It was probably the most fascinating, fun and untaxing job I’ve got on my LinkedIn profile.
The request to serve on it came out of the blue. A phone call asking if I’d like to. I would? That’s great the story was going online later that morning.
As a former journalist who cares passionately about the public sector this appealed to me. My job? Occasional meetings in London as part of a panel of half a dozen or so and the bouncing of ideas.
There’s no question that The Guardian take coverage of the public sector seriously. Jane Dudman and her team have grown that part of the newspaper. If there is an issue you think should be tackled you really should get in touch with her.
What did I learn now my 12-months is at an end?
That broadly speaking everyone is facing a difficult landscape in the public sector.
That The Guardian have very funky offices and serve good coffee.
That from an editorial point of view, one good, well written piece will attract more traffic than lots of not that great pieces.
That an online news platform needs to keep an eye on the analytics but not be slavishly driven by them. The right numbers work for the Public Leaders network rather than buzzfeed list numbers for the sake of it.
That Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, is as engaging in real life as he is when interviewed on the radio. But I’ll never understand how he cycles around the streets of London.
That editorial ideas in a web-focused newsroom are as much around content as they are about ‘stories’ and word counts.
That stories around how to cope with the stress of public sector life are probably more engaging than a story about who has succeeded who and who loves working where.
So, it all boils down still, despite the internet and everything, the old maxim Iearned early as a junior reporter that news is people and still is. Which is oddly reassuring.
Here’s a look at last year and what I got right and wrong.
What did I get right?
Comms teams overall have got smaller although a minority have grown. A survey comms2point0 ran for LGComms showed 57 per cent working in teams that have shrunk since 2008. Anecdotally, there have been fewer heads of comms as the duties are shared for cost saving. Better evaluation remains to be needed. Local government comms has become become the poor relation of public sector PR. It looks on with envy at others’ budgets. Digital comms has continued to go mainstream but there is lipservice to it. Many teams have been outsripped by the pace of change.
Anecdotally, poor internal comms remains.
What did I get wrong?
Digital comms has not stepped-up a gear from simply tweeting press releases to tackling the really thorny problems. That’s a source of real worry. Elsewhere, social media remains a frontline task but the pace of change here has slowed. There was no major emergency where social media shone.
Too early to say?
Comms teams still need content creators although this hasn’t happened. There will be more shared comms teams. People will look at how this can work across a geographical area and also between authorities.
So here are 11 more for 2015
Some councils will no longer have a meaningful comms function. Cut to the bone, they will do little more than answer the phone and answer media queries.
Social media will stall. After early innovation, the time and space to experiment as part of the day job has gone. The door has closed. Twitter and Facebook will be it.
New platforms continue to go untouched. As new platforms grow and develop like SnapChat, Instagram and WhatsApp there will be no capacity to experiment with them leading to a section of the population disenfranchised.
Evaluation will become a case of do or die. With budgets being cut, the comms team needs to justify what it does before it is cut. Unless they can look finance in the eye and demonstrate why they should live they will go.
People who bang the table and say ‘no’ will stand a chance. Those who don’t won’t. There has never been a more important time to say ‘no’to meaningless fire-and-forget blunderbus comms. But this argument needs to be one had strategically as budgets tighten. Comms teams can deliver real change at a time of problems. But they need to fight their corner.
There will be fewer press releases written for fewer newspapers. An easy one. At some point someone will notice and ask what the point of comms teams are. The window where people can get their story straight is about to end.
It will get more fractured. Content tailored for those keen on one country park or a care home needs to be created and be more sharable. This is where comms teams can help and enable service areas.
Video gets more important. But the skills need to be learned.
Social media accounts need to be reviewed and closed. That arts centre that played their face for a Twitter account and then updated it three months ago? It needs to be taken down. There is too much bad digital in local government.
Customer services, social media and comms need to become best friends. At present, this is happening sporadically. This needs to be hapening everywhere… and six months ago.
Facebook pages will become pointless unless supported by a budget for ads. This is the reality which many are struggling to catch-up with.
Creative commons credit
Mobile and cutting: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48503330@N08/5871393799/
A what? And how much?
This is the true cost of councils being forced by law to pay over-the-odds for public notices tucked away in the back of printed newspapers being read by fewer and fewer people.
It is a throwback, a misguided sweetener to the newspaper industry and comes from the days when the local paper was the only show in town.
What are public notices? They’re announcements of where double yellow lines are to be painted, who has applied for a taxi licence and an application from a pub licensee for a late night opening licence. It is the bread and butter of a community.
Should they be communicated and publicised? Absolutely.
Can it be done without swingeing annual charges? Yes.
Being forced over a barrel to pay to communicate through local newspapers is the last throwback to a world before the internet.
It is wrong.
It flies in the face of government policy.
It is print-by-default in a digital-by-default world.
It must stop.
This is why and here is how we can do it.
The Government department in charge of local government has asked for ‘councils, newspapers and others’ to take a new look at how public notices are distributed. Any solution is dead in the water unless councils are stopped being made to pay for expensive print notices – or even pay for digital ones.
Really? Councils have to communicate like this?
Yes. Bonkers, isn’t it? There is a raft of legislation that mean that councils must take out newspaper ads before they take certain decisions. The aim is to publicise and encourage people to come forward with comment and opinion. Getting people involved is absolutely a good thing. The more people are informed and take part in the decision making process the better.
Her Majesty’s Government’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher has written eloquently about this being the digital century. I’d agree with that. In the digital century people find out about what is happening through networks and the web. Not through small ads. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time you bought a local newspaper? When was the last public notice you read? And can you remember what it was about?
What is the state of local government?
In short, perilous. Every penny counts and in Town Halls up and down the land small sums of money and budget decisions are being argued about. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts 1.1 million job losses by 2019 across the public sector. Birmingham City Council Leader Albert Bore has talked of the ‘end of local government as we know it.’ Government funding cuts to local government are touching 40 per cent and spending power is falling by 25 per cent according to a critical National Audit Office report which observes that the Department for Communities and Local Government doesn’t understand the impact of cuts.
In other words, cuts are being made and every penny counts. Which is why being forced to spend on newspaper ads is wrong.
But how much do the public notices cost?
Think tank Local Government Information Unit – LGiU – calculated that in 2012 public notices in newspapers were costing £67.85 million. Public Notices: The Case for Radical Reform: Part One’ shows that this is on average £181,000 per authority. In some cases, the report says, public notices incurred a rate three times as expensive as normal display ads and reaching over £20 per column centimetre in some publications.
“This is a lot of money, especially when councils are trying desperately to !nd savings. It is also an outdated system that has been left behind by technological advances. The current system provides no feedback to councils and ignores the fact that the audience is moving away from printed newspapers, to a varied digital media landscape.
“LGiU believes change is necessary in the following areas: councils should be free to decide where is best to place public notices, more work needs to be done to de-jargon and standardise the content of public notices, councils who do publish notices online should o”er users an email subscription service, allowing users to opt-in to receive public notices, hyperlocal, neighbourhood websites, as well as traditional local media news sites, should be encouraged to carry feeds of council notices the government should look into the possibility of supporting the development of a central online portal for publishing public notices.
- Public Notices: The Case for Radical Reform: Part One. LGiU.
But who reads newspapers these days?
Some people do. Ofcom in their annual Communications Market Report says that adults in the UK spend 15 minutes a day reading newspapers or looking at newspaper sites. For some people, they keep them informed. But these figures are dropping.
In comparison, adults spend 36 minutes on websites or apps and 26 minutes on social media. The breakdown is here.
In Walsall, where I worked in local government communications, the local paper the Express & Star in 2013 sold around 10,000 copies of the Walsall edition in a borough of more than 269,323 people. The newspaper industry says that between two and five people read each paid-for copy. For the sake of argument, if that was three people per copy that means 11 per cent of Walsall get to see the public notice. That’s if everyone reads the paper from cover-to-cover. That’s not a reason for paid-for public notices in print.
The figures are replicated across the country according to database JICREG with 67,759 copies of the Birmingham Mail on a Friday in a city of 2,440,986. In Greater Manchester, this is 126,293 on their busiest day for the Manchester Evening News in a population of 2,685,400. In Glasgow, the Evening Times reaches 33,397 in a population 2,850,000. The online readership of these three newspapers will be far higher but figures are difficult to obtain. None of these newspapers show public notices when you enter the search term in their websites.
I’ve heard the anachronistic argument that somehow only newspapers can be trusted to publish public notice content. Somehow the act of handing over 200 words and paying through the nose for it to appear in the back of newspapers that few people in a borough read afford some undefined magic propertiies. This is, of course, balderdash.
The days when newspapers are the only means of communicating have ended. They are one of a number of channels. The requirement to take out public notice ads with them should end. Sometimes, they’ll be the best way of communicating. But that decision should be de-centralised down to the local authority.
Four ways public notices breach Government advice
It wouldn’t be so bad if the current millstone doesn’t go against Government advice. But it does.
The 2011 DCLG Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity is the legal yardstick. Here’s what it says:
It says publicity should be cost effective – that’s section 2. Print notices are not.
It says that they should be ‘value for money.’ Print notices are not. That’s section 10.
It says that advertising shouldn’t subsidise voluntary, public or commercial organisations. That’s section 13. That’s what print notices do.
It also says that public relations guidance should be sought before embarking on expensive publicity. That’s section 14.
And a few other ways it breaches Government policy
The Cabinet Office published the excellent and aspirational Government Digital Strategy in 2013.
“In just over 2 decades the internet has become a huge part of our everyday lives. Today 82 per cent of adults in the UK are online. Completing transactions online has become second nature, with more and more of us going online for shopping, banking, information and entertainment. Why? Because online services tend to be quicker, more convenient and cheaper to use.
“But until now government services have stood out by their failure to keep up with the digital age. While many sectors now deliver their services online as a matter of course, our use of digital public services lags far behind that of the private sector.
“Government has got to do better. This Digital Efficiency Report suggests that transactions online can already be 20 times cheaper than by phone, 30 times cheaper than postal and as much as 50 times cheaper than face-to-face .
“By going digital by default, the government could save between £1.7 and £1.8 billion each year. But this isn’t just about saving money – the public increasingly expects to access services quickly and conveniently, at times and in ways that suit them. We will not leave anyone behind but we will use digital technology to drive better services and lower costs.”
Frances Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office
This is all excellent stuff. It articulates exactly why local government should be digital by default and not be held back by the anachronism of print public notices.
And bloggers too…?
Bloggers are able to attend public meetings and video, blog and post realtime updates. This is a good thing and opens up the whole often very dull decision making process to public scrutiny. This is an excellent step from DCLG. They hailed it as: ‘a boost for local democracy and the independent free press, councils in England were brought into the 21st century.’
That freedom should be opened up for bloggers too. How can they carry data from public notices alongside the mainstream Press?
So what would all this look like?
Information can be communicated effectively using the web. It could be added to a council page. An RSS feed or a widget could allow others – newspapers, broadcasters or bloggers – provided free-of-charge to carry the feed on their own pages.
Of course, if there was a pressing business case for print advertising this could happen too. But that’s the thing. Rather than being a print-by-default position it should be one of several channels.
This already happens in two places. Firstly, the TellmeScotland website aggregates and distributes public notice alerts through text and email.
Secondly, in ice and snow a more geurilla approach sees gritting updates aggregated and distributed in the West Midlands. On Twiitter, the hashtag #wmgrit is used by authorities in the region. A coveritLive widget here can be re-used on websites.
So what next?
There are bright people in local government who can produce the answer. Some of them are in the localgovdigital group although relying on a handful of volunteers in the sector is not the answer.
Maybe this is for larger bodies to support with time and resources. Communications teams should take the lead and work with web to come up with solutions. Maybe, that’s SOCITM, LGComms, the LGA and others coming together with local government officers.
Whatever the future. in 2015, the current situation which sees an enforced subsidy through paid-for ads to wealthy newspaper groups should not form part of the answer.
So, how do we do this?
So now ‘Rotherham’ is doomed to enter the lexican of towns long shadowed by failure.
It is a town where 1,400 girls were abused between 1997 and 2013 and where a report pointed the finger of blame for failing to do enough to stop the attacks at Rotherham Borough Council and South Yorkshire Police.
Times journalist Andrew Norfolk who helped expose the story welcomed the council’s recent openness but warned the council’s successors not to be ‘tempted to chase leaks rather than act on their failings.’
This warning isn’t small town politics. It should be taken seriously.
It should echo through the corridors of town halls, police stations and hospitals across the land and the first people to stop and listen should be public sector communicators.
There will always be more bad news to emerge from somewhere in the public sector. It could be a council, a police force or a hospital. That’s life.
Let’s not forget every day lives are saved and changed by the public sector but when things go wrong the public sector is often damned more loudly than the perpetrators of the crime.
So what should public sector PR people do? Two things. First, the strategy.
In the past the default comms strategy was about painting the best picture possible. At worst this was ‘spin’ and at best it was telling the positive stories residents would often not be told of. There were stories of success to tell and investment. There still are in some cases. But after eight years of working in a local government comms team I’m convinced there needs to be a realism and honesty in public sector communications. There needs to be the ‘sorry, we won’t be able to do that anymore and here are the reasons.’
There also needs to be the ‘actually, there’s a problem here and we want to take a look at it. Will you bear with us and help us fix it?’
The feeling is that Rotherham Borough Council by ordering the report and by the resignation of the Leader is now starting to acknowledge the problem.
The strategy for public sector communications should be to listen, to be human and to accept when things go wrong. Do this and you won’t be chasing leaks and you’ll be acting upon failings.
One story from my own life illustrates the culture shift of what is needed. I’m from Stafford. Stafford is where the Mid-Staffs Hospital scandal was centred where hundreds of people suffered because of poor care. When the news broke my Facebook timeline was filled by personal stories shared by people I grew up with that floored me. The mother who had died in pain. The grandfather who was wrongly sent home and never recovered.
A few weeks later I heard two NHS comms people from another area talk dismissively about ‘whinging patients.’ ‘It would have been better,’ I challenged them ‘if some of the whinging patients at Stafford had been listened to. Some of them may still be alive.’
Of course, they accepted that. But back in their office surrounded by the culture of fear and blame I have to ask myself, would they? I’m convinced that it is the role of comms – especially in the public sector- to challenge and be the grit in the oyster. Being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description in theory. It in practice, though, I know of at least a couple of people whose careers were blighted by objecting too strongly.
One was asked to leave when concerns were raised about an appointment. Another fell foul of their chief executive and had to leave. This all points to the age old concern of public sector communicators to be near the ‘top table.’ In other words close to those making the decisions. A comms professional close to the top table may get sight of the problem earlier and can advise. They also find their words carry more weight.
Of course, it’s fine to challenge if the PR officer is in a position to know what is going on at all times. There are 700 services provided by local government alone. There is no way a comms team can be across all of these areas. Often, when I worked in local government comms office door would fly open after 5pm with an 11th hour request for some help on an issue that was about to hit the papers. My worry is that at this point it is too late.
To learn the lesson of Rotherham public sector communicators should be mindful that glossing away the problem won’t solve the problem. Honesty and openness may be a start.
Creative commns credit