COMMS LESSONS: Sometimes a straight ‘no’ works… and 24 other things comms people have learned in 2019


So, 2019 is taking shape as a year of huge change, disruption and uncertainty.

But the stoicism of public sector comms people still astounds.

The Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook page is proving daily to be a place where people can let off steam, ask a question and learn.

As an exercise, I asked the question of what people the best lesson learned in 2019 was.

Historians may look back in search of Brexit, AI, machine learning and a change in perspective on social media. But actually, the learning has all been quite big picture. I’m struck by how timeless things can be.

Here’s 25 crowdsourced gems with some reproduced as inspiring quote memes.

Writing it out to learn in public

“I went to UK Gov Camp on Saturday and I learned an interesting lesson about weeknotes and how they can improve team communication and be a good learning tool and create a community working it all out in public. The lesson I learned is give them a try.” – Kate Norman.

Projects don’t go in straight lines

“Projects are not strictly linear. Thay are more of “a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff” and you are not a failure if your simple and well researched 1234 step plans ends up going 21724314 as long as it meets it’s purpose in the end.” – Natari Venning.

Okra still stinks in 2019

“That, no matter what you do to it, okra is still horrible.” – Rachel Rutherford.

Look after yourself first

“Best lesson I’ve learnt is “look after yourself and your own well-being. If you don’t, you are no good at looking after others.” – Donna Jordan

Pace your time off

“Don’t use all your leave up over summer or over Christmas if you don’t need or have to. I had just over a week off in January and it was bliss.” – Nick Moore

Connect over the web

“One tweet can bind people together with a shared mission. A group photo and message after a meeting somehow affirmed plans to build a social innovator community – and now it feels real.” – Caroline Kenyon.


Your team matters

Your team is your most wanted gift and powerful tool. Whoever they are, wherever they’re from, whatever they bring – your experiences and your work life hangs on what that team is.” – Joy Hale.

Trust matters

“If you ain’t got trust, you ain’t got nothing.” – Dave Glanville.

Play the long game

“Sometimes you have to compromise and play the long game.” – Georgie Agass.

Listen to help people where they want to go

“Listen and try to understand what the person wants to achieve and not engage on what they think is the solution. That way you can offer deliver something better that they hadn’t thought of.” – Mandy Pearse.

Plan in peace

“When everyone else is on leave, go to work. It’s quiet and you can get some planning done, in relative peace.”

A good comms strategy works

“Never underestimate the power of a good corporate comms strategy. It helps people to connect to their work and creates shared sense of direction that pulls the team together.” – Natasha Bolton


Remember its just work

“Do your work well, with passion and pride, and aim to love what you do, but don’t sweat it too much if things don’t always go your way – try and remember it’s ‘just’ work. And as Ferris Bueller said: ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.'” – Sara Hamilton.

Skills are transferable

“The skills you need to be a great Comms officer are transferable. Be nosey, be available and be ready to use your talent in other places within your organisation.” – Carolyne Mitchell.

Just ask

“If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Will Lodge

Stick to what’s right

If it’s not right, say so. It might be scary to go against the grain but if you stick to your values you can live with a lighter heart knowing you did the right thing.” – Rachel King.

Delete Twitter

I discovered that you will no longer get angry at twonks on Twitter if you don’t go on it and delete it from your phone.” – Paul Fearn.

Look after yourself

“You can only give your best if you are looking after yourself.” – Amanda Coleman.

Weather lesson #1

“Feel free to quote me, Dan. ‘Rock salt is not actual fairy dust.'” – Alan James.

Weather lesson #2

“That everyone’s a f*****g meteorologist.” – Matthew Dunn.

No. Just no.

“Sometimes a straight ‘no’ works wonders – mostly for my sanity.” – Esme Yuill.

Space, please

“Anything is possible given a little time and space.” – Louise Alabaster

Heart beats mind

#”I’ve learnt from public meetings that it’s heart over mind every time and people will lament the loss of local services even if the truth is they are underused and inefficient.” – Tamsin May.

Keep on #1

“Keep on keeping on. The work you do in the darkness – the extra hours, the negotiating, the missed lunch breaks, the occasional sob in the loo, the plain English fight, the care for good comms – will always come into the light.” – Emma Donovan.

Keep on #2

“Never give up on something you passionately believe in.” – Annie Davidsen.

The Public Sector Comms Headspace is a closed Facebook group for public sector people and can be found here.


PLEASE PLEASE ME: Don’t add your favourite pop track to the video you’ve just made


Your video is made, it looks great and you think it would look even better if I can just add my favourite pop track from right here in my itunes library.

It’s okay, the argument goes, I paid to download that track. It;s mine. Besides, Madonna will never know. And if she did she’d be all over my adoption video that now features all-time favourite club anthem ‘Vogue’, right?

Actually, no.

Disclaimer: this post doesn’t profess to be formal legal advice. Engage the services of counsel for that but I would point you towards some resources to give you a basic understanding of copyright law when making a video with your smartphone.

But you do need to know the basics if you are creating video content.

Copyright: the basics

Copyright is a legal protection given to the author of a piece of artwork whether that be a painting, play, picture, song or whatever. This basic guide from the NUJ is a good starting point. The creator creates the work and if you want to use it you need a licence. By paying for that Madonna track you have a license to play it yourself. You don’t have a licence to include it in a cigaratte commercial. Or your video.

The UK government have a handy guide to music copyright.

Copyright: the risks

According to advice, possesses in the course of a business with a view to committing any at infringing the rights conferred would attract a maximum three month prison sentence or a £5,000 fine. In other words, if you use someone else’s music you risk prison or a fine.

But relax. For the most part, its the money that rights holders are particularly keen on not seeing you doing a ten-stretch in Sing-Sing.

If they think you don’t have money, the place where you uploaded the music – such as YouTube or Twitter – will get a take down notice. This means the URL you are driving people to won’t be showing your finely-crafted video but a message telling people you don’t know the law.


If they think you have money, you’ll get a takedown notice and a request for cash.

The part of local government I worked in felt short of money. The bottom line still said it was a £350 million a year operation.

Fair dealing

There are defences to breach of copyright that you can deploy which you can see here. The most common I get asked about is ‘fair dealing’. In reality, this won’t work if you are using the music on a video. This is for things like private research, a critical review of something like a new play or a new film or news coverage.

So, nice try. But no.

Places to get Royalty-Free music

There are plenty of places you can get music for your film. But check the licence. The copyright holder may want you to credit their work or website. That’s really easy. Add them in a short credit at the end of the film. Here is a list of 12 places you can find Royalty-free music.

Picture credit: Circuito Fora / Flickr

You can find out about the Essential Video Skills for Comms workshops I deliver right here. Shout if I can help.

FACEBOOK: Don’t let yourself be whacked in the page admin clampdown


Just a quick repeat of something I’ve said before but needs repeating.

On Facebook, please don’t create a work account to run side-by-side with your real one.

That could be an account named after you, your team or an entirely fictitious individual.

People have done in the past to get round the idea that they don’t want to link their admin of a Facebook page with their own account.

I absolutely get that.

But the thing is, its often based upon misunderstanding and risks ending in tears.

Facebook’s terms of service allow you one profile. That’s your own.

  • Use the same name that you use in everyday life.
  • Provide accurate information about yourself.
  • Create only one account (your own) and use your timeline for personal purposes.
  • Not share your password, give access to your Facebook account to others or transfer your account to anyone else (without our permission).

All others are classed as ‘fake’ and risk being removed without warning. If that happens you will lose access to your Facebook page. If all of your page admins are fake you risk losing your page access entirely.

I’ve blogged about this before, but two things make me repeat it. Firstly, I keep coming across this practice in training. It makes me intensely nervous for those that do it.

Secondly, that Facebook’s mood music is to eliminate these fake profiles. They have algorithms that can detect them. It’s the lowest of low hanging fruit in the war on fake news.  A million fake accounts are being blocked every day, Facebook have revealed. Don’t let you be part of the statistics.

That would be an awkward conversation with your bosses’ boss.



VITAL DATA: What every comms person needs to know about the Ofcom communications market report 2018

We will look back at 2007 as being a year when the world went in a new direction and communicators struggled to keep up.

In January that year, Apple’s iphone, Google’s Android and BBC’s iPlayer were all launched.

Tom Baldwin in his book ‘Control, Alt, Delete’ singles out the pivotal year of 2007 as the moment that the world was being re-shaped faster than business and people could adapt to it. I’d add communicators to that list, too, who are also running to keep up.

Better internet connectivity is leading to better devices which leads to new services online.

One annual set of helpful bright red snow poles through this blizzard of change has been the Ofcom communications market report. It maps how people consume the media that acts as a mirror to the UK. Trends, impossible to spot on the ground day-to-day are mapped from a strategic view.

This year, it has slimmed from around 250 pages to a slimline 90. And in addition, there is an interactive page that allows you to drill down for more data.

In short, this report remains the numbers you need.

A decade of change

We are a smartphone nation
Across the UK, 78 per cent of the population have a smartphone.

Smartphones are ubiquitous. From 17 per cent ownership a decade ago to 78 per cent a decade later they are the platform of choice.

People check their phone on average every 12 minutes.

Almost half – 46 per cent – would miss their phone most out of all channels.

They help us stay connected and they are the platform of choice as a web browser more than a maker of phone calls. More than 90 per cent are more bothered about their phone’s ability to connect to the web over 75 per cent bothered about its ability to make calls.

The average time spent on a smartphone is two hours 24 minutes rising to three hours 14 minutes for young people.

Since 2007, we have left some tech behind
But as tech moves, some channels wilt. Desktop PCs have fallen from 69 per cent ownership to 28 per cent with DVD players dipping from 83 per cent to 64 per cent.

Tablets are plateauing at 58 per cent ownership with ownership amongst the AB demographic at 39 per cent greatly larger than the DE demographic on 14 per cent.

We are maintaining some media
Nine out of 10 people watch TV weekly with 95 per cent owning a TV set.

Radio is still listened to by 90 per cent of the population – unchanged since 2007.

We are developing a taste for new tech
On average, 13 per cent of homes have a smartspeaker with Amazon – 75 per cent – in market dominance.

Just over 10 per cent listen to a podcast every week with a peak of 28 per cent amongst 25 to 35-year-olds.

Virtual reality headsets – 5 per cent – make their debut.

We are always online
A total of 64 per cent say the internet is an essential part of their life and 29 per cent feel lost without the internet and 34 per cent are cut off without it.

Of all mobile phone users, 76 use their device to go online.

One in five adults is online 40 hours a week or more with the UK average now 24 hours per week per person. That’s double the figure compared to 2011.

We are online at home but less so at work
In 2007, we used the internet 3.3 hours a week at work which has risen to 6.6 hours in 2018. The figures are dwarfed by the 14.9 hours a week opn average we spend online at home.

We rely on smartphones on the commute
Time travelling with a smartphone means that 42 per cent complete personal tasks while 35  per cent carry out work-related tasks. Young people are especially adept with nine per cent of 18 to 34s carrying out 11 or more tasks compared to 1 per cent of over 35s.

We know there is a downside
Just over half (54 per cent) accept that phones intrude into conversations but young people are far more forgiving than older people.

Young people and old people are united in using it to connect
Surprisingly, while different age groups use the web in a different way, there is a broad consensus that the web is useful for keeping connected with friends and family. All age groups are around 75 per cent in agreement.

Smartphone ownership peaks at 95 per cent for 16 to 24-year-olds where almost everyone has one. But he trend is also to be found for over 55-year-olds wit ha majority – 51 per cent – have such a device.

We are maintaining social media
In the UK in 2018, 77 per cent have a social media account.

Comscore research, which is referenced in the report shows the league table of UK users:

YouTube 44.3 million

Facebook 41.8 million

Twitter 27.5 million

Snapchat 22.7 million

Messenger 22.3 million

Whats App 21.0 million

We are fractured in our social media use
As the research shows, different age groups use different platforms in different ways. But the breakdown of who uses what is hugely useful when planning content.

How to use the Ofcom communications market report

The document can be found on the Ofcom website and downloaded as a pdf. It can also be accessed through an interactive portal here.

30 days of human comms #55: the firefighters who told a girl she COULD be a firefighter, too

Human comms is simply an organisation talking in a human voice.

Sometimes it is planned but often it is responding with a human voice to something which has happened.

So, bravo West Midlands Fire Service for responding to a tweet from a girl who didn’t think she could be a firefighter with video… of female firefighters.

The tweet and its video reply can be seen here:

In the tweeted response was liked 12,500 times with more than 2,400 talking about it.

The overall mood of the responses to the fire service was overwhelmingly positive with more than 1.1 million watching the clip. West Midlands Fire service blogged the figures and their surprise here in a corporate post.

The purpose of the clip was to tell people – and Esme in particular – that women can be firefighters, too. Figures on the number of female firefighters in the UK are hard to pin down but the London Fire Brigade have seven per cent while in 2012 the national figure was four per cent.

It is beautiful clip whose ROI will take time to pass through to the bottom line.

It shows that being human works that a video can be made for an audience of one and be shared and that content can be shot on a smartphone is effective. It also shows that women can be firefighters.

Full disclosure: I’ve helped deliver video skills training to West Midlands Fire comms staff who have picked up the ball and run with it.

POLLING LINES: Some updated social media purdah guidelines


A while back I wrote some guidelines for social media and I’ve updated and simplified them.

This time around, as unexpected as it is there’s going to be a few people caught out by planned communications during the election campaign. Seek guidance. But if you can show that it was pre-planned and you stay politically neutral you should be okay.

But whatever you do, communicate these while things are quiet. You’ll need a steer over when Purdah for the General Election starts from your Returning Officer and legal team. If your organisation has multiple accounts spread scross the frontline and elsehwhere make sure they know the guidance.

What is Purdah?

There’s this funny period in the run-up to an election which sees local government comms team change behaviour.

Gone are the press releases from politicians and in comes quotes from officers. Why? To ensure that the council cannot be accused of political bias in the run up to polling day.

It’s been around for decades and local government comms teams have got a pretty good grasp of what this entails. It means under The Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity (Local Government Act 1986) that newsletters, press releases, conferences, badges and web pages are affected.

The code says:

The period between the notice of an election and the election itself should preclude proactive publicity in all its forms of candidates and other politicians involved directly in the election.

Publicity should not deal with controversial issues or report views, proposals or recommendations in such a way that identifies them with individual members or groups of members.

However, it is acceptable for the authority to respond in appropriate circumstances to events and legitimate service enquiries provided that their answers are factual and not party political.

Members holding key political or civic positions should be able to comment in an emergency or where there is a genuine need for a member level response to an important event outside the authority’s control.

Proactive events arranged in this period should not involve members likely to be standing for election.

What this means is that the council’s resources must not be or even appear to an observer to be used for party political ends in this period of heightened political sensitivity.

Six golden rules during Purdah

1. No publicity will be given to matters which are politically controversial.

2. The general presumption will be that no references will be made to individual politicians in press releases (except where there is a valid emergency).

3. Great caution will be exercised before undertaking any significant media exercise unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election was called.

4. No photographs of candidates in the election will be issued.

5. Before any request for council photographs and other materials is considered, enquiries will be made as to the use to which they are to be put and an appropriate restriction on use imposed if supplied.

6. The position of Mayor as the figurehead of the authority is different and material will be issued, providing it is not of a political nature.

But what teams struggle with is social media. How does this affect the Twitter stream? Here’s a cut-out-and-keep guidance for people who operate council social media channels (disclaimer: check it with your legal team first).

Social media channels

1. Please explain that as a council channel of communication you are governed by Purdah in a period before an election. It may be helpful to tweet a link to an explanation of Purdah for guidance.

2. Do not share content from political parties, politicians or political opinion.

3. Do not add content on matters which are politically controversial.

4. Do not tweet text, images or video of political parties, politicians or subjects which are politically controversial.

5. Do not stage a significant digital campaign unless it can be demonstrated that this was included in the forward diary before the election was called.

6. Tweets by and about the Mayor may be retweeted as long as they are not of a political nature.

7. In exceptional circumstances please first seek permission from the communications unit to tweet or retweet a comment by a politician during Purdah.

Third party social media profiles

Council staff who update third party social media profiles as part of their job are governed by Purdah. These profiles include business partnership profiles which the council supports.

There are two options:

1. Opt out: For the duration of Purdah hand over ALL admin to a non-council member of the partnership and allow them to add Purdah-restricted content that council staff are unable to post. Resume adding content and managing after the election.

2. Opt in: Council employees can continue to add content or share admin duties but ALL content is governed by Purdah restrictions.

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr

GETTING READY: TWELVE things public sector comms teams need to do to get Brexit-ready


Looking at what’s coming down the track in 2019 for public sector comms people Brexit came shining through.

But what’s to do?

Wait for the worst?

Cover your ears and say ‘la, la, la, la?’

Actually, if you’re in public sector comms there’s stacks you need to do.

While I blogged it briefly in my predictions for 2019 here are some detailed things you can do if you are local or central government, blue light or NHS.

Brexit risks for comms people

Government, frontline police and others have warned consistently of the risk of civil disorder, shortages of medicine, through to nursing shortages. In areas such as Kent emergency planning to keep Dover as to close to moving as possible have been set out.

You may get opposition from politicians in your organisation who think this is scaremongering. But it is far wiser plan for the eventuality.

I do think that the biggest headaches of 2019 for the UK public sector will be directly or indirectly Brexit related. From the the hard and direct impact of traffic problems and food shortages all the way through to soft impact recruitment drives as some posts are harder to fill.

As a comms person, you are not there to debate the rights or wrongs of Brexit but to look dispassionately at how it can impact on your organisation.

Much of this is emergency comms but a fair chunk isn’t. It’s day-to-day. As sure as rain, the impact of Brexit will find a way you reach you and shape your workload. So here’s a few things to get in place.

  1. Get the right kit

I’m astounded 15 years on from the launch of Facebook that people don’t have the right equipment. I’ve met central government comms people with iphones that bar apps and Police who can’t use social media on their tablets in an emergency.

It’s crazy.

Brexit is a critical opportunity to upgrade your kit so you can actually do your job.

The simple question you must answer is this: ‘Can I communicate in realtime away from the office?’

For this your need android or ios devices that can handle your email, create content and post it to social media on the move.

You absolutely categorically don’t need Windows devices or blackberries that can’t help you do all that.

But the business case. If you need to, get your emergency planners to sign-off against the need for kit in black and white. If and when the balloon goes up you don’t want the finger pointed at you.

Have a look in the constitution to see if there are supporting lines about using the right equipment. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll find. Trust me.

Have a look at your policies. Cut and paste the policy that says you’re a digital organisation that makes data-led decisions. You know the kind of thing.

You can build a business case by playing back to the organisation what the organisation has previously said.

Then have a look at some of the government warnings.

2. Get the right content creation skills

Know how to shoot video and post it in real-time.

Disclaimer: I’ve been helping to deliver training for the last four years, so I would say this wouldn’t I? But, the thing is video is more trusted than pictures and much, more trusted than text. If you need to get something out, get it out.

Video is more engaging than words by at least a third.

Here’s an example of Periscope from West Midlands Fire Service:

What does it do? It spells out that there is a fire, that the fire crew are on it and what they are doing. It warns and informs in realtime.

Failing this, an image can help you communicate in realtime.

3. Post to Twitter and Facebook groups

Posting to Twitter has been default since the 2011 riots. You reach people quickly and you reach the journalists and opinion formers.

But my strong advice for 2018 is to look for the relevant Facebook group too. This is from an open Guildford Facebook group hours after the murder of a man in front of his son on a train.

People are where they are on the web not where you want them to be.


4. Build relationships with the right people

Each area has a Local Resilience Forums that helps codify the response on who does what. You can find a list here. The stabbing at Manchester Victoria railway station showed this. In a police-led incident they led the online communications.

Get to know people in peacetime so you are able to act when the cars are on fire.

5. Refresh your emergency planning comms plan

All public sector organisations need a document that says how they’ll communicate in an emergency.

Go and re-write yours to make it 2019-proof.

If there’s a major incident there may be a public enquiry and you may well be on the stand being asked to go through your emergency comms plan and explain how you did – or didn’t – deliver it.

6. Test it

It’s been an occasional joy to train local government teams in public workshops and then test them.

It doesn’t have to be me. But you need to stress test. You’ll learn a lot. Believe me.

7. Have a rota

Funny how things rarely kick off between 9am and 5pm. Have cover around the clock. If it can’t be paid set out the risks of failing to have this in black and white for the future.

8. Be strategic

As a comms team you shouldn’t be working in isolation. You should be plugged into the wider organisation to raise the issues early and understand the areas where there’s risks and dangers.

9. Place marketing

If the future is uncertain, being able to sell where you are to a national and international audience will have a role strategically post-Brexit. For local government, being able to tell people good place to live and work will be an asset more than ever. The foundations are good emergency comms. You probably don’t want Google searches being all about riots.

But if Brexit does come to pass there needs to be a narrative about why companies would want to be in your community.

10. Staff shortages

This will depend on where you are in the country. Your team may be fortunate to employ some EU citizens and if you do you’ll be aware of the uncertainty that surrounds. There’s a management issue here about reassuring those in post and recruiting able people in future.

Aside from that, a regular demand on your time in 2019 and beyond may be to retain and recruit the right staff in the right places. Nursing is already right across this.

11. It’s going to get harsher so look after staff and politicians

If you are looking after a Facebook page or a Twitter account don a tin hat. It’s going to get fiesty. If things go wrong, the quality of debate will get nasty. Make sure your staff are rotated and given screen breaks. Don’t have one person checking everything 24/7. That’;s duty of care time.

Remind them when to engage and not engage. Look to mute on Twitter rather than block wuld be my advice.

You need to be aware that officers may be getting it in the neck online as well as politicians as well as people who don’t fit the world view of Tommy Robinson.

12. Be aware of misinformation

Well meaning or malevolent the spread of information will impact on what you are doing. This post from political journalist Robert Peston shows the issue. A warning that gathers Brexit commentary and warns people to act.

A senior politician distances themselves but is the information accurate? Or deliberately stirring? The lack of branding makes it look like it isn’t official. But the blue and white gives an echo of NHS communications.

It doesn’t matter what your own beliefs on Brexit are. There is a chance you will be asked or ordered to play things up or down around Brexit.

It’s important for you to have ethics as well as a moral compass.

Tell the truth. Don’t lie. Be responsible.

Do the right thing.

Picture credit: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 / Flickr

Feel free to get in touch. I’m and @danslee on Twitter. I write a weekly email you can sign-up to here.