right? And let’s not forget that 85 per cent watch video with the sound off. So having some text on the screen will reach more people as will making the key points audio-only, too.

You may want to plan your video differently.


Well, a style of short content making that some news broadcasters excel at can tell the story with text, images and talking heads. This may be something for you to look at.

Website and apps are covered

Check the GDS link that talks you through how this covers intranets and websites for the full nine yards.

Of course, this blog doesn’t constitute formal legal advice. Go talk to your legal team too just to make sure you are all on the same page.

If you are interested in how you can stay ahead and use video yourself or in your team take a look at upcoming workshops in Exeter, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and London. Or if those dates don’t suit give me a shout 

Picture credit: Wayan Vota / Flickr