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.
There is a real tangible mood of optimism sweeping Birmingham and the West Midlands as 2015 comes into view.
Lonely Planet named Brum as one of the 10 best cities in the world and there have been a raft of stories of the flow of 30-something entrepreneurs and tech people leaving London for Birmingham and finding life better there. It’s nice to get external recognition. But in our corner of the world the West Midlands has been a bit great for a while. There’s a community of digital people. Many first met at events like the long-running Birmingham Social Media Cafe or at coffee houses or unconferences where people collaborate and meet people.
We’re also backing the Impact Hub Birmingham Kickstarter to build co-working and events space in Digbeth. It’s a venue and an idea whose time has really come. You can read more about it here.
Why are comms2point0 backing Hub Brum?
A couple of reasons. We’re backing it so we can have some co-working space a few times a week to get things done, use the WiFi and enjoy a cup of coffee. In my first year concentrating on comms2point0 full-time I’ve recognised the need for a regular space. But not a full-time office. Sometimes, this is to stick headphones in and zone out. Other times, this is to bounce ideas around and contribute to other ideas. We also rather like the social change stuff too. The people behind it are keen to collaborate on projects to make Birmingham a better place to live. That rather appeals. There is work to be done and there are people who want to see it happen.
We’ll be using Impact Hub Birmingham as a physical base. The comms2point0 website, of course, will continue and thrive.
Why am I excited about 2015?
Eighty per cent of new businesses fail in the first 12-months. We’ve celebrated 12-months being registered with Companies House. Geddin. I’ve been full time. The long nights staring at the ceiling wondering if this can work have gone. They’ve been replaced by a wish there was more hours in the day and more capacity. If I’m honest, time spent with my family has suffered. My wife Clare has been amazing. Time spent with them in Wales between Christmas and New Year has been valued.
Mary McKenna once wrote that running your own business means one day off a year. I can see what she means. When I explain the time, love and effort it requires people almost always look horrified. The man who wrote that you work 80 hours a week for yourself so you don’t work 40 hours for someone else is dead right and I’ve a long list of people to thank who have helped, given advice and have hired both me and Darren.
If 2014 was a start then 2015 is when comms2point0 really takes off. There are ideas in the pipeline we think you’ll love.
Why are we excited about 2015?
In all the fun and excitement often people think that comms2point0 is just me. That’s not true. It’s always been a collaboration between myself and Darren Caveney. The original idea for the platform was Darren’s and we fleshed out how it would work watching a game of cricket. Our plannning meetings are a thing of wonder and it is amazing what you can produce when you have enough cake and coffee. But the black and white images and the look and feel of the website? That’s all Darren, that is.
I’m pleased to say that 2015 will see an even greater input from Darren and ideas that will push things on.
Fueled by a bottle of red wine a frustrated journalist and blogger wrote a bold post in 2006 called ‘Die! Press Release! Die! Die! Die!’ that took an axe to one of the standard tools in the PR toolbox.
Now taught in colleges the Tom Foremski post was a battle charge against the Linus blanket of the press release and its 400 words of journalese, approved quotes and notes to editors.
In a digitally-connected world the answer is, of course, to produce sharable content.
When I came across the post two or three years ago it articulated perfectly my own burning frustration at being asked to prioritise servicing newspapers whose sales were melting in the bright sunlight of the digital morning.
In 2014, Robert Phillips has picked up Foremski’s axe and is turning it not just against press releases but against the entire PR industry. It is time, he says ‘to call bullshit on what had become the bullshit industry.’ But who is he? A hater? No, he’s the former UK chief executive of global PR giants Edelman whose CV includes the Wonderbra ‘Hello Boys!’ campaign and the shaping of the 02 brand. He co-founded Jericho Chambers in London. In short, he has been a pillar of the PR establishment and that he is questioning the future is a cause of interest. He has blogged for comms2point0 before.
Robert hasn’t dashed off a late night blog post. Instead he has written a polemic called ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead.’ This book promises to be more powerful and far reaching than Foremski’s post. It challenges not just a tactic but an entire industry. If anything, it’s ‘Die PR! Die! Die! Die!’
So, what’s dead?
I was in London this week for a discussion organised by Robert at the Cass Business School entitled ‘If Everything is Dead, What Comes Next?’
Deference. Hierarchy. Spin. The illusion of control. The idea you can manage the message.
What killed it? A perfect storm of MPs expenses, the banking crisis, the recession and the end to final salary pensions. And the 80s trend to individualism. But most of all the subtle re-organising that the internet has done to connect people in networks. Citizen activism. 38 Degrees. The democracy of the social web.
Don’t get it? Need evidence? You may be looking in the wrong places. Video blogger Stampy Longhead makes videos of himself playing the Minecraft video game and gets five million viewers effortlessly. The BBC look enviously on but they have been left behind.
In the NHS, the influential King’s Fund has called for the end of command and control heroic leadership. Instead, devolved leadership is the answer.
In the discussion, clear points emerge. People want to be engaged and not led. It’s about what we do that counts. Not what we say. PR is struggling with all that.
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.
“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.”
So, what comes next?
It’s easy to point to the changing landscape and declare things dead. It’s a lot harder to point to what comes next.
Phillips reckons the answer may be somewhere around the idea of something that you can call ‘public leadership.’ The chief exec as activist, prepared to engage with people, prepared to sometimes say they are wrong and to listen more to people.
Radical honesty, he says, is needed when the landscape is an expectation and demand for transparency.
For me and my public sector background, that’s being honest and straight about the cuts. And to call cuts ‘cuts.’ Not efficiencies. Not savings. Cuts. That makes the most important communications in the public sector about the budget and how money is spent.
One of the panelists in the discussion, the Labour MP David Lammy, talked about the broad picture of change and dust not settling just yet and perspective being hard. He also talked about there being a lack of courage. He’s right.
Much of what Phillips talks about sounds idealistic. Listen to the people. Crowd source. Be citizen activists.
“That’s fine,” one Chinese audience member challlenged. “But I grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution and all this sounds very familar.”
Maybe so. But there is a radical discussion to be had about the changing role of so many things. PR included.
For me, if PR was to give PR advice to PR it would be to drop the tag: ‘PR.’ It’s toxic. It’s too linked to the age of spin and Max Clifford.
It will be fascinating to read Robert’s book when it is published in 2015.
Every week being full-time on comms2point0 has been quite literally an
adventure. One of the adventures was to write social media guidance
for part of the public sector that is struggling with it. Health and Wellbeing Boards are where the NHS, charities and councils come together to make billions of pounds of spending decisions.
The Local Government Association (LGA) listened to members who said they were struggling in this area and commissioned us to draw-up some guidance. It is with huge pleasure that I saw that the LGA published Connecting Health and Wellbeing Boards: a social media guide.
If you think that guidance for this arcane corner of the public sector
has nothing for you, I’d ask you to swing by and take a look. I think
you’ll find some principles that can help you out whereever you are.
Climbing a challenge one step at a time
So, how do you persuade organisations and people that don’t use social
media to start using it?
There was a long list of things that health and wellbeing boards should be doing. Live tweeting meetings, posting slides used at meetings to slide sharing website slideshare and using social media to listen are all there.
But nobody wants to look at Mount Everest on their first day in walking boots.
So, we made it easy. We made slow steps possible. We created five steps – or five stars – that made progress not only possible but measurable.
We made the first star deliberately easy. All you had to do was post the date and time of your meeting on a social profile. Simple. Congratulations. You’ve got a first star. As any walker will tell you
once you conquer your first hillock your eyes turn more readily to something a little bigger.
That, we think, is the powerful and encouraging thing that can make these guidelines work.
What I’m most proud of is that we didn’t just write this in a vacuum.
We asked the online community and the offline community too. My role
as author was less a writer and more a facilitator. What should these
guidelines look like? Gemma Finnegan at the weekly #nhssm chat which discusses social media in the NHS steered two discussions that had a profound effect. I don’t have my name on this document. I have
comms2point0′s logo. But we have thanked everyone who conrtibuted to
those discussions and the survey which shaped it. I also spent a lot
of time chatting to people. If you want to look at an authority doing
a trailblazing job look at Louisa Willoughby at Sheffield City Council
and Cllr Simon Allen at Bath and North East Somerset. And some of the work that @claireOT has done in sketching out what things could look like.
Thanks also to Kristian Hibberd who has now left the LGA for pastures new and to Laurence Meehan and Caroline Tapster who remains.
We used data
We surveyed people and we used those results to shape the discussion.
* 53 per cent thought their council uses social media badly for health
and wellbeing boards.
* 81 per cent are in favour of live streaming.
* 83 per cent said that space should be given to the public to ask questions at meetings.
We had five basic principles
From my time in local government, I’ve been in favour of a framework of
basic principles rather than a dogmatic policeman of highly prescriptive. Nobody wants the guidance that says you must use MySpace. So we came up with this:
- Be engaging: interact wherever possible with users and reflect the
• Be timely: post information at a time that is most convenient or
relevant to the audience.
• Be jargon-free: use language that works on the platform of choice
without jargon and language that people outside the health and
wellbeing board would struggle to understand.
• Be connected: look to share content from partners and from across
the public or third sector where is relevant.
• Be informative: look to inform and to educate.
The #nhssm discussion of the LGA health and wellbeing board guidelines
takes place between 8pm and 9pm on Wednesday November 19.
But I’ll bet you think that you’ve nothing to say and not many people will find what you are doing interesting, right?
Good news. You couldn’t be further from the truth and by taking part you’ll be lending your voice to create a far louder noise around an area that no doubt doesn’t always shout about itself.
Back in 2010, me and some colleagues staged #walsall24 which was the first real-time Twitter event in local government. We won the first LGComms gold social media award and for a day the borough was the centre of the digital universe. People from across the council used Twitter to post the day-to-day things we were doing.
We’d taken the idea from Greater Manchester Police and tweaked it. It’s great to see others now take the idea and tweak it further so it’s the voice of a sector and not just one authority.
The #housingday initiative has grown from strength to strength as a way of telling the social housing story. Like any success, it has many fathers. But Ade Capon from Yorkshire Housing is the man responsible for first taking the plunge.
Here’s 10 ideas to help you make the most of the day
- The more mundane it is to you, the more interesting it is to them. Trust me. Everyone thinks they do a fairly dull job. To others its madly interesting.
- Tweet the little things. Tell people about the drain cover you just fixed, the window you are replacing, the meeting you’ve been to. It all builds a picture.
- Take a picture. A picture tells 1,000 words and when you’ve only got 140 characters that’s pretty useful. People like pictures. They get shared more too. You don’t have to be David Bailey.
- Take a video. With Instagram you have about 14 seconds of video that can be shared to Twitter.
- Take some audio. Soundcloud is a cracking app that lets you record people talking. Ask someone to say who they are, what they do and what they are doing today. Then share it to Twitter.
- Share some content. Press the retweet button and share what other people are doing.
- Ask a question. Ask what people think. Ask the for their own experiences.
- Follow a member of staff. Pick someone who does a frontline job. Then follow them around. You can tweet about what they are doing and where they are in realtime.
- Stage a Q&A. Persuade a senior person to be available to answer questions on a topic. Promote it. Share the answers.
- Embed your Twitter stream on the organisations’ website so non-Twitter people can see what is being said.
- Build it and they will come is silly. Go offline. Tell people about it. Email them. Put it in team briefings. Shout. Shout. Let it all out.
- Capture the tweets you’ll send and the comments you’ll receive on the web. By all means use Storify to capture what is being said. That’s an easy drag and drop web application you can use to preserve things.
- Capture the tweets you’ll send and the comments you’ll receive as screenshots. Take a screenshot. Email it to people. The officers in the repairs team. People like that.
- Feature the residents. How long has Mrs Smith lived in that house? What does she think of her windows? What could she suggest to improve the area she lives in?
- Ask people to do something. Don’t just let the day be just noise. Here’s the thing you’d like people to sign-up for. Here’s the consultation you’d like them to get involved with. Channel all this to help you make a difference.