VR: Virtual Reality Video: Has a Powerful New Film Just Pushed Into the Mainstream?

18634310535_db6056ce14It’s difficult to talk about virtual reality without sounding like I did when I was a kid the first time I watched a colour telly during the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

It was round at a friend’s house during a birthday party and athletes from Europe and Africa in multi-coloured vests were sprinting around a burnt red track.

“It looked so colourful,” I remember telling my Mum later. “Can we have one?”

We had been without a telly for two years and the images soaked into my television-starved mind. It would be another two before we did.

So, to virtual reality – or VR. The technology isn’t new. It’s been around for several years but it’s starting to cut through to the mainstream. Steven Davies, who I’ve worked with in delivering video workshops gave me a spare pair of Google cardboard in the summer. This is a cardboard self-assembly kit that you fit your smartphone into before watching specially-shot 360 degree footage you can download from Google Play. He’s been experimenting with immersive video for years. I’m starting to think he’s onto something.

There are VR downloads out there on Google Play. There are some amazing downloads to watch. But the download this week that really stopped me in my tracks has been the New York Times footage of three different children caught up in three different wars with the same unsettling outcome. I recommend you download it. The are talking of it as a new form of storytelling. I think they are right. You can pick-up Google cardboard online to watch the film in its full glory. But you can also watch it in smartphone setting.

Sending people to a warzone

Foreign news used to be a journalist being sent off to war zones to file a story through a distant telex machine. Photographers would try to capture an iconic image. Several days later you’d glance at it while eating your cornflakes. You may even read it. Then rolling news CNN-style pushed the boundary again bringing war zones into your living room. The New York Times VR download has changed that. It has taken you into the warzone itself.

Sending you to the warzone

The New York Times download is an ambitious 10-minute film that cuts between three stories of two boys and a girl. There is no commentary. There is no editorial. There is just you. There is the child, their words and there is a bed of music.

With VR you can look up, look down and look all around you. The film starts with you standing in a shattered room. You look down. You see shattered furniture, mess and torn books. Your eyes and your mind compute to tell you that you are in the room. You hear the scratching of chalk on a blackboard behind you. You turn around look up and you see a small boy with his back to you reaching up to write on the blackboard. You can’t believe a boy is standing in such a damaged room. It is eerily wrong.

This is Oleg from the Ukraine.

His words as a voiceover tell you his story. You read isolated sentences of his story that float in the air. He tells you he used to dream with his friends of planting a bomb in his school but he doesn’t now. When the war started he fled with his family, says. He tells you he returned to find his grandfather dead in the garden. He had died several months before and had lain unburied.

Then you are in a canoe with a boy on his own.  This is Chuol. You are in South Sudan. He had fled for the swamps with his grandmother but had lost his mother. He stands in front of you his eyes burning with pain and you look away. You look back and he is still there before you. You see a boy who life is kicking whose joy has gone.

You hear the story of Syrian girl Hana too. She gets up with her family at 4am to pick cucumbers.

VR: the verdict from my family

You’ve heard stories like these before many times. But it’s unsettling to see them through VR with them standing in front of you.

I showed the film to my own seven-year-old daughter and watched carefully. She looked filled with concern for the children she saw in front of her and she watched quietly. Afterwards, we talked about how lucky we are to live in a country where we didn’t have war.

I showed the film to my wife. It didn’t have the immediacy of livestreaming, she said. It felt like a film too. She didn’t move around to explore the 360-degree nature. She just focussed on the child. But it reached out in a way that other journalism doesn’t, she said.

VR as mainstream?

“We hope people see this as the moment when VR went mainstream,” New York Times magazine editor Jake Silverstein told Neiman Lab. “Not when the early adopters, gamers and people who already know got it but when those without exposure to it realised what this new medium can do.”

You can download ‘The Displaced’ here.

Picture credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30364433@N05/18634310535/

SOCIAL CHRISTMAS: Failing to Avoid the New John Lewis TV Advert… And What It Means for Comms

jlewisWell, I wasn’t going to. And I didn’t seek it out but the new John Lewis TV ad gives a perfect lesson for where comms is right now.

You may know it. It’s a two minute film of a little girl spotting the man on the moon looking sad and sending him a present to cheer him up at Christmas time. An old Oasis b-side has been re-recorded for the music.

Not watching much television I wasn’t aware of it. But of course, I remember the penguin TV ad from last year. But I didn’t have to watch TV to find out about the new TV ad. It was being discussed on BBC Radio 5 on the way home and all over Twitter.

But the thing is you don’t have to wait until the ad break of Coronation Street to see it. It’s on John Lewis’ Facebook (4.3 million views in 24-hours), John Lewis’ YouTube (6.1 million views in 24-hours) as well as the 743 entries on Google News . Twitter, as this Topsy 30-day search shows went wild.


Of course, there was also whole sub-genre of stories like the one about Oasis fans being angry at the song being re-recorded and the one about the Twitter user called John Lewis whose worst time of year has just started. Apparently, a bloke in America @johnlewis gets flooded with tweets and patiently tries to reply to them all.

But what does this mean for communications?

Video has never been more powerful. The two minute TV-ad moves the toughest cynic to tears. A little girl has reached out and melted the heart of a lonely old man. If you don’t cry tears watching it there’s genuinely something wrong with you.

But that power doesn’t have to be on TV anymore. It’s notable that the TV-ad was launched on YouTube first rather than on the television. That’s quite post-modern.

Social media fanning the flames is the vehicle for getting it seen. All the buzz, all the sharing and all the think pieces is driving the traffic relentlessly. Why pay for expensive TV slots when people can watch it in their Facebook stream? There were 81,000 shares in 24-hours.

It was uploaded to Facebook direct AND YouTube. There’s an epic battle going on for the future of the web between Google and Mark Zuckerberg. As tech improves and allows people to have phones that can stream video content like John Lewis’ ad can reach people.

Traditional media still plays a role. It may be online as well as in print but the news media retain a footprint in where and how we are consuming content.

Dan Slee is director and co-creator of comms2point0. He co-delivers an Essential Video Skills for Comms workshop in London on November 26. More here.

We Need to Reboot Twitter Events

3887881562_265de98f19_zI’ve been thinking for a while that 24-hour Twitter events have driven up a bit of a cul-de-sac.

You know the sort of thing. An organisation tweets what it is doing for 24-hours and shines a light on unsung heroes. You learn things you didn’t know and then the timeline moves on.

Back in 2011, I was part of an award-winning team at Walsall Council that ran this first one in local government called #walsall24. We encouraged teams from across the council from 6am to join in. There was a countryside ranger talking about what she was doing, scheduled road repairs and events at libraries.

We created a wall of noise and we didn’t even bother to tell the local papers. We just did it. It was the first time it felt like we siezed the channels off production and just did ikt ourselves. I’m still hugely proud of that.

We wanted #walsall24 to be like an Atari ZX81 game. Amazing at the time but quickly outdated. A social Pong, in other words. Pong being the basic computer tennis game with two lines anfd a ball. I’d been thinking just lately that this model hadn’t moved on all that much.

Answering the ‘So what?’ question

The big question that any such event should face is ‘So what?’

In other words, you did all this, but what has changed?

Ideally, what did people do that made a difference? Maybe even how this saved money.

Two impressive grassroots campaigns

Two things just recently have impressed me. Firstly, the #Iminworkjeremy hashtag. Something which evolved ad hoc without organising. This was prompted by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comments that consultants don’t work at weekends. So, working consultants tweeted pictures of themselves working. It was Twitter at its best.

The obvious ‘so what?’ of that is to challenge a statement and to reach out to others who are in the same boat.

The second thing that impressed was the Remember Srebrenica campaign in the UK which has strives to ask people to remember the genocide of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys murdered by Serbs in the bloody Balkans civil war. It was a simple ask. Pledge that you’ll remember them and an online and offline campaign co-incided beautifully.

NHS and commscamp

Several weeks back Amanda Nash pitched a great session at commscamp where she crowdsourced ideas for an NHS-wide event. She and others will make a success of it whatever they do. They’ll find solutions and make it fly.

The session spoke of the need to let people inside and outside the NHS join in. It also mentioned that sometimes they may need to shadow staff to give a flavour of what they are doing.

But I wonder, is there an NHS thing that can galvanise people, bring people together and make an appreciable difference?

Is there a pledge? A call to action? A promise? Something that answers the ‘so what?’ question?

But at the same time, keep it simple.

That’s for those doing it to work out and for the people behind houjsing day and any social event.

Answer the ‘so what’ question and you can move mountains.

HISTORY BOYS: Communications and the Miners Strike

billyAs a historian and someone fascinated by the changing face of communications I’ve spent a bit of time on a chapter of history that’s still being fought. 

It’s not Waterloo, Ypres or Gallipoli. It’s the Miners’ Strike. Or the Great Strike of 1984 to 1985 depending on your perspective.

It’s  battle in British history so awkward like a parked car loaded with explosives we don’t like to go near it. Cinema? That’s fine. ‘Billy Elliott’ and ‘Brassed Off’ tell versions of the story.

Topically, it was in the news again when the police watchdog ruled out prosecutions. So expolosive it is the BBC were attacked for giving undue prominence that ‘re-heated tensions’. It’s so dangerous, it’s almost impossible to write with a neutral voice on it but heck, as a comms historian I’m going to try.

Historians in a hundred years will point to this as one of the most significant episodes in the story of modern Britain. As former Sunday Times journalists Francis Beckett and David Hencke wrote in their book ‘Marching Towards the Faultline’ there was Britain before the Miners Strike and Britain after. The two are entirely different.

Fact v Legend

Only a handful of facts are undisputed. In 1948, Britain was described as a land built on coal with 700,000 men – and they were largely men – working down them. In 1984 there were less than 200 collieries with 200,000 workers left. On the one hand, as heavy industry declined so did the demand for coal but in 2013 still coal accounts for 40 per cent of electricity. Almost all is imported. In 2015, there is one pit.

There are two versions of what happened in the Miners’ Strike.

In the first version, the Miners went on strike in 1984 because they feared secret plans were in place to close 70 pits. For many miners, closing a pit meant the death of their community as it was the only employment in their town or village. They would have won, the argument goes, but for strike breaking miners and the Trades Union movement’s betrayal of them. The result, according to the narrative? Weaker trades unions, lower pay for working people nationally, decimated communities and just one pit left.

In the second version, the Miners were wrong not to ask for a national ballot of their members and to go out on strike in the summer when no-one needed as much coal. Their industry was dying, their coal too expensive and miners leader militant Arthur Scargill was intent on bringing down an elected government. The result? Weaker trades unions led to flexibility in the labour market which led to growth and greater national prosperity.

Art, history and a battle

That’s the row in a nutshell. What led me to it? Music. A few years ago I saw a colliery brass band playing Acid House music. This was an art project by artist Jeremy Deller. I laughed at the wackiness of it. I was intrigued as a history geek at the idea of staging a re-enactment of a defining moment in the strike which became known as The Battle of Orgreave. I was struck by how little I knew of the subject. As a kid, I remember it on the TV news. Of Dellar’s re-enactment? There is a fascinating documentary on the project.

A thousand gathered to re-enact. Included were former striking miners and police officers as well as people more used to dressing up as Romans or Civil War Roundheads as part of historical re-enactments. The Mike Figgis documentary on it is here:

At the Battle of Orgreave pickets and police clashed. In the violence pickets and police were injured. Almost a hundred miners were arrested and charged with riot. All were later cleared when the South Yorkshire Police case them unravelled. South Yorkshire Police, miners will tell you knowingly, were the force responsible for policing Hillsborough a few years later. Those on the other side will tell you that they were two unrelated incidents.

Dellar said:

For years I had had this idea to re-enact this confrontation that I had witnessed as a young person on TV, of striking miners being chased up a hill and pursued through a village. It has since become an iconic image of the 1984 strike – having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. I received the commission, which I couldn’t believe, because I actually didn’t think it was possible to do this. After two years’ research, the re-enactment finally happened, with about eight-hundred historical re-enactors and two-hundred former miners who had been part of the original conflict. Basically, I was asking the re-enactors to participate in the staging of a battle that occurred within living memory, alongside veterans of the campaign. I’ve always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem, or as a thousand-person crime re-enactment.

It was a different comms landscape

The book ‘Marching to the Faultline’ gives a fascinating and unpartisan account of the strike. For balance, it has been criticised by both sides. But it is the communications landscape it recalls that fascinated me.

The landscape of the 1980s was pre-internet. National newspapers and TV news were unchallenged. Each newspaper had a ‘labour correspondent’ whose job was to cover strikes. But this pool of gatekeepers were shunned by the miners. The National Union of Mineworkers had one press officer who openly didn’t like Press. Allegations of bias had foundation but as New Labour would show a decade later, they needed to be engaged with. Announcements still came from press conferences. But NUM Press conferences were often filled with supporters which Arthur Scargill played to. Besides, this the miners’ leader only really trusted one hard left newspaper. Journalists who did turn up on picket lines were often threatened and had to stand for safety behind the police lines driving them in effect towards the police narrative. As a media strategy, it seems as flawed in the 1980s as it seems today.

Internal comms for the miners came in print and face-to-face. The Miner was the union newspaper. Face-to-face networks dominated. Women’s support groups kept families fed and community networks built on the mutual trust of working underground were vital.

For the government of the day, ministers were slow to grasp that industrial correspondents were important. But on their side there was the unanimous support of national newspaper barons fed-up with their own union problem. Public opinion was vital and the newspapers were key.

And the cost? There’s no agreement on that, either. The government of the day said this was around £6 billion and there’s a ‘good day to bury bad news’ briefing that emerged to go with it. Further research by Brussels-based TUC have put the overall cost at £28.5 billion at 2003 prices for the cost of police, closing mines, unpaid income tax, social security, the cost of alternative energy production during the strike, coal imports and a whole raft of other factors.

Would social media have made a difference?

Of course, the historian in me recognises the folly of ‘what if?’ history which is only ever speculation.
But the comms person in me is intrigued.

Social media is excellent at putting a human face on an issue. Literature and cinema and has been kind to the miners. If happiness writes white then the Miners Strike is filled with colour. The films Brassed Off and Billy Elliott showed human stories. It showed violence too. Would smartphones on picket lines shown the uglier side of police tactics? Or the uglier side of the miners?

Social media can give real-time updates. A powerful image can go viral. The Occupy protests knew this. So do anti-austerity pressure groups like 38 Degrees. But there are still bankers’ bonuses.

So, would social media have made a difference? It’s impossible to know.

Today, the miners strike for many isn’t over. The watchdog IPCC has ruled out charging police officers for their role at Orgreave and allegations of perjury. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign are on Facebook and are pressing for a Hillsborough-style inquiry. And yet the miners leader Arthur Scargill now refuses all interviews and has done for years.

For anyone working in the field of communications, it’s fascinating to look back at what is a different country. It’s also living history and it will be fascinating to see how this continues to play out in art, literature and digital communications.

CLOSED DATA: The Problem With Open Data is Open Data People

3703575103_e11976b530_bThere is a movement that many people haven’t heard of that in theory has the power to re-shape the world you live in.

It can expose fraud, save lives and give new insight into the London blitz.

The movement is for open data. That’s the publishing of all public information.

So, that’s everything from the location of public toilets or grit bins to what suppliers a council buys toilet roll from.

Once the data is published in a format that computers can read – csv files on a spreadsheet should do it – the information can start to throw-up trends and spikes unseen by the human eye. Tim Berners-Lee gave an excellent TED talk on the subject which you can see here.

There’s a significant role it can play in creating insight that can shape communications decisions.

But the single biggest obstacle to all this is that open data people are bad – no, stratospherically bad – at communicating with non-geeks.

I’ll give you an example.

In Birmingham, there’s an informal event called Brewcamp which sees people come together at a café after hours to hear three speakers. There’s room for discussion afterwards.

A year or so back, with the coffee bought we sat down for the first speaker. This was on an aspect of open data which more than half the audience had come for. It was a pretty technical discussion of SPARQL queries and universal formats that left the converted animated and unconverted in the dark.

“Could I just say,” one baffled audience member said to the geeks at the end, “that you lot are really, really scary and I diidn’t understand a word that anyone said.”

And then hack days. That’s the process where mainly coders gather round to put their heads together to try and solve a problem by building a website or an app. Largely as a prototype. At best, this creates new ideas and approaches. At worst, it’s geeks showboating to other geeks.

I’m not remotely open data expert. I get the broad principles. I even helped the council who I was working for pioneer publishing every line of spend over £500. And no, bloggers did not act as an army armchair of auditors. I also co-founded a long defunct blog to try and share examples of where open data made a difference to tell the story. I gave up.

But the excellent BlueLightCamp event in Birmingham reminded me of the problem that the open data community have of speaking outside the coding ghetto. The people I met were all fine, passionate people. But they voiced day-to-day frustration in dealing with non-coders. Rewired State and Young Rewired State do good work in the field. And I like the look of Mark Braggins’ Open Data Aha! blog.

Nothing changes overnight.

But until enough open data geeks speak human then open data will not realise its potential.

Here’s how: tell them what the problem you faced was. Not the code problem but the actual real world problem. Then tell them what the thing was that cracked it. Then mention there’s a bit of open data under the bonnet that helped that.

The story needs to be told again and again. Not as a csv file. But in plain English.

Creative commons credit 

Bike https://flic.kr/p/6DgMRa

LIGHTBULB TYPES: The Great Universal Sticky ‘Do They Get It?’ Problem and the Three Types in Your Team

7142989057_53d70b6bae_zTwice in the past couple of weeks I’ve been reminded about about the great universal sticky problem and what to do about it.

The problem that almost dare not speak it’s name is how much your team are keen to change, innovate, be creative and explore new ways of communicating. Do they see an infographic or Snapchat and want to know more? Or do they roll their eyes and look at the clock?

In short, do they ‘get it’?

The subject came up at BlueLightCamp in Birmingham which was an excellent event for people in organisations who may deal with emergencies.

You may be a great person in a senior position. You may want your team to change and adapt. But the hard fact is that they all may not. I’m here to tell you that that’s okay. And it’s not your fault. So stop blaming yourself.

When I was in local government I was fortunate enough to have a boss who did ‘get it’ and was keen for me to experiment and try things out. I was lucky. Early on I helped organise an unconference in the town where I worked to talk through some of  the bright ideas on how to communicate better using the web. I invited the rest of the team along expecting them to come and ‘get it’ straight away. I was expecting a Simpsons moment where everyone comes, the penny drops and everyone cheers wildly. Of 16, just four came. Two were unimpressed and two ‘got it.’

It took me a while to work this out. My team, your team, their team, everyone’s team is generally made up of three types of people.

Section One: People with light bulbs over their head

They are the ones who need to be celebrated. They have ideas, energy and enthusiasm. They can see that the world has changed and they want to try and create the new rules. They want things to work and they’ll leave at 7pm at night if they have to and carry on at home.

Section Two: People who need a piece of paper

They are the ones who don’t have a lightbulb above their head. But they may have a bit of a glimmer. But the glimmer is obscured by worrying about permission and bandwidth and what the director might say. But if they have a piece of paper in their hand to say that ‘it’s alright, I have permission and I’ve been on a training session’ then that glimmer may spark. And some of them may well turn into people with lightbulbs over their head. They’ll leave the office at about a quarter past five.

Section Three: People who are unengaged

They don’t have a lightbulb over their head. Someone tried to do something differently in 2003 and it didn’t work. This won’t work either. They’ll fold their arms. They’ll mutter. They may even be actively unengaged and want the thing to fall over. They’ll leave the office at five o’clock on the dot and hate staying any later.

A simple plan for what to do

Give everyone the same opportunity. But concentre on the folk from section one. Their bright ideas, creativity and innovation will drive you forward. They’ll may even bright some of the section two people along when they realise that this is do-able.

And the section three people? If they don’t want to play you can’t make them. Make it clear that this is the path you’ll be going down. They can come with you or be left behind.

But don’t beat yourself up. Not everyone agreed with Winston Churchill, Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Jobs.

Creative commons picture credit: NASA.

INBOX WINBOX: General Election 2015 Email Campaigns: How They Did and Seven Pearls of Wisdom

15701046831_408253d6bf_bEmail can be the Cinderalla of communications. Unseen, unheard and quietly getting on with it.

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

Gmail https://www.flickr.com/photos/121483302@N02/15701046831/


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