Monday, 2 November 2015

As a parent..... (Lessons from my first week or so of fatherhood)

Because there are nowhere near enough blog posts on the internet about parenting, I thought I'd better shed some light on this seldom-discussed issue, from the perspective of having been a Dad for a total of 12 days.

The first thing to say about being a parent of a newborn son is that, to some extent, much of what I read about before he arrived is absolutely true:

Yes it is life changing. Yes it is tiring. Yes it is stressful. Yes it can be expensive (if you're not careful).

Yes changing nappies is kind of gross. Yes I am learning to get by on far less sleep.

But, also:

Yes it is amazing. Yes it is super cute when he does a little sneeze. Yes I am loving it.

But there's some other things I've learned in the last couple of weeks since the arrival of Master Fox Washington Capper, that are a bit surprising or that have confirmed things I thought I knew.

(The following list is based on my experiences of these last 12 days. Please bear in mind that we have experienced neither colic nor teething at this point, and I'm still currently on paternity leave.)

1. The internet is full of bullshit about parenting

Bar a few very honourable exceptions (Stuart Heritage's Man with a Pram series in the Guardian, and this priceless list from one Mr Dan Slee - seriously this one in particular has been a massive help) there truly is some utter guff online about parenting.

This I believe starts during pregnancy. One of my roles during the 9 months was that of Royal Chef - ensuring nothing untoward passed my wife's lips.

When I googled "can you eat feta cheese in pregnancy" for example, the incredibly helpful responses ranged from "my friend was killed instantly by eating feta cheese" to "eating feta cheese resulted in me giving birth to Superman". 

Now if you're interested, the answer to this question is quite simply and conclusively: "if it's made from pasteurised milk, yes. If not, no."

But we all know the internet isn't that simple. 

This then goes in to the weeks before birth. 

Entire prairies in Kansas seem to be devoted to housing data centres hosting "my pregnancy was worse than yours" blogs, followed up with "having a baby is a life-ending nightmare from which there is no escape - but I wouldn't change it" opinion pieces.  

Once you've realised that actually it isn't quite as terrible as all these blogs say, then you're on to "if you think having a newborn is hard, having a toddler is a total living hell" pieces. 

It's an infinite loop of misinformation, directly conflicting "advice", and pointless scaremongering. Oh and let's not forget the essential air of condescending "as a parent" superiority. 

If you want advice during pregnancy visit the NHS website. Don't bother with any others. 

The rest figure out by speaking to humans you trust and / or by figuring it out yourself. 

2. It's not THAT hard

I'm obviously not referring to childbirth itself here just so you know. 

And that's the end of that sentence. 

But really, looking after our lad is not that complicated. He sleeps a lot. This is punctuated by crying. This crying is solved by either feeding him, changing him, or making him warmer or cooler. Failing all those things, it can be stopped by a good cuddle. 

A brilliant insight into parenting I had a year or two ago before we were pregnant from a very good friend was words to the effect of:

"It sounds like it should be a nightmare, but it's great."

And this is the best description of having a newborn baby I can think of. 

Yes it's more difficult than life before a baby. You get less sleep. But you don't get no sleep. Our little guy works on a 2-3 hour loop of feeding. This basically continues on a 24 hour basis. This obviously includes night time. 

One of us gets up whenever he does THAT cry to let us know he's hungry. Whoever is up (we take it in turns) changes him (we do this first for reasons that I won't bore you with - email me if you really want to know), feeds him, winds him, and cuddles him for 10 minutes, by which time he has a look on his face not unlike that of a student leaning against a kebab shop window after a 2-4-1 on shots night at the local student union. He then goes back to sleep, as does whoever is up. This continues until morning. Then during the day a similar cycle occurs. Though he's a bit more alert in between feeds. 

Is having a red faced baby screaming in your face with a pooey nappy at 2:30am a lot of fun? No clearly not. But making him so he's not crying and going back to sleep with a smile on his face is part of the fun, and leaves you with a warm glow and a sense of achievement as you go back to bed for a couple of hours before doing it again.

You're more tired than usual but you cope and adjust. That's what paternity leave is for. 

It's not rocket science.

3. Our dog has loved it. Our cat has totally freaked out.

Now this is a weird one.

We have a 18-month old Cocker Spaniel and a 9 year old cat.

The dog, who has very much been the baby of the household until recently has adjusted amazing well to him being here. She loves him, she's always looking out for him, gives him the occasional little ear-lick (which I'm sure is absolutely FINE), and has started to perform an essential service in letting us know when his nappy needs changing.

The cat though has not been so keen. She's normally really unflappable, but this has thrown her. On the first night home, when I was awake the entire night (my fault for being over-aware of every minor noise - not remotely necessary), the cat actually demanded at least as much attention as our son.

She was wailing and needing holding - to the extent that at one point, I needed to lie on the bed in the spare room while she walked all over me clawing me for about half an hour. I woke up (well got out of bed, I never slept) covered in scratches.

She's slowly got used to it over the past 12 days, but her general freak-out has been one of the surprises of the week....

I guess cats are very aware of changes in environment. Fascinating creatures.

4. Timing is everything

Those 2-3 hour cycles I mentioned - we're very lucky (I think) that we pretty much can set our watches by them.

What it does mean that if you want to do anything that requires an time commitment over an hour (going out somewhere in the pram, making dinner, having a mid afternoon kip), he needs feeding prior.

Do that and life can resume almost as normal for the next couple of hours.

5. At 12 days old, even CBeebies is way too advanced.

During pregnancy we talked a lot about all the cool stuff we'd do with our son when he got here.

We still have very advanced plans to go to Legoland (the proper one in Denmark mind) when he's about 4, and to Star Wars land at Disney World when it's open in, I don't know, 5 or 6 years?

But even outside of that, I was quite looking forward to playing and doing silly songs off the telly once he got here.

Unfortunately all these things are still a way off while he's in his eat - change - wind - cuddle - sleep cycle.

I tried to watch like 10 minutes of CBeebies the other day with him. I might as well have made him watch Eraserhead.

He had no idea what was going on - and i guess possibly won't for some time to come. Which is fine...

6. All other children look huge.

And related to this, whilst watching CBeebies, I was struck by how grown up all the kids featured in programmes looked.

They were wearing trousers! They were standing up on their own! They seemed to understand a basic narrative arc!

On my second day of paternity leave, I took the dog for a walk and had a chat to a young mum also out with their beagle. She had what looked, in comparison to Fox, like a 10 year old strapped to her front. Turns out he was only 5 months.

I guess babies grow quickly. I didn't realise they were so small to begin with.

7. Paternity leave = amazing

I can't overstate this. It's brilliant, and I've loved every minute. A true gift to men everywhere.

When else are you off work for 2 weeks, being at home, and it being ace? You don't have time or inclination to "do a few jobs in the garden". You just have to be at home getting to know your kid, and spending time with your wife or partner.

It's brilliant.

Thank-you Employment Law.

8. The mother of your child = God

I'm not going into child birth here.

Google it. I'm sure that'll prove very enlightening.

It's obviously different for everyone, but one common denominator that everyone will tell you, and I fully concur, is that your wife or partner will go through the wringer to at least some extent. For this, they deserve your unending respect, support, and treating like a God amongst men.

Seriously, it's an amazing thing they've done for the past 9 months, and went through for 24 hours.

Cherish her and forever be in awe of her. She did an unbelievable job.

9. Changing, feeding, winding = incidental in the grand scheme of of things.

I refer back to point 2. If you take all these things in isolation out of the context of having a baby, they sound awful.

And to some extent they are. I'd never fed or changed a baby before, and totally freaked at the idea of doing so.

But, context is indeed everything.

All of these things are just necessary, and really are not a big deal. They're essential to having a healthy, happy baby, which is obviously what you want.

They don't take long, and are just a natural part of your life now, and here's the thing, THAT'S FINE.

In the grand scheme of things, these are no big deal, and not to be stressed over. Once they're done, they can go back to being asleep or incredibly cute, or both.

10. The one crucial piece of advice. 

I could do a big list of practical things here, that we've found out in the past 12 days (don't bother getting an expensive digital monitor, change first then feed, get a bouncy chair blah blah blah) and if you really want to ask, please do.

I was given some great advice off other dads during the time we were expecting, none of which we found on the internet.

My advice to any prospective parents on the strength of the last 12 days would be simply:

"Keep your baby alive in a manner that you are comfortable with."

Anything to do with having a kid: the pregnancy, the birth, the looking after, the setting up home etc, must be entirely designed to suit you and you alone. Other people will have good nuggets of advice, but really it's totally up to you to ignore or act upon.

Anyone who judges you for your decisions, or insists you follow particular path, does not have opinions worth listening to.

I may well revise this entire list in another 12 days, but this is how I feel right now.

Basically, it's great. All the hard work and tiredness is 100% worth it. It's the best thing we ever did.

If we can do it, so can anyone.

Being the clip art and comic sans police. And why it matters.

This blog post appeared originally here on
comms2point0 is one of my favourite websites.
There are loads of interesting ideas and a great community. There’s stuff on here that helps me to find solutions to issues on a daily basis.
Not very colourful though is it?
Don’t know about you, but sometimes I think it’s crying out for a bright splash of pink, maybe with some orange writing on it.
And that typeface. It’s OK for some people I guess, but surely something friendlier, some more hand-writing-ish would make it look, you know, just a bit nicer.
And why don’t they put some clip art on there? There’s loads on your computer. It’d brighten it all up a bit. It’d make it “stand out”.
Actually, I’ll get my friend’s 10 year old daughter to knock something up. She’s good at drawing…
No I haven’t lost my mind. Yes I am being deliberately facetious.
These are very close to real life comments that I, as the appointed “brand guardian” for our organisation (a large NHS Hospital Trust employing over 5,000 people) have had to field in the not too distant past.
In big organisations, we simply cannot do every piece of communication. People are rightly proud and enthusiastic about their services, and often cannot wait to tell the world about how brilliant they are.
That’s laudable, and pretty much entirely positive. But, good grief, it does lead to some dreadful leaflets, posters and the like being created, that will make you cringe till you can cringe no longer.
And our role in this is to give these departments the tools and framework to do things for themselves, and unfortunately, play “bad cop” when things aren’t up to scratch.
This wonderful site that you’re currently reading (whose branding, just for the record, I actually LOVE), has a truly fantastic post on comms face-palm moments, and a comments thread  that never fails to make me actually LOL in those dark moments where you just need to feel that someone out there feels your pain.
For us communicators, sharing our stories about that department that did “that crap leaflet” that we had to sort out at the last minute before they ran off 6,000 copies is genuinely cathartic. It shows that we all, in large public sector organisations have very similar challenges. And it’s funny, in a kind of gallows-humour kind of way.
But we do need to remind ourselves as communicators that, as much as this stuff drives us mad sometimes, we do play a critical role in safeguarding and promoting our organisations’ reputations through holding firm, and making sure that our various brands retain the equity that we’ve worked so hard to create.
Every element of our organisational brand identity should be poured over. Every shade of colour, every bit of positioning, every relationship between image and text, and of course, every piece of lettering, needs to be guarded and owned meticulously.
Branding isn’t just something for blue-chips, retailers, or high end fashion labels. It’s an essential part of every organisation’s face to the outside world. And in public service, I’d argue, that it’s just as, nay, even more important.
The most precious commodity that we in the public sector have is trust.
It only takes one badly worded tweet (I’m looking at you The FA) or a badly briefed executive on the local news to undo all your good work, and erode the public’s trust in you.
We need to think of branding in this same bracket.
Personally, for my local hospital or local authority, when I visit their premises or get a letter from them, I want reassurance that they’re professional, trustworthy, using my tax dollars properly, and holding themselves to the highest possible standards.
I don’t want to think of them as friendly, well-meaning amateurs.
A badly photocopied leaflet with the logo stretched, and written in Comic Sans, covered in jaunty clip art gives me the latter feeling. It frankly erodes my trust in them to deliver when it really matters.
This shows us that all the details matter and that everything signifies something in branding.
So what to do?
Well, it’s not easy. But there are a few things we all need to effectively safeguard our brand identity and therefore our reputations, especially where, through necessity, we have to hand the reigns to other non-branding expert led departments:
A brand guidelines document.
What looks “good” is a notoriously subjective issue.
It becomes an especially subjective and even emotive issue when you have to tell someone, (usually an admin assistant or a junior member of a team, who are only doing what they’ve been asked to do, and who has “worked really hard on this actually”) that what they’ve spent all afternoon creating isn’t up to scratch.
Having a brand guidelines document takes this subjectivity away. The best ones aren’t just a list of dos and don’ts, they’re manifestos for how the organisation is to be represented. They’re unarguable statements of intent, as well as essential guides for visual communications.
And they give you crucial back-up if you ever get into the horrendous back-and-forth of a manager who believes what you’re telling them is an optional opinion, just casually thrown into the conversation for good measure. They may well “prefer the one we’ve done actually”, but if whatever it is doesn’t do what your guidelines tell them: it ain’t good enough. End of story. 
An iron constitution
As a brand guardian, you will see things that horrify you. This is especially problematic in big organisations with lots of departments that you simply can’t sit with and direct on a daily basis.
It’s important to keep your cool when you see stuff that offends every design sensibility in your body. But it’s also important to stand firm.
You may well have to tell people what they don’t want to hear sometimes, but it’s important you have the confidence, and support within the organisation do to so, when the situation demands it.
Having a clear sense of what is acceptable and what isn’t is really important. Remember, we’re not dealing with subjective opinions here. We’re dealing with what the organisation has decided its face to the world is to be. It’s worth protecting.
Good relationships
Of course, we’re dealing with human beings here.
Hard and fast rules strongly enforced will only get you so far. In fact, I have a theory that for some people, the more you criticise their efforts, the greater chance you have of effectively ghettoising crap design. This stuff happens anyway, but you never get to know about it. And in a big organisation, it’s easier to get away with. And more damaging.
That’s why engaging with people that are being asked to put posters and leaflets and the like together on a human, equal footing is so important.
Go out and see them. Understand what they’re trying to actually achieve. Show them good examples. Explain to themwhy it must be done this way. Show them the high quality results of other work you’ve done, when you’ve worked closely with someone on a piece of work. Give them examples of people within the organisation that are doing things the right way, and explain how they got there.
Help them to understand that this is an important part of your remit.
If it helps, why not run a session to practically show people how to create decent communications on a DIY basis?
Involve, don’t just enforce.
An understanding that nothing happens in isolation
At one of the discussions at the excellent CommsCamp15 around the subject of “DIY Comms”, a provocative but really important question was asked along the lines of:
“If comms people give all other departments the tools and guidance to do comms themselves, what role is left for them?”
And, you know, this is a damn good question.
And for me, there’s a clear answer. Our role is to see the whole organisation the way the public sees us.
This means understanding that nothing ever happens in isolation, and that every activity, whatever it is, reflects on the organisation in some way – good or bad.
We have to remind ourselves and our colleagues that the public don’t see departments. They see one organisation. It’s our role to provide this context to everyone who is doing any communication on behalf of that organisation.
So when your local Library Services want to do a poster – it’s actually the whole Local Authority doing a poster.
When your Maternity Services want to do a hand-made leaflet to give out to new mums – it’s actually the whole hospital doing a leaflet to hand out to new mums.
Departments, rightly, focus their energy on themselves. We must focus our energy on the whole entity of what the organisation represents to its public.
If we adopt this attitude, this makes those difficult conversations with departments a lot easier.
This takes you from being seen as just the uppity branding snob (personal experience leaking into the blog post there), into being the guardian and advisor whose advice and insight is respected and actively sought.
And on a final point, it’s not just the public we guard our identities for. In this blog post I talk about the 4 pillars of internal engagement: a strong “Corporate Narrative” being the first in the list.
This means that consistently applied brand identity is just as important to your staff as it is to your public. For staff to feel engaged, it’s critical for them to have a crystal clear sense of the organisation’s purpose, it’s story, and it’s future. This is what branding is for in its most basic sense.
Inconsistent and poor quality standards in communication normalises inconsistent and poor standards in service delivery. It creates a workforce ill at ease with its identity, and its place within it.
Your identity and your brand is a window on your organisation’s soul, and your face to the world.
It’s important. And the details matter.

Your new 3-person comms team. Who makes the cut?

This blog post originally appeared here on

Let’s just say you were creating a Comms team totally from scratch.
Let’s also say it can only include three people.
Sure, you could always buy in a bit of agency time here and there, but that’s essentially your lot.
Who makes the cut? Who doesn’t? Why so?
Would this be the same as it would have been five years, or even a year ago?
How do we future-proof ourselves? What experience, and what attitudes would you want to see?
OK, so I admit it, there is a selfish point to me asking you, dear comms people, these questions. I’ll be starting a new position, heading up a Comms and Engagement function shortly within a new Health and Social Care Partnership here in Wirral.
It’s an NHS Vanguard thing. So it’s a completely new approach to delivering a healthy local population. And with new ways of working, there comes the demand for a fresh, dare I say it “innovative”, approach to comms and engagement.
So, yes, I am going through this though process myself right now.
However, this really has got me thinking about these questions as a whole? What is the role of a small in-house comms team these days?
And what are the utterly essential roles you can’t do without to get a new one off the ground?
To kick things off, here’s my suggestion for what a small but perfectly formed CommsTeam2.0 should consist of these days:
  1.  A Defined Leader.
This person sets the agenda, the pace, and the culture of the team. They own and are accountable for creating and delivering a strategy.
They basically do everything suggested in this excellent blog post.
They’re the face, the voice, the heart, and the soul of the team.
They live, breathe, eat and sleep the agenda. They may create democratic decision-making in the team, but they ultimately have the guts to say yes or no: and stand up alongside other big-wigs in the organisation.
To start with at least, they’re all over any piece of comms (be it press releases, brand identity, you name it) like a rash.
They’re a flack shield, but also an evangelist for the work that the team is engaged in.
They lead innovation. They create an open, trusting culture within the team where the others are encouraged to push themselves to the limits of their capabilities, and to seek out new challenges.
They create a happy working environment, where everyone feels valued, and free to push the boundaries – safe in the knowledge that you’ve got their back.
The above, I think is the kind of role that every comms team needs, and I guess describes the type of leader I’m hoping to be in my new role.
But in terms of specific functions, I guess, the following two make my final team-sheet:
  1.  Insight Specialist
Especially in the public sector, and places where we’re trying to change behaviours, someone with a real appreciation and expertise in research is essential – and needs to be in place right from the get-go.
Right at the beginning, there may not be all that many press releases to actually write. There might not be a lot you really can video, and it’s the role of the team leader to make sure any “we want a leaflet” requests are handled in the “appropriate” manner, prior to there being any strategy in place.
Day One of any new team in this environment should be all about getting to know your audience. Understanding what makes them tick. Understanding what moves them. Understanding what rational and irrational factors prevent them from making better choices.
For this, you really need a specialist, who lives and breathes this stuff.
They need to be as comfortable with human beings as they are with data. They need to have a real understanding of the whole range of insight-gathering techniques (including those that haven’t been invented yet!)
And this person needs to be able to lead your testing when you’re at a stage when you’re creating comms or any other interventions, and lead your evaluation at the end.
This person’s work will create the evidence for underpinning your entire strategy, and therefore every piece of comms output you create during your tenure.
It’s that important. 
  1. A “Do-er”
You might call this a Comms Officer, Assistant, Senior Comms Delivery Specialist, whatever.
But basically this person is your main “do-er”.  They’re a bit of an all-rounder.
They’re the one that is responsible for doing the stuff like drafting press releases, managing your social channels, updating the website, working with agencies to see campaigns through to fruition.
They’re the ones that have the motivation and the space to innovate – to do cool little videos on their iPhones that get tens of thousands of views.
They’re the ones that set up SnapChat as a comms channel. They deal with the details on the ground.
So, yes, this person might not be all that experienced. They may have had a year somewhere before. They might have had 10 years somewhere before. It may be their first job.
What sets this person apart though is their attitude, their instinct, their willingness to get their hands dirty, and to try new things. They have a constant eye on new techniques, but have the ability to apply them to the team’s overall strategy.
They may not ultimately be accountable for everything they do. But they do feel a very real sense of responsibility for everything they do.
You’ll notice there aren’t lots of senior marketers or comms people in my ideal team-of-3.
Neither are there any in-house graphic designers (though having a basic grasp of Photoshop in the team wouldn’t go amiss of course).
That’s because when we can only afford a small team, I think we need to start putting more of a premium on the “thinking” rather than just the “doing”.
I’m a marketer, a creative comms person. So I love the “doing” bit.
But whatever I do “do”, I want to make sure it suits our audience, and hits the mark. I want to make sure it’s based on insight, and we can measure its impact, and I want to make sure it’s the right thing, at the right time, delivered in the right way.
You can always buy in more “do” from agencies if you really have to. But I don’t believe you can truly ever effectively out source the “thinking” bit.
So that’s my mythical small, but perfectly formed, brand new comms team. Follow me on Twitter and I’ll keep you updated on any actual vacancies that may occur!
But for now, I’m really interesting in finding out what everyone else thinks.
So remember, the rules of the game:
-          You’re only allowed 3 people (one of which is you)
-          You’re starting your team from scratch
-          You do have the option to use agencies should you need from time to time.
So who makes the grade for you?

Friday, 28 August 2015

In addendum - Leaflet-gate.

So, it seems my post on the DWP leafletgate fiasco may have struck a chord with other comms people across the land.

I'm struck by how many of us have been in a similar situation - feeling like we're being dragged along by poor decision making out of our control. Leading often to poorly conceived communications that, at best don't hit the mark and are a waste of time and effort; and at worst can do real reputational and brand damage to an organisation.

So how might these situations come about? Well, one very nearly did for me this week.

I was in a meeting with a group or consultants and other senior clinical staff, discussing how we can increase awareness internally, and externally, about the work we're doing to combat a particularly nasty (and fatal) illness.

Basically, the hospital has put into place a new IT-based system  that flags every time a patient may be suspected of having said nasty illness - and provides a step-by-step guide to treating the patient.

The system has had a real impact on survival rates in the time it's been in action - but some staff aren't using the system as they should do.

We did a big internal campaign about the issue about a year ago, which seemed to have a good impact. So we met again to think about doing something again to re-energise it, and to focus more on staff behaviour around using the IT system.

So I suggested that rather than re-heat last year's campaign, let's make it a bit more human this time.

Let's look at those figures that show much improved survival rates, and compare them with a previous period last year. We can say that "x people are alive this year that wouldn't have been last year...." etc.

Or we could actually tell proper human stories.

The conversation then proceeded as follows (I'm paraphrasing)...

Person 1: "Yeah I like that idea. But we could actually use real examples of people that we've had in."

Person 2: "Yeah sounds good. Only problem is patient confidentiality. We wouldn't want to identify individuals"

Person 1: "True. But I'm sure there's a way round that. I suppose we could use real examples but sort of make-up the people so we don't reveal any confidential details though couldn't we?"

Me: "Everyone, please stop."

Anyway, the point of sharing this (simplified for the purposes of this blog) exchange is to show how, with the best of intentions of all concerned, an incident like DWP leaflet-gate can so very easily come about.

I'm lucky that the individuals in the room know me and trust me, and my judgement - having delivered a successful campaign for them in the past.

I, to some extent, have been there and done it, and have the (mostly mental) scars to prove it. So I have no problem sticking my oar in and saying "hang on a minute - let's not do this." I say it from a point of view of experience, and on the whole, people tend to listen to what I have to say.

For this I'm really grateful. It shows that we have a culture where expertise is recognised and respected.

But I do worry for others in this situation: our younger colleagues, or those that are new in post, understandably desperate to make the right impression, and show that "can-do" attitude that we're told is so important.

Had I been either of the above, can I honestly say I'd step in the way I did in this encounter?

The people involved in the discussion are highly respected, highly educated people, doing an incredible job saving lives every day. I cannot even fathom their level of intellect or expertise in what they do.

I guess I may have felt a bit intimidated by that. And on that basis I can't guarantee that I wouldn't have ended up putting a campaign together featuring fake real people to tell a sort-of true story - just to show that I can deliver to brief, and to show that I'm cooperative and good to work with.

I've had some great discussions on Twitter this last two weeks about my last post. One discussion in particular was discussing about the idea of "faux outrage" around the DWP fiasco.  Some suggesting that whatever the situation that led to it, we as citizens and tax payers have every right to be angry about a government department fabricating information to intentionally give a misleading impression.

Good point that.

But, still, I just can't get past the human element of this. People in high places make poorly judged comms decisions that they're not qualified to make, and often with the best of intentions. If the culture is such, very often comms people, out of a fear of having to justify their positions jump to ill-judged non-negotiable directives to demonstrate their worth to the organisation.

This is sad. But it maybe is a reflection of such places that comms people feel timid about their expertise, and their role in the bigger picture. (This feels like another blog in the making right here...)

But what can we do in the meantime?

Well certainly for those aforementioned younger, somewhat greener colleagues that can find themselves in an intimidating position, we as leaders or more experienced pros have a vital role to help them see their worth, and to give them the confidence to stride into such situations armed with the vital knowledge that their expertise is worth something.

It is.

So it's up to us comms people to get in there, roll our sleeves up and not be shy about our expertise and ability.

We're there for a reason. The organisations we work for chose us to be there for that reason. So let's sharpen our elbows and make our voices heard.

And please, for the love of God, let's avoid another leaflet-gate.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

“Leaflet-gate” – what comms people can learn from the DWP-made-up-benefit-claimants fiasco

Picture the scene if you will.

You’re a middle ranking comms officer somewhere in public sector land.

Your boss has just come rushing back from a board meeting (or a “Leadership Team Transformational Enablement Workshop”– call it what you will) in a mild panic.

“[Insert name of non-comms expert head of department] is putting pressure on us to do a campaign to really sell [insert name of so-far unsuccessful initiative]. It just hasn’t had the take up they hoped. I know we argued they were rushing it out without thinking about it properly, but they just didn’t listen, so we are where we are” he / she says.

“So they need to see something close of play. They want posters, they want leaflets, and they want them now. We need a comms plan!”

So you have a quick 10 minute brainstorm / thought shower / ideation workshop / burning-bridge-navigation scenario.

Given that you’re a good comms person, you suggest, “let’s focus on what this initiative means to our audience. After all, it’s them we need to reach and convince.”

You then convince your boss that the only way to do this is to go out and actually talk to some service users to get their views on said initiative. You could even then feature the individuals in some campaign materials if they’re agreeable.

Yes this will take a bit of time (a couple of days to arrange the people to talk to in a focus group) to get some insight, and then a few more days to arrange a photoshoot with some key people with good stories to tell, and to make a note of their experiences to use for the copy in the campaign.

But you manage to convince your boss that, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And in any case, you’re not reinventing the wheel. With a bit of buy-in from the top, this is pretty straightforward and ideal for a quick, yet meaningful campaign.

So you dutifully put a timeline together for your boss to take back to the Head of Department in question, and get on the phone and start arranging to meet with some service users.

All before lunchtime too. Pretty impressive.

Bad news. The Head of Dept is not impressed. He / she wants something quicker.

“We simply cannot wait that long. Anyway, we know what people will say, as some of us have some very vague anecdotal feedback.  You ‘comms people’ will just have to ‘commsify’ it.”

“And we don’t have time for a proper photographer and all that lot. Just make it happen.”

Wow. Ok. So what do you do?

So you get said vague anecdotal feedback, and you dutifully “commsify” it.

But what about actual people? If we don’t have time or resource to find actual live humans that this initiative in any way affects, where do you turn for imagery?

Once you’ve waded through several hundred pages of “women laughing at salad”, you find some images of “real people”. You give them names that “real people” are called. Names like “Sarah” and for our male, something more out there. Something like “Zac”.

The next step is to put nice, short, pithy quotes next to Sarah and Zac about how this under-subscribed initiative has helped them.

A day or so later (as you’ve begged your agency or design team that this is super urgent and has to go out straight away), you’ll get some creative back. It’ll be designs for posters and leaflets probably. 

The Head of Dept wants a promotional pen as well, but that will be dealt with at the end.

There’ll be plenty wrong with it. You know it’s not real people or real quotes but for a rushed job, and “for illustrative purposes” it’s fine. It’ll do the job. You send it to your boss, who then sends it on the Head of Dept in question.

“Yes I quite like this,” comes the reply. “But there’s nowhere near enough text about [insert irrelevant pet-project example] or the fact that [insert totally unimpressive statistic], I want to see these in before this goes out.”

“And I’m picking the kids up at 4 today so I need to see it back straight away.”

A couple of iterations later, and you’re left with a hotch-potch of an overly-wordy piece of fluff, the content of which is full of vague platitudes, ascribed to non-existent people.

You hate it. But the Head of Dept is happy. And he / she is off your boss’s back.

What could possibly go wrong?

Politicians and commentators are calling it “outrageous”, “disgraceful” and “shocking” (SHOCKING!)

Even worse than that, it's become a meme.

And the next thing you know you’re scrambling round trying to recall them all.

You’re left with your head in your hands. You saw all this coming.

- -


I feel it's important to point out at this stage that, genuinely and in all seriousness, this entirely fictitious scenario does not relate to anything I've experienced where I work currently. 

We have a really good and collaborative relationship with the top of our organisation. We have actual direct conversations when seeking to resolve a comms challenge, which leads to the right solutions and the right (shared and agreed) outcome. In that sense we're very lucky. 

But others aren't. In other places I've worked or observed, this kind of panicked thinking is commonplace. And often takes comms folk down a road of no return of which they have no control. This is a problem. But a totally avoidable one. 

And this is the reason, try as I might, I can’t join in the Twitter-rage on DWP-leaflet-gate.

I have no evidence that this is what happened here. But having observed stuff like this and heard others experiences, I’m willing to punt that there is something similar in the DWP situation to the entirely made-up scenario I’ve just described here.

My over-riding emotions are, obviously faint amusement, but also proxy-annoyance with the higher echelons of the organisation that (probably / possibly / theoretically for the purposes of this argument) forced their comms team into the series of rushed compromises that led them into this position.

And finally and overwhelmingly: sympathy with the comms team itself.

I could be wrong, but I cannot imagine for one minute that any comms people in the public sector who had free reign to produce a campaign on something as important as national benefit reform would’ve come out with this.

It reeks of compromise, of a comms team forced into rushing something out to please the hierarchy rather than focusing on a shared outcome.

So the lesson? Be brave. Hold your ground. Remember that comms is YOUR speciality – and that’s why the people that are now telling you that “they need a leaflet NOW” have made the decision to employ you.

And for the rest of us. Don’t join in the faux outrage. We’ve probably all been there in our own ways.

We’re just lucky that we’re able to put those much compromised and unsuccessful campaigns in a locked draw somewhere – without them appearing on the 10 o clock news.

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Anatomy of a Greentastrophe - the defining comms moment of the 2015 General Election

What was your defining moment of the 2015 General Election?

The #edstone?
The whole "Ed Miliband the power-crazed back-stabbing womanising-traitor" thing?
The David Cameron remembering how "pumped up" he was about whatever it was he was talking about that day thing?

As we look back, 3 or so months after the event, these are all memorable things among many others that made for a faintly hilarious election campaign. And I think we can all reflect on and be thankful of it for a very generous amount of ridiculous / bizarre / inept / downright stupid moments.

Thanks politicians. Your ridiculousness is indeed inspiring.

But for me, as a comms bod, the defining moment came actually way before May - back in February, when the Green Party did their manifesto... sorry not their manifesto launch, but their campaign launch. Which as everyone knows are two COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THINGS.

Don't remember this? 

Allow me to remind you. Yes. That. 

The toe-curling, soul-crushing horror of it all.

Just for context, you might remember that before this the Greens were doing actually pretty well for a tiny party. Depending on which poll you read, they were there-or-there-abouts level pegging with the Lib Dems (remember them?), and had enjoyed a massive rise in membership, that took them above UKIP in members - the somewhat optimistically named #greensurge.

As it looked like the UK was inevitably heading towards another hung parliament (how wrong we were), there was a genuine belief that the Greens could be genuinely influential in some kind of post-election confidence and supply arrangement with Labour.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint) Wednesday 24th February 2015 effectively blew all that off course with the most stupifyingly inept day of media appearances in modern political history.

Looking back on a day that everything that could've gone wrong, literally did go wrong, it's easy for us to laugh, cringe or chew our fists from a safe distance.

But as comms people - especially comms people in the public sector - I think many of us were probably watching the sheer unending unfolding media cataclysm that day with a very clear sense of "there but for the grace of God go I".

So, now we've drawn breath from May and are safely coming to terms with a new political reality, I think it's time that, whatever your political viewpoint, we put them aside and reflect on what we as communications people, can learn from this historic Green Catastrophe - or Greentastrophe if you will.

I believe there's five key lessons:

1. Know your whys, your whats, AND your hows

Up to the election, the Greens did focus on the “why” quite well in their messaging. Whatever your view, “for the common good” is a nice simple phrase that encapsulates what they’re all about. 

They weren't bad at the “what” either. More investment in wind energy here, half a million new social houses there. All ideas that sound quite exciting. 

However, they quite obviously sucked at the “how” – and this is what caused Natalie Bennett's infamous brain freeze on national radio. 

This shows that all three elements of the messaging holy trinity (how, what, why) have to be clear and instantly graspable. So the next time you’re briefing your chief exec, or putting a campaign together, make sure you have all these bases covered. Two out of three, clearly is bad in this situation.

2. Know when it’s time to retire a cliché

“Hope is triumphing over fear”. 

Don't get me wrong, the Greens are by no means alone in their liberal (note: small "l") use of incredibly vague platitudes. See the current equally hilarious Labour leadership context for evidence of that.

But everyone, seriously, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since Obama 2008. 

Unless you have the type of charisma (like Obama) to make these unquantifiable abstract nouns sound anywhere near inspirational - just, stop using them.

3. Your best speakers might not be your best administrators

You’ve got to give Natalie Bennett some credit. She presided over a massive (in relative terms) surge in popularity and membership of the party up to the election, and under her leadership forced their way into the mainstream (and into the prime time leadership debates - with limited success). So she’s obviously a good and successful strategist.

With the best will in the world however: a “great communicator” she ain’t.

Poor Natters had just suffered that horrific interview on LBC then, as if it couldn’t get any worse  up pops Green MEP and Baroness Jenny Jones to, with the best of intentions I’m sure; totally humiliate her at their comically awful press launch

Lesson here: get your best speakers up , whoever they are.  Make sure they're impeccably briefed, and know how to keep their cool under pressure.

Whatever someone’s profile, role, or talent, if they can’t put a message across, or are a liability with a microphone, leave ‘em at home.

4. Do it once, and get it right.

Thinking of having a “launch” of some kind? Not quite got all the details in place yet? Then, for the love of Great Odin’s Raven, DON’T DO IT YET!

If you find yourself saying to anyone: “of course, this isn’t the actual launch, that’s next month once we’ve actually figured out what it is we’re launching,” then please do everyone a favour, and abandon ship before it gets embarrassing. 

There’s nothing to be gained in rushing something out when it’s not ready to stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Or to be more specific, there’s no point in a campaign launch if you’ve not yet sure what exactly you’re campaigning for (like, oh I don’t know, a manifesto maybe?)

Take your time, and get it right. 

Do it once, and make it memorable….for the right reasons.

5. Keep it real, but know your audience

In the aftermath of the Greentastrophe, a lot of people (well, left wing people I follow on Twitter and are friends with on Facebook - ever the accurate arbiters of public opinion)  commended Natalie Bennett on her LBC performance by saying how it showed she was a real human being, and not a robotic politician in the vein of David Camerobot 3000 or Ed Milibandnet.com4.0. 

And you know what? There might be something to that.

Authenticity is a very rare commodity in politics and in public life in general, so if you’ve got it, or whoever you're thinking of putting up before the public has it, absolutely flaunt it.

But with that, undeniably comes a health warning. Understand where and when you’re flaunting it.

I remember listening in to the Today programme that day where Natalie Bennet explained to Justin Webb that in order to come to a peaceful settlement in Ukraine Britain should ensure that Vladimir Putin would "have to walk away with something" and that "realistic concessions" should be made.

Now, look. We're all grown ups. We know that this stuff happens behind closed doors in embassies across the world every day. No diplomatic solution has ever come about through one side entirely capitulating to the other. So if you really look at this, she's probably strictly correct, and in a conversation round a water cooler in the Foreign Office, this kind of thing is probably not too shocking an idea.

But on national radio, this kind of talk is tantamount to heresy. And when talking to an audience made up of people still having nightmares from seeing Threads in 1984, this was probably not the wisest move.

She was honest, yes - but maybe a bit too honest given her audience.

So the lesson is, authenticity is a good thing. But knowing your audience is an even better thing...

Let’s all please make some good come from this day-long, and achingly slow car-crash of a national media event, well, until the next one inevitably comes along. Which it will.

And let’s never talk of it again…

Monday, 13 July 2015

Lessons on staff engagement from #commscamp15

CommsCamp is great.

You learn a lot from other like-minded, and like-experienced people. And sometimes, just sometimes, they learn something from you too.

This was definitely the feeling I came away with from the first morning session I took part in, which was all about staff engagement.

Especially in the public sector, this is a massive deal. You can very rarely just shout across the office, or call a “right, everyone in the kitchen in 10 minutes” type meeting, like you can in smaller organisations.

When you’re working in communications in an organisation with literally thousands of people, it’s hard. I work for a hospital trust with about 5,500 staff.

As part of the comms team I write a weekly emailer that goes out on behalf of and in our Chief Exec’s voice saying what’s good, relevant and interesting this week. It takes usually half a day to collate the info, and to write it; then another half to get it proof-read and to get it approved and signed-off by the man himself.

Every Monday morning, I press “Send” and that’s that. The whole organisation is communicated with. Job done. Or job-half done. Or possibly a third done. One of those things.

The fact is, only about 2,500-3,000 (depending on who you ask) staff actually have email addresses or any access to email whatsoever, so we have a massive gap. And this is where departmental managers are supposed to come in, as part of their work to disseminate important information.

And, guess what? Some of them are better at this than others. Which can still leave swathes of the organisation uncommunicated with. And this is where the session on staff engagement at CommsCamp came in really handy.

We talked a lot about the “Engage for Success” framework – beloved of managerial guru types and “Internal Comms” people, but one that, truth be told, I’d never looked into. And you know what? There’s a lot in there for all of us communicators, whatever our role. Just to remind ourselves, here’s the “four enablers” that we need in place for good internal engagement to happen, according to EFS:

1. A Corporate Narrative

 Here’s where all of us, whatever our particular specialism – even if we’re not internal comms people - have a really important role.

It’s up to us to set the scene, to be the voice, to provide the language about who we are, what we’re for, and where we’re going. As communicators or marketing types or whatever, we must resolve to having a crystal clear big picture story that’s relevant for now and the immediate future. But we also must make sure that we resolve that the details matter when telling that story.

This is where fiddly stuff like policing the use of Comic Sans and Clip Art becomes really important. All of this stuff matters. All of it tells the world who we are. But importantly it also tells ourselves who we are, and why what we do matters.

Are we professionals? Or are we amateurs? Are we a £multi-hundreds-of-millions healthcare organisation, local authority or business? Or are we a children’s holiday art club?

These details set an important scene, and set that corporate narrative, and are therefore essential for internal engagement.

2. Engaging managers 

This, of course, is the holy grail.

We’d all love to work for the type of organisation where pressing “Send” on the weekly corporate email was enough, and where we could rely on our managers to take the initiative, and to make the time to put their own perspectives on corporate messages, to leave their teams feeling informed and motivated for the week ahead.

And in some cases, that does happen.

This is what I’d call “engaging (adjective) managers”. That is: managers that one would describe as “engaging”.

But in many cases, we will usually find ourselves dealing with “engaging (verb) managers”. That is, putting the effort in ourselves in engaging with managers to actually give them the Janet and John approach to keeping their teams informed. This, from a comms team is time-consuming and frustrating, especially when those corporate communications we’ve spend days crafting get seemingly get blocked by a veritable Berlin Wall of middle management.

Well, this view is unfair and a bit lazy in my opinion. Managers, especially hospital-based NHS managers, are very often running around putting out several fires caused by several ignition sources at once. It’s unrealistic to expect them to have our beautifully calm and rounded helicopter view of things when they’re dealing with an outbreak of Norovirus and several blocked toilets!

And very often we bemoan “poor communicators” as a barrier to getting our messages across. I think it’s up to us to define what we think a “good communicator” is. And I don’t think it has to be someone who really understands messaging and strategy. That’s our job. And I don’t think it’s necessarily a gregarious “chilled out entertainer” either.

I think often it’s just someone that understands the value of their fellow colleagues as human beings. Someone who gets and understands the value of a “good morning” and a “thank you”.

If they have chosen to work in health or in a role that basically helps progress a sense of common good, they will understand these things. It’s sometimes our role to try and bring that out of them, by getting out of our comfort zones and engaging with them on their turf.

Basically we should: …have an engaging approach to engaging to create engaging engagers.

Put that on a promotional pen.

3. Employee voice

 This, I like to think is something that we at our hospital Trust are actually pretty damn good at, and has pretty well been central to improving our staff engagement rates.

We’ve been part of the Listening into Action programme for a while now, and actually won an HSJ Award for it last year. *takes a bow on behalf of 5,500 people*. Problem was, even in spite of this our staff satisfaction rates as part of the NHS staff survey were, well, "a challenge". A toxic mix of structural change, financial pressures, a really challenging winter period seemingly took its toll, no matter what we did. It was all a bit depressing.

So this year our newly formed Staff Engagement team (a separate team but sharing one team member with comms) gave themselves a challenge to visit 100 work areas over 2-3 months (or 100 days if you prefer).

There now follows a description of a process that I was not necessarily personally involved in on the ground, but am really proud of my colleagues for achieving.

Is that clear? Jolly good, let’s get on with the story:

In these visits the team asked whoever was there two questions:

What are you most proud of?
What changes would you like to see happen?

Very often, before this, they’d been asked the second question in discussion groups or whatever without the context of the first – leading to a series of unhelpful, transactional moaning sessions (*PERSONAL OPINION ALERT*).

By just flipping the emphasis into asking teams what they were proud of, rather than simply reciting the corporate line, created a whole new tone. Call it appreciative inquiry if you want. I call it just focusing on the positives.

Many teams reported a bit of a bunker mentality that was behind a sense of togetherness in the team. But as this was the first time they’d ever been asked, it was like a light going on for many of them, and this led to a more appreciative response to the “what would you like to change” question. And the great thing about this bit is that mostly put the brakes on the perennial “we want to be paid more” answer.

Teams were suggesting often simple things that could be done pretty quickly to make them all feel a bit happier – stuff like just making sure that aforementioned pesky blocked toilet got fixed at long last. There are more details, but to cut a long story short, we’ve just seen a real improvement in our staff satisfaction rates at the last time of asking.

The reasons? Well for me, a big one: boots on the ground.

This has proved conclusively that there is no substitute for getting out there and speaking to people face-to-face. Yes we want managers to do this for us. But where the culture is engrained and you have a clear and present issue, you sometimes have to just make it happen yourself.

Don’t wait for the culture to catch up with you. Get out there and show the way.

 Be a leader, take the initiative, and let your staff tell their own stories.

4. Organisational Integrity

Do what you say. Keep your promises. Keep it real. Make sure the reality matches up to the words.

Avoid hyperbole that’s impossible to deliver on. Do your homework on that “amazing new initiative” that’s going to “save millions of pounds” before reporting on it to make sure it’s as “revolutionary” as that excitable initial email said it was…

And feed back to your staff who suggest things to show that they’re important and valued.

Now here’s where we all, as communicators, must resolve to do something. We must all unite and come together in the face of a common enemy. We must KILL “YOU SAID WE DID”.

Who is “you”?

Who is “we”?

Why aren’t we all “we?”

If we’re empowering staff to own their problems and take pride in their organisation, there should be no “you” – there is only “we”.

So I learned something – specifically the 4 pillars of engagement, and that other big organsiations have the same problems we do, AND that already we’re doing some things actually quite well! And if that’s not a ringing endorsement of CommsCamp, I don’t know what is….

When’s the next one?

And can I have that banana cake recipe?

P.S. - my new blogger avatar is courtesy of this excellent photographer and from this album. I also was involved in a commscamp discussion about intellectual property...