An arresting comment to make, particularly as the man in the jacket was HM Government’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher.
The comment was made – and a whole host of others – at the tail end of a fascinating two day event in Jordan hosted by the Foreign Office for their Middle East and North Africa comms staff.
A week later and it’s a comment that keeps rattling around.
We need to communicate more like insurgents. What does that mean?
It could mean a whole host of things. To nail the obvious, it’s not about communicating beheadings. To me, it’s more about having an overall framework to work in and allowing people on the ground to be flexible, creative and agile. What I took was that it was about being not hemmed in by procedure. It’s about creating sharable content that is going to be shared. It’s seeing what works in the field and replicating it.
Here’s a second arresting comment from the event that keeps re-occuring.
“Al-Qaida’s leaders view communications as 90 percent of the struggle.”
Think for a minute of that group and what do you see?
Ossama bin Laden in a fuzzy vhs video?
The Twin Towers?
Both are powerful images which frame the first 14 years of the 21st century.
They are communications.
They were framed by communications people.
The Ambassador is of course right. Sometimes we can be too hemmed in by process to think agile, creative, sharable and flexible.
To have such a green light from the top is a gift to cherish.
Sometimes the play book comes not from the institution or the old ways of doing things. It comes from unexpected quarters and what your enemy does.
It also poses the question that if communications is 90 per cent of the issue then are you doing enough? More importantly, have you got the support to do enough?
Spanish poet Baltasar Gracian said that a wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends.
So, how can you learn from your enemies?
Magic bullet https://www.flickr.com/photos/45175402@N00/51470257/
We think this will work for comms and PR people but we think this will also be valuable for people who are working in your organisation on projects big and small that need communicating.
We could just give you a list of speakers but want to tell you about how this came about.
We had a conversation with someone a while back about big public sector projects and what separates the good ones from the bad.
As we talked we pictured a very real scenario and we came up with two options to choose from.
First, the scenario… part of your organisation has a great idea that could change how something is done, save money and lead to a better service.
What could go wrong?
Well, here are the options…
Option one: Project team don’t really bother with the comms until the end because they’re too busy and anyway, they don’t see the point. The comms team get left in the dark by the project team until the end… and the idea fails. “Clearly, it was the comms team,” the project team mutter. “There was nothing wrong with our idea. That was brilliant.”
“If only they’de spoken to us earlier,” the comms team mutter back.
Result: failure, unhappy project team, unhappy comms team and an angry chief executive.
Option two: Project team sit down with the comms team from the start. They shape a comms plan that they both know will work. There’s a project objective. There’s a comms objective that’s identical. There’s something to measure to know if the comms is working. The idea gets well communicated by the comms team. It’s a success.
“Hooray,” say the project team. “Our idea that we had in a room with six people in it has become a success amongst thousands,” say the project team.
Result: happy project team, happy comms team, success and a happy chief executive.
Of course, we’d all choose the second scenario, wouldn’t we?
The thing is, life is not like that, and we can all reel off a long list of times when it hasn’t and fewer times when it has.
What you’ll get out of #commsforchange14
So, at the end of our conversation we grew convinced of the need to put on an event that would set out the reasons for getting the project team and the comms team together early to make the thing a success.
We wanted comms people and project people speaking to share how they did it.
We wanted comms people to be fired up to go back and knock on the doors of big project people so they could get involved to help make a difference.
We wanted the event to be partly traditional, with speakers and slides so the success stories could be articulated and you’d know what you’d get.
But we wanted an unconference element in the afternoon because we’ve run them before at commscamp and for LGComms and with PSCSF and we know they will work. This sees that part of the agenda drawn-up based on what the people in the room wanted to talk about. Maybe there were lessons to be shared.
We wanted an event that showed why getting comms involved early and them being on the top table will help the organisation.
Of course, the great thing about doing comms2point0 is being able to turn a conversation and an idea into reality and with the excellent Nick Hill of Public Sector Customer Services Forum we’ve done just that andon Wednesday September 24 at the Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham #commsforchange will become a reality.
Who will be speaking?
There’s a range of hand picked people for you here:
John McPherson, Internal Communications Manager, Leeds City Council
Iain Patterson, Chief Technology Officer, DVLA
Adrian Capon, Senior Communications Manager, Yorkshire Housing (TBC)
Dan Slee, Co-founder, comms2point0
Darren Caveney, Co-founder, comms2point0
You can find more out about the event on Wednesday September 24 at the Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Birmingham by clicking the link here.
I’ve blogged about the need to be the grit in the oyster in comms and PR and to the need challenge.
That scheme the chief executive has? It’s going to fail and you need to diplomatically warn them.
That elected member who demands a press release? It’s down to you to tell them that won’t work.
Unless you do you are nothing more than a glorified shorthand typist.
Here’s one way you can challenge… by be an annoying three-year-old.
Or rather, adopt the questioning strategy of a small child who is asking questions because they are just plain nosey.
If you are a parent you’ve been there. Picture the scene in a super market right now somewhere in the world.
‘It’s a tin of beans, Jimmy.’
‘Why do we have tins of beans?’
‘So the food doesn’t go off.’
And there we have an explanation to Jimmy of food storage, freshness and the degrading process that makes food dangerous to eat.
Small children have got a brilliant quality of cutting through the crap.
A couple of times recently in a training session I’ve thought of the two-year-old interrogation strategy.
We’re doing a ‘thing’. It’s great.
Because it’s a good idea.
Because if we give people some basic information it reduces the chance of them coming back with an even worse problem.
Will that cost you money?
Yes, lots, about £10,000 a time.
How many could we stop coming back with a worse problem?
So, the ‘thing’ moves from being a good thing to a thing that is going to tangibly improve lives… and tangibly save money.
That’s win and win.
It’s also the beginnings of your evaluation because as we know, it’s not the column inches or the tweets but what people have done as a result.
‘Hey, chief executive, we’ve just communicated to a load of people and 100 have gone away with information that could stop them costing us £10,000 each.’
Does that sound better?
So, shouldn’t you be more of a three-year-old?
It was Paul Willis of Leeds Metropolitan University who I first hear use the phrase.
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?
Well, it’s had a great innings but can we now finally bury the idea that using social media ad hoc in an organisation is going to change the world?
But what great days we did have.
We had a mantra of JFDI in local government – just flipping do it – and we did things under the rader without permission.We would chuck up a Facebook page knowing that IT didn’t know what it was so they couldn’t block it.
We could tweet election results without too much interference, snigger behind our hands and we could push the envelope.
But those days are over. We learned lots but no, we didn’t take over the world even though it felt as though we would. Today, many public sector teams have been cut back too far to have space to innovate. Even more worryingly, teams haven’t found a way to tackle the big issues that really matter to make a difference. They haven’t found a way to get the resources to do so either.
Sure, the trojan mouse idea of testing out four or five ideas to see where it’ll take you is one I enthusiastically believe in to help you experiment and see what works. But to really make a difference bright communications people need to take all that experience and find out what is keeping senior people awake at night. Then go hell for leather to tackle that, that and only that. But make sure the senior people know exactly what you are doing by reporting back using every means neccesary. Infographics are particularly good. Make yourself a sandwich board if you have to but just flipping do it.
Here’s a few ideas to help you…
Are you helping senior people sleep at night?
Here’s an exercise I came across during the LGComms Future Leaders programme at a session at Leeds Metropolitan University with Anne Gregory and Paul Willis. It was the best piece of training I had in the eight years I spent in local government and I suggest you do this quick exercise.
- Get a piece of paper and draw a blob in the middle.
- Think of six people you do most of your work for in your organisation and write their names on the paper… the more important they are the closer to the blob you can write their name.
- Write down some things – let’s say six things – that keep those six people awake at night.
- Ask yourself, are you really spending time with the really key people?
- Ask yourself, are you really doing things to help the really key people sleep at night?
My own conclusion to doing this exercise was that I wasn’t really tackling the issues that matter for the people that matter and I’ll bet you a slice of Victoria sponge that you aren’t either.
The goal of the bright communications team should not be vague ‘reputation’ or ‘awareness’. It is to prove in pounds, shillings and pence if needs be the value of the team before it is too late. It’s why I’ve long been convinced that channel shift and customer service are things that comms teams need to be closely involved with.
So how can we help tackle the issues that keep senior people awake?
If I had a pound for every time someone told me the words: ‘What we need is a comms plan,’ I’d have been rich. What they meant was they wanted you to tick a box for them. What they really wanted was to outsource the responsibility to you when we all know to be effective it should be a joint thing.
What you really need is a comms plan agreed jointly with the senior people around a table. This can take many forms but they need to have the following:
- Where they are now.
- Where they want to go.
- Something measurable and tangiable to show when they’ve got there.
- Who they want to talk to and how they can do it.
- Some ideas of resources.
- Some idea of evaluation.
Some of what’s in your plan will be traditional comms and some will be digital. You’ll have a mix of both and you’ll be working to make a difference to your organisation for the people who are going to be making big budget decisions in the not too distant future.
If yuo get this right your bosses’ boss will sleep at night.
And you won’t be sleepwalking towards a cliff either
By the way, I’m now available to help you with all of this and would love to do so. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org and @danslee on Twitter.
Creative commons credits
We will awake https://www.flickr.com/photos/25028863@N00/5612074901/