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...