Saturday 16 June 2012

Communications {void}

On Wednesday evening I sent this tweet:

I'm not going to give context, it wouldn't be fair but there was a conversation that generated this. In fact there were a few.

3 days later and I think we know the answer to that question. I think we know that without a Communications team full of professionals who know exactly what they're doing, we find ourselves floundering in vast vats of hot water. Let me explain.

There's this blog, called NeverSeconds run by a 9 year old called Martha aka VEG. Dad helped her set the blog up but it's all her own idea and her own words too which becomes clear the second you read it. Not for its immaturity, but for its simplicity. Now VEG has been writing this blog for a good old while, and she has been 'effecting change' with it, in Council speak. She has been 'hyperlocal' in her attitude - the blog is all about her own schools dinners she eats on a daily basis - and it is without a shadow of a doubt accidentally turned into a force for good in that VEG was raising money to build a kitchen for children in Malawi.

So far, so awesome.

Then this appeared:

This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today. I only write my blog not newspapers and I am sad I am no longer allowed to take photos.

I will miss sharing and rating my school dinners and I’ll miss seeing the dinners you send me too. I don’t think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen for Mary’s Meals either.


And the world got a bit upset with Argyll and Bute Council. You see in the process of posting her own school dinner meals, VEG had somehow managed to strike a chord with schoolchildren around the world and all of them started sending her pictures of their own school meals - the good, the bad and the horrid ugly.

The day passed. A statement was issued (link goes to a TwitLonger paste of the release as the Council overwrote this one with their succeeding one) which Adrian Short can explain far better than I as to why it was not an exemplary example of press release writing.  That is not what this blog is about.

Radio 4 got on the case. Assorted tech journalists got on the case. The Council nearly committed yet another faux pas by sending some random official to talk to Radio 4 but by this point sanity had apparently reared it's head and they sent their Leader to talk to them. He rescued the cause by being honest, though he wavered slightly by blaming newspapers for causing the furore in the first place. Comments about reactions not being scripted to newspapers misinterpreting of situations aside, another press release then went up on Argyll and Butes website straight from the Leader trying to rectify the situation and all went a little bit quiet until some sock puppets got in on the act.

So what is the point I'm making?

Well, you see, currently Argyll and Bute don't have a Communications team, I don't think. They've got a Head of Communications suspended and two more Communications Officers suspended as well. Or not suspended but resigned, or not suspended but redeployed - it's not actually clear and for the purposes of this blog post it doesn't matter - though I think there is a whole other story to be told there one day.


This is the point. This is the case for the defence of the existence of the Communications team, not only in local authority, but also right across the public sector.

Evidence #1: Look at the statement that is still now sat on the A & B website.  At the bottom it says: 'This statement supersedes all other council statements on the matter already issued'
This is really unusual. The normal process for a Comms team in a situation like this is that the person who had asked VEG not to bring her camera in would have know that a blogger with such a high number of comments might publish a post that she was not being permitted to bring her camera in any longer and warned the Comms team. Or the Comms team themselves would have seen the blog post from VEG saying goodbye and prepared some lines, defensive or otherwise, just in case the media came calling the next day. This was clearly not the case here. And this whole paragraph is based on what a proper Comms team would do. I'm not telling you that this is level of awareness of the local blog landscape is normal in any Comms team but it is in the good ones.  I don't believe there was any co-ordinated Comms approach to this situation at all.

We can all see how that went.

Evidence #2: The original statement released, as Adrian Short clearly breaks down (slightly snarkily but he really does make some excellent points) left a lot to be desired. It used emotive language. It stated that it had avoided being personal and yet somehow managed to be personal. It accused, indirectly, a 9 year old of causing stress and upset to a group of dinner ladies. The word 'misrepresented' accused, in public, to the entire world, a 9 year old of lying. It says that no one has made a complaint therefore there must be no problem. It states no changes have been made since the beginning of the blog, and while this may be true, it does not acknowledge that VEG made it clear she didn't know something about the availability of types of food to her which she was supposed to know - yet another breakdown in communication.

Quick clue - don't accuse a 9 year old of lying. People don't like it. It makes you look silly. No Comms team I know would ever have worded that statement in that way. The sentiment behind it might have been the same but the delicacy of the wording would not have made it quite so clear where fault was being attributed.

Evidence #3: The overwriting of the original statement with the new one. It makes the Council look like they're trying to hide their own ineptness, to remove their mistake, the equivalent of deleting the statement from public memory. That doesn't work these days and most Communications teams know it. They've all read the case studies of the companies and organisations who have tried it and they all know the reputation damage which can result from doing so. Now in this whole car crash, it's a rather minor point but in terms of needing a Communications team? Well you can bet your bottom dollar a new page would have gone up linking to the old one but with the superseding comment still there.

First rule of crisis communications? Be clear what is new and what is not and be clear when new information becomes available and date and timestamp everything.

Evidence #4: By 3pm yesterday, when the new statement had been up for about 60 minutes, the @argyllandbute Twitter account had bunkered. They'd broadcast a link to the initial statement which came from who knows where but by 3pm they'd not even tweeted a link to their new statement. Never mind the utter lack of engagement, discussion or response to any of thousands of tweets which by this point were no doubt being pointed their way - they'd even given up on broadcasting. No Communications team I know would have missed that opportunity either. If you're getting absolutely completely and utterly hammered on a channel, you send a tweet apologising that you can't get back to everyone, it's simply not possible and point them at the new statement. We all know this. This is what we do. No one did.

I don't think there was a Communications professional behind that account because when I searched yesterday, this tweet came up:

Now, the irony of the content aside (yes, stop laughing at the back), they sent a tweet in capitals. And they didn't even notice, delete it and re-send it which is what any Communications professional would have known to do. You see, we know when it's okay to delete a tweet and when it's not. This was one of those situations. We also tend to check the messages that we're sending out on channels just in case we've missed a cock up. No one checked this. I don't think the person running the Twitter account is used to running Twitter accounts. Or to checking their outgoing messages.

So in answer to my question of whether a good Communications team is invisible to everyone - I think perhaps now people might understand what I meant. A good Communications team prevents these kind of twitter storms which escalate so quickly to mainstream media knocking on the door and public humiliation swiftly following. No one comes knocking on the Communication teams door asking about the article which didn't get printed and was negative - they only ever seem to notice the negative stories which do get printed - strange that.

No one notices when a Communications team does their job excellently. No one realises that increased turn out at a consultation is because it was promoted properly and the team bothered to engage with local people in a good way to encourage them to come along. Everyone notices when no one turns up.

No one notices when a message on avoiding a particular road because there's an accident gets through because no visible problems are caused and there are no tailbacks. When it is not communicated effectively - tailbacks. A visible problem.

So when I say that a good Communications team is the one you don't know is there, I mean it. A good Communications team manages situations before they become 'situations'. They communicate and engage effectively, sometimes not even in public but on the back channels, using their networks and contacts to find the root of a problem and address it before it becomes a story. They inject early on in the news cycle a sense of proportion or an explanation to prevent the escalation of a story into a reputation damaging nightmare and they prevent the absence of people or the absence of noise or buzz by being enthusiastic sometimes even genuinely passionate about their area, their jobs, and the people they are paid to communicate with.

So next time you're in a conversation where eyes turn to the Communications team as a disposable asset, think again. Without one, you'll be sunk.


  1. ha. great post and great explanation of it all, I have been watching this develop for a few months now.
    I agree with totally everything you say, but just wanted to jump in here and say that our council has a communications manager. I chat to her socially in an analogue fashion on the street if we meet. Nice lady. I asked her if she uses twitter or facebook, and she said no, she can't be bothered with stuff like that. She thinks one of her team might be able to do it though.
    Just sayin.

    1. I know hon. I think I met her long ago in a village hall. She was clueless on that but she does, I know, have excellent skills elsewhere. Now the question we all face is: does a true digital comms officer exist.

      You see I wonder. Because I am getting slightly tired as well of being dismissed as an 'enthusiast'. Actually, I'm a realist. These are our challenges and this is our world and if you don't keep up then you're dead. Now one day, something might happen in Cumbria, that might be very similar. So what's she going to do? That's the question. Is she going to admit she doesn't know and pass it on - ask someone across the border in Lancs to deal with it perhaps? I don't know.

      I do know while we're all scrabbling around like pathetic dogs in a river looking for a footing, the world is moving on far faster than we are. 9 year olds. FFS.

  2. This is pretty much what I've been saying from the get-go, with an additional warning about rules that need common sense when applied.

    From what I can tell, the suspension of the department head meant an inspection with all minor digressions from the rules taken extremely seriously. Since everybody agreed the rules weren't to be applied without some common sense, the comms department were pretty much all guilty and the result feeds poor children for a long time.

  3. 'does a true digital comms officer exist?' yes, there aren't huge amounts of them (even rarer within thepublic sector) but exist they do. But I would say that as I consider myself to be one.
    I'm a trained journalist with a postured in online comms - I have all the theory & case studies & analytical skills etc. But my whole full-time working life has been spent in digital comms/journalism/content. I can do media enquiries & I can do customer service. I can provide evidence because I know what's a legitimate stat for digital & more than that I can put it in context & tell you what the number means. I can write web content or be appropriate in a social media context. I can write a press release if you want me to but I'd rather not.
    Does this make me special? No. There are others but I think the interesting thing is that ALL comms officers in the future will need to be confident they have these skills (and more) at their disposal.
    What the Argyll case showed (IMO) was that comms teams are vital but digital comms officers within that team are also essential.
    A good summary though - important to get past twitchfork mob & into the issues - whether they be comms, democracy or children's voices.

    1. If ever there was a digital comms officer, it is you. And I'm not just saying that either. But you're in such a minority, honestly. Balanced, fair, proportionate & common sense responses, releases and reactions seem so rare.

      I agree everyone in the future will need all those skills. But I think you underestimate how rare those people will be who can combine all of those skills because some of them are counter intuitive. To be a 'digital native' is to share. To be honest and offer opinions and be quite straight with them. To be a PR professional can be to know the truth of a matter but to know that nothing would be gained by revealing the truth - or certainly that the common good would not be advanced by revealing the truth. It's about protection as well as lines.

      Then there's communications which now must be two way but where tone and voice are so nuanced, where subtlety and irony can be misconstrued and context is king. Then there's the network side of things, feeling the ebb and flow of the mood of the network but also being part of it and not losing touch, not losing the ability to sense the movement of information or crowd or opinion.

      Add influence, standing, positioning.... it's complex. So complex. What would the job description and person specification for a 'you' look like I wonder. I think I'd like to have a go at writing one at some point.

      As much as I say I am a Communications professional... I am but I'm not a digital communications officer quite yet. I've got half a skill set. I am becoming increasingly aware of this. In a way I am at the opposite end of the spectrum to the trad PR bods in that they've got skills I need and I've got skills they need. Skills swap time then. ;O)

    2. Hmmn...interesting. I'd say that to be a comms professional is to know what is appropriate tone / etc for all the channels available to you, to know how to operate in all of those channels and to know which channel is best for a message etc. That applies whether you work online or offline.

      I'd say that to be a digital comms professional you need to be able to do this for online and offline and be able to balance a user expectation with a business need - that might be a traditional PR 'truth' as in your example above but it could equally be about user experience vs fulfilling a statutory requirement in the most minimal way.

      I've got to say I don't really think about this stuff actively as I'm doing it - it's mostly instinctual probably because I've been a comms professional 8 hours a day for most of the last 12 years (gawd...) and I've used so many digital channels and tools as myself and as part of my work during that time it's just *there*. In that way I'm close to a digital native (although because I was born in 1979 I will forever be technically a digital settler).

      In terms of job descriptions for a digital comms officer - I'd like to see one too. I'd like even more to see a good one! I think you'd have to include trad PR skills like media relations and reputation management but specify how these differ in the digital sphere. You'd also need to include content strategy and management (and all the bits that includes like UX, accessibility, data wrangling, stats, coding) and then add in all the engagement / social stuff as well as customer service aspects!

      I'd say the only way you're going to really get that in any org is by getting people with T-shaped skill sets with different specialisms as the body of their own skills. As digital grows and expectations rise it's a lot to expect one person to carry all that and not burn out!


  4. However - typing that from my phone you wouldn't guess I could communicate nevermind consider myself a professional! Typos galore! :(

    1. Pfeh - the points the post contained too good to faff with things like that!!!!

  5. Heaven help us if you ever trade your skills for those of PR Lou. keep the faith. Stay honest. Tell it like it is and don't be taken in by the bs.