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.
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.