HISTORY BOYS: Communications and the Miners Strike

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

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

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

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

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

Fact v Legend

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

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

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

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

Art, history and a battle

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

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

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

Dellar said:

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

It was a different comms landscape

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

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

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

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

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

Would social media have made a difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

In short, do they ‘get it’?

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

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

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

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

Section One: People with light bulbs over their head

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

Section Two: People who need a piece of paper

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

Section Three: People who are unengaged

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

A simple plan for what to do

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

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

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

Creative commons picture credit: NASA.


FUTURE PROOF: 40 skills you’ll need in your 2020 comms team today

6916758251_2c7753d7fc_oSo what occupies the mind of the most successful Olympic coach Britain has ever had? You’ll find the answer surprising.

It’s not next week, the next Tour de France or who will be in the squad for Rio that occupies cycling’s Dave Brailsford. It’s what his best team will be in five years time.

“I find that once you’ve done that,” he told the BBC, “you can work backwards to work out a way to get to where you want to be.”

It chimed with something I’ve often reflected on for some time. Just what should a comms team look like? Not the press release counting machine of history. Not either a team of ninjas on hoverboards. Communications people if they want longevity should be moving. Unlike Dave Brailsford we don’t have until 2020. For some its too late.

Your job used to be create content in a place where people went to consume content passively.

Your job is now to create content in places where people want to consume content where they can share, comment, engage, praise and complain.

If that’s not for you, it’s maybe time to think about that alternative career.

The best day to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best day is today. It’s the same for you and your team.

But that’s enough of the clichés. Here’s some nitty gritty of what you need to know.

As a head of comms or as an individual start mapping where you want to be

Dave Brailsford is right. If you aren’t looking forward you will be made an irrelevance if you aren’t already. It isn’t for your line manager to map your positive future. It’s for you.

As a team, don’t call yourself press officers or even PR

No longer the only show in town the Press is changing. News rooms decimated, Photographers laid off. Anyone who says otherwise is a fool. What is left is a media – let’s call them that rather than newspapers, radio or TV – blinking at the harsh light of the web. Some are evolving. What will survive are those changing into organisations who tell stories with data, pictures or video and in realtime unfettered by print deadlines. Like here or here.

If public releations was to give PR advice to PR it would be to drop the line ‘PR.’ Too toxic. Too reminiscent of Max Clifford and spin.

As a team, don’t be channel fascists

So, be content creators. Not a press officer or a press office. Provide content in the right way at the right time to the right people. Do that free from always having to go through the Priesthood of journalists. The team that does everything as a press release or as a tweet is just as guilty of being a channel fascist. Understand the variety of channels there are and know how to create content for them. And by the way, cut and pasting the same content in six channels doesn’t work.

As a team, look for the influencers who can influence networks

Some may be in the media. Some may be bloggers. Some may be people with important jobs. Some may not have important jobs but have a huge following on Twitter or run a hyperlocal site. Some will be your staff.

As a team, outsource comms to plug into networks

There won’t be enough of you to do everything anymore. So when you set the strategy be gateopeners to other people across the organisation. The Environment Agency manager on Twitter reaches an audience the press office can’t reach. So does the museums assistant who uses Twitter. Or the countryside ranger.

As a team, know your media landscape and break the tyranny of the local newspaper frontpage

If the days when everyone read the local paper ever existed they are over now. Find out what media cover your organisation. Find out their circulation and reach. Find out how many people are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. And use email. Use the annual Ofcom stats as a starting point.

Run a survey of where your team are spending their time. Does it match up with what the landscape actually is? Produce an infographic of where the landscape is and circulate it to everyone. Hang it on your wall. In reports refer to it. Sit down with those in charge and explain it. Ask for permission to re-calibrate.

As a team, the look finance in the eye test

In the old days, comms and PR teams could get away with a vague brief of ‘making the people in charge look good.’ An office two doors from those in charge was their ether. They realised too late that where your office is is no guard against the pain of cuts. Scrapbooks of cuttings from the local paper of a person in a suit planting a tree is spent capital. What talks are business objectives expressed as pounds, shillings and pence. That drive to recruit more foster carers? Thanks to comms it saved £100k. That is what justifies what you do. If it’s not a business objective don’t waste your time.

As a team, generalise but specialise

Making video is tricky and if someone is good at it encourage it. Don’t hold them back. Encourage fresh thought. Embrace experiments. Some will work. Some won’t. But always be learning. But share the sweets across the team and wider.

As a team, get over yourself

You used to have it all. The control. The ear of the people in charge. The sole ability to communicate with the media. That’s gone. But don’t fight it. Sometimes it’ll be you. Other times you’ll get in the way. Sometimes your job will be advice. Sometimes it will be to stand back. Set the strategy. Share the sweets.

As a team, think beyond ‘traditional social media’

At some point the tipping point was reached and people started to ask not for press releases but for Twitter accounts or for stuff to be posted on Twitter. What lazy rubbish.

As an organisation, it’s okay to have social channels that are social

Let the guidemark of the 80-20 rule govern what you do. Share other people’s content. Be human. Tweet a picture of where you are and what you are doing. Asda observe this rule for their hard headed business focussed yet social channels. So do police officers. It works. It’s not messing about. It’s being an effective communicator.

As an individual, challenge, experiment and learn

Whether you are the head of comms or not you need to learn, experiment, challenge, kick tyres and do things in your own time. By all means clock off at 5 o’clock. But you won’t be around for much longer. A new job? Not in communications you won’t.

Three quotes you need to know and live by

‘Hyperlinks flatten hierarchies,’ – The Cluetrain Manifesto, 1999.

‘We need to communicate like insurgents,’ – Tom Fletcher, UK Ambassador to Lebanon, 2014.

“There remains a perverse determination within PR to defend top-down behaviour in a flatter world. PR currently speaks to hierarchies in a world of networks. It is therefore starting in the wrong place both for its own domain and the wider universe of citizens, companies and brands. PR can no longer dictate on its own terms.

“It is not about loudhailer broadcasting or ‘managing the message’ anymore. Shrill press releases are irrelevant in a world that sees through obfuscation and deceit. Building advocacy and activism within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard.” – Robert Phillips, 2015

 – Robert Phillips, 2015.

40 skills a comms team needs

Here comes the list. You know what the single most reassuring thing is? All this is achievable. Many of the skills we have can stay with us. Story telling. Relationshiips and the like. But the technical skills are evolving constantly. You stand still at your peril.

All will need

To build relationships

To educate the people you serve

To know the value of networks and to know yours

To accept change

To evaluate

To know when to say ‘no’

To be a diplomat

To challenge – ask why we are doing this?

To listen as an individual

To help people listen as an organisation

To write for the web

To tell stories

To create the right content for the right people in the right channel at the right time

To source photographs

To train others

To listen

To know the value of internal comms

To take risks

To learn

To be small ‘p’ politically aware

To know when to write a comms plan and when to say ‘no.’

To be self-aware

To be professional

To interpret data

To be broad shouldered

To capture and communicate emotion

To be tenacious

To present

To be visible

To be professional but not be constrained by one profession

To be creative

To manage time

To create and run a survey

To take photographs

To know how to handle crisis and emergency comms

Some will need

To write press releases

Technical: Content creating for the right channels

To know when and how to create content using data

To know when and how to create text, images or video content tailored for email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Audioboo or Soundcloud.

To experiment with new channels and to know who uses them.

To know when and how to create a press release

To know when some print is needed

Two sessions and a lot of thinking shaped this blog. One session at UK Govcamp two months ago and one at comms2point0’s campaigns masterclass last month. At both I just asked for ideas on individual skills to see what patterns emerged. Thank you if you contributed. Thank you to Emma Rodgers who co-led the masterclass session and annogtated the skills we listed. This post is the reading of those ink blots mixed with things I’ve written about before.

If you are slightly apprehensive and a little excited and good luck we’d love to talk to you.

Picture credit

Cycling https://www.flickr.com/photos/69770374@N04/6916758251/


PRO TIPS: Chuck Norris and Pre-Election Survival Tips for Comms People

deltaforcezEvery year the swallows who nest in the eves of our house head off back on a flight
that lasts thousands of miles.

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.

Professional standards

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.


FUTURE TRENDS: 11 predictions for local government comms in 2015

5871393799_7cb1fdd4a9_bFor the last few years too stuffed with mince pies I’ve blogged some predictions on local government comms. It’s all about jet packs and Robot butlers.

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/


LISTEN BETTER: Why the Tyranny of Public Notices Should End – and What To Do About It

6548458467_5888953d4f_oIt’s an obscenity that even as libraries close and care is cut that there is a £67.85 million back-door subsidy paid by local government to newspapers.

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?


NOTE PASSION: What Makes My Heart Sing

065/365: Show us your smile!I’ve been thinking a bit about what makes my heart sing. Not what you are passionate about. Anyone can be ‘passionate’. It’s a word that is rapidly losing its meaning.

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/


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