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.
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Well, it’s had a great innings but can we now finally bury the idea that using social media ad hoc in an organisation is going to change the world?
But what great days we did have.
We had a mantra of JFDI in local government – just flipping do it – and we did things under the rader without permission.We would chuck up a Facebook page knowing that IT didn’t know what it was so they couldn’t block it.
We could tweet election results without too much interference, snigger behind our hands and we could push the envelope.
But those days are over. We learned lots but no, we didn’t take over the world even though it felt as though we would. Today, many public sector teams have been cut back too far to have space to innovate. Even more worryingly, teams haven’t found a way to tackle the big issues that really matter to make a difference. They haven’t found a way to get the resources to do so either.
Sure, the trojan mouse idea of testing out four or five ideas to see where it’ll take you is one I enthusiastically believe in to help you experiment and see what works. But to really make a difference bright communications people need to take all that experience and find out what is keeping senior people awake at night. Then go hell for leather to tackle that, that and only that. But make sure the senior people know exactly what you are doing by reporting back using every means neccesary. Infographics are particularly good. Make yourself a sandwich board if you have to but just flipping do it.
Here’s a few ideas to help you…
Are you helping senior people sleep at night?
Here’s an exercise I came across during the LGComms Future Leaders programme at a session at Leeds Metropolitan University with Anne Gregory and Paul Willis. It was the best piece of training I had in the eight years I spent in local government and I suggest you do this quick exercise.
- Get a piece of paper and draw a blob in the middle.
- Think of six people you do most of your work for in your organisation and write their names on the paper… the more important they are the closer to the blob you can write their name.
- Write down some things – let’s say six things – that keep those six people awake at night.
- Ask yourself, are you really spending time with the really key people?
- Ask yourself, are you really doing things to help the really key people sleep at night?
My own conclusion to doing this exercise was that I wasn’t really tackling the issues that matter for the people that matter and I’ll bet you a slice of Victoria sponge that you aren’t either.
The goal of the bright communications team should not be vague ‘reputation’ or ‘awareness’. It is to prove in pounds, shillings and pence if needs be the value of the team before it is too late. It’s why I’ve long been convinced that channel shift and customer service are things that comms teams need to be closely involved with.
So how can we help tackle the issues that keep senior people awake?
If I had a pound for every time someone told me the words: ‘What we need is a comms plan,’ I’d have been rich. What they meant was they wanted you to tick a box for them. What they really wanted was to outsource the responsibility to you when we all know to be effective it should be a joint thing.
What you really need is a comms plan agreed jointly with the senior people around a table. This can take many forms but they need to have the following:
- Where they are now.
- Where they want to go.
- Something measurable and tangiable to show when they’ve got there.
- Who they want to talk to and how they can do it.
- Some ideas of resources.
- Some idea of evaluation.
Some of what’s in your plan will be traditional comms and some will be digital. You’ll have a mix of both and you’ll be working to make a difference to your organisation for the people who are going to be making big budget decisions in the not too distant future.
If yuo get this right your bosses’ boss will sleep at night.
And you won’t be sleepwalking towards a cliff either
By the way, I’m now available to help you with all of this and would love to do so. I’m email@example.com and @danslee on Twitter.
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We will awake https://www.flickr.com/photos/25028863@N00/5612074901/
Back in the day, you’d get a big ruler, a sheaf of cuttings and work out column inches.
Then maybe work out who could have read them.
Proudly, you’d boast of how 500,000 would have seen your campaign.
Then everyone would pat themselves on the back.
Only thing is, that nice as that is that just doesn’t prove a hill of beans.
How many turned a page and ignored it?
Add social media into the landscape and things get even more complicated. That niche Facebook page with 200 liking it? A waste of time? Not at all. Not if its the right number for that niche activity.
How do you measure success?
What counts? Likes? Retweets? Twitter followers?
Maybe the number of press releases you wrote or the tweets you sent?
The impact of communications – traditional or digital – must be not the passive audience who glanced at it but what people did as a result of it.
So, in other words, it’s how many people signed up for that course or how many used a web form instead of calling a help desk.
Frustratingly, that means it’s not a universal measurement. Getting 12 people signed-up for basket making session could well be just as much a success as getting 100 to join a library.
But it’s more than that.
One thing that’s always irritated me about measurement – particularly social media measurement – is a the vagueness of the results.
Take Klout. Break the news to your chief executive your organisations’ score is 55 and they’ll more than likely look at you strangely.
Other monitoring that produces a notional number also leaves me cold.
Your rating has gone up by 2.2. So what?
But it could well be that comms people already have the answer to all this right under their noses.
The cost of things counts
A few years ago, web standards organisation SOCITM did some research into the cost to local government of doing things for residents when they got in contact.
Doing something face-to-face costs £8.62, by telephone £2.83 and the web 15p.
Accountants PWC apparently also did some similar work calculating the cost of local government replying to a letter was around £10.
So maybe one way to evaluate some comms activity was to look at the situation before you got involved and then look at it after.
In other words, helping channel shift, that act of going from the expensive offline to the cost effective online.
Did the number of phonecalls dip? Did the letters fall? Did more people use the web to report it?
That’s a figure that really start to pass the chief executive credibility test.
That’s also a language that officers can understand too.
That could well be the beginnings of an argument not just to better evaluate but critically to help explain and justify the role of communications in the public sector in 2013.
That’s quite a powerful idea.
Dr Gerald Power’s white paper for Govdelivery on channel shift which is here.
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That was the iconoclastic view of London Fire Brigade’s head of comms Richard Stokoe.
Back at the annual LGComms Academy earlier in the year he spoke eloquently about the challenges the public sector is facing and his take on what it should do. We shouldn’t pretend that things are fine when they’re not, he says. Neither should it try and bea cheerleader for business as usual because business as usual is over.
Richard pointed to the example of the fire strikes in the capital in 2011 when far fewer appliances were available for use. Normally, there are 167 covering the capital but on the day of the strike just 27 were mustered. That’s around 20 per cent of the usual number and the potential for problems it posed was immense.
So, instead of saying how fine everything was London Fire Brigade instead pointed to the number they would have during the strikes and asked people to be more responsible as the level of service would be so much different.
PR was targeted at the areas of London with a historically high number of incidents.
What was the outcome?
A thin red line?
Zulu Dawn with fire engines?
Actually, no. Fewer calls.
According to the stats, 999 calls were 32 per cent lower than 2004 when Bonfire Night last fell on a Friday. Smaller fires were 56 per cent lower than the 2004 yardstick and 30 per cent down on the previous year.
It’s an approach that goes against the grain for many public relations people. Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to talk up what we do?
Certainly, his organisation took a bit of a battering for being so honest.
But I think Richard Stokes has a point.
If we’re doing less we should be telling people. If we’re not doing services at all we need to be telling people.
We risk far more in the long term by pretending that nothing has changed. We need a slab of honest realism. Residents would be better informed.
That’s something that public sector comms people are having to wrestle with up and down the country.
Called Hyper WM this half day event has grown from being a half germ of an idea to something a bit big a bit splendid and I’m proud to be involved with.
Staged at The Public in West Bromwich on Monday November 19 the event will give people the space to think a bit differently. Hats off to Sandwell Council’s chief executive Jan Britton and Liz O’nions for really picking up the ball and running with it and to Si Whitehouse who has played a big role this year.
It’s the biggest event yet there’s some tickets here if you’re quick.
But what’s the purpose of one of these things? Aren’t we all unconferenced out? Paul Coxon recently wrote a challenging and thoughtful piece that questioned the worth of unconferences. Paul has done some great work in local government and like anything half-decent if it’s a good idea it can stand a level of scrutiny. So here’s my own take on them.
What do I get out of them?
Simply, it’s a chance to connect, be challenged, think differently and learn. It’s a chance to see what is on the horizon and just over the hill. Do I learn something that I can put into place first thing Monday morning? Yes. But it’s often equips me for that thing that lands on my lap in six months time. Often it’s thanks to an unconference that I’ve knowing the basics and know the right person who can help. Like a glorified address book with ‘problem solving’ on the cover. Everything that I’ve done over the last three years with digital – direct or indirectly – has come from an unconference. How can I start to calculate that?
What would new people get out of them?
It’s a chance to take some time out of the office to learn and to think differently. Job titles are handed in at the door and there’s a chance to contribute to a discussion or even start a discussion with someone with something you have in common. The coffee break at a traditional event is often the most valuable time as it’s a chance to talk, ask questions and learn. A good unconference can be a whole lot of that.
What do sponsors get out of it?
A chance to test out ideas, horizon scan, see what ideas are developing and to attach a name to a room full of people who believe in doing something a bit innovative. There’s also the passing traffic of eyeballs to the website and to the event. But that’s almost a by-product.
Oh, no it’s not structured!
Rather like taking a dip in the deep end without water wings for the first time there’s a leap of faith involved. You may hate it. You’re more likely to like it. At the last Hyper WM there was the press officer who refused to come because he didn’t have an agenda. That misses the point.
Nine unconference pitfalls and ways to dodge them
Three years on from my first unconference and it’s clear that the model has evolved and has matured. There was an intake of breath at localgovcamp in Birmingham in 2012 when for a whole variety of reasons many veterans couldn’t make it. But others stepped up to the plate which was brilliant to see.
1. If the same faces turn up.
There’s no question that there’s a group of people who will turn up to unconferences. That’s fine. They’ll get the ball rolling and encourage and cajole. But the danger is there’s an imbalance of new people with fresh ideas. An imaginative use of the wait list can ration the right balance. Easy.
2. If the same faces pitch a session idea.
There’s also no question that the unconference pitching session where you stand in front of a room of people can be daunting. It encourages a certain type of people who don’t mind public displays of popularity. So how to fix it? Maybe it’s encouraging ideas before the event itself. Maybe it’s blank postcards and pens. And someone else reading them out. Easy.
3. If there’s no ideas
Like the actor who dreams of being on stage with no clothes surely deep down the unconference organiser dreads. Teeing up a couple of ideas and making the pitching less scary is a must. Especially from new people.
4. If there’s cliques
Open data people only talking to other open data people in open data sessions is a bit of a missed opportunity and a bit boring, frankly. The times when I’ve been to events I’ve made a deliberate policy of heading to an event where I’ve known absolutely nothing. In short, I’ve sat in the corner and said nothing. At one event I sat through a session on WordPress as a web platform. That’s not my day job. But I learned things that helped with the day job. If you’ve been before, find someone you’ve not met before and chat to them. Then repeat. You’ll learn things.
5. If the focus on problems not the shiny tech
I’d love to see sessions that floated a problem and looked for solutions that may or may not be about the tech. Coventry City Council Martin Reeves at the 10 by 10 WM event made a valuable point. At a recent session for chief executives social media wasn’t mentioned once, he said. Don’t be an evangelist. Bring a solution that may just have some tech as part of it.
6. If there’s measurement
Yes, but how do we measure the success? Maybe it’s coming back in six months time to see what people have learned and put into practice. Then working out what the cost of what that would have been if you’d bought it off the shelf. Good luck with calculating that.You’ll need a stack of numbers.
7. Yes, but aren’t we unconferenced out?
Not nearly close. If 150 people want to stage an event to talk museums and hold it in an unconference format that’s fine by me if those 150 get something out of it. The public sector is a broad church. With training budgets vanishing the unconference is a way of sharing knowledge. If a room full of public health people want to get together to crack something that’s fine by me. Or librarians.
8. It’s the brewcamps, stupid
For all I love big organised events it’s actually things like brewcamp – and teacamp in London – where I can see the most potential. What’s this? It’s a group of like minded people coming together to drink coffee, eat cake and learn things. At no cost. In a coffee shop. Splintering is the new black.
Crack those eight and you’ve a good chance of helping to create something vibrant and innovative. Best thing is you don’t have to be an organiser to play a big part.
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In Dunkirk, its Johnny Mills as a British corporal steering his men to safety.
In Pulp Fiction, its Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta getting away with accidentally shooting Marvin in the face.
One if the biggest challenges facing press offices and communications teams is how to blend the old with the new to stay relevant.
There was a fascinating post by Ann Kempster who works in central government about what comms teams should look like. You can read it here. Emer Coleman from the Government Digital Service and others made some excellent comments.
A couple of years ago I blogged about what comms teams needing to adapt and have traditional and digital skills. I probably over-sold open data. We’re not there just yet but will be but the basics I still hang my hat on.
Back then I said the communications team needed to be both digital and traditional so calling something a press office these days is a bit of an anachronism. It would involve the basics:
- Have basic journalism skills.
- Know how the machinery of local government works.
- Write a press release.
- Work under speed to deadline.
- Understand basic photography.
- Understand sub-editing and page layouts.
But would need to have these too:
For web 1.0 the press office also needed to:
- Add and edit web content
For web 2.0 the press office also needs to:
- Create podcasts
- Create and add content to a Facebook page.
- Create and add content to a Twitter stream.
- Create and add content to Flickr.
- Create and add content to a blog.
- Monitor and keep abreast of news in all the form it takes from print to TV, radio and theblogosphere.
- Develop relationships with bloggers.
- Go where the conversation is whether that be online or in print.
- Be ready to respond out-of-hours because the internet does not recognise a print deadline.
For web 3.0 the press office will also need to:
- Create and edit geotagged data such as a Google map.
- Create a data set.
- Use an app and a mash-up.
- Use basic html.
- Blog to challenge the mis-interpretation of data.
So how can we make the joint traditional and digital press office work?
There’s no question that the traditional press office and the digital press office should be under the same roof.
There’s no point in having an old school team with spiralbound notebooks and in the next room a digital team with jet packs and Apple macbook pros not communicating.
So what can help make the joint digital and trad comms team work?
Press officers won’t all head voluntarily to this bright new dawn. It’s just not going to happen overnight. Some won’t change and will be left behind.
The bright ones will adapt and are adapting to a place where a bog standard comms plan will include old media + social media + web as a matter of course. After all. We don’t all have specialists for TV or radio sat in most press offices and certainly not in local government where I work.
We all need a specialist digital comms officer to help blend the old and the new
Once I knew a man who was a mechanic. He used to repair petrol engines. At night school, he learned how electrical generators worked.
When his company changed to electrical generators he alone had the expertise for both and was invaluable in training staff.
That’s the approach we need for press officers.
In other words, what will blend old and new in the short and medium term is the dedicated social media or digital communications officer.
On Ann Kempster’s blog the anaology was made about digital cameras. We don’t refer to cameras as ‘digital’ these days. They are just cameras. That’s true and that’s where we need to go with comms teams.
But in many ways there’s more to it than that. I remember working as a newspaper when the first photographer – who was not a popular man – walked in proudly with a satchel with the paper’s first digital camera and laptop. “Schools broken up early has it?” came the dry-balloon bursting quip from the long-serving deputy chief reporter. The same quip was made every time the photographer walked in until the whole of the company’s photographers had them. Somehow, knowing the characters involved that made it funnier.
There was a cross-over period while photographers adapted to the new technology but the basic work of the photographer remained the same. Composition was unaltered. They were still building the same things through their view finders. But with digital communications it’s asking people to use a completely different set of skills. Like asking a photographer to become a sculptor overnight. But still take pictures when needed too.
From experience, the shift from the traditional to the traditional + digital takes time but it has to be coaxed and encouraged. That’s where the digital specialist in the comms team comes in so long as they share the sweets, horizon scan and work to give back-up to help others gain confidence. They also need to flag up the successes. They need to do some measuring and reporting back. We need to include digital stats along with traditional media ones so when the cabinet member in local government, or whoever, gets told what’s happening in the media they’re getting the digital picture too.
Just because an organisation has given the green light to social media doesn’t always mean the influential people in an organisation get it. One of the big complaints is that digital is tacked onto the busy day job. Well, if the day job means press releases churned out to dwindling newspapers maybe that work needs re-calibrating. But you need to convince the powers that be that it’s not 1985 anymore and digital and traditional is the way forward.
Why do comms need to share the sweets?
That’s something I’ve been banging on about for a long time. Comms needs to train, give advice, shape policy where needed but most importantly hold the door open for others to go through.
Across the country these either formally titled or informally tasked digital comms people can be seen doing good things. Look at Helen Reynolds in Monmouthshire County Council, Geoff Coleman at Birmingham City Council and what Al Smith did at Newcastle City Council and elsewhere as a couple of examples.
It’s the path that Walsall Council’s comms team has taken too thanks to bright leadership. As a result we now have press officers like Tina Faulkner and Becky Robinson who by no means are digital natives putting together inspiring campaigns like this one which saw a morning with a carer and her husband who suffers Alzheimers. They found magic in this approach which told a human story beautifully.
The challenge is to find the innovator in every comms team and gently give others room and confidence to grow if they need it.
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