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.
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.
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.
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LIGHTBULB TYPES: The Great Universal Sticky ‘Do They Get It?’ Problem and the Three Types in Your TeamPosted: June 8, 2015
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.
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.
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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?
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