Nobody tells them to do it, but off they head travelling 200 miles a day with just the urge to head south.
Swallows, ladies and gentlemen, are rather like politicians.
At some point the beacon of the election pings and they start changing behaviour. The normally relaxed cabinet member starts to behave differently. Requests for coverage become more pressing. There can be the photo requests, the press releases and the subtle pressure can sometimes begin.
By subtle pressure, I mean the request to maybe send across that stock pic. Or maybe the request for a quote that damns a different parties’ policies. In short, the local government comms team can risk being ‘leaned on.’
It doesn’t happen everywhere of course. Sometimes it’s an innocent question asking to help them out.
Q – That stock picture of the town hall. Can you send it across? The printers are waiting for it.
A – It may only be a stock picture of a town hall but if public money paid for it it can’t be used for political purposes.
Q – That quote in the cabinet members’ statement? He wants it changed so he can attack the Prime Minister.
A – It may only be a quote but you shouldn’t be allowing political comments into content you are issuing.
There is so much more to comms than Purdah. That’s the period where it is acknowledged that politicians can’t be quoted. Knowing what you can and can’t say and do is just common sense.
You can have a row very easily. But what you need close at hand is the chapter and verse of what you can do and say before it escalates.
As the comms visionary Chuck Norris once said, men are like steel. When they lose their temper they lose their worth. So don’t lose your temper or get the politician to lose theirs. Have a list to hand of what you can do and say and make sure your team know too.
Remind yourself of what you can and can’t say…
It’s an uncomfortable time of year and there are steps that every head of comms, comms manager, press officer, web officer and marketing assistant needs to know about. Make a list of exactly what document says what so when challenged they can quote it.
One of the best afternoons in my career was spent going through a sheaf of documents that governed my job. What was in that sheaf? The authority’s constitution, the DCLG recommended code of practice for local government publicity and the media protocols. The Holy Trinity of local government comms documents. By all means start off with the media protocols, but people will argue the toss. A few people may mess with the DCLG. You’ll find very few people mess with the council’s constitution.
The DCLG recommended code of practice for local government publicity
Contrary to myth, comms teams do not work for the Leader or the administration. They work for the Chief Executive and the authority. The comms team that forgets that is likely to land up in trouble.
Councils are required by legislation to consider the code of practice before they make decisions. You can download it here.
Here’s a couple of keepers:
19. Where local authority publicity addresses matters of political controversy it should seek to present the different positions in relation to the issue in question in a fair manner
34. During the period between the notice of an election and the election itself, local authorities should not publish any publicity on controversial issues or report views or proposals in such a way that identifies them with any individual members or groups of members. Publicity relating to individuals involved directly in the election should not be published by local authorities during this period unless expressly authorised by or under statute. It is permissible for local authorities to publish factual information which identifies the names, wards and parties of candidates at elections.
The media protocols
This document will set out what you do and don’t do. Know what it says. Make sure your team knows what it says. In all likelihood, this document will have been worked out in advance and possibly when an administration is incoming. This gets them signed-up in peacetime to the governance of the comms unit.
Why the constitution is like Chuck Norris
It’s difficult to describe the reverential awe that the constitution has in the place of local government. When faced with the constitution they ususally don’t argue.
What is great about the constitution is that it governs the behaviour of the officer and politician relationship. It may mention that undue pressure may not be put on officers. It may also refer to bullying, intimidation and a list of other things you’ll probably never need but it’s useful to have at your finger tips.
Like Chuck Norris, nobody messes with the Constitution. If they do, there’s a chance they’ll come a cropper.
Often the Constitution will point to professional standards being standards to be observed. There are three for comms teams. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, the National Union of Journalists and the Public Relations Consultants Association.
Will the constitution insist you belong to them? Take a look and I’ll bet it’s not vital although I’d suggest you do.
You’ve read all this, what next?
Put the salient points and the sections they come from onto one side of A4. Two at most. Get your legal team to add their name to it to give it an added layer of Teflon.
If you work in the public sector, you’ll have your own guidance, constitution and approaches. But the principles remain the same. It’s best to be independant as a public servant rather than partizan. And as housing, the NHS and the work of government gets more politically charged its useful to know where you stand.
It’s also good to know what you can and can’t say and do. That’s worth knowing all the year round.
Here’s a look at last year and what I got right and wrong.
What did I get right?
Comms teams overall have got smaller although a minority have grown. A survey comms2point0 ran for LGComms showed 57 per cent working in teams that have shrunk since 2008. Anecdotally, there have been fewer heads of comms as the duties are shared for cost saving. Better evaluation remains to be needed. Local government comms has become become the poor relation of public sector PR. It looks on with envy at others’ budgets. Digital comms has continued to go mainstream but there is lipservice to it. Many teams have been outsripped by the pace of change.
Anecdotally, poor internal comms remains.
What did I get wrong?
Digital comms has not stepped-up a gear from simply tweeting press releases to tackling the really thorny problems. That’s a source of real worry. Elsewhere, social media remains a frontline task but the pace of change here has slowed. There was no major emergency where social media shone.
Too early to say?
Comms teams still need content creators although this hasn’t happened. There will be more shared comms teams. People will look at how this can work across a geographical area and also between authorities.
So here are 11 more for 2015
Some councils will no longer have a meaningful comms function. Cut to the bone, they will do little more than answer the phone and answer media queries.
Social media will stall. After early innovation, the time and space to experiment as part of the day job has gone. The door has closed. Twitter and Facebook will be it.
New platforms continue to go untouched. As new platforms grow and develop like SnapChat, Instagram and WhatsApp there will be no capacity to experiment with them leading to a section of the population disenfranchised.
Evaluation will become a case of do or die. With budgets being cut, the comms team needs to justify what it does before it is cut. Unless they can look finance in the eye and demonstrate why they should live they will go.
People who bang the table and say ‘no’ will stand a chance. Those who don’t won’t. There has never been a more important time to say ‘no’to meaningless fire-and-forget blunderbus comms. But this argument needs to be one had strategically as budgets tighten. Comms teams can deliver real change at a time of problems. But they need to fight their corner.
There will be fewer press releases written for fewer newspapers. An easy one. At some point someone will notice and ask what the point of comms teams are. The window where people can get their story straight is about to end.
It will get more fractured. Content tailored for those keen on one country park or a care home needs to be created and be more sharable. This is where comms teams can help and enable service areas.
Video gets more important. But the skills need to be learned.
Social media accounts need to be reviewed and closed. That arts centre that played their face for a Twitter account and then updated it three months ago? It needs to be taken down. There is too much bad digital in local government.
Customer services, social media and comms need to become best friends. At present, this is happening sporadically. This needs to be hapening everywhere… and six months ago.
Facebook pages will become pointless unless supported by a budget for ads. This is the reality which many are struggling to catch-up with.
Creative commons credit
Mobile and cutting: https://www.flickr.com/photos/48503330@N08/5871393799/
A what? And how much?
This is the true cost of councils being forced by law to pay over-the-odds for public notices tucked away in the back of printed newspapers being read by fewer and fewer people.
It is a throwback, a misguided sweetener to the newspaper industry and comes from the days when the local paper was the only show in town.
What are public notices? They’re announcements of where double yellow lines are to be painted, who has applied for a taxi licence and an application from a pub licensee for a late night opening licence. It is the bread and butter of a community.
Should they be communicated and publicised? Absolutely.
Can it be done without swingeing annual charges? Yes.
Being forced over a barrel to pay to communicate through local newspapers is the last throwback to a world before the internet.
It is wrong.
It flies in the face of government policy.
It is print-by-default in a digital-by-default world.
It must stop.
This is why and here is how we can do it.
The Government department in charge of local government has asked for ‘councils, newspapers and others’ to take a new look at how public notices are distributed. Any solution is dead in the water unless councils are stopped being made to pay for expensive print notices – or even pay for digital ones.
Really? Councils have to communicate like this?
Yes. Bonkers, isn’t it? There is a raft of legislation that mean that councils must take out newspaper ads before they take certain decisions. The aim is to publicise and encourage people to come forward with comment and opinion. Getting people involved is absolutely a good thing. The more people are informed and take part in the decision making process the better.
Her Majesty’s Government’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher has written eloquently about this being the digital century. I’d agree with that. In the digital century people find out about what is happening through networks and the web. Not through small ads. Ask yourself this question: when was the last time you bought a local newspaper? When was the last public notice you read? And can you remember what it was about?
What is the state of local government?
In short, perilous. Every penny counts and in Town Halls up and down the land small sums of money and budget decisions are being argued about. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts 1.1 million job losses by 2019 across the public sector. Birmingham City Council Leader Albert Bore has talked of the ‘end of local government as we know it.’ Government funding cuts to local government are touching 40 per cent and spending power is falling by 25 per cent according to a critical National Audit Office report which observes that the Department for Communities and Local Government doesn’t understand the impact of cuts.
In other words, cuts are being made and every penny counts. Which is why being forced to spend on newspaper ads is wrong.
But how much do the public notices cost?
Think tank Local Government Information Unit – LGiU – calculated that in 2012 public notices in newspapers were costing £67.85 million. Public Notices: The Case for Radical Reform: Part One’ shows that this is on average £181,000 per authority. In some cases, the report says, public notices incurred a rate three times as expensive as normal display ads and reaching over £20 per column centimetre in some publications.
“This is a lot of money, especially when councils are trying desperately to !nd savings. It is also an outdated system that has been left behind by technological advances. The current system provides no feedback to councils and ignores the fact that the audience is moving away from printed newspapers, to a varied digital media landscape.
“LGiU believes change is necessary in the following areas: councils should be free to decide where is best to place public notices, more work needs to be done to de-jargon and standardise the content of public notices, councils who do publish notices online should o”er users an email subscription service, allowing users to opt-in to receive public notices, hyperlocal, neighbourhood websites, as well as traditional local media news sites, should be encouraged to carry feeds of council notices the government should look into the possibility of supporting the development of a central online portal for publishing public notices.
- Public Notices: The Case for Radical Reform: Part One. LGiU.
But who reads newspapers these days?
Some people do. Ofcom in their annual Communications Market Report says that adults in the UK spend 15 minutes a day reading newspapers or looking at newspaper sites. For some people, they keep them informed. But these figures are dropping.
In comparison, adults spend 36 minutes on websites or apps and 26 minutes on social media. The breakdown is here.
In Walsall, where I worked in local government communications, the local paper the Express & Star in 2013 sold around 10,000 copies of the Walsall edition in a borough of more than 269,323 people. The newspaper industry says that between two and five people read each paid-for copy. For the sake of argument, if that was three people per copy that means 11 per cent of Walsall get to see the public notice. That’s if everyone reads the paper from cover-to-cover. That’s not a reason for paid-for public notices in print.
The figures are replicated across the country according to database JICREG with 67,759 copies of the Birmingham Mail on a Friday in a city of 2,440,986. In Greater Manchester, this is 126,293 on their busiest day for the Manchester Evening News in a population of 2,685,400. In Glasgow, the Evening Times reaches 33,397 in a population 2,850,000. The online readership of these three newspapers will be far higher but figures are difficult to obtain. None of these newspapers show public notices when you enter the search term in their websites.
I’ve heard the anachronistic argument that somehow only newspapers can be trusted to publish public notice content. Somehow the act of handing over 200 words and paying through the nose for it to appear in the back of newspapers that few people in a borough read afford some undefined magic propertiies. This is, of course, balderdash.
The days when newspapers are the only means of communicating have ended. They are one of a number of channels. The requirement to take out public notice ads with them should end. Sometimes, they’ll be the best way of communicating. But that decision should be de-centralised down to the local authority.
Four ways public notices breach Government advice
It wouldn’t be so bad if the current millstone doesn’t go against Government advice. But it does.
The 2011 DCLG Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity is the legal yardstick. Here’s what it says:
It says publicity should be cost effective – that’s section 2. Print notices are not.
It says that they should be ‘value for money.’ Print notices are not. That’s section 10.
It says that advertising shouldn’t subsidise voluntary, public or commercial organisations. That’s section 13. That’s what print notices do.
It also says that public relations guidance should be sought before embarking on expensive publicity. That’s section 14.
And a few other ways it breaches Government policy
The Cabinet Office published the excellent and aspirational Government Digital Strategy in 2013.
“In just over 2 decades the internet has become a huge part of our everyday lives. Today 82 per cent of adults in the UK are online. Completing transactions online has become second nature, with more and more of us going online for shopping, banking, information and entertainment. Why? Because online services tend to be quicker, more convenient and cheaper to use.
“But until now government services have stood out by their failure to keep up with the digital age. While many sectors now deliver their services online as a matter of course, our use of digital public services lags far behind that of the private sector.
“Government has got to do better. This Digital Efficiency Report suggests that transactions online can already be 20 times cheaper than by phone, 30 times cheaper than postal and as much as 50 times cheaper than face-to-face .
“By going digital by default, the government could save between £1.7 and £1.8 billion each year. But this isn’t just about saving money – the public increasingly expects to access services quickly and conveniently, at times and in ways that suit them. We will not leave anyone behind but we will use digital technology to drive better services and lower costs.”
Frances Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office
This is all excellent stuff. It articulates exactly why local government should be digital by default and not be held back by the anachronism of print public notices.
And bloggers too…?
Bloggers are able to attend public meetings and video, blog and post realtime updates. This is a good thing and opens up the whole often very dull decision making process to public scrutiny. This is an excellent step from DCLG. They hailed it as: ‘a boost for local democracy and the independent free press, councils in England were brought into the 21st century.’
That freedom should be opened up for bloggers too. How can they carry data from public notices alongside the mainstream Press?
So what would all this look like?
Information can be communicated effectively using the web. It could be added to a council page. An RSS feed or a widget could allow others – newspapers, broadcasters or bloggers – provided free-of-charge to carry the feed on their own pages.
Of course, if there was a pressing business case for print advertising this could happen too. But that’s the thing. Rather than being a print-by-default position it should be one of several channels.
This already happens in two places. Firstly, the TellmeScotland website aggregates and distributes public notice alerts through text and email.
Secondly, in ice and snow a more geurilla approach sees gritting updates aggregated and distributed in the West Midlands. On Twiitter, the hashtag #wmgrit is used by authorities in the region. A coveritLive widget here can be re-used on websites.
So what next?
There are bright people in local government who can produce the answer. Some of them are in the localgovdigital group although relying on a handful of volunteers in the sector is not the answer.
Maybe this is for larger bodies to support with time and resources. Communications teams should take the lead and work with web to come up with solutions. Maybe, that’s SOCITM, LGComms, the LGA and others coming together with local government officers.
Whatever the future. in 2015, the current situation which sees an enforced subsidy through paid-for ads to wealthy newspaper groups should not form part of the answer.
So, how do we do this?
What I mean is what makes your heart truly sing.
What prompted this was reading ‘Talk Like TED’ by Carmine Gallo which looked at what makes the best TED talks work. TED, if you don’t know, stands for Technology, Education, Design and has snowballed from an exclusive conference for the super rich to a global franchise of affiliated events.
They are short talks. 18 minutes is the most you’ll get. They’ll have a bit of powerpoint. But the slides help the speaker tell a story rather than provide a script.
Last April I left local government to work on comms2point0 full-time. It’s taken me to meet some fascinating people doing great work across Britain.
A few weeks back myself and my comms2point0 colleague Darren Caveney travelled to Jordan at the invitation of the Foreign Office to facilitate a two-day comms event for Middle East and North Africa comms staff. We also staged a half day unconference. There was never any doubt in my mind that the unconference aspect would work. It did. The people in the room rose to the task.
I began at the start of the event by asking the question . There were some puzzled looks at first. Then some great answers.
But what makes my heart sing?
Over the years many things. It used to be watching Stoke City and when I was a journalist writing a frontpage story. My children do. But I’m their Dad, so I’m biased.
What makes my heart sing now is working out the best ways to tell a story and communicate with people. The web has taken everything and thrown it up into the air. Who wouldn’t want to try and explore how those pieces fit?
My heart sings when I see people understanding how to communicate in an area I don’t know about.
Even though I love Twitter, I don’t care for people who think Twitter is the answer to everything. It’s not. If some print works, then go for it. That’s fine. There’s no point being a channel fascist.
Here’s a comment made at the Middle East event by a locally engaged comms professional who does brilliant work for the FCO with the Arab regional media.
“In Libya, people have Kalashnikovs and want to kill each other. There are four tribes. Just because an infographic works in the USA it doesn’t mean it works in Libya.”
You need local knowledge. You need the passion to understand the media landscape wherever you are whether that’s Derbyshire or Dubai.
Hats off to Steven Hardy and Craig Morley from the FCO for staging the event and to the 70-odd attendees who made my heart sing.
Pic creative commons credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/25178143@N04/2765083201/
More precisely, we’ve hired the Electric Cinema in Station Street, Birmingham which is the oldest working cinema in the UK. The date is Thursday December 11.
We’re doing three things. We’re having an awards ceremony, we’re watching a film and we’re showing that you don’t have to spend a fortune and go to London for an awards bash.
The event is the comms2point0 unawards and I’d like you very much to come along and to enter. It’s going to be great. December is a chance to celebrate and its a chance to think back to what you’ve done well.
If you don’t fancy picking a category come and watch the film. It’s Armandoi Iannucci satire ‘In the Loop.’
1. Best communications team chosen by the overall event sponsor
7. Best communications for change activity sponsored by Public Sector Customer Services Forum
8. Best piece of creative comms sponsored by Capacity Grid
9. Best freebie or low cost communications campaign
10. Best email marketing sponsored by GovDeliveryUK
11. Best social media campaign sponsored by Digital Action Plan
12. Best private sector/agency comms campaign or initiative
13. Best ‘Worst comms’ (this can be anything from use of clip art, worst poster, silliest random request – feel free to be creative) sponsored by Alive – The Ideas Agency
14. Best collaboration sponsored by Knowledge Hub
Big thanks to Emma Rodgers who is helping stage the event and Andy Mabbett who will compere.