You need good boots and a wise head to walk the Appalachian Trail. It is 2,190 miles long and cuts through the lonely American wilderness.
Almost 3,000 people walk it’s daunting dark length from end-to-end every year and from time-to-time people go missing.
Risks faced by the traveller include the American black bear, mosquitos, yellowjackets, poison ivy, biting flies and dangerous streams.
The trail is linked by camping points a day’s walk apart. Sometimes they are just clearings but they are places walkers pitch a tent, meet and swap trail stories. Knowing there is a ford ahead can make the next day safer.
Five years ago we launched commscamp on a clear blue sky excited about the power and possibility of exploring the green empty space of the internet.
This year, there was the sense that things have evolved. There was a feeling more people used the event as safety trail camp. New things to learn? Yes. But most of all a sanity check.
The world has changed and we are trying to all change with it. Fractured channels. New audiences. New demands on time. Income targets. Bad intranets. Bad comms plans. Bad managers. Not enough time. Time taken over by an emergency. Not enough budget.
Not enough regard for what we do.
There are still people looking to innovate and get good at new things. But there are less people wide-eyed at the possibility. The militant optimists from the early years have moved on. I miss them. Those that remain on the trail are quieter somehow but more determined. They know that they are still travelling through uncharted forests. Through the trees they can sometimes hear the crunch of nearby footsteps of fellow travellers. We are alone together. We know this path will take years to complete.
It’s things like Commscamp, the Public Sector Headspace Facebook group and other places that are the safe camping points to rest.
Knowing you are not alone is just as important today as it was five years ago.
Picture credit: VinceTraveller / Flickr
A couple of days on from the 5th commscamp in Birmingham and the dust has settled a little. I’m on a train reflecting.
“How?” said one person in the packed room. “How the hell did that happen?”
More than 20 people were crammed into a small room with a dozen chairs at commscamp in Birmingham for the topic on Brexit.
After 40-minutes of pulling apart the claim, counter-claim and post-fact democracy one moment of clarity emerged of how the campaign ended as it did.
Leave won because they appealed to the heart not the head.
Remain lost because they appealed to the head.
As a piece of clarity it’s drifted into my head several times since.
That big pile of numbers you’re trying to communicate? Can you find something that appeals to the heart?
Stop. Think of times when you’ve been moved by the heart. Me? More than 12-months ago the refugee found that when three-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned and was fetched from the surf by a policeman.
In the US, the family of the dead war veteran Donald Trump picked on appealed to the heart too.
Look around you and you’ll find more.
The ability to understand with the head but tell a story to appeal to the heart is priceless for someone looking to communicate.
Picture credit: Bex Walton / Flickr
My favourite day of the year from a professional point of view is one where I earn no money and work like a Trojan with others to make happen.
Commscamp has been staged for the past four years in Birmingham and brings 180 largely public sector comms people together.
It’s an unconference which means that the agenda is decided on the day.
But aside from the conversation, ideas and connections from the day the best thing was hearing some people also want to stage an unconference too. There may be one. There may be two. Who knows? Fantastic. I really hope they do it.
The basics about unconferences I learned from Dave Briggs, Steph Gray and Lloyd Davies. All wonderful people. We staged unconferences because we’d been to a few and fancied having a go ourselves. John Peel used to say punk made it easy. All you had to do was push over a telephone box and sell your brother’s motorbike and you had enough money for a demo. It’s not that different with an unconference.
So here are a few tips.
- No-one owns it. Lloyd is quite right in saying that unconferences are not owned by anyone. So have a go.
- Find some likeminded people.
- Just book some space.
- Put up an eventbrite to distribute the tickets.
- Scrape together a smidge of sponsorship and UKGovcamp can help with that.
- Shout about it.
- On the day relax and have fun.
- That’s it.
- That’s really it.
See? It’s that simple.
I’d also be tempted to do it slightly seperate with what you are doing at work. So, it’s not the day job. But it’s a seperate thing helps the day job. That way you get all the fun stuff but none of the middle manager barriers.
One absolute true-ism from Lloyd is that everyone who goes tends to to love them. But then would like to make a minor change. ‘It was great, but if only we could pre-plan the sessions, that would be marvellous.’ Or whatever the suggestion is.
Keep it simple.
Just have some space. A Facebook group works to get people thinking about sessions beforehand. Decide what you are going to talk about on the day. Then give the thing to the people in the room and they will always, always, always deliver.
Picture credit: Sasha Taylor / Flickr
It’s happening again, I can feel it.
I wasn’t sure if the magic would return somehow but it feels as though it has already.
The magic is Commscamp. It’s a sort of magic that happens once a year when 150 people come together determined to make brighter ideas.
What makes the magic? People who give a damn and want to do things better. People who want to help see that too. And people who like cake. Definitely, people who like cake.
The truth is it also feels like there’s never been a more important time for an event like commscamp. It feels as though it is really needed this year. Against the backdrop of Brexit, cuts and rapid change there is a need for people to come together compare notes and work things out.
The phrase that runs through what I’ve done over the past seven or eight years is ‘militant optimism.’ At its heart is a resolve to do things better despite everything
At times, optimism takes a battering. A change of boss. Cuts. More cuts. Brexit. Change. New platforms. Keeping pace. The firm request for a back of bus ad you have to push back on. The easier thing would be to throw in the towel.
Why I think the magic is back
Planning an event like this is easier the more you do it. Writing emails to printers at 11pm when you haven’t seen your family all day is not ‘fun.’
But one moment this week made me think the magic was back. Late night I was looking down the session idea pitches in the Commscamp Facebook group.
- Income generation. How do we?
- Live streaming video. How should we?
- If everyone is a comms expert how do I make my professional advice heard?
- How can you stay politically restricted and still have a voice?
- How can I put a cat amongst the pigeons?
- Coping with guilt and reality post-cuts.
- Virtual reality video: a beginners guide.
- A cathartic session just to let rip a bit.
I want to go to them all. Reading them I was reminded why I love it. And I looked at the list of people who want to volunteer to make that happen.
If you can’t come you can still play a part
There’s a limited amount of room and we know that not everyone who wants to come can come. We’ll look to livestream some sessions, post to Twitter on the #commscamp16 hashtag and blog. If you are out of the room we’ll try and find a way you can catch-up.
But one thing makes it worthwhile
If there is one issue that makes commscamp this year really worth it for me it’s Brexit and how we cope with it. I’ve got this strong sense that there’s a strong sense of uncertainty that we would do well to tackle.
It would be great if we could tackle that together.
It feels like the magic is back.
Let’s make it so, shall we?
Commscamp is staged in Birmingham on Thursday July 14. Tickets are sold out.
Picture credit: Ann Kempster / Flickr
Commscamp was that good event and one that drew 154 comms, PR and digital people from across the public sector in the UK.
As an unconference, the day has no agenda, with the sessions getting decided on the day by people who came along. There were NHS, local government, Welsh Government, UK government and one or two third sector.
Was it a good event? It seems slightly self-regarding to call something you helped organise ‘good.’ But I’m sure my fellow co-organisers Emma Rodgers and Darren Caveney would agree that it really, really is the attendees who make it. We just provide the space.
Here are 20 things that struck me.
- I love the look in the eyes of some people who came for the first time who revelled in the permission to talk, think and do with freedom. It’s important that everyone is on the same level. Organisers included. I’m quite nostalgic for that.
- A pre-event curry and drinks are a good thing.
- Cake really does bring people together and Kate Bentham is brilliant at building that spirit. So is Andy Mabbett.
- Music playlists also bring people together. Big up Sarah Lay and everyone who contributed.
- The spirit of the event can be summed up by a first time attendee called Chloe ending up helping out on the check-in desk minutes after she arrived.
- Twitter running commentaries by John Fox are a good thing.
- There is a need for people who are trying out new things in their organisation to come together face-to-face to remind themselves that it is not ‘you’ but ‘them’ who are the problem.
- Birmingham in the sunshine looks great.
- Next year we are hiring a canal barge and running a session in it.
- David Banks is on the money with media law in a changing landscape. You really should make friends with him. Or sign-up for his regular emails.
- It would be great to get a handful of private sector people along who came in the spiurit of sharing not selling.
- It would be great to get some third sector and not for profit people along. Catching-up with Laila Takeh at the post-event pint made me even more convinced of that.
- A junior media officer can have better ideas than a self-appointed thought leader or head of a big department. No-one has the monopoly.
- Media teams should stop doing things that aren’t their job at all. First, do so by being polite. Then by banging the table a bit. This doesn’t happen in planning or legal. Stop under valuing your job.
- Sitting round for a good whinge is quite theraputic.
- Sitting round to be deliberately optimistic is also theraputic.
- Bad intranets are a symptom of an organisation that doesn’t care about or trust staff.
- There’s no point replacing the intranet and building something better until you tackle the culture. Sorry.
- Musterpoint is a hootsuite for the public sector built by someone from the public sector.
- There are still some people who think that giving staff social media should be controlled and treated as an extension of core trad comms. I fundamentally disagree.
- Maybe we don’t need intranets.
- No matter how many unconferences you go to you end up wanting to be in two places at once.
- A first ticket release that went in less than three minutes is quite something.
- Nigel Bishop takes good video and pictures.
- Big up Sasha Taylor, Sian Fording, Rob McCleary, Nicky Speed, Kelly Quigley-Hicks and Amanda Nash and James Cattell for their volunteering.
- I’d like to be part of the team of volunteers who does another one of these next year. It was good to see old faces and new. I hope co-founder Ann Kempster can come next year.
- There’s still so much to do.
- Having good sponsors helps. Thank you Christine at MusterPoint, David and Paul at Govdelivery, Liz and Jason at Knowledge Hub, Kirstie and Scott at Touch Design, Steph at Helpful Technology, Pete at IEWM, Nick at PSCSF and supporters Alex and David at GCS, Hannah at LGA, Rachel at All Things IC and Phil at the NUJ.
- Thank you if you came because you helped make it a success.
There was an event the other day in Whitehall which looked at this very topic which I would have loved to have got to. But I work in the West Midlands so that wasn’t going to happen.
It’s a good question and one that I’d given a lot of thought to just recently. Not just because the LGComms Future Leaders course I’d been involved with was asked just this question and asked to come up with a presentation.
One of the good things about being in the public sector is the ability to share ideas and approaches. This doesn’t happen in the private sector. As one person recently put it, they’ll tell you what they did but they’ll just leave out a vital piece of information so you can’t follow. It’s like handing over a car without the spark plugs.
So here are some things that should happen.
6 things to bring local and central government comms people together
1. Realise that each side isn’t the enemy. You’d be forgiven for thinking sometimes reading the Daily Mail that local government was to blame for the banking crisis, Northern Rock and the nationalisation of the banks. Just think what would have happened had local government mis-sold products. Step aside from the headlines and realise that there is more to bring civil Service and local government comms people together. We both face the question ‘what does communications mean in 2014?’ for example.
2. Paid secondments both ways. A few years ago a secondment from local government into the civil service could have been do-able. Not now. There isn’t the spare capacity anymore in local government. But funded posts could help backfill and share the knowledge. Even better if they are French-exchange-style two way affairs. Better still if they involve co-operation on the same project.
3. Open up central government training to local government. The Goverment Communications Service (formerly the Government Communications Network) stages a range of good training opportunities. It would be great if this was open to local government too.
4. Open up local government seminars to central government. Places like LGComms put on some excellent sessions. The different perspective of a Whitehall comms person would be useful. Just as the comms person more used to dealing with the community would be a benefit to a central government person.
5. Encourage events like commscamp. In February last year more than 130 comms people from Whitehall and local government came together in a joint event for what must have been the first time. There were more than 400 on the waitlist when it was turned off. The agenda was decided on the day by those who went. Anarchy? Not really. It worked beautifully. It was organised by people in central and local government in their own time. (Disclaimer: I’m biased as I helped co-organise commscamp.)
6. Realise that neither side is better. They’re just different. As government departments put more focus on stakeholder groups local government listens to residents more. At a time when the Foreign Office is putting more effort – rightly – into answering queries on Twitter there’s pr people in Staffordshire or Norfolk who could tell them a few things. They are two different skills. It made me realise that neither side is better. We’re just different.
7. We both work in the public sector and should be proud of that. Sure, the private sector does some good things. But we delivered the Olympics, we save lives, we keep the roads running, our children educated and a whole load of other things too. How much better is that than flogging toothpaste?
EDIT: GCS courses are also now available to local government people. That’s welcome.
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