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.
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.
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?