LONDON ATTACK: six tweets that show how the public sector comms stepped-up

breakingWhen a terror attack struck London the people who ran towards it were members of the public sector.

We’re used to seeing police act when a man with a gun is on the loose. Brave? Yes. That’s what they’re trained for, isn’t it?

But nurses and doctors running from a nearby hospital towards the noise? That floored me.

Underpaid, taken for granted, criticised and budget cut to the bone the UK public sector is a hard place to work. It has none of the glamour of the private sector. But when chips are down they deliver.

Police at the scene and the nurses who risk their lives should get full credit. But the locked-down civil servant who then returned to work the next day also serve. So to do the public sector communicators who responded to keep the public informed.

For students of how the media works, Stephen Waddington has produced an excellent summary of how the attack happened. From the first frightened tweets from those at the scene to rumour and hate speech. You can see it here. It got me to thinking of the role public sector comms played.

Here is a bit of background.

The London terror attack response began with burning cows

In 2001, the UK farming industry was devastated by foot and mouth disease. Thousands of cattle were destroyed and generations of farmers’ work was ended in minutes. For days the country seemed paralysed. Government agencies, the British Army, councils and others all worked across each other. Many left hands didn’t know what many right hands were doing. Enough. The result was the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 which sets out who will respond about what. The key principle is to ‘warn and inform.’

A piece of law ensured that a bunch of people who don’t always work with each other that well now would.  In a geographic area council, police, fire, NHS and others work together in local resilience forums. A dry name for your Parish-pump COBRA.

Emergency planners know where the bodies will go

Every council has an Emergency Planning officer. They have plans in place for when things go wrong from a Second World War hand grenade to a major terror attack. They’ll know how to respond, who will respond and if needs be where the temporary mortuaries will be.

“See those emergency planning officers?” I was told when I started to work in local government in the West Midlands. “They even have a plan for an inland tsunami on the local lake.”

It’s true. They have.

Emergency comms isn’t crisis comms

My good friend Ben Proctor has devoted much of his life to the study of emergency comms. A former head of comms he also works as a volunteer for the Stand Task Force. These are volunteers from around the world who act globally in support of major incidents.

Ben is very clear that emergency comms isn’t crisis comms. Emergency comms is lives being at risk. Crisis comms is a company’s reputation. As he has blogged, that’s quite a big difference.

Practice in peacetime when cars aren’t on fire

One reason why the public sector communicators rose to the challenge during the terror incident was the planning and practice.

Just over 12-months ago the public sector led by London Fire Brigade ran a four-day exercise involving 1,000 casualties. A collapsed tower block and crushed tube trains were the mocked-up scenario. Talking to communicators afterwards, they learned lots.

The riots of 2011 where social media emerged also played a role. The public sector realised that when the cars were burning it was on Twitter that the news was breaking. Bright police officers realised they could reach people directly by social media to shoot-down rumour and reassure.

Today, the starting point for an emergency is Twitter. As London Ambulance Service said this week at our masterclass when a crisis happens the last thing they do in the comms team is answer the phone. They go straight to Twitter and communicate with journalists and the public at the same time. That would have been an amazing thing 10 years ago. Today? That’s common sense.

Six tweets that show how to respond in an emergency

A marker holding statement and the death of the press release

By putting out a brief statement on Twitter London Ambulance Service put two markers down. First, they knew and are responding. Secondly, it sets them out as a trusted source for further information. The days of waiting six hours for the full picture and a press release are long, long gone.

  Ask people nicely not to circulate graphic content

When a plane crashed into traffic passers-by shared graphic images of debris, body parts and burnt corpses in a car with the number plate clearly visible. At first, they admonished those who shared the images. But after a backlash they realised it was better to appeal to people’s better side. Which is the same approach that the Metropolitan Police took:


Signpost to people to the right place

The best meeting I ever took part in during my time in the public sector took place a few weeks after the 2011 riots. Police, bloggers and council comms sat round a table to work out how we could do a better job. No media were invited. Why? Because their print-first next day communication strategy was exposed as flat footed. The hyperlocal bloggers who were fielding rumour were the frontline of news.

One thing became clear. The bloggers told us that they knew the council wasn’t responsible for the emergency. But they didn’t understand why council accounts online were silent.

“Just signpost us to where we can find out what’s going on,” one told us.

So, we drew up a strategy of if the emergency was police-led, the council would point towards them.

As Westminster Council did here:

Speak to journalists directly by making the update public

One of the biggest changes in dealing with an emergency is how public sector comms people deal with the Press. Post the updates on Twitter and you won’t have 20 phone calls on the same subject.


Reassure in realtime

As I’ve been banging on about, video in realtime works. So, a message of reassurance works.

It is your job too to combat rumour

Buzzfeed ran an excellent post on the rumour and fake news that circulated in the wake of the attack. But here’s the thing. While it is useful for the public sector to challenge rumour we all have a role to play in not circulating it.


GONK GONE: Stop the free stuff, there’s no money


14843063703_fffe0c243b_bNot long ago a council launched a snazzy video for residents on how they were looking to make millions of pounds of cuts.

The first question asked by a resident was ‘how much did that video cost?’

By and large free stuff – pens, pencils, stress balls and the like – aren’t given away in local government any more.

But elsewhere this week I’m surprised to hear that’s not the case.

Despite £22 billion of savings needed in the NHS and 1.2 million people on waiting lists for social housing there are still parts of the NHS and social housing who give away freebies. Why? Because evaluation shows it makes a difference? No. Because they always have.

Unless you can clearly evaluate the difference that lucky gonk made in pounds shillings and pence I’d stop it, if I were you.

Picture credit Flickr / inthepottershands



GOOD COMMS: Who, what, when, where, why… but most of all WHY

There is an amazing post doing the rounds on Twitter.

It speaks volumes about where newspapers and council press officers are.

This is it:


It’s an image of a councillor stood forlornly at a roundabout. There’s a story behind this, I’m sure, and I’m not being too hard on Slough Council for this.

‘Why,’ one person in my timeline asked ‘didn’t the reporter ring up and ask about it?’

Because newsrooms have been slashed. Unless it’s particularly interesting-looking they probably won’t.

Unless you make the content interesting and sharable they probably won’t be interested.

So flipping make it interesting and sharable, then.

Before you post ask yourself if it tackles ‘Who, what, when, where, why… but most of all WHY.’

And if its digital content, if doesn’t make you go: Oooh! Aaah! Wow! OMG! Ha! I didn’t know that! then don’t post it.

BOTTOM LINE: Don’t be a glorified shorthand typist

15503065423_a38875bc61_oI keep saying this over and over.

You are not there to write someone a press release, design a poster or start a Twitter account when they click your fingers and ask for one.

You are there to give good professional communications advice.

Yes, that sometimes means telling someone that in your professional opinion they  shouldn’t have that press release, poster or Twitter account.

Unless you do you’ll always be nothing more than a glorified shorthand typist and they won’t have a professional opinion of you.

Yes, you are better than that.

DIGITAL COMMS: There is no final victory

20058515505_1f0087d001_bWhen can we declare victory on the shift from old-style comms alone to the new stuff?

When the Ofcom stats show how people are using the media?

When you make a slick presentation to someone important and they get it?

Or is this a constant house-to-house battle step-by-step?

It is, I’m afraid the latter.

Remind people through your feedback. Include social stats in the core of your evaluation.

Experiment a little.

I was struck by a long, deep sigh of a post from Euan Semple on his blog where he reflected on the BBC trying things he did a decade ago.

Most of the places where social has gained a toehold inside an organisation have reverted to their old ways as soon as those who cared enough gave up or left.

Change doesn’t just happen. You have to keep pushing, keep trying, keep picking yourself up and doing it again. If you don’t entropy kicks and things return to “normal” with depressing predictability.

Keep going. Keep fighting.

As some quoted in the comments box of his post.

There is no final victory as there is no final defeat. There is just the same battle. To be fought, over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.

Keep at it. You’re winning. It’s just it doesn’t always feel so.

Picture credit: Patrick Strandberg / Flickr

VIDEO LESSON: What a cringe-making public sector video can teach you about making a non-cringe-making video

Stilted, awkward and forced.

Pity the poor graduates forced to endure the Austalian Government finance department’s attempt at recruitment.

For more than two years I’ve helped to deliver training on how to make and deliver good comms video. Along with my colleague Steven Davies we’ve looked at best practice. But sometimes you can learn from not-so-best practice, too.

What does this teach? Don’t work with a script. Let people be human.

There’s also a parody. But watch out. It’s parental advisory.

RED LIGHT: Why be a comms person in the NHS if you can’t stop a bleed?


In the worst half hour of my life, my wife struggled to give birth to our first born whose heart kept stopping.

It was too late for cesarean. The baby needed to be born right now. Two mid-wives shouted at my wife to ‘push’ as the heart monitor dipped in and out. Within half an hour he was. Why the crisis? A perfect knot in the umbilical chord had been blocking oxygen.

Thank God for the NHS. Without them my son may not be here.

So when the Daily Telegraph run an NHS knocking story from a right-wing pressure group about a comms issue I paid attention.

Every hospital, the piece said, must change its logo and online footprint at what is a time of crisis for the NHS. ‘What a waste,’ was the underlying tone. Even a pro-NHS Facebook group got caught up slamming the changes as ‘shameful.’

Blogger James Turner wrote an excellent takedown of the Daily Telegraph story from a designers perspective. No, all signs don’t have to be changed straight away. In summary:

YES: The NHS has new identity guidelines which include new rules on how the logo should be used.

NO: No one has to spend money updating signs, letters etc until they were going to be changed anyway.

YES: It did cost some money to NHS England

NO: It didn’t cost money to Trusts and was infact, a pretty cheap exercise considering what design can cost.

YES: Design is important to the NHS, it’s what helps people access services and engage with healthcare.

NO: Design isn’t a “non-job” you patronising arse.

What’s the point of a NHS comms officer if they can’t stop a bleed?

For me, this raises the wider problem. Should you have an A&E nurse or a designer?

Or, as someone asked on Facebook, why have an NHS designer if they can’t stop a bleed?

Faced with such a simple question, you can see why people think what they do.

But life and death is a much more complicated than that.

In the NHS, there are 450,000 doctors and nurses. Supporting them is an army of people. Porters, medical secretaries, cleaners, finance people and receptionists are just a few of the army of people needed to make an organisation work.

What’s the point of an NHS porter if they can’t stop a bleed?

What’s the point of a housing web manager if they can’t change a window?

Or what’s the point in a council press officer if they can’t fill in a pothole?

I’ll tell you what their point is. They play a part in in making the organisation work just like a porter or a finance person does. But I think comms people need to make people see this.

The simple fact is that communications, marketing, web people and yes, designers are needed. Why? Forget reputation for a minute. Because they can help make a difference to people’s lives and to the bottom line. The Come Back to Nursing campaign to re-recruit lapsed nurses my colleague Darren Caveney played a part in helped save £90 million, for example. The flu jab campaign helps save people’s lives.

Be the difference and tell people

‘You’re just a bunch of non-jobs. Why should I bother doing what you say?’

This cheery greeting came when I worked in local government. The then minister Eric Pickles had made another attack on local government communications.

I’ve said this before. The only way to dispel this falsehood is by demonstrating worth. Not just by making nice things but by making a difference in the bottom line. So, it’s not enough to have a logo or communications. It needs to show the pounds, shillings and pence difference that it makes. That campaign to get people to go to the chemist rather than A&E. Look at data over different periods. Can you say how many people did that? And what the benefit was?

NHS branding? Why bother? It’s a sensible question. Here’s six reasons.

You can cut down on missed appointments. Missed appointments cost the NHS £1 billion a year. My mother-in-law gets post from a range of people. If it doesn’t have an NHS logo she doesn’t know the letter is from the GP or NHS Trust. If it does she’ll leave it on the mantlepiece so my wife can make sure the appointment is on her calender. As a result she doesn’t miss an appointment costing the NHS money. That’s branding.

Finding the right place in a really big building… part one. I had a sad episode in a hospital three weeks ago. I got the phonecall at 11pm and travelled 30 miles to a hospital I didn’t know in a town I wasn’t familiar with. Bleary-eyed I knew I was getting to the right place by the hospital’s NHS branding and the clear lettering that pointed me towards A&E. There’s a reason that NHS branding is as it is. Same as British Railway typography. It’s clear, authoritative and you get the information you need from a glance. That’s branding.

Finding the right place in a really big building… part two. Hospitals are big places at the best of times. Sure, if you work there you know where it is and how it works. I’m struck by how the thought that goes into the NHS typeface can help signpost people clearly. If it’s doing that job quietly it means it’s not people turning up late for appointments or accosting staff in the corridor more than they do. That’s also branding.

Getting your message out. Your comms team have a job to communicate to people a big raft of messages. Having the templates and approaches laid out means that they’re job is easier. The have the tools and people who they want to talk to can know straight away that its the NHS trying to talk to them. That’s branding.

It saves cheaper to have one lot of branding Here’s a thing. In the NHS there are 242 separate trusts, providers and social enterprises. At £10k a pop that could be £2.42 million which I’m guessing the NHS doesn’t have. That’s branding.

It’s professional. The NHS has 1.3 million staff. They are often highly skilled professional people who do an amazing job. Not having decent branding can make the operation look a bit amateurish, to be honest. I think the people who work in the NHS deserve better.

It would be wrong to think the NHS is unique in needing to talk about the benefit of good communications. If you work in the public sector you need to tackle that question too. And make sure people in your organisation know why you do what you do.


Picture credit:  WP Paarz / Flickr