LONG READ: A Tomorrow’s World for future comms

tomThere was this great TV programme when I was a kid called Tomorrow’s World where amazing new concepts were demonstrated.

Back in 1979, the amazing invention called the mobile phone was road tested. We would, they said, no longer have to have to rely on landlines. In 1969, they called school computers and in 1994 it was the internet.

The mood music of it all was that one day, things would be so much different. It would be better but we were in control. For a while now there’s been a few emerging trends that I’ve been trying to make sense of. They’re now just starting to drift into view and they’ll change things for everyone. Not just comms people.

Bear with me. It’ll get weird, but let’s walk through it together.

A man in glasses has told me my fridge will talk to my scales

A couple of years ago a futurologist in sharp glasses told me that the internet of things was coming. This would be objects connected-up to the internet to allow them to talk to each other. Your scales would work out your ideal weight and, if you wanted, tell your fridge when milk stocks were running low to re-order semi-skimmed milk rather than full fat. And not chocolate. Or your smart whiskey bottle will let you know if someone is nipping at your Johnie Walker Blue Label.

Of course, the possibilities of all this are endless. Predictions of the scale of the internet of things – or IOT – range from the seriously mindblowing to the you’ll need to sit down because you’ll be rocking back and forth unable to comprehend. Deloitte says that a billion devices will be shipped in 2015. By 2020, Gartner says this will reach 25 billion devices or the equivalent of six devices for every person on the planet.  Cisco says it’s 50 billion. Intel have it at 200 billion. Either way, it’s going to be a lot and my new printer that I can email and has its own URL blinks back at me as proof.

There’s always a trade-off with tech and one that equates to the Native Americans getting a handful of shiny jewels in return for the island of Manhattan. They dangle something cool in front of us and we handover loads of stuff they want. In this case its stacks and stacks of personal data. Think of Facebook. They give us a place to post baby pics and view cat videos. We give them our date of birth, school, University, where we live, where we work, spending habits, political beliefs and who we want to win Strictly. It’s a marketer’s dream. But the University library of information you’ll give to the internet of things will make Facebook look like a Janet and John easy read book.

Your communications will be automated

So, as the internet of things grows the more devices will communicate to each other. We just won’t see it. But what we will maybe see is sharp tailored personalised communication based on our sleeping, spending and drinking habits. It’s happening already to some extent. I think of the Troop canvas shoulder bag that keeps cropping up in my Facebook timeline after I google searched it last week. However, with lots more data the possibilities open up.

“More of our communication will be artificial and less of it will be human,” says Tracey Follows in The Guardian. “It is now common to say that the world is uncertain and therefore can’t be planned for. One thing is certain though. We are entering into a world that’s post human.”

The link did the rounds on Twitter. The tag ‘post human’ certainly jarred with some people in my timeline but it’s an eye-catching line. To some extent it is factually accurate. All that data. All those fridges. All those supermarkets. But to some extent it’s also wrong. The communications that will really stand out will be that which makes best use of the data to personalise it. As a married father of two children who likes cricket, technology and doing things with my family at the weekend anything that takes that data and helps me spend my time and money better is welcome.

Your crisis comms needs to be really, really good

We have the expansion of tech through the internet of thing and others the surrender of all that data.  Here’s a really bright and cheery prediction. There’s going to be a massive cyber attack along the lines of a web 3.0 9/11. Not if. When.

Thomas Lee upon sees an internet of things showroom in San Franscisco by US firm Target where a car alarm wakes a baby whose cries are spotted by sensors which play soothing music. It dawns on him:

“We are so screwed… it was all very impressive, but I couldn’t help notice an irony: the retailer that ion 2013 was subject to a hack that compromised the credit card data of 100 million consumers now wanted people to entrust their entire homes to the internet.”

So, I’d maybe look at how you respond when there’s a data breach and things fall over.

Your internet is being automated

Data, data everywhere. That’s for the geeks, right? Actually, no. Not really. In a really challenging piece in Vox Todd Van Der Werff wrote a piece under the headline ‘2015 is the year the old internet finally died.’

He drew a simple conclusions from a number of recent stories which he maps out in the piece here before concluding:

“The internet as we know it, the internet of five, 10 or 20 years ago is going away as surely as print media replaced by the new internet that reimagines personal identity as something easily commodified that plays less on the desire for information or thoughtfulness than it does the desire for a quick jolt of emotion.

“It’s an internet driven not by human beings but by content, at all costs, And none of us – neither media professionals, nor readers can stop it. Every single one of us is building it every single day.”

People prefer the snackable and the fun, he argues. And it’s true. Yet most comms people haven’t got that.  They – we’re – born in a world of newspapers and press releases. They – we’re – institutionalised to think that the organisation we work for is the centre of everyone’s waking moment and if it isn’t that’s their fault not ours.

At this point I think back, not for the first time, to the former Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher who said that we need to communicate like insurgents. In other words, fast, agile, snackable, fleet-of-foot content that thought more about the person than the organisation.

Getting good at data… and saying ‘no’

Of course, we’ve said it for years that data will be important to communications. We’ve said it but I’m not sure we really acted upon it. I’ve got a bit testy with the open data community in the past for not being very good at talking to people. But I wouldn’t deny the potential that data has to make the world a better place and to help you communicate better. I think of open data helping to expose massive fraud in Canada. I think on a very micro level the Coast Guard comms person who when I showed her followerwonk realised there was a spike in how active her Twitter followers were at 6am and then decided to schedule some content every day at that time.

The reality is that communications and PR people are very, very bad at using and interpreting data and need to be better. We also need to be much, much better at kicking back and asking for the data to be produced by the people who are asking us to write the press release, set-up the Twitter account or plan the campaign.

There is an art to saying ‘no’ and I don’t think comms people say it often enough. Sometimes, this can be done politely. Sometimes, this needs to be done by banging the table. Or in other words, to be able to command the skills of ‘Yes Minister’ alongside almost but not quite ‘The Thick of It.’ But maybe just be really careful who you are Malcolm Tucker direct with, okay?

So what does all this mean?

It means more things changing faster. It means the Robert Phillips phrase of ’embrace chaos’ being ever more relevant. Why? Because that’s all we can do. There’s a long tail with all of this. This will take shape in some sectors way before they reach others. But this is the direction we’re headed.

SOCIAL CONTENT: Are You Getting the Balance Right?


Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for comms planning and having a purpose.

If the aim is to do something then it makes sense to have your comms pointing at that.

The only thing is that social media isn’t like that. It’s social. So, a stream of call-to-action updates just won’t work. It’s as social as a stream of flyers being pushed through your letterbox.

So, what’s the answer?

There needs to be a balance of the social and the stuff you want people to sign up for, buy or do.

Often in training I’ll refer to an 80-20 split. The 80 per cent is conversational and engaging content. The 20 per cent is the things you’d like people to do.

In a fascinating interview on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Bottom Line’ Asda’s social manager puts the balance at 10 to 1.

Dominic Birch, Asda senior director of marketing, innovation and new revenue, said that the social media team has now become part of the wider PR team.

“We didn’t have a budget. So it wasn’t the case of advertising that we were on Facebook. Each time we posted some content we had to rely on even a very small number of people at first liking it for that content to be seen my anyone else otherwise we would be speaking to ourselves.

“We averaged two or three posts a day, every day, so maybe 20 posts a week.

It started to get interesting when they started to get customers to chip in with decisions. Nothing big. Customers chose the design for Christmas tea towels.

“What was really interesting was that 4,500 people went to the bother of asking whether they liked design ‘a’, ‘b’ or ‘c’. Actually, it was that moment that with 18 million customers we understood that if you connect to the right ones they really do care about what you do, what they say and why wouldn’t they? Ultimately, they’re going to come into your shop and choose to buy it.”

Big numbers is not the answer as fewer people see the posts. If the people who like your page are true customers it’ll cost you less effectively to reach them through Facebook ads.

“There is a danger that social media becomes diarrhea. We had a rule of thumb that for every post we wanted to push or sell something to be very blunt about it we had to put 10 other posts in the bank. They are there solely to engage our customers. We have to have done hard work  talking about what the customers wanted to talk about before we have the right or licence to push something out.

“It’s a two-way dialogue social media. It just is. Our starting point is not to sell. It’s to listen. A few years ago we had a Christmas ad that was based on insight that it was Mum who does the heavy lifting, organises the present, gets the tree, cooks the meal and we depicted this advert and were met with a media backlash. Some people thought this was filmed in the 1950s and Fathers for Justice were going to do protests in the turkey aisle but we had three or four thousand comments saying things like ‘I nudged my husband awake when that came on the TV and said:L ‘that’s how it really feels.’ If you’d have gone back two or three years there would have been a high level meeting and the advert would have been pulled.”

That’s useful insight. Are you getting the balance right?


Creative commons credit

Balance https://flic.kr/p/9herYu


FOR UNDER 24s: Create Content Without Boundaries

109934945_0b552b44bc_oSometimes you stumble on something that catches your imagination and fills in some of the blanks.

That happened listening to Millie Riley a broadcast assistant who was talking on BBC Radio 5’s Review of 2013.

She was talking about how under 24-year-olds consume their radio and how their radio is online, face-to-face, shared… and on the radio.

It reminded me that you can learn things from people outside public relations and I was listening thinking of how this affected me in my job as local government public relations.

Listening to Millie talk about her radio was like listening to someone talk about a foreign country. But that’s fine. I’m not in that generation born post 1982 that are known as Millenials.

Just think of it all as content without boundaries.

As Millie says:

“It’s just to do with great content. Wherever there is great content we will be. The main understanding is that it can be funny, it can be news, it can be documentaries. We can put lots of different hats on. There’s a misunderstanding that we want really funny stuff or just music. Actually, we can do all sorts of things.

“As clichéd as it may sound, wherever there is great content that’s where we’ll be.

“They’re listening to the radio and they don’t even realise they’re listening to the radio. They’ll be listening to clips on the BBC website or whatever. They’ll suddenly realise: ‘oh, that’s radio.’ Everything out there is just an amalgamation. It’s just stuff to be interested and enjoy. It might be radio. They may not even realise it.

“We do have lots of options. But if you create content that’s multi-platform and multi-media and Radio One are really good at this. They’ll create a video and then they’ll talk about it on air and people will watch it online and they just bring the two together and I think that’s the way to do it.

“The more their content becomes ubiquitous and the more they become a name on YouTube and that’s the main platform that they’re using the more people will become connected to Radio One as a brand. They’ve definitely upped their game at the beginning and end as that tells them that it’s Radio One. They’re getting better at that.”

You can hear Millie’s contribution on Soundcloud too here…


So, that leads to this kind of content. A Muse track with a homemade video and 60,000 views.

So, what does that piece of radio advice mean for my corner of communications?

It made me think of something Julie Waddicor wrote on comms2point0 about making friends with creative people from colleges as part of a campaign. That makes sense. There may be some rough edges but you’ll get a different perspective.

By thinking of something more creative you may open the door to something like Melbourne Metro system’s ‘Dumb Ways To Die’ which saw a 21 per cent dip in track incursions and 67 million views on YouTube.

So, it begs the question, what are you doing to get a message to under 24s? And others?

Are you really sure that press release of yours is making it?

Or should there be different talents in the team too?

Picture credit 

Dial http://www.flickr.com/photos/tunruh/109934945/sizes/o/

OFF SPIN: Why Malcolm Tucker must die

As beautiful illicit guilty pleasures go watching BBC2’s The Thick Of It is not exactly an out-of-control gambling habit.

A satirical fly-on-the-wall Yes Minister for the 21st Century Civil Servants and politicians scheme, plot and manipulate obsessed by the whims of public opinion.

Chief amongst them is the figure of Malcolm Tucker. Like ‘Iago with a blackberry’  as The Spectator calls him in the programme itself, he is the government’s director of communications whose Machiavellian command of the dark arts of spin is direct drawn from the underworld. Nothing is too low.

“Congratulations on your first confirmed kill,” he chillingly writes on a card to a junior who ill in hospital goes along with his plot to unseat the Leader of the Opposition. Out of the box the card comes from drifts a helium baloon with a picture of the deposed Leader sellotaped to it. A perfect blend of malice and slapstick.

Watching the programme is also a secret vice of comms people to talk of the programme illicitly in hushed tones.

A few years ago the subject of The Thick Of It came up in a conversation I had with someone who had worked at the heart of government in the Civil Service. “On a good day it was nothing like it,” the individual said. “On a bad day it was actually a toned down documentary.”

Yet, part of me thinks people will look back in years to come and find that Malcolm Tucker is a bygone relic. Obsessed with newspaper headlines and able to cajole the Priesthood of journalists with bribes and threats.

Or maybe the government comms people of the future will be just as frenetic and just as twitchy about public opinion. It’s just that it’ll be the bloggers and the digital journalists they’ll be obsessed about.

The fourth series ended with Tucker disgraced, chased by a press pack from a police station after handing himself in to be arrested after he perjured himself at a public enquiry.

And Malcolm Tucker to use a very Malcom Tucker word is ‘is damaging’.

Why damaging?

Because he forms people’s warped idea of what a public sector comms person looks like. Which is why he needs to be brought down from grace. It’s why he needs to die. Under a bus. Outside Parliament. With a single bunch of flowers from his ma in Scotland. Leaving a stack of cracking YouTube clips as his legacy.

Comms, like journalism, is a broad church and across it finds all sorts of characters and practices. Yet there is nothing I find in what he does remotely similar to what I do working in an environment that encourages open access to social media and open data. Central government people may disagree.

But as Alastair Campbell, the man who did most to create the late 20th century idea of a spin doctor, said recently the landscape has changed: “You can’t dominate the news agenda now. The agenda is more chaotic but that’s a good thing.”

LINK SPLASH: Facebook, Ellie Simmonds and a viral golden postbox

Sometimes something happens that leaves a big glow with everyone who hears it.

Sometimes something just flies unexpectedly on Facebook and goes viral.

That something happened when Paralymic swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who started her career in Walsall won her second gold of the London 2012 Olympics.

An outburst of deep joy on Ellie’s face was reflected back by all those watching and especially by those in the borough where she was born and learned to swim.

She’s moved to Swansea since to build her career but still has close ties to Aldridge in the borough of Walsall.

Straight after the race the debate was about where in Walsall the gold letter box would be. As a marketing ploy the gold letter boxes and the stamps of the winners takes some beating.

We’d spotted a picture posted on Twitter using Twitpic by a BBC reporter James Bovill of a workman painting the postbox in Aldridge High Street.

We shared it on Facebook acknowledging where it came from in the spirit of the social web. You can see the page here.

And 24 hours later the image had been liked 3,215, had been shared 273 times, commented on 117 times and had been seen by a potential audience on Facebook of 29,608. We also put on 100 new likers.

Tim Clark, a press officer at Wolverhampton City Council, recently wrote an excellent post http://twoheads.squarespace.com/comms2point0/2012/8/1/how-a-cloud-burst-took-facebook-by-storm.html on the 16-second clip of torrential rain that captured the imagination as it went viral.

The point that both make is that it doesn’t have to be polished content to work. Just something that captures the imagination.

The team behind the the Team GB Olympics team as well as GB Paralympics team know this too with a cracking use of licensed images of athletes in action, medal successes on Facebook. Every athlete and team, it seems, gets their picture added to the page with some staggering numbers of shares and likes. The Team GB Facebook page is one example. The Paralympics GB page is another.

Here’s five things it shows

1. Reporters with mobile phones can reach big numbers by putting mobile first.

2. What takes off doesn’t have to be great art.

3. Timely posts work.

4. Sharing is a good thing.

5. Paralympians are amazing people.

Creative commons licence


BROADCASTING CHANGE – Seven skills the BBC can teach social media

Pic credit:
Originally uploaded by nguyenht_hk
 “Citizen journalists,” the sneer goes, “Whatever next? Citizen surgeons?”

It’s a glib, throwaway, catch-all comment designed to dismiss social media sites which spread news without the aid of shorthand, a spiralbound notepad and an NUJ card.

The argument goes that like a surgeon’s scalpel only someone trained can handle news properly.

But with the quiet opening up of the BBC College of Journalism website another brick in the ever shaky argument comes toppling down.

The website http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/ has been run internally for the corporation for three years. It is a treasure trove of skills refined from more than 60 years of award winning peerless journalism.

BBC economics correspondant Robert Peston recently warned that: “the traditional distinctions between television journalists, radio journalists and print journalists are quite close to being obsolete.”

To survive a 21st century journalist must blog, podcast, film, edit and interview and write.

In the era of multi-skilling the press officer will also do well to take a look at the array of skills the site offers coaching in. There is plenty there for them.

But where the BBC training site’s hidden strength really lies is in the trasure trove of skills it offers to the hyperlocal blogger.

Recently, there has been a fierce debate in the UK digital community about defamation and media law. The Talk About Local project to encourage hyperlocals has started to debate it. Bloggers such as The Lichfield Blog’s Philip John have come up with some hyperlocal friendly resources.

But what the BBC site offers is a more extensive, professional insight into what will and won’t get you into trouble.

I’m tempted to call the opening up of the BBC training site as their greatest contribution to digital since the BBC Acorn computer pushed home computing out of the science fiction pages into the spare room in 1981.

This website starts to put quality journalism within the grasp of anyone  who can operate both a WordPress site and the BBC’s training pages.

For a qualified journalist looking to embrace change this is a welcome resource.

To the press officer it is a reference point. But also another signal that the 21st century landscape is changing.

To a blogger it should be bookmarked and memorised.


1. A guide to defamation These tips will be especially useful to bloggers. But also with the ever changing media landscape handy for press officers and journalists a long time out of NCTJ college.

2. Contempt of court You don’t have to be in the dock to get on the wrong side of a court of law. The rights and restrictions that govern news – and yes, blogs – are complex and can be devastating if you get it wrong.

3. Using submitted content A great insight into how the BBC uses it. For hyperlocals where photography may rely heavily on submitted pics this could be of use.

4. Original journalism There are news rooms across the country drained of experience and talent that could benefit from this. High standards are never a bad thing.

5. Bloggers and the law A contribution from Birmingham City University leacturer Paul Bradshaw – @paulbradshaw on Twitter. Nice to know the BBC are listening to someone like Paul who has a foot in the blogosphere as well as journalism.

6. Making short news films With YouTube in the driving seat high production values are not needed. But a few tips that could transfer into making something watchable can’t be a bad idea.

7. Filming interviews A few minutes with a Flip video and you’ll know it’s a tricky business balancing the questioning with the filming.


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