Back in 1979, the amazing invention called the mobile phone was road tested. We would, they said, no longer have to have to rely on landlines. In 1969, they called school computers and in 1994 it was the internet.
The mood music of it all was that one day, things would be so much different. It would be better but we were in control. For a while now there’s been a few emerging trends that I’ve been trying to make sense of. They’re now just starting to drift into view and they’ll change things for everyone. Not just comms people.
Bear with me. It’ll get weird, but let’s walk through it together.
A man in glasses has told me my fridge will talk to my scales
A couple of years ago a futurologist in sharp glasses told me that the internet of things was coming. This would be objects connected-up to the internet to allow them to talk to each other. Your scales would work out your ideal weight and, if you wanted, tell your fridge when milk stocks were running low to re-order semi-skimmed milk rather than full fat. And not chocolate. Or your smart whiskey bottle will let you know if someone is nipping at your Johnie Walker Blue Label.
Of course, the possibilities of all this are endless. Predictions of the scale of the internet of things – or IOT – range from the seriously mindblowing to the you’ll need to sit down because you’ll be rocking back and forth unable to comprehend. Deloitte says that a billion devices will be shipped in 2015. By 2020, Gartner says this will reach 25 billion devices or the equivalent of six devices for every person on the planet. Cisco says it’s 50 billion. Intel have it at 200 billion. Either way, it’s going to be a lot and my new printer that I can email and has its own URL blinks back at me as proof.
There’s always a trade-off with tech and one that equates to the Native Americans getting a handful of shiny jewels in return for the island of Manhattan. They dangle something cool in front of us and we handover loads of stuff they want. In this case its stacks and stacks of personal data. Think of Facebook. They give us a place to post baby pics and view cat videos. We give them our date of birth, school, University, where we live, where we work, spending habits, political beliefs and who we want to win Strictly. It’s a marketer’s dream. But the University library of information you’ll give to the internet of things will make Facebook look like a Janet and John easy read book.
Your communications will be automated
So, as the internet of things grows the more devices will communicate to each other. We just won’t see it. But what we will maybe see is sharp tailored personalised communication based on our sleeping, spending and drinking habits. It’s happening already to some extent. I think of the Troop canvas shoulder bag that keeps cropping up in my Facebook timeline after I google searched it last week. However, with lots more data the possibilities open up.
“More of our communication will be artificial and less of it will be human,” says Tracey Follows in The Guardian. “It is now common to say that the world is uncertain and therefore can’t be planned for. One thing is certain though. We are entering into a world that’s post human.”
The link did the rounds on Twitter. The tag ‘post human’ certainly jarred with some people in my timeline but it’s an eye-catching line. To some extent it is factually accurate. All that data. All those fridges. All those supermarkets. But to some extent it’s also wrong. The communications that will really stand out will be that which makes best use of the data to personalise it. As a married father of two children who likes cricket, technology and doing things with my family at the weekend anything that takes that data and helps me spend my time and money better is welcome.
Your crisis comms needs to be really, really good
We have the expansion of tech through the internet of thing and others the surrender of all that data. Here’s a really bright and cheery prediction. There’s going to be a massive cyber attack along the lines of a web 3.0 9/11. Not if. When.
Thomas Lee upon sees an internet of things showroom in San Franscisco by US firm Target where a car alarm wakes a baby whose cries are spotted by sensors which play soothing music. It dawns on him:
“We are so screwed… it was all very impressive, but I couldn’t help notice an irony: the retailer that ion 2013 was subject to a hack that compromised the credit card data of 100 million consumers now wanted people to entrust their entire homes to the internet.”
So, I’d maybe look at how you respond when there’s a data breach and things fall over.
Your internet is being automated
Data, data everywhere. That’s for the geeks, right? Actually, no. Not really. In a really challenging piece in Vox Todd Van Der Werff wrote a piece under the headline ‘2015 is the year the old internet finally died.’
He drew a simple conclusions from a number of recent stories which he maps out in the piece here before concluding:
“The internet as we know it, the internet of five, 10 or 20 years ago is going away as surely as print media replaced by the new internet that reimagines personal identity as something easily commodified that plays less on the desire for information or thoughtfulness than it does the desire for a quick jolt of emotion.
“It’s an internet driven not by human beings but by content, at all costs, And none of us – neither media professionals, nor readers can stop it. Every single one of us is building it every single day.”
People prefer the snackable and the fun, he argues. And it’s true. Yet most comms people haven’t got that. They – we’re – born in a world of newspapers and press releases. They – we’re – institutionalised to think that the organisation we work for is the centre of everyone’s waking moment and if it isn’t that’s their fault not ours.
At this point I think back, not for the first time, to the former Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher who said that we need to communicate like insurgents. In other words, fast, agile, snackable, fleet-of-foot content that thought more about the person than the organisation.
Getting good at data… and saying ‘no’
Of course, we’ve said it for years that data will be important to communications. We’ve said it but I’m not sure we really acted upon it. I’ve got a bit testy with the open data community in the past for not being very good at talking to people. But I wouldn’t deny the potential that data has to make the world a better place and to help you communicate better. I think of open data helping to expose massive fraud in Canada. I think on a very micro level the Coast Guard comms person who when I showed her followerwonk realised there was a spike in how active her Twitter followers were at 6am and then decided to schedule some content every day at that time.
The reality is that communications and PR people are very, very bad at using and interpreting data and need to be better. We also need to be much, much better at kicking back and asking for the data to be produced by the people who are asking us to write the press release, set-up the Twitter account or plan the campaign.
There is an art to saying ‘no’ and I don’t think comms people say it often enough. Sometimes, this can be done politely. Sometimes, this needs to be done by banging the table. Or in other words, to be able to command the skills of ‘Yes Minister’ alongside almost but not quite ‘The Thick of It.’ But maybe just be really careful who you are Malcolm Tucker direct with, okay?
So what does all this mean?
It means more things changing faster. It means the Robert Phillips phrase of ’embrace chaos’ being ever more relevant. Why? Because that’s all we can do. There’s a long tail with all of this. This will take shape in some sectors way before they reach others. But this is the direction we’re headed.
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.
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.
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 TeamPosted: June 8, 2015
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.
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.