I’ve blogged about the need to be the grit in the oyster in comms and PR and to the need challenge.
That scheme the chief executive has? It’s going to fail and you need to diplomatically warn them.
That elected member who demands a press release? It’s down to you to tell them that won’t work.
Unless you do you are nothing more than a glorified shorthand typist.
Here’s one way you can challenge… by be an annoying three-year-old.
Or rather, adopt the questioning strategy of a small child who is asking questions because they are just plain nosey.
If you are a parent you’ve been there. Picture the scene in a super market right now somewhere in the world.
‘It’s a tin of beans, Jimmy.’
‘Why do we have tins of beans?’
‘So the food doesn’t go off.’
And there we have an explanation to Jimmy of food storage, freshness and the degrading process that makes food dangerous to eat.
Small children have got a brilliant quality of cutting through the crap.
A couple of times recently in a training session I’ve thought of the two-year-old interrogation strategy.
We’re doing a ‘thing’. It’s great.
Because it’s a good idea.
Because if we give people some basic information it reduces the chance of them coming back with an even worse problem.
Will that cost you money?
Yes, lots, about £10,000 a time.
How many could we stop coming back with a worse problem?
So, the ‘thing’ moves from being a good thing to a thing that is going to tangibly improve lives… and tangibly save money.
That’s win and win.
It’s also the beginnings of your evaluation because as we know, it’s not the column inches or the tweets but what people have done as a result.
‘Hey, chief executive, we’ve just communicated to a load of people and 100 have gone away with information that could stop them costing us £10,000 each.’
Does that sound better?
So, shouldn’t you be more of a three-year-old?
It was Paul Willis of Leeds Metropolitan University who I first hear use the phrase.
What the heck does this mean?
My take on it is that sometimes, the role of the comms person is to politely stand your ground and to challenge and to point out where things won’t work.
The chief exec of the water company blamed for water shortage taking questions with a clean bottle of water, British Gas staging a Twitter Q&A on the day of a price hike or senior officer hellbent on back of bus ads… because that’s the way they’ve always done it.
I was reminded of the need for this a short while back in a comms planning workshop where one attendee mentioned the pressure she was under to come up with evaluation weeks after the launch of a campaign to encourage people to sign-up to volunteer for a specific task.
“It’s really difficult,” she said. “I’m getting pressure to show if the campaign is a success but we know it takes six months for it to work.
“It’s been a month and the thing is, it’s really difficult, because it’s a senior person who is asking.”
Of course, in an ideal world that senior person would immediately see the folly of asking how many cars the Forth Bridge had carried after just a week into its construction.
But life is not like that.
So, if tact and diplomacy don’t work, sometimes your role as a comms person is to be the person to draw a line in the sand and point out where something, in your professional opinion, doesn’t work.
When I worked as part of a comms team I’d often find it useful instead of directly rubbishing an idea directly just spelling out the logical sequence of events that decision would bring.
“We can have a back of bus advert by all means,” it’s better to say, “but do we know if the Primary school children we’re trying to get through to drive? And how many signed up for that course last year as a result of it? Could we talk to some parents and teachers to see what the best route may be, too?”
Be professional, be polite but never be afraid be the grit in the oyster. It will almost always be the harder path but if you take it you will almost always win respect. Involve your boss if needs be. Or their boss.
If you don’t are you sure you aren’t just being a glorified shorthand typist?
Forecasts say there will be 40 per cent job losses in some areas of the public sector with £3.3 billion being taken from the voluntary sector over a five year period and £20 billion coming from local government and £15 billion of efficiency savings due in the NHS.
So, what stories are being shaped? If you work in the sector it’s probably long overdue time to think about it.
A) Apply a positive gloss and insist that yes, efficiencies will be made but frontline services will not be cut.
B) Tell people that they had their chance to have their say in the budget consultation and they blew it.
C) Tell people that this is what cuts look like.
All too often people in the public sector have been going for a) to try and minimise panic and upset on the population. But with £20 billion worth of cuts coming down the tracks in local government we need to be above all honest. So, let’s just take a closer look at that, shall we?
What insisting that efficiencies will be made and frontline services will not be cut means
You’ve been cutting millions of pounds from budgets for years. But the frontline hasn’t been affected? Efficiencies? Clearly, you were wasting that money all along so why on earth should I trust you now?
Or, you’re trying to be a bit clever and you know that the frontline will very much be affected but the couple of hours of mobile library visit will somehow make-up for the five-day-a-week building the community used to have. People won’t buy it, or they’ll see through it. So, why should they trust you now?
What telling people that they’ve had their chance means
You’ve pinned up details of a public meeting at the church hall and you paid three times the rate for a display ad in the local paper because it’s a public notice and they’ve got you over a barrel. Twelve people turned up and the Twitter chat you ran reached a fair number but not everyone. In other words, you’ve not done a very good job of this public consultation lark. Why should they trust you now?
What telling people that this is what cuts look like looks like
In Birmingham, this is exactly what Cllr James McKay told the Evening Mail about green bin charges in the City as people were protesting against cuts. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, people won’t like it. But look yourself in the eye. This is the truth. This is going to happen more and more and public sector comms increasingly is going to be about what you don’t do rather than you do.
But at least they’ll trust you more because you are being honest.
A grown-up conversation is needed about communicating cuts and if you work in the area you need to work out which choice you make pretty quick.
Creative commons credit
Government communicators have been asked not to do anything unless it’s based on data.
The argument goes that this cuts out the vanity campaign or the SOS – the Sending Out Stuff – that sees press releases and other things shovelled out the door because some action is better than nothing.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see real merit in having a get out of jail free card when faced with a senior request ‘for stuff.’
But I’m starting to think about if we need to create some space for experimentation. Things like Trojan mice. These are things that see you try something out low budget just to see if it works and you can learn from.
One example of this skunkwork lab is the excellent Torfaen Council Elvis gritter YouTube that’s been around for a while. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the low budget Elvis impersonator from the Valleys singing about how the council can’t be everywhere and not to panic buy bread. It’s brilliant. It was done on a shoestring to make people smile, to tell them some important things and done entirely without research.
It works because it’s human and is entirely without strategy.
I was helping train a local government comms team last week when this clip came up and we showed it just to see the reaction. There was disbelief. Then laughter. Then real affection. It works. It just works. I rememberdiscussing it 12-months ag with someone who works for an authority who ruthlessly apply the research-led ROSIE logic.
“It’s really, really good and I love it,” she said. “But of couse we could never do it where I work.”
So how do you create the space needed to make the Trojan mice flourish?
Google famously give staff a day a week to work on their own projects. Some of those projects have become key to their future strategy.
Tectonic plates in the world of communications are shifting. The centre cannot hold. Different channels are emerging and with them the demand for new skills. If you want the evidence, more than 70 per cent in our survey four months ago said the job was getting harder.
So, the task facing the the comms leader is how to create some safe space to experiment.
And if you are a comms person in the trenches, how are you going to carve out some Google time for yourself to look after your future?
Creative commons credit
Earlier in the year I presented this rather fine deck of slides to LGComms in Manchester and wrote a blog post around the subject of Die Press Release, Die! Die! A post partly inspired by the rather fine Tom Foremski post of the same name from way back in 2006. A whole load of text words and images.
It turns out I was wasting my time. What I really should have done was to just show this table from Fred Godlash from the BusinessWired blog. It talked about a post they wrote in 2007 that put the price of a press release at $5,000. The equivalent price is $7,500 they surmised. Oh, how I wish that was the case for the corner of the public sector that I work in that collectively put out more than 1,000 in the previous 12-month period. You can read the full post here.
But what really caught my eye was a table that set out the reasons for writing a press release in 2007 compared to 2013. I’ve reproduced it here:
Why? Because it really nails the motivation behind getting a message out. In the past the aim was ink inches and coverage in the local newspaper. Today, the aim for any communications person is to think both print and digital.
The question is, are you? And how are you doing it? If you are not what are you doing about it?
Creative commons credit
Refreshingly, the UK government has stood up and on The Guardian website admitted it had a good idea. But not a definitive one.
The newspaper asks readers what it would tell Alex Aiken the government’s executive director of government communications. Which is either a blast of refreshing openness or a bit of window dressing. Actually, let’s take them at face value. Because no-one really has the last word. And Alex used to be localgov as I am now.
A changing landscape
If you are interested in communications, have a look at the new draft communications plan here.
Not only that but whole swathes of the government-wide communications plan should be printed out and shared vigorously. Not least the paragraph:
“We are operating against a fast changing backdrop.
“Digital TV and broadband access at home are now the norm.
“45 per cent of viewing is now of non-terrestrial channels, three times more than ITV1.
“Half of homes now have some form of personal video recorder such as Sky Plus.
“Newspaper sales continue to decline but the growth of online versions means that some content – often entertainment related-news stories – can reach more people than ever before.
“Social media channels are playing an ever greater role in spreading news and opinion.”
That they see that the landscape is changing is a profound relief to me. The facts loom so large as to be undeliable and people are starting slowly to grasp this. Whether we are all moving as fast as we could to embrace change is something else.
“In simple terms government should continue to shift from a static or traditional view of channels and audiences to one that reflects people’s lives, preferences and influences.”
It also talks about the three things that government comms needs to do. The legal obligation to tell people about big planning matters, for example. Or the explaining Minister’s priorities. And the attempt to change behaviours.
For local government too…
It’s tempting to think that local government can do this too. At a stroke. As a sector. But that would be silly. And it also forgets that people in Devon know more about what channels Devon people use than people who live in Dudley. But it’s absolutely the path that local government comms needs to go down.
It also means that comms people need to acknowledge they may not have all the answers to comms any more. Will that undermine the profession? Not, really. A bit of refreshing honesty is vital. Besides, I’ve learned so much about digital comms from bloggers, engineers and environmental health officers.
The 37 skills a comms person will need
Last summer I wrote a post that talks about the 37 skills we’ll need. I was a bit wrong. We won’t all need those. But you can bet your bottom dollar that teams will and the more you’ll have the better it’ll be for you.
The list includes traditional, digital, community building, mapping, infographics, social media, story telling, political nous and lots more beside.
We’ll need better training. We’ll need better ways to share good ideas. We’ll need more things like commscamp where local and central government people came together to do just that (disclaimer: I helped organise that.)
But more important than that, much more we’ll need the space to experiment and try new things. That’ll come from the top. It’ll come from Ministers themselves and senior officers. Or rather, it’ll come from our ability to re-train the Minister that something on Twitter is more important than the Today programme’s running order. Or in local government terms, that’s the local newspaper.
When I was a journalist we had an amazing media law refresher. We returned to the chalk face keen to push the boundaries. We were slapped down by our news editors. Training is wasted unless the people at the top get it too.
Salvation will come from an ongoing bombardment of stats, facts, figures, reporting back and internal communications. We think training is the answer. It’s not. It’s the start. Space to fail and learn from failing is.
But we also need to think about trust. More specifically, the Edelman Trust Barmeter that talks of how trust in institutions is up. But trust in those at the top is low but trust in those at the bottom is high. In other words, we don’t believe the chief executive of Royal Mail. But we trust our postman.
We need to be able to deliver comms outside of comms and give the people on the frontline the tools to communicate like West Midlands Police do and like we do in growing parts of local government too. At this point I link to Morgan Bowers a countryside ranger at Walsall Council with 1,100 followers on Twitter who are receptive to explanations about why saplings have to be cut down.
It’ll also mean hiring bloggers for their skills. Not just journalists.
So much is made in the Government document about savings. I’d like to hear more about results and what exciting possibilities we have stretching out in front of us too, please.