Yet the 2015 General Election campaign provided a free masterclass in how to use medium.
For six weeks my inbox rattled with messages that made me smile, frown, and plain indifferent.
Now the polls have just closed as I’m writing this here are some feedback.
Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour emails arrived. Greens didn’t appear to have one and the SNP emails never arrived.
The winner of the email campaign as a recipient? From tone, engagement, wit and calls to action it was Labour. Hands down. And that’s an apolitical judgement, by the way. But of course, we don’t know the analytics, open rate and objectives.
In the last six days:
Liberal Democrat sent 6 – none on the final day.
Labour sent 14 – six on the final day.
Conservatives sent 9 – two on the final day.
How the Conservatives did…
In the last six days, emails from David Cameron (twice), Conservative Campaign HQ (twice), Boris Johnson, Samantha Cameron, Sajid Javid and William Hague.
On the last day, an email at 6.56am from David Cameron four minutes before the polls opened and at 1.20pm from Campaign HQ with a request to vote and share an embedded Facebook video from David Cameron that by polls close had 360,000 views.
The last week emails followed a formula of a direct personal greeting, a key message that reflected those shared by the campaign, an image and a request to share on Facebook and Twitter. Six parapgraphs and that’s about it. Short and to the point.
There was less emphasis on requests for funding with a £20 donate button as a last call to action.
Strength: Short and to the point, connected with the rest of the campaign with the aim of mobilising social media.
Weakness: A bit impersonal. Lacking in humour. You felt like a cog in a machine.
Best subject line: ‘About tomorrow, Dan…’
How Labour did…
In the last seven days, 14 and six on the last day. Messages from Ed Milliband as well as internal names such as national field director Patrick Hennegan, election campaign vice-chair Lucy Powell and Louise Magee from the fieldf team.
On the last day, 10.01pm a thank you for voting, 7.27pm a reminder to knock on doors, 5.09pm another appeal to get supporters out, 2.09pm an appeal for help in the constituency I live in, at 11.11am an image to share on social media saying ‘I’ve voted Labour: Share if you have too’ and 6.12am a request to get other Labour supporters to the poll.
In the last few days there were celebrity endorsements from Delia Smith, Steve Coogan and Ronnie O’Sullivan.
Fundraising was a key aim for the emails. There were calls to action
Strength: Varied content and messages from people within the party who you felt may have wrote them. Through the campaign there was wit and slightly leftfield messages that made you stop and double take. Frequency could have been an issue but didn’t feel like it. You had a clear idea that you could help on the ground and make a difference.
Overall, the campaign majored successfully on fundraising and messages had a direct example of what the money would be spent on.
Weakness: Just two messages from politicians and both written as emails. The video card could have been played better.
Best subject line: ‘What’s worse?’
How the Liberal Democrats did…
In the last seven days, nine emails and none on the final day. Three were from Paddy Ashdown, two from Liberal Democrats and one from Nick Clegg.
John Cleese and Hugh Grant were involved in fundraising dinner dates and a drive to raise £20,000 for the final week. Messages were chatty, had calls to action but didn’t reflect key messages. There was no content to share on social media.
Strength: Chatty and human. Some clear calls to action around fundraising.
Weakness: There was little suggestion of what the Lib Dems were standing for and no messages on the final day was a serious oversight.
Best subject line: I won dinner with John Cleese!
Some things to learn
1. Messages on the key day – polling day – are a no brainer really aren’t they? And they are better being timely with clear calls to do something. Like help. Or vote.
2. Fundraising appeals work when they have something specific in mind. Donate £20 for marginal seats in the last week because you’d hate it if you just missed out? Sure. A button to donate on its own? Hmmm.
3. Use a mix of names and unknown names. A famous politician wrote to me? Really? Pull the other one. There’s something very double glazing salesman about thinking they actually wrote that note. Yet, there is a need to see a direct message. A video and an appeal to share feels right.
4. This is internal comms. All the parties got this. They weren’t appealing to the may-be’s, they were galvanising the supporters.
5. A request to post something on social media works. In public, it would seem like begging for an RT. That’s desperate. It’s okay to ask a supporter to support.
6. Short emails work. Six paragraphs seemed to be a popular number. That’s not much more than six or a dozen sentences.
7. Intrigue with subject lines. Make people open them with something enticing.
Creative commons credit
Twelve months ago I posted that I was leaving local government to do more in the public sector.
I left Walsall Council to concentrate full-time on comms2point0. It felt like the right thing to do then and know it was the right thing to do now.
How has that first year gone? At times exhausting, exhilarating, jubilant, rewarding, frustrating, happy and lots else besides.
There’s an infographic we posted on comms2point0 recently about old careers and new careers. Work anywhere, anytime, with your own device and build your own ladders is the new way. That’s entirely what I’m doing. But it’s not all writing blog posts in Costa at 10am. It’s also been checking the bank account to hope that invoice has been paid. And waving off the family as they head for a day out while I sort out a deck of slides on a sunny summer Saturday afternoon.
But hey. I’m genuinely eternally grateful to everyone who has supported and backed me during this time. There’s a long list but most of all without question my comms2point0 oppo Darren Caveney who has been helpful and accommodating tops this list.
Here are some things I’ve learned
I know that going into business changes relationships. It’s strengthened some and ended others. Always it changes them.
I know that Chiltern Trains are ace. (WiFi, coffee, plug sockets and nice seats) are better than London Midland (none, but a good Twitter account).
I feel successes more. If it’s something you’ve done, got off the ground and made happen it just feels somehow more technicolour.
I feel failure more. And when things don’t happen you feel it that bit more.
I work 80 hours a week so you don’t work 40 hours for someone else. Is a truism I recall reading. I don’t every week.
I know that Mary McKenna is broadly right. She wrote a blog post to people thinking of starting their own business that they can have one day off a year.
I know that I have an understanding partner and family. At times it has been six and a bit days a week. Mrs Slee is ‘the rock on which my success is built.’
I know you need three times as long as you first think to do things. Fact.
I don’t commute anymore. And I actually haven’t missed it.
I know that arranging awards bashes is bloody hard work. So do Emma and Darren.
I learned eventually when to take a break to recharge the batteries. I was running on empty by November.
I’m grateful for the advice that you need a good accountant. Thanks, Matt.
I think that everyone called Steph is great. I’ve never met a bad one.
I’m grateful for the advice that you need to know the value of your worth and stick to it.
I’m know you need a reliable laptop. I found out the hard way.
I quickly realised you need a good MiFi.
I know that giving stuff away for free builds a reputation. But not too much.
I know that proprietary phone chargers are better than shop’s own.
I know that it’s really important to know when to take a break and recharge. I found that the hard way when I stumbled to Christmas on empty.
I know that comms2point0 is best as a collaborative thing with Darren.
I know that taxi drivers in Jordan drive very fast and with a cigarette permanently in their mouth.
I know that Foreign Office comms people face the hardest comms challenges of anyone in Britain.
I know that councils are the same the world over. Only the accents change.
I know that public sector people remain brilliant. It’s just that the have an even harder job.
I know absolutely that without a network none of what I’ve done is possible.
I know that I know about 5 per cent of what other people know about this business lark.
Chocolate cake https://www.flickr.com/photos/18334814@N00/7422745198/
For the best part of six years I helped look after social media strategy and tactics for a council and evolved it from one fledgling Twitter to more than 60 devolved accounts.
Some were good and some less so and often the good ones would have the same things in common. What I’ve seen since working on comms2point0 full-time reinforces this.
At times, seeing social media evolve has been like the early test pilots. There they go clambering into their biplanes without a parachute. We count them out and we count them back again. There have been surprisngly few casualties.
It’s a quality that shines through. It’s a lightbulb above the head. In training, nothing beats seeing that eureka moment from someone who didn’t really quite see the point. The good people have a lightbulb glowing over their heads. It’s the enthusiasm of someone who gets it.
Going the extra mile
Once you get it, the best people tend to go the extra mile. The Facebook update at 10pm. The reply to a tweet on a Bank Holiday.
A pioneering spirit
Like a pilot heading out across uncharted water a pioneering spirit is needed from those who make the social web fly. How does this work? Where will this lead me? What did I learn? They are all good qualities.
Inability to switch off
Any yet, the downside is that people don’t always know when to switch off. I’ve spoken to people who’ve looked burnt out because they’ve poured their heart and soul into what they are doing. They are passionate about it. But it doesn’t always follow that the organisation is dragged along with them. There are no organisations that I know of that properly resource what used to be called ‘out-of-hours’ enquiries. The result is the risk of burn-out and poor service to the enthusiastic individual.
A thin skin for criticism
But the downside of pouring heart and soul into something is that criticism can feel that bit more personal. It may not even be criticism of the channel. It could be a half brick aimed at the organisation. But it very often doesn’t feel that way.
“The reason why I don’t go online in the evening like I used to,” one public sector officer told me in confidence “is that between 9am and 5pm I get told on Twitter I’m s**t and my council is s**t. I don’t want to switch on in my own time to be told that too.”
I can relate to that. Once we were tweeted at 11pm if the roads were gritted. Ten minutes later without a reply the same individual tweeted that he’d f**king asked me if the f**king roads had been gritted. Unreasonable behaviour, sure. But it troubled me far more than a snotty letter or email.
On the other end of the scale is trolling. The sustained often anonymous abuse of an individual or an account. Journalists in particular face this. As a former hack who left the industry long before the social web evolved I often wonder what plan I would have taken.
While social media is great for conversation and must only be two way there comes a time when there is a line in the sand. This is where a social media acceptable use policy starts to come in. A clear boundary of what is fine and not alright. Many places don’t have this.
Of course, the glib answer is to insist that people shrug off the criticism and not take it to heart and yet that’s what they must do.
As social media matures and becomes a properly two way channel a dilemma is opening up. If you run a profile you need good skills to make it fly. But those skills, if you are not careful, could risk seeing you and your fingers burnt.
You or your manager needs to be aware of the dangerous characteristics.
How do you deal with yours?
Creative commons credit
It’s not next week, the next Tour de France or who will be in the squad for Rio that occupies cycling’s Dave Brailsford. It’s what his best team will be in five years time.
“I find that once you’ve done that,” he told the BBC, “you can work backwards to work out a way to get to where you want to be.”
It chimed with something I’ve often reflected on for some time. Just what should a comms team look like? Not the press release counting machine of history. Not either a team of ninjas on hoverboards. Communications people if they want longevity should be moving. Unlike Dave Brailsford we don’t have until 2020. For some its too late.
Your job used to be create content in a place where people went to consume content passively.
Your job is now to create content in places where people want to consume content where they can share, comment, engage, praise and complain.
If that’s not for you, it’s maybe time to think about that alternative career.
The best day to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best day is today. It’s the same for you and your team.
But that’s enough of the clichés. Here’s some nitty gritty of what you need to know.
As a head of comms or as an individual start mapping where you want to be
Dave Brailsford is right. If you aren’t looking forward you will be made an irrelevance if you aren’t already. It isn’t for your line manager to map your positive future. It’s for you.
As a team, don’t call yourself press officers or even PR
No longer the only show in town the Press is changing. News rooms decimated, Photographers laid off. Anyone who says otherwise is a fool. What is left is a media – let’s call them that rather than newspapers, radio or TV – blinking at the harsh light of the web. Some are evolving. What will survive are those changing into organisations who tell stories with data, pictures or video and in realtime unfettered by print deadlines. Like here or here.
If public releations was to give PR advice to PR it would be to drop the line ‘PR.’ Too toxic. Too reminiscent of Max Clifford and spin.
As a team, don’t be channel fascists
So, be content creators. Not a press officer or a press office. Provide content in the right way at the right time to the right people. Do that free from always having to go through the Priesthood of journalists. The team that does everything as a press release or as a tweet is just as guilty of being a channel fascist. Understand the variety of channels there are and know how to create content for them. And by the way, cut and pasting the same content in six channels doesn’t work.
As a team, look for the influencers who can influence networks
Some may be in the media. Some may be bloggers. Some may be people with important jobs. Some may not have important jobs but have a huge following on Twitter or run a hyperlocal site. Some will be your staff.
As a team, outsource comms to plug into networks
There won’t be enough of you to do everything anymore. So when you set the strategy be gateopeners to other people across the organisation. The Environment Agency manager on Twitter reaches an audience the press office can’t reach. So does the museums assistant who uses Twitter. Or the countryside ranger.
As a team, know your media landscape and break the tyranny of the local newspaper frontpage
If the days when everyone read the local paper ever existed they are over now. Find out what media cover your organisation. Find out their circulation and reach. Find out how many people are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. And use email. Use the annual Ofcom stats as a starting point.
Run a survey of where your team are spending their time. Does it match up with what the landscape actually is? Produce an infographic of where the landscape is and circulate it to everyone. Hang it on your wall. In reports refer to it. Sit down with those in charge and explain it. Ask for permission to re-calibrate.
As a team, the look finance in the eye test
In the old days, comms and PR teams could get away with a vague brief of ‘making the people in charge look good.’ An office two doors from those in charge was their ether. They realised too late that where your office is is no guard against the pain of cuts. Scrapbooks of cuttings from the local paper of a person in a suit planting a tree is spent capital. What talks are business objectives expressed as pounds, shillings and pence. That drive to recruit more foster carers? Thanks to comms it saved £100k. That is what justifies what you do. If it’s not a business objective don’t waste your time.
As a team, generalise but specialise
Making video is tricky and if someone is good at it encourage it. Don’t hold them back. Encourage fresh thought. Embrace experiments. Some will work. Some won’t. But always be learning. But share the sweets across the team and wider.
As a team, get over yourself
You used to have it all. The control. The ear of the people in charge. The sole ability to communicate with the media. That’s gone. But don’t fight it. Sometimes it’ll be you. Other times you’ll get in the way. Sometimes your job will be advice. Sometimes it will be to stand back. Set the strategy. Share the sweets.
As a team, think beyond ‘traditional social media’
At some point the tipping point was reached and people started to ask not for press releases but for Twitter accounts or for stuff to be posted on Twitter. What lazy rubbish.
As an organisation, it’s okay to have social channels that are social
Let the guidemark of the 80-20 rule govern what you do. Share other people’s content. Be human. Tweet a picture of where you are and what you are doing. Asda observe this rule for their hard headed business focussed yet social channels. So do police officers. It works. It’s not messing about. It’s being an effective communicator.
As an individual, challenge, experiment and learn
Whether you are the head of comms or not you need to learn, experiment, challenge, kick tyres and do things in your own time. By all means clock off at 5 o’clock. But you won’t be around for much longer. A new job? Not in communications you won’t.
Three quotes you need to know and live by
‘Hyperlinks flatten hierarchies,’ – The Cluetrain Manifesto, 1999.
‘We need to communicate like insurgents,’ – Tom Fletcher, UK Ambassador to Lebanon, 2014.
“There remains a perverse determination within PR to defend top-down behaviour in a flatter world. PR currently speaks to hierarchies in a world of networks. It is therefore starting in the wrong place both for its own domain and the wider universe of citizens, companies and brands. PR can no longer dictate on its own terms.
“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 within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard.” – Robert Phillips, 2015
– Robert Phillips, 2015.
40 skills a comms team needs
Here comes the list. You know what the single most reassuring thing is? All this is achievable. Many of the skills we have can stay with us. Story telling. Relationshiips and the like. But the technical skills are evolving constantly. You stand still at your peril.
All will need
To build relationships
To educate the people you serve
To know the value of networks and to know yours
To accept change
To know when to say ‘no’
To be a diplomat
To challenge – ask why we are doing this?
To listen as an individual
To help people listen as an organisation
To write for the web
To tell stories
To create the right content for the right people in the right channel at the right time
To source photographs
To train others
To know the value of internal comms
To take risks
To be small ‘p’ politically aware
To know when to write a comms plan and when to say ‘no.’
To be self-aware
To be professional
To interpret data
To be broad shouldered
To capture and communicate emotion
To be tenacious
To be visible
To be professional but not be constrained by one profession
To be creative
To manage time
To create and run a survey
To take photographs
To know how to handle crisis and emergency comms
Some will need
To write press releases
Technical: Content creating for the right channels
To know when and how to create content using data
To know when and how to create text, images or video content tailored for email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Audioboo or Soundcloud.
To experiment with new channels and to know who uses them.
To know when and how to create a press release
To know when some print is needed
Two sessions and a lot of thinking shaped this blog. One session at UK Govcamp two months ago and one at comms2point0’s campaigns masterclass last month. At both I just asked for ideas on individual skills to see what patterns emerged. Thank you if you contributed. Thank you to Emma Rodgers who co-led the masterclass session and annogtated the skills we listed. This post is the reading of those ink blots mixed with things I’ve written about before.
If you are slightly apprehensive and a little excited and good luck we’d love to talk to you.
Stop people in the street and ask what they think of when they hear the term. Chances are that Max Clifford and spin would feature. Do people trust the phrase? Not, really.
That’s not to say there is no-one in the profession trying to change things. There are. Some are doing it by trying to professionalise what is there. Robert Phillips is doing it by starting a debate. Or rather he has lit a molotov cocktail and thrown it. His book ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’ is that incendiary device.
There is much in it to debate.
It’s been fascinating to watch much of the debate centre around the title rather than the contents. For me, that misses the point as much as the urban myth of the journalist who when Abraham Lincoln was shot dead by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s theatre was supposed to have asked: “Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play?”
But who is Phillips? Some bearded revolutionary? Actually, no. He was the former President and CEO, EMEA of Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm. He co-founded Jericho Chambers and advises companies at a senior level on strategy, policy, comms and trust.
That this comes from someone who was the cornerstone of the PR profession means the argument demands attention.
What is threatening PR?
A resistance to change. In five key areas, Robert Phillips says. The industry is not across data and insight that can offer greater chances of measurable success. Outputs are often still measured over outcomes. Whizzy numbers are put forward when the answer should be what have people done as a result of what you’ve done? The world is about networks and not heirarchies and PR doesn’t get that. Creative ideas are too small to scale and make a difference and there is a lack of talent, he argues. Phillips writes:
“There remains a perverse determination within PR to defend top-down behaviour in a flatter world. PR currently speaks to hierarchies in a world of networks. It is therefore starting in the wrong place both for its own domain and the wider universe of citizens, companies and brands. PR can no longer dictate on its own terms.
“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 within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard.”
Don’t say ‘trust me’ do things that make others say ‘trust them…’
Phillips argues that too much attention has been spent on the polishing the message that says ‘trust us.’ More needs to be spent on actually doing things that earn that trust. Don’t say you care. Do the right things first. Maybe people will see that.
This can be summed up in the phrase: ‘It’s what you do what counts, not what you say.’
Stop and reflect. If you are a PR person how much time did your organisation really spend on doing?
The final death of spin…
Beautifully, as if to support the theory that networks are replacing hierarchies the book is interspersed with ‘wise crowd contributors’ or short essays from those with supporting views. If that were me, I’d be doing that for safety in numbers. One such contributor is George Pitcher who quotes from his 2003 book ‘The Death of Spin.’
“We have covered politics and business with the tarmac of a spin-culture and then wonder why the grass isn’t growing. There is more to life than what we think about it. We have to do it too.”
So, what’s next…?
Of course, it’s easy to throw half bricks at a system that is creaking. It’s a lot harder to construct a vision for what should replace it.
What leaders should do next
Phillips calls for ‘public leadership.’ He wants leaders who are activists and he wants them to make decisions that are co-produced. In other words, he wants them to allow others a voice to shape those decisions. He wants leaders to be ‘citizen centric’ and connect the core purpose of the organisation to how they can help real people. He also wants them to be society-first and to think of the society they are part of.
Pie in the sky? Maybe. But there are examples in the book where this is happening.
A few months back we helped facilitate a comms event for Foreign & Commonwealth Office comms people out in the Middle East. British Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher stopped me in my tracks with his call that we should communicate like insurgents. We should, of course. They move fleet of foot without having to report back. They create bite sized content using platforms where they know people will be. If Our Man gets it, shouldn’t we?
What communicators should frame their communications next
In a networked world where spin can be exposed within minutes Phillips argues that new ways to communicate are needed. Interestingly, he advances what he calls ‘Seven Strategies of We.’
The strategies in brief are: accept chaos as reality, radicalise honesty and transparency, build coalitions, take to the social dance floor, be the media, love the citizen crowd and communicate through actions not words.
Of course, each strategy could be a revolution in its own right but taken together they are dynamite. But are they too much to take as a whole?
Of course, good ideas written down don’t change the world. History shows that the Diggers in 17th century Britain had this crazy idea that all men were created equal and that land had been stolen from them by a foreign monarch. It didn’t end well.
So, will Phillips’ ideas end well? There are certainly those in the PR establishment who loathe this book. Is PR dead or evolving? The book’s success will be judged in time, no doubt. The forces that drive the books ideas, the web, citizens being more networked will happen anyway. But how is it is possible to take these ideas as a reader and influence change?
It is too arresting a book to read in one sitting. Pick up the book at random and there are ideas that fizz and challenge you to disagree with them.
But it is entirely wrong to think this is a book about PR. This is a book about everything from how we react to organisations, press for change, communicate and navigate change. Too ambitious? A PR person on their own with this book is like a stoker looking out of a Titanic porthole spotting an iceberg. It needs those at the top on board too. Without that, can its ideas fail? Maybe not since it talks about forces like the internet and social change that are outside our control.
Can change be done from within? With that in mind, it’s also a book that should be read with Liam Barrington-Bush’s excellent ‘Anarchists in the Boadroom.’ This book was written from first hand experience of the Occupy movement. It’s a cookbook for how to make organisations more approachable and more like people.
‘Trust Me: PR is Dead’ is more Occupy than Mad Men. It challenges you. Like a tent village outside a closure-threatened hospital it may not be liked. The suits who are walking past the encampment eyes down on the pavement would be foolish to ignore it.
It’ll be fascinating to see how these ideas play out.
You can buy Trust Me, PR Is Dead by Robert Phillips here via our Amazon Associates page.
Robert Phillips will be taking part in a discussion titled ‘PR is Dead… in Brum: Leadership and Communications in a Citizen Centric Society’ at the Impact Hub Birmingham from 6pm to 8pm on March 25. Joining him on the panel will be Darren Caveney of comms2point0, Nick Booth of Podnosh and Lorna Prescott of Dudley CVS and Impact Hub Brum. Tickets which are free are available here
Nobody tells them to do it, but off they head travelling 200 miles a day with just the urge to head south.
Swallows, ladies and gentlemen, are rather like politicians.
At some point the beacon of the election pings and they start changing behaviour. The normally relaxed cabinet member starts to behave differently. Requests for coverage become more pressing. There can be the photo requests, the press releases and the subtle pressure can sometimes begin.
By subtle pressure, I mean the request to maybe send across that stock pic. Or maybe the request for a quote that damns a different parties’ policies. In short, the local government comms team can risk being ‘leaned on.’
It doesn’t happen everywhere of course. Sometimes it’s an innocent question asking to help them out.
Q – That stock picture of the town hall. Can you send it across? The printers are waiting for it.
A – It may only be a stock picture of a town hall but if public money paid for it it can’t be used for political purposes.
Q – That quote in the cabinet members’ statement? He wants it changed so he can attack the Prime Minister.
A – It may only be a quote but you shouldn’t be allowing political comments into content you are issuing.
There is so much more to comms than Purdah. That’s the period where it is acknowledged that politicians can’t be quoted. Knowing what you can and can’t say and do is just common sense.
You can have a row very easily. But what you need close at hand is the chapter and verse of what you can do and say before it escalates.
As the comms visionary Chuck Norris once said, men are like steel. When they lose their temper they lose their worth. So don’t lose your temper or get the politician to lose theirs. Have a list to hand of what you can do and say and make sure your team know too.
Remind yourself of what you can and can’t say…
It’s an uncomfortable time of year and there are steps that every head of comms, comms manager, press officer, web officer and marketing assistant needs to know about. Make a list of exactly what document says what so when challenged they can quote it.
One of the best afternoons in my career was spent going through a sheaf of documents that governed my job. What was in that sheaf? The authority’s constitution, the DCLG recommended code of practice for local government publicity and the media protocols. The Holy Trinity of local government comms documents. By all means start off with the media protocols, but people will argue the toss. A few people may mess with the DCLG. You’ll find very few people mess with the council’s constitution.
The DCLG recommended code of practice for local government publicity
Contrary to myth, comms teams do not work for the Leader or the administration. They work for the Chief Executive and the authority. The comms team that forgets that is likely to land up in trouble.
Councils are required by legislation to consider the code of practice before they make decisions. You can download it here.
Here’s a couple of keepers:
19. Where local authority publicity addresses matters of political controversy it should seek to present the different positions in relation to the issue in question in a fair manner
34. During the period between the notice of an election and the election itself, local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any individual members or groups of members. Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published by local authorities during this period unless expressly authorised by or under statute. It is permissible for local authorities to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.
The media protocols
This document will set out what you do and don’t do. Know what it says. Make sure your team knows what it says. In all likelihood, this document will have been worked out in advance and possibly when an administration is incoming. This gets them signed-up in peacetime to the governance of the comms unit.
Why the constitution is like Chuck Norris
It’s difficult to describe the reverential awe that the constitution has in the place of local government. When faced with the constitution they ususally don’t argue.
What is great about the constitution is that it governs the behaviour of the officer and politician relationship. It may mention that undue pressure may not be put on officers. It may also refer to bullying, intimidation and a list of other things you’ll probably never need but it’s useful to have at your finger tips.
Like Chuck Norris, nobody messes with the Constitution. If they do, there’s a chance they’ll come a cropper.
Often the Constitution will point to professional standards being standards to be observed. There are three for comms teams. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the National Union of Journalists and the Public Relations Consultants Association.
Will the constitution insist you belong to them? Take a look and I’ll bet it’s not vital although I’d suggest you do.
You’ve read all this, what next?
Put the salient points and the sections they come from onto one side of A4. Two at most. Get your legal team to add their name to it to give it an added layer of Teflon.
If you work in the public sector, you’ll have your own guidance, constitution and approaches. But the principles remain the same. It’s best to be independant as a public servant rather than partizan. And as housing, the NHS and the work of government gets more politically charged its useful to know where you stand.
It’s also good to know what you can and can’t say and do. That’s worth knowing all the year round.
“So what,” they will ask “difference do you make?”
If the answer is that you helped save the organisation by better communicating with people by working with the contact centre better or some channel shift then you’ve got a chance. If you know you saved £500k through that campaign on recruiting foster carers even better.
If you can’t do that you probably won’t be around. It really is that simple. Forget reputation. That doesn’t show-up on the balance sheet and at a time when budgets are tight helping people with their budgets makes you part of the solution. That’s a really powerful place to be.
A masterclass on campaigns that make a difference
We’re staging a masterclass in good campaigns on February 26 at The Bond Company in Birmingham with speakers who won an unaward at our end-of-year bash. They will be telling tales of how they are making a difference and showing their worth. Five confirmed are:
DVLA head of communications Victoria Ford on building a culture of no cost / low cost campaigns. And how they get over obstacles.
Shadow Giants’ founder Amy Kiernan on how they staged the #backtonursing campaign for the NHS’s Health Education England. A new nurse costs £70k to train while re-training a lapsed one is just a few thousand pounds.
Sandwell Council’s web and digital manager Matt Johnson on the innovative ‘No S**t Sherlock!’ campaign that used humour to shame dog-owners in a perennial problem.
Leed City Council’s Phil Jewitt on how they made their organisation more #trulysocial and how they changed the culture.
Stafford Borough Council’s press and communications manager Will Conaghan will explain how a small team can punch above their weight with some practical examples.
And unconference sessions and a download
The afternoon will see unconference sessions where the agenda is shaped by attendees on the day. Maybe there is an issue that needs tackling or there was something from the morning that needs looking at in more detail.
Attendees can also have a special campaigns download to help capture best practice and some of the stories from the day.
Six ways comms can make a difference to make a good campaign
Everyone likes a beginning, a middle and an end. Screenwriters talk of a three act play. In communications it runs from this is the problem. This is what we did. Here’s the difference we made.
Help identify the problem with just one word: ‘why?’
Often people will beat a path to your door to run a campaign on an issue. The most powerful word in the communications officer’s vocabulary is ‘why?’ It’s ‘why’ that leads you to the heart of the matter. You need more foster carers? Why? To give children a better start in life and if we don’t it costs us money. How much money? We save £10k a time each one we recruit.
Your aim should be to tackle a business objective
A housing association looks after 1,000 properties. They need people in the homes to pay their rent. They need 95 per cent to pay or else there is a serious headeache. Everything the comms person does should point at that. Otherwise, why bother? How can you look finance in the eye?
Once you have the problem don’t have a comms plan for the sake of it
When I was in the public sector, I grew slightly tired of writing Linus blanket comms plans that nobody looked at. A plan is fine. But it only works if there is a commitment on both sides.
Let your comms plan tell a story
That story is the chart that paints an epic story of where the organisation was and where you are headed. It was here and the problem was do big (THE ISSUE). So we decided that it needed to move by that much to make it better (THE TARGET). We understood what the pitfalls out of our control were SCENARIO PLANNING. We worked out who we needed to talk to (AUDIENCE). We worked out the best way to talk to them (CHANNELS). And we asked them to do something which we then counted (MEASURED). And as we went along, we checked that all of those things were working and we were heading where we needed to be (EVALUATED).
Be creative. Experiment. See what works. The tried and tested may not be the path to take.
Never end the campaign
There is a logic that sees a push against smoking one week of the year. But what happens if that smoker doesn’t want to right there and then? Maybe its six months down the line? What happens then? Make sure the door is still open and the helpline isn’t turned off until the same time next year.
comms2point0’s comms campaigning masterclass: key lessons from the UnAward winners is staged at The Bond Company, Fazeley Street, Digbeth, Birmingham from 10am to 4.30pm on Thursday February 26. For more information and to book a ticket click here.