JARGON BUST: Remember to speak plain English and 21 other pieces of advice for people starting off in public sector comms


Have you ever wondered what piece of advice you’d share with someone starting in public sector comms?

Some of the finest minds from Police, fire, central government, NHS, ambulance and local government put their thinking caps on.

A thread in the wonderful Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group chipped in with some pearls of wisdom.

Great if you are looking to start in the public sector but also handy if you’ve been around for a while.

Being able to write is just the start

“Good writing skills are good to arrive with – but more important is attitude: an interest in people and the services your organisation delivers, proactivity and determination are essentials.” – Bridget Aherne.

“Keep asking questions. Mostly why?” – Esme Yuill.

“Find a few folk in your working life where when faced with a difficult situation ask yourself what would they do right now. What would they say? How would they react?” – David Grindlay.

Savour your successes

“At times it’ll feel like you can’t please anyone. Save every thank you and remember that those actually represent the silent majority who do appreciate your organisation and what you do.” – Lisa Potter.

Listen in jargon but speak in plain English

“To avoid the jargon, first you must learn the jargon. Sometimes you need to make a real effort to understand what internal projects and messages mean, so that you can translate that into something that makes sense to the public.” – Paul Darrigan.
“Maintain an inability to understand council speak. You’re the filter between the complex bureaucracy of the council and the real world that everyone else inhabits. Keep it that way.” – Richard Wells.

You’ll need pen and paper always

“Don’t go anywhere without a notebook and pen.” – Matt Barnard.

You are serving the public

“You chose to serve the public and make a difference to people’s lives when they need you the most. Don’t ever forget that.” – Kate Pratt.
“Always remember that you and your family use public sector services – put your *insert family member here* in front of the content, controversy, idea or emergency to help figure out angles, value and the ‘so what?’ factor.” – Joy Hale

Change is constant

“In our case the only certain thing you will experience is uncertainty.” – Kathryn Hall
Never assume anything.” – Eilidh Murray
“Suspend disbelief so nothing will surprise you.” – Heather Turner
“Perspective, perspective, perspective. It could always be worse.” – Joanna Richardson

Don’t jump in immediately, take your time

“Spend a lot of time listening at first so you get to understand what makes the project/team/organisation tick. And there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” – Tim Ward.
“Hold back to learn about the Politics with a big P and the politics with a little p before you plough in. Find the people who really get things done and make allies of them – look behind the job titles.” – Kelly Quigley-Hicks.
“Give clear and honest advice.” – Nick Price-Thompson

The personal skills you’ll need

“Patience is a virtue.” – Ian Mountford
“You are not in control of other people, but you are in control of your attitude. Is your colleague annoying, or are you just taking them the wrong way? Are they nit-picking at your work to annoy you, or are they detail-oriented and conscientious? – Suzanna Arnold-Fry 
“Respect yourself as a professional even if some areas of the organisation don’t.”  – Philip Harrison
“Never lose your sense of humour. You will need it.” – Natasha Agombar
“Be nice. Good relationships matter and no one wants to work with an arse.” – Kathie Litchfield.
If you can’t embrace ambiguity and love it like your best friend, public sector comms is not for you. – Glyn Walters.

Know you are part of a network

“Use your professional organisation and peers for support and to keep up with best practice and to test ideas – it will strengthen your confidence in your professional abilities. This is important because championing good comms often involves some pushing back under pressure, which takes nerve and being sure of your ground.” – Claire Robson

FACING FACEBOOK: Nine practical steps to dealing with day-to-day shouting online


On my travels, I’m often asked about how to deal with shouting online.

It’s rarely the first question, as people want the skinny on best practice and approaches but it’s always there not far from the surface.

That’s fine. I get that. I’ve done time in the chair and it can be difficult and waring.

You put more of yourself into a social media channel than you do a poster or a press release but its the elephant in the room.

Most of the time you’ll be fine but from time you’ll need to reach for other strategies to help you and the team.

People who run public sector social media accounts need a break

I came across a council who were doing Facebook amazingly well.

That’s great, I said. How do you do it?

“It’s me. All me,” the comms person admitted. “I know I should share but I hate it when I see something that hasn’t been done quite right and I can’t help but log on to correct it.”

It’s understandable but people need a break. They need time away from serial snark posters.

To use a cricketing metaphor, rotate the strike. Let others face the fast bowler.

Here are eight strategies I’ve found useful in my time being an admin of a public social channel.

Have a social media acceptable use policy

Okay, don’t call it a policy, call it an agreement or terms of use.

Say what you’ll do for people who’ll use social media and what you expect in return.

So, if people don’t shout, swear or abuse people then you’ll try and respond in 24-hours.

When people come through the front door of the First Stop Shop customer services already have an acceptable use policy. No shouting. No swearing. That kind of thing. Same if people ring up. Use that as the basis. Link to it from your social channels.

Without these rules you can’t effectively enforce a ‘no swearing at the staff’ ban.

Upload a list of banned terms to the Facebook page. That should stop people from telling you you’re f***ing s**t at half ten at night. If you haven’t got that, how the f**k can you close down the abuse?

Mute is better than blocking

Most people are fine when they realise a real person is monitoring the channel.

For those that aren’t don’t block. Use the mute button on Twitter or the same functionality on Facebook. They don’t know you’re not listening to them but your insulated against potential abuse.

People are entitled to an opinion

I was born and grew up in Stafford where my local hospital was Mid Staffs General. The Francis report shone a light on early deaths although the 1,200 deaths widely quoted has since been discredited. Public servants are human. They are trying to do the best they can. They are constantly looking to improve. Taking feedback is an important function. Just because someone doesn’t agree with your press release doesn’t mean they are wrong. Find a way to pass through feedback to the opinion makers.

Take it offline

A detailed blow-by-blow of an issue is probably best resolved offline than online.

Be human

This probably shouldn’t come as a revolutionary act but if you adopt a human tone people in my experience are less likely to shout and you’ll get more sympathy if they do.

Be clear when the account is monitored

If you’re keeping an eye from 9am to 5pm then say so in the account bio.

Be mindful that in a world of 24-hour banking there is an expectation that the response will be quicker.  Just be clear when you can reply and when you can’t.

Count to 10 and then maybe 100

Don’t react to trolling with anger. It’s never the right answer. Feel free to count to 10, make yourself a cup of tea and maybe run it past a  colleague. You’ll feel better.

If its serious then report it

Serious abuse such as a threat of violence really should be reported. To your legal team but also to the police. Don’t mess about. Draw a line in the sand.

I deliver training on a range of subjects including VITAL FACEBOOK SKILLS. To find a workshop near you click here or drop a line to dan@danslee.co.uk. 








WEB THINKING: Is it right to say ‘social media isn’t broken, people are?’


It’s pretty clear that social media hasn’t been in a good place for a while.

Then again society hasn’t been in a good place either.

One isn’t to blame entirely for the other’s headaches.

But both nag at each other like an old couple on a never ending circular coach journey who’ve used their last paracetamol but can’t remember who is to blame.

In Paul Sutton’s excellent Digital Download podcast this week he chatted to Euan Semple about an earlier comment that social media isn’t broken, people are.

What they had to say was fascinating. Yes, there needed to be some online regulation, Euan said. But the problems in the world are caused by people not technology, he says:

In some ways the internet is a mirror and its showing our true natures and the bits we don’t like have been more obviously evident than they have been in the past perhaps. That’s an opportunity for us to deal with it… and to accept that we need to do better.

Just to blame someone else or to expect social media companies to tidy it up and make it go away seems to me to be a missed opportunity. It’s our human characteristics that we are seeing and should be dealing with rather than just technology.

But what legislation?

Euan makes the point that there’s enough legislation. He may be right but there’s certainly not enough enforcing of that legislation. The imperious online abuse of MPs would show this to be true. Besides, he says, the ones demanding more legislation are often those that understand the internet the least. He’s broadly right on that. The US Congress’s grilling of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg is a case in point. So is the terrifying lack of understanding and regulation of AI.

What I think they’re talking about is a kind of change dilemma where change outstrips common understanding and effective regulation lags far behind.

A bit like this…


There is a moral obligation if you’re using technology to do better, Paul and Euan say.

But I’m really not remotely convinced at all that people will pick-up that obligation.

One fringe benefits of carrying out Facebook group research over the past three years is joining scores of Facebook groups myself. I’ll stick around to see how they behave. Like an online petri dish conversations will drop into my timeline. Often, unless there’s a good Facebook group admin the group can quickly degenerate into abuse. Why? Because there’s often no consequences and someone decides they can’t be arsed to be nice. It comes back to frameworks and laws, no matter how gentle.

I don’t buy entirely the idea that there’s a volume control on mob rule, especially if you’re public sector. An arm of government can’t block out views they find problematic. Echo-chambers are not a great idea. If you live in them you could wake-up puzzled that the country has just voted to leave. Or be surprised that those people in the wilds of Montana you’ve ignored have armed themselves with guns and some pretty wild ideas.

For me, the future is in the past. I’d love to know how the advent of the printing press went down and how long it took to be seen as a force for good.

William Tyndale, who revolutionised the printed Bible but was burnt at the stake for it may have a view on this.

You can listen to the podcast here. You can find Euan Semple here and Paul Sutton here.

BREATHE: Being a communicator in a time of abuse means being a bit Buddhist like Pete from Hartlepool


When I was training to be a journalist I met one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. Pete was his name.

Six foot tall, wiry and ginger he was six years older than the rest of us he was filled with explosive energy.

He’d laugh but we soon  learned to be wary of his fiery temper. In the pubs around Darlington where we’d drink in he was a asset. Coming from the Headland in Hartlepool he knew how to handle himself.

One day Pete told us something surprising.

“I’m not going to the pub lads,” he announced. “I’m off home to read ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead.'”

And he wasn’t joking.

Being a Buddhist and a Hartlepudlian who had meditated in the mid-1990s it was quite something.

It made me explore and I found in Buddhism several tenets, including:




In life, I keep coming back to these three lines.

This week, I was reminded of them again after debate in Parliament and the online reaction.

As a communicator, this faces all of us with a challenge.

Should you shout louder?

Googling this morning I came across a passage that hits the nail on the head.

Right Speech is not just a personal virtue. Modern communication technology has given us a culture that seems saturated with “wrong” speech — communication that is hateful and deceptive. This engenders disharmony, acrimony, and physical violence.

We tend to think of violent, hateful words as being less wrong than violent action. We may even think of violent words as being justified at times. But violent words, thoughts, and actions arise together and support each other. The same can be said for peaceful words, thoughts, and actions.

The historical Buddha taught that Right Speech had four parts abstain from false speech; do not tell lies or deceive. Do not slander others or speak in a way that causes disharmony or enmity. Abstain from rude, impolite, or abusive language. Do not indulge in idle talk or gossip.

Communicating through the noise and doing the right thing

If you’re working with social media you’ll have seen the measured comment from the organisation be drowned out by abuse and threat.

The temptation is to be silenced or shout louder back but where, lets face it, will that get us in the long run?

The public sector communicator needs to be measured for your organisation or cause but above all for yourself.

You need to go high when they go low.

You need to speak truth to power if needs be to steer away from the temptation to be abusive.

You need to clear your timeline of sources of abuse.

You need to make sure you – and your team – are not exposed too long to the online shit.

You really don’t have to be a practising Buddhist to take something from right thought, right speech, right deed.

The bottom line is that you just need to do the right thing in your advice and in your actions.

If you need to know how to handle online abuse and be up to speed on some really good guidance look here.

If you need to look after yourself and your team and look after their wellbeing with practical steps in this Charity Comms guidance look here.

Now breathe.

Picture credit: istock.









LONG READ: What links PR awards, Greta Thunberg’s climate strike, going carbon neutral and a crowdfunder you can get behind?


It’s awards season and a chance for the great and the good to nominate themselves for awards.

Sure, there’s a place for awards and I helped co-found some. Good luck to you if you’re entering and a genuine ‘well done’ if you are successful.

But the one campaign that may end up making the most difference won’t win a PR award because there’s no agency or team behind it.

The campaign in question was started by Greta Thunberg  who protested alone with a sign outside the Swedish parliament. Her idea was simple: ‘We’re not doing enough to save the planet. ‘ Her call to action is to act. Her output is simply if humanity act fast enough to stop irreversible climate change. Simple. And people bought into it. Most of all school children.

Her ideas initially spread by her social media and then to local journalists and then further afield. It’s a pattern exactly predicted back when there was a feeling social media could save the world.

The attacks from grown-ups with things to lose have been predictable. The underlying tone… Who is this teenager telling us what to do? But such pony and trap attacks have felt dated and serve to reinforce the lines between the heroes and villains.

Seeing the campaign I couldn’t help recall some lines from the book ‘Trust Me PR is Dead‘ by Robert Philips:

“It is not about loudhailer broadcasting or ‘managing the message’ anymore. Shrill press releases are irrelevant in a world that sees through obfuscation and deceit. Building advocacy and activism from within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard.”

Aside from that, I can’t help but be impressed that a 15-year-old has called ‘bullshit’ on everyone older than her, every world government, convention, the entire PR industry and the whole of capitalism.

And then when she gets to the UN and is allowed to speak to the grown-ups she calls bullshit on them, too.

You can watch her four minute speech here:

There is some great work by government, NHS, police, fire, ambulance and council but none has been better than this Swedish teenager.

What changes can I make in how I work?

I’m human. I’m a Dad. I forget to take plastic bags to the supermarket of a weekend. I like the idea of saving the planet but I quite like chicken and driving to Ludlow for a day out with my family.

But I do spend a lot of time travelling across the country. Over the last 12-months or so I’ve been to Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Carlisle, Sunderland, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Middlesborough, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool, Bootle, Wilmslow, Cardiff, Birmingham, Stafford, Bristol, Exeter, St Austell, Plymouth, Southampton, London, Maidstone and Brighton. Sometimes on multiple occasions.

That’s a lot of miles.

So, here’s a pledge.

I will be carbon neutral in my work in 2019 and 2020 too.

But how?

Nat and Julia’s story

This is where Nat and Julia Higginbottom come into the story.

I first met the two of them maybe a decade ago. At first, they were names on Twitter who became names in real life at events and gatherings I was going to. They’ve been supportive of commscamp and other things and have lent help and support.

This year, after a lot of research and planning they decided to do something about the climate question.

They’ve moved home from Birmingham to become crofters on the isle of Lewis off the west coast of Scotland. There, this autumn they will plant 1,000 trees while working with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and repairing fences and other things.

They have bigger plans and they launched a crowdfunder to achieve this.


What changes can you make?

So, to help me be carbon neutral I’ve chipped in a chunk of money to Nat and Julia’s crowdfunder.

If you want to do something, absolutely re-cycle, re-use and all that. You can join me to help Nat and Julia’s crowdfunder before you scroll down.

What can you do?

As a communicator, you can speak truth to power.

You can also learn from the climate strike campaign. How can you enlist the help of real people in what you are trying to do?

And you can maybe put the money for your next awards entry fee somewhere greener, for one.

BEING WELL: An excellent new Charity Comms resource on wellbeing works well in the public sector too


Like buses you wait for one download for comms wellbeing and then suddenly two come along all at once.

A few weeks back the CIPR published handy guidance for how to avoid stress and burn-out while still doing an effective job.

Now along has come Charity Comms’ own contribution a well-thought through wellbeing guide collated by Kirstie Marrins.  You can find it here.

The subject is worth paying attention to. The last CIPR State of the profession report put 67 per cent of public sector people rating the stress they were under at an average of seven out of 10. That was higher than in-house private sector or not-for-profits.

The whole document is worth a read but here are four things that you could easily apply in the public sector.

Sharing the workload

As part of upskilling, we’re also prepared to get stuck into work that doesn’t naturally fall into our job roles – especially during crisis periods. There have been times where teams have supported each other to ease the workload and pressures of dealing with difficult content. For example, taking shifts to monitor social media channels in order to provide a break for colleagues.

I can recall a period of extreme weather when I worked for a council comms team which resulted in our old friend chaos on the road. The incoming messages about gritting were utterly relentless. On their own they were fine. But the weight of people complaining about their side road just got wearing. Sharing the workload in these circumstances was essential.

Practical task: Factor in training for other people and allow them to monitor and respond to social media during quiet times. Book it in. Don’t wait for it to be quiet.

Having a framework to respond

One good tip when handling tricky incoming queries the guidance suggests is having a framework. In other words, three stages to consider. For them, this is research, respond, review.

So, try and prepare for a tricky campaign by looking into the possible issues. Then before responding count to 10 and respond drawing on this research. The advice of taking a few moments to walk in their shoes is a really good one. Finally, review what you’ve done when things have calmed down.

The 1,200 things local government does makes this tricky but I think the approach can be replicated in the public sector.

When you respond, you’ll need to consider how to balance showing understanding, whilst also giving a response appropriate for your organisation.

You’ll need to balance offering support or information whilst also managing expectations on what you can realistically say. Drawing upon position statements and key messages can be helpful when handling issues, but this will need to avoid sounding too ‘corporate’.

Practical task: what would your framework look like?

Be your own cheerleader

There’s some good tips in the approach about your own resilience. Think about meditating, for example.

We can all be overly critical of ourselves. So the idea of celebrating something you’ve done well strikes a chord.

Be your own cheerleader.

In contrast to listening to your inner critic, being your own cheerleader involves talking to yourself regularly in a positive way. A key resilience building strategy, as identified by Dr Rick Hanson, is to champion yourself the moment after you’ve achieved something great. According to his research, this builds new neural pathways which over time lead to a greater sense of wellbeing and high self-esteem.

Practical task:  It wonder what each member of the team’s shining moment would be? And wouldn’t it be great if there was a way of celebrating the really small wins in the team? 

Talking about mental health

If there’s one part of the Charity Comms advice that really shines then its in the area of talking about mental health.

There’s been a stack of things written about ‘it’s okay not to be okay’ and the general landscape feels as though it is moving. But how to actually tackle the subject? Here the approach excels.  Importantly, the guidance can be deployed by colleagues just as much as line managers. In fact, in some ways there’s probably a greater value in members of the team raising the subject.

Often, it’s easier to talk side by side, rather than face-to-face as it feels more informal. You could suggest going for a walk outside the office so you’re walking side by side. Being in a neutral surrounding could help them to be more open to talking about mental health away from other colleagues.

There’s also advice on how to talk to a colleague returning after a period of mental health. Go look it up.

Picture credit: Jeppestown / Flickr  


TROLL HELP: There’s a new download to help combat targeted online abuse and it’s really good


When social media was still quite new I began to train staff on how to use it so they could talk to people direct.

Often there was a latent fear of something going wrong. That’s entirely understandable and if you are training people you need to understand this.

For years, I found this one-page flow chart was a really useful training aid. This is from 2009 and was drawn-up by Birmingham blogger Michael Grimes after he re-purposed a US military blogger engagement chart.



However, times move on.

Things can be a lot more organised and so the Centre for Countering Online Hate have published a really useful guide to combating online trolling. This is a much needed, well thought through lifeline that can sit behind glass in case of emergency.

You can find the report here.

The principle that people feel better if they have a piece of paper is timeless and this download is also really good. If you are helping councillors or senior people communicate you’ll find this really helpful.

What to do if you are trolled

The guide is really useful on what to do if you are trolled. Don’t reply.  Turn off notifications. Don’t complain you are being targeted.

The advice is also to block. I’d differ slightly and suggest that the mute button on Twitter does a similar job without the troll realising that you can’t hear them anymore. 

After the initial attack, report and record. Don’t suffer in silence. If you work for an organisation talk to your legal team.

Don’t confuse legitimate questioning with trolling

If you work for an organisation people will sometimes question what the organisation is doing. Sometimes they won’t always be happy. So long as they stay on the right side of civil I’d suggest that’s part of the deal.

To make a social media account work, you need to put heart and soul into it. Criticism online cuts a lot deeper than a letter of complaint. I know. I’ve been there.

Do have a social media policy

I’ve often talked about the need for a social media policy. That’s a kind of, here’s what we’ll do for you but also ‘here’s what we expect from you in return.’ Asking people not to be abusive, racist or sexist sets a minimum bar. It’s hard to justify blocking someone from your page if you don’t have rules to break. The City of York Council policy is a good one to look at. I’d be tempted to have that as embedded text rather than a pdf. I like this one from Bradford CCG NHS, too. Simple, clear and straightforward. Replicate them on your Facebook page, too.

Picture credit: Daniel Sancho / Flickr and the flowchart Michael Grimes / creative commons license.