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 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 know the value of internal comms
To take risks
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 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.
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?