THREE TIERS: It’s Chriiiiiiiiistmas: Christmas present ideas for comms and PR people

Here in the Black Country, the festive season officially starts when BBC Radio WM play Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas Everyone.’

So, from July onwards, the good people of Tipton have been carol singing and there’s been mince pie baking in Lower Gornal.

By the time the Big Day comes we’ll all be over-excited.

Just think. If the Second Coming happened in a barn in Bentley the three wise men would be bringing a West Wing t-shirt, Four Seasons Total Landscaping mug and public sector Top Trumps.

In this strange year, here are some crowd-sourced present ideas from members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group.

Forget the pandemic tiers, here’s some ideas…

Beer from the Black Sheep brewery

My brother works for Black Sheep brewery in Masham, Yorkshire. They’ve had quite a tough year. Pubs have been closed for a lot of 2020 and things have moved online. Make Andy Slee happy by ordering some excellent Yorkshire beer.


Four Seasons Total Landscaping mug

If there’s one defining image of 2020, its Rudy Giuliani discovering that Donald Trump had just lost live at a press conference outside a gardening company.

By accident, they booked a gardening company not the hotel of the same name. At the centre of the storm, Four Seasons Total Landscaping took the ball and they ran with it.


A coffee and alcohol the coffee holding this shit show together mug

There’s two flaws in this present idea. That’s that you have to order from Australia. And 2020 has hardly been a year for travel. But if you need to drink on your commute from the kitchen to the dining room table this baby is for you. Leaves on the line? Time for another drink!


A magic tricks set

Hey comms people! Have YOU been asked to weave your magic? Imagine the thrills on pulling out a REAL magic set with Marvin’s Magic Tricks set. BOOM!


A Tiger King colouring book

I am tiger. Hear me roar. The surprise smash hit of the year was murder-for-hire Netflix true crime mini series Tiger King. While away Christmas Day by colouring in the main protagonists as you ponder the most acceptable reply to the incoming tweet: “Hey non-job! You’re murdering us with your face masks!”. MORE HERE.

Public relations because someone has to make you look good stickers

Stickers are good and fun. You can add them to your works station, mobile phone, notebook and fridge. With these stickers you can provide some passive aggressive trolling that’s bound to go over their heads.


Workplace moodswings flip book


That’ll be you with this fantastic workplace moodswing approach / don’t approach warning flag. Works even on Zoom. Actually, it’s espacially good for Zoom. MORE HERE.

Fucking strong coffee

If music is the food of love then coffee is the muse of productivity.

You drink caffeine and you get things done.

Or at least you drink coffee and you stare into the distance wired on a legal high.


‘Contagius’ by Jonah Berger

I’ve been quoting chunks of this book all year.

If you want to work out what makes people share so you can improve your content then this is for you.


Beer pong game

Pot the ball and then sink the drink.

Make Christmas come alive with this game of skill and chance.

Apple juice, gin, beer.

Whatever you like.


Calma Llama stress toy

Asked for a comms plan at the 11th hour again?

Overlooked for credit by the boss who thinks you’re invisible (apart from when you are not online?)

Reach for this stress busting toy because after all you’d like more staff but an email about mindfulness amongst the 75 an hour really makes all the difference. MORE HERE.

A truth twisters teatowel

Oh, the joy of seeing a rogue tweet emerge from a Government account.

But you can relive the joy with this parental advisory tea towel.


A bottle of Honeybee gin

When I asked for present ideas gin was nominated multiple times but only Honeybee was named checked so in it goes.

In 18th century London gin stalls were on every street corner as even the poorest paid pennies to suck a sponge dipped in mother’s ruin.

You’ll have top be pretty flush to afford this.


‘The Science of Storytelling’ by William Parr

If you’re looking to tell better stories in your content this is the book for you.


Thick of It Peter Mannion notebook

If you need inspiration the world will look a better place with this Thick of It notebook.

An idea in this baby will fly higher and work better than jotting down your thoughts in this number.


Inspirational pencil set

Have you had 12-hour days since lockdown v1.0?

Then pick yourself up off the floor and stop that thousand yard stare with these inspirational pencil set.

Lockdown 2.0? Bring on 3.0!


West Wing Bartlet ’98 t-shirt

If you watch the West Wing you can see how communications can lead to a better place.

If you wear a Bartlet ’98 t-shirt you can actually make a better place. MORE HERE.

A You dim motherf***er science is real tote bag

Head out to the shops with your face mask, gel and this bag that promotes science rather than Facebook science.

Dig in!


P&O&U&R classic t-shirt

Big words in a t-shirt that spell POUR.



A name one thing better than coffee… you f***king can’t

Mmmmmmm, coffee.

Wash your mug in your kitchen home inspiration station with this tea towel that says coffee is the one for you.

Floatation tank experience in London


This experience in a floatation tank can ease your stress.

Tiers of calm rather than tiers of stress.


Britain at its Best Top Trumps

Public sector?

There’s a Top Trump pack for you.

Stand on your doorstep and play away.

I think you’re on mute t-shirt



Can you say that aghain?

I think you’re on mute…


Trumpscape jigsaw by Cold War Steve

Hours to kill with no in-laws to avoid?

Dig into the artist-of-the-year Cold War Steve and look back fondly on Donald J. Trump.


Personalised barcode cushion

Thought you’d seen the back of QR codes?

Then 2020 happened and then back from Battlestar Galactica here they come.

Have one at home. Love it. Squeeze it. The barcode loves you and it’ll never leave.


Shiatsu neck massager with heat

If you need some relief from tension this neck massager may do the trick.

Do it on Zoom with the heat massager and get through that all staff meeting online.


A personalised rolling pin

For the keen baker in your life here’s a laser written rolling pin that leaves a message in your baking.


Thanks to contributors Vicky Croughan, Anna Owens, Katherine Toms, Samantha Gavan, Georgie Agass, David Bell, Susanna Griffiths, Siobhan Dransfield, Chelsea Hopkins, Sara Hamilton, Charlotte Bradshaw, David Grindlay, Matthew Dunn, Michelle Baillie and Josephine Graham.

COVID COMMS #31: Why we all need to act against anti-vax social media comments

Sweet Jehovah, a council in Scotland have done one of the most magnificent things I’ve seen in a long time.

If you missed it, Glasgow City Council announced that anti-vaxxers will be denied access to the council’s social media pages during the pandemic.

Why have they done this?

Because they see we’ve reached a critical point in the pandemic. An inoculation is near to deployment and we need people to be inoculated.

That quite simply is the path forward.

What’s standing in the way are people who believe a dangerous rainbow of falsehoods. That COVID-19 is a hoax, victims are acting, that it’s just flu, the figures are being gamed and it’s all a ruse by Big Pharma, Big Government and the Deep State to control what we are doing.

It is utter bollocks.

Not only is it utter bollocks but its utter bollocks that is killing people.

You can verify the list of claims if you’ve time. No, there’s no evidence mercury in the COVID-19 treatment is harmful. The recovery rate is not 99.97 per cent. Yes, lateral flow tests are accurate 99.68 per cent of the time. No, Bill Gates is not behind COVID-19

It goes on and on.

Many of the claims are so lurid that its tempting to dismiss them as the work of cranks who won’t be believed. The thing is something crankish left unchallenged takes root like weeds in a garden. Someone who gives credence to the idea the world is being run by elites in Hollywood who are at the centre of a child-trafficking ring has been elected to Congress.

In the UK, 30 per cent say they regularly saw misinformation 12-weeks into the pandemic, according to Ofcom data. More worryingly, Ofcom also say that 46 percent saw misinformation supporting anti-vaxx arguments as opposed to 23 per cent who saw counter statements. 

This stuff matters.

But freedom of speech?

A good test for freedom of speech is the US legal principle of shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded cinema. If someone does that there could be a stampede and people could be injured or worse.

Here, people are shouting ‘fire’ in a cinema.

What can the public sector do?

So, the minimum that the public sector can do is follow Glasgow City Council’s lead and be zero tolerance for misinformation that will harm people.

But as much as I love Glasgow’s stance, nine per cent of the city’s population like their city council’s page. 

Sure, the UK Government as well as devolved Governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales can drive an information campaign to explain with crystal clarity the procedures taken to test the safety of the vaccine. It can even run something against aniti-vaxxers. It could even pressure social media channels to take down accounts which promote such misinformation.

But that doesn’t fill al l the holes in the bucket.

Here’s a hole that needs filling: news sites’ comments

On the first COVID-19 story on the Glasgow Herald’s Facebook page there is someone scoffing at the idea that the virus is a problem.

Elsewhere, newspapers are looking to the pandemic for clicks. Masks, inoculations, victims. They’re all up for grabs. Let’s say the newspaper’s intetntions are honorable.

The comments sections on Facebook are not.

Balanced debate is stiffed by rancid comments.

Victims are mocked. Sufferers are pilloried. Anyone who disagrees are ‘Sheeple’. It is a filth that does the name of journalism no good. 

Worse than that, it will kill.

The biggest hole that needs filling is with newspapers and their failure to police their online comments.  

I get why their reporters may be not be entering into their pages with enthusiasm. There’s fewer of them. Comments are 24/7. Reporters can have a hard time from trolls online. It’s a cess pit. But in this life and death struggle newspaper executives need to act.

This is literally life or death.

30 days of human comms #72: Black Country Museum’s warm reassuring TikTok video

I’ve been meaning to blog about the Black Country Living Museum’s breathtakingly good use of TikTok for a while but this video took the biscuit.

Reassuring, kind and warm the shot is of an older man in traditional costume warming his hand next to a roaring range.

He’s the kind of person you’ll see if you go to the living history museum in Dudley that’s a few miles from my house.

He greets you, tells you not to keep scrolling but wait a minute. It’s fine, he says, to feel sad ‘tek it one day at a time’.

He rounds off…

“Whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’ll be okay in the end. And if it ay? It ay the end is it?”

Black Country Museum, TikTok

It’s beautiful.

And it’s beautiful because its a warm piece of advice delivered by someone old enough to be most people’s grandpa.

I’ve banged on for years about how there’s a need to use the Paretto principle in social media content. It’s the 80 and the 20. It’s 80 per cent warm, human content and 20 per cent calls to action. We hate the idea we’re being sold to but we put up with being sold to every now and then if there’s something to entertain us. Like the best social content, this connects on an emotional level.

Historians will look back in years to come and wonder what the fuss was about, no doubt.

It’ll be hard for them to understand the attritional toll of living in the shadow of an invisible virus that has killed 50,000 people. Seven months in, people feel frayed.

What they absolutely need is someone in a Black Country accent who looks like someone’s grandpa take 56 seconds to tell them everything is going to be alright.

It’s beautiful because it’s in dialect but not too much so people can’t understand.

In numbers, the video has been seen 345,000 times and the 32 videos posted to TikTok have attracted 205,000 followers. At a time when museums need innovative ways to stay in the public eye TikTok is proving to be a hard-headed human strategy.

You can see the original here. You can see the Black Country Living Museum’s website here.

COVID COMMS #30: For community Facebook success think community

I’ve taken another look at how COVID-19 is playing out on Facebook things have changed.

At the start of the pandemic, the emergency was wall-to-wall as people shared advice, clapped the NHS and volunteered to help.

Seven months on on Facebook we’ve become bored of the topic. It’s an infrequent subject in groups and even public sector pages have scaled back their content.

I’ve mapped the last 10 pieces of content from 22 Facebook groups in the Black Country as well as the last 10 posts from NHS and council in the four Black Country boroughs of Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Dudley and Walsall.

Here’s what I found.

Groups: COVID-19 content is the minority

It appears as though people have had enough of reading, watching or hearing about COVID-19. Facebook groups have tired of the subject after seven months.

That’s hardly a surprise.

This can only mean that communicators need to be more creative as they shape their response.

Groups: news content continues to outscore the public sector

What’s still striking is that COVID-19 links and images from traditional news websites continues to outrank public sector content.

This again chimes with national data which shows less trust on the broad description ‘social media’ but more trust around traditional news.

Here, Reach’s news brands Birmingham Live and Black Country Live outscored the competition with the BBC 3rd and Express & Star a distant fourth.

Again, media relations matters.

But media relations that has an eye on visual digital content.

Groups: No, your content doesn’t necessarily end-up in groups

I’ve heard it said that public sector content always ends up in the groups they serve. That’s inaccurate and lazy.

What the data does underline is the need to roll your sleeves up and place the relevant content you have in the relevant groups. If truly life saving advice isn’t making it into groups then your press release about a library initiative sure as heck isn’t going to feature without you helping it.

Local content works: share the local data

On a positive note, content which maps COVID-19 hotspots in an area is connecting with people. If it paints a picture of the community they live in people will connect.

Or in other words, local content for local people.

Groups: Conspiracy theories crop up in comments

What does shine through is that people in groups are not STARTING conversations directly with a conspiracy theory. However, they ARE questioning the content that is posted which is leading to heated conversations.

As talk of an inoculation ramp-up, the battle to win over the anti-maskers will be replaced with winning over anti-vaxxers.

Groups: Discussion still starts with content

Just 1.8 per cent of COVID-19 discussions start with someone typing in a text comment. On this subject, people need content to start the discussion. The clear lesson remains for the public sector to be creating sharable informative content but with a local flavour.

Pages: COVID-19 is getting sparser

Of the eight public sector pages, almost half of all content was COVID-19 related. There’s a strong sense of business as usual returning.

Pages: People overall are more likely to share a COVID-19 update

In the study, pandemic content taken overall marginally outgunned non-pandemic posts in the Facebook metrics of reactions, comments and shares. This gives an insight that people are happy to engage with it.

However, the data was boosted by Dudley Council’s innovative firework display to celebrate the work of the NHS which prompted an overwhelmingly positive response from residents.

On average, pandemic posts got 61.1 reactions each compared to 57.6 for non-pandemic with 16.7 comments versus 12.5 and are shared 24.6 against 16.6 for a regular post.

Pages: People will still celebrate frontline workers

Rather than have one large borough bonfire to celebrate Bonfire Night on November 5, Dudley Council instead had six firework displays at secret locations where people could look out from their doorsteps across the borough safely to see the display.

Posts marking the firework celebration of paramedics, doctors and nurses on the Dudley NHS and council pages proved to be the most popular content.

The bonfire – Light Up Dudley – shows that people are still happy to celebrate the work of those working to keep people safe during the pandemic. More than 1,300 liked an NHS post celebrating their staff and the bonfire celebration.

Pages: UK Government content is now a welcome rarity

Just three of the 80 public sector posts logged were from a national campaign. This reflects the lack of cut through from their peak in March. We know hands, space, face. It’s no longer connecting on its own.

In summary

Local content for local groups works. It takes longer to do but it works. It’s better to have two well crafted local posts on COVID-19 a week than to repeat a UK Government message on the hour. Translate that national theme into a local voice and keep people updated.

LONG READ: What the US election can teach public sector communicators

I’ve long had the idea that elections are great learning places for communications people.

It’s where new channels can be experimented with as rival sides jockey for fractions of an inch advantage.

None more than the US elections.

In 2008, Obama’s blended use of on-the-ground activism and email was a compelling formula. In 2016, Trump’s use of Twitter as a hand grenade to blow-up the news agenda was just as compelling.

In 2020? It’s far more complicated.

It’s about conspiracy theories as reality, it’s TikTok’s micro-entertainment explosion and it’s about the push back of the gatekeepers of quality journalism and the push back of social media companies becoming gatekeepers to call out fake news.

As I’ve been researching this blogpost I’ve realised that so much is stuff about the 2020 US election comms is stuff we don’t see or are stopped from seeing.

Let me explain.

The return of journalists as fact checkers

On the day after the election count, Donald Trump took to the White House media briefing room to deliver his view that the election was being stolen by his opponent but gave no evidence. In 2016, this would have been reported as faithfully as a court stenographer verbatim and in full.

In 2020, the 24-hour rolling news ticker gave its own commentary and broadcasters cut away. The aim is not to give voice to lies but to be a gatekeeper to the audience.

While right minded people would no doubt breathe a sigh of relief there’s no question that people at the fringe would see this as stopping a democratic voice. For them, it stokes their radicalisation rather than defeats it.

This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. In 2020, at the top level bullshit is being called out. As someone who has worked in a newsroom and despairs at lies being normalised this can only be a good thing.

It also shows up when the Wall Street Journal refused to run a tenuous story about Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s son and a laptop purporting to be his. In 2016, this would have been run. In 2020, it wasn’t so wan’t the game changer it could have been.

The tactic of planting a story in traditional media and letting right wing commentators ruin with it has been busted.

If we’re watching the news we can see this. If we’re not, we could see this as democracy stopped.

The start of social media platforms as fact-checkers

In 2016, the strategic tweet to shape the news agenda was a characteristic of the Trump campaign. In 2020, it was blunted by the social media companies themselves.

So when Trump tweeted an ellegation without evidence, there was disclaimer.

The echo chambers that gave those tweeted lies oxygen have also been diminished by tighter controls on hate speech. The more extreme right wing commentators who were such media voices in 2016, had been driven from the platform by 2020.

Take the example of Alex Jones, the right wing broadcaster who has alleged the Sandy Hook massacre was fake, who has had his audience cut after being banned by leading social media polatforms. Jon Ronson’s podcast traces Alex Jones’ background to find the reasons for his descent into conspiracy theories. But he concludes that the kickback at him was nothing compared to when Jones was on social media.

If we’re using social media we can see the content that’s directly called out but we can’t see the voices that have been excluded.

The normalising of conspiracy theory as fact

In amongst the headlines on election day is this piece of news.

A QAnon supporter who supports the view that America is run by a Satanic cabal of elites who abuse children has been not only elected but embraced by the Republican Party.

I don’t even know where to go with this piece of information.

Or rather, I don’t WANT to go where this piece of information takes me.

If we think that children should be brought up knowing the difference between right and wrong we have an inherent belief that right will prevail. It’s a view reinforced by theatre, drama and soap operas.

It’s not a view supported by the ballot box. As communicators, we need to take seriously the baseless before it grows and becomes elected. There are 160,000 members of QAnon groups in the UK and one in four Britons believe a QAnon conspiracy.

Don’t think that people are rational and will see through things.

We don’t always see conspiracy theories if they’re shared by friends or family.

The start of TikTok as a powerful channel

As a fringe TikTok user, I turned to the BBC’s excellent podcast ‘The TikTok Election‘ for the skinny on how this is being used as an election tool.

In the US, 100 million Americans use TikTok and content shapes by users taps into the the algorithm, the programme reports.

When Donald Trump chose to stage his first rally after recovering from COVID-19 in Tulsa a gran on TikTok suggested TikTok users reserve seats to leave him standing alone and a million did.

This was sabotage by ordinary people who had accidentally tapped into TikTok’s algorithm to upend the great and the powerful.

‘Hype houses’ are loose allegiances of fellow-travellers on TikTok who will support fellow travellers. Their aim is to get their content to drop into your newsfeed. Democrats have them and so have the Republicans but they’re shaped by people on the ground rather than the party themselves.

There was a hot take in the BBC TikTok podcast:

TikTok is the rise of micro-entertainment. The most dense content format known to man. It is where you can get the most ‘ooo’s’, ‘ahhs’ and ‘ha-ha’s per second and that makes it completely different than old school social media.

If you think of old social media like stories on Instagram as being biographical, spontaneous social media but TikTok is different. It’s not about you it’s about what you perform for the world. That makes it micro-entertainment which is story-boarded, pre-meditated and there’s a tonne of effort put into each video.

People have become addicted to this form of fast-paced content and other social networks are adapting. It’s also hugely powerful for advertising because with most social media you’re used to scrolling through so quickly and skipping whatever doesn’t seem relevant but with TikTok’s micro-entertainment it unfolds so quickly that you don’t even have a chance to skip them.

TikTok is home to countless niches of content. That means every type of sub-culture, every type of hobby or interest has a place on TikTok. Well, if you made that content for your friends it might only resonate with a few of them. When you put it out to the world, TikTok’s algorithm can find the right people to root it to. That includes political and justice focussed content. That means if you have a different political viewpoint or you don’t care about an issue someone can make you care about that issue with a high quality succinct TikTok.

Josh Constine, head of content at investment company SignalFire.

But you won’t see any of this if you are not on TikTok.

But the media landscape is so fractured, why is anyone surprised that this could be anything but?

Email as a fundraising machine

At the start of the campaign, I sign-up to the Trump and Biden campaigns as I have done for every election since 2008.

More than 90 per cent of emails had a single call to action to ask people for money. No surprise considering the amount of money being spent on campaigning.

Both reflect the tone and flavour of each campaign. So, the day after polling day Trump stokes the idea that the election is under attack.

Whereas, the Biden campaign re-focussed on fundraising with tight subject lines and a clear call to action.

But you won’t see this if you’re not signed-up.

Legal action as a communications tool

As the days drag on from election day conmunications rather than polling or law appear to being used as the weapon.

As this piece in Politico points out, law suits are being taken with little chance of success. Their role is not to triumph in law but to try and intimidate and encourage the repetition of the wards ‘illegal ballot’ in the popular consciousness.

We’re fractured and the answer lies in research and teams

The media landscape whether US or UK is fractured.

The idea of a single billboard turning an election like Saatchi & Saatchi did in 1979 is the stuff of history.

We are more polarised and more extreme and successful political content rides on the waves of the algorithm that rewards this.

People consume things in different ways and at different times. Increasingly, we’re doing this in a way that isn’t public and the US Presidential election shows this to be true.

The skill of a strategic communicator is to understand what the landscape looks like and know the people who will be able to create the engaging content. It’s unlikely that one person has mastery of all of these channels but a well-assembled team can.

As someone who has worked in and around public sector comms one thing is true. Many of the extreme tactics from the 2020 campaign are unethical and can’t be replicated directly by an NHS Facebook page or a council ad campaign. But we all absolutely need to know and understand it.

FACE TIME: Data says Facebook groups are booming in the pandemic

I’ve often said that the pandemic’s info wars will be won or lost on Facebook and fresh data has been released that support that view.

More data now supports that view.

A survey shows that 91 per cent of people during the pandemic got some kind of support around COVID-19 from their preferred Facebook group.

The data from Facebook commissioned from YouGov underlines the importance of the platform’s community groups to communicators trying to communicate public health messages.

Anecdotally, this is no surprise.

I see my Facebook timeline filled with comment and debate around the topic and with more than 40 million Facebook users it turns out I’m not alone.

I’ve written before about the importance of seeking out Facebook groups in your community to get your message in front of them. How to get your message into a patchwork of groups where people are is one of the topics I’ll be teaching in my new online learning programme.

But it’s the data, the data, that says this. Not me.

Elsewhere in the survey there is further supporting evidence.

86 per cent recieved emotional support through a Facebook group.

57 per cent gave emotional support.

77 per cent say the most important community group they belong to now operates online.

86 per cent say they plan to participate in groups at the same level or more.

98 per cent say they have a greater sense of belonging through groups.

Of course, its easy to dismiss the survey findings as they were commissioned by Facebook themselves. If they weren’t flattering we probably wouldn’t hear them. But they are and we have.

It’s also wrong to say that groups exist to spread cheer and goodwill. There are good ones and bad ones just as there are good reporters and bad ones. But they are absolutely part of the solution.

Facebook is one of the largest platforms in the UK and groups are how more and more people are using it. Facebook data released last month pointed to 66 per cent of users using groups. That’s a lot of people.

You can find out more about understanding Facebook groups and the other skills featured in the Essential Comms Skills Booster session running online here.

Picture credit: Flickr / Documerica.

30 days of human comms: #71 Joe Biden viral video clip

I’ve always said that human comms is something you can spot but can’t really manufacture.

It’s about being human and responding with warmth and without polish.

One clip this week during the US Presidential campaign caught my eye.

In it, the son of a man shot dead at a school shooting breaks with convention and runs to Biden.

“I’m his son,” he tells him and the pair hug.

Biden responds and gives him a hug telling the boy that ‘it’s going to be okay.’

It’s a simple unscripted moment.

The boy in the video is Corey Hixon the son of Chris Hixon whom was murdered while trying to stop students being killed in the Parkland school shooting.

The full story is here.

The power of the clip comes from the human response of Biden. It was tweeted by former White House photographer Arun Chaudhury in support of Biden but really comes alive online when it was shared by a member of the public.

In an era of cynicism and hate, Corey Hixon the young man in the video shines through with his human reaction to the loss of his Dad.

So does Joe Biden in his response to him.

SURVEY: Public sector communicators are stressed, often abused but feel as though they are working for the common good

Public sector communications and PR people in the pandemic say they have endured verbal abuse, stress and a lack of leadership.

But they are buoyed by a strong sense of working for the common good across police, fire, NHS, central and local government.

That’s the top lines from more than 450 people from across the United Kingdom took part in the survey I carried out in June and July.

But the data reveals a contrasting experience across the sector with local government, NHS and police bearing the brunt.

Why carry it out? I was mindful that the comments I was hearing weren’t getting mapped.

The data published in this blog is from questions asked in summer 2020 and was carried out after 12 weeks of pandemic with UK-wide lockdown being eased.

I’m now keen as the pandemic moves on to map as a tracker what people think now.

If you are a public sector communicator I’d be grateful if you spared a few minutes on the October update of the survey here.

A moment in history

In the summer, three quarters of public sector comms people felt as though they were working for the common good with a third feeling as though they were a part of history.

Almost half felt as though they worked for an organisation that was valued with the figure rising to 52.7 per cent for NHS comms staff.

Stress and a lack of leadership

Two thirds of public sector comms people felt more stressed in the pandemic with police topping the chart on 71.9 percent and local government on 70.1 per cent.

But communicators also spoke of a lack of leadership from their home government with two fifths overall complaining of a lack of direction.

Breaking down into country, just over half of communicators in England complained of a lack of government leadership compared to just 5.5 per cent in Scotland.

In Northern Ireland, the figure was 18.5 per cent and just nine per cent in Wales.

A tenth said they had trouble working and caring for a loved one and more than a third said they struggled to home school their children.

The local government experience: at the brunt of the abuse

If you work in local government you’ve had a tough summer of pandemic.

General verbal abuse aimed at the council was experienced by 70 per cent of council PR and comms people with 17.4 per cent seeing it daily. More targeted abuse against individuals was seen weekly by 14.2 percent of communicators.

Anecdotally, respondents didn’t feel as though the pandemic had led to an increase in abuse. The pre-COVID-19 baseline just continued but staff were quicker to say ‘thank you’ when something had worked.

Alarmingly, threats of violence were seen by one in ten.

Racist abuse has been experienced by a quarter of local government comms staff.

To balance this, this sector reported the highest sense of working for the common good at 77.2 per cent and at working as part of a team at 54.5 per cent.

The central government experience: the most confidence in home government

Communicators in governments across the UK reported the second lowest stress levels with 54.7 per cent saying stress had increased since the pandemic.

They also reported the lowest rate of complaints on a lack of leadership in home government with 35.7 per cent but were the sector reporting the least resources to do the job at less than 30 per cent.

Verbal abuse was seen by only a third with just 1.1 per cent seeing it daily.

The NHS experience: valued but stressed

NHS communicators have felt the most stressed but have felt the most valued.

Eight out of 10 have felt they were working for the common good and more than half felt valued.

They’ve also seen lower than average abuse with two thirds not reporting any and just 3.3 per cent seeing it daily – a fifth of the public sector average.

NHS communicators have by far the lowest threats of violence against staff with 97.8 per cent not reporting seeing any. Racist abuse in the sector is less frequent compared to other sectors with 89 per cent not seeing any.

But they have the highest rate – 40.6 per cent – of isolation and complain of the worst leadership in their organisation at 19.8 per cent.

The police experience: strong team work in the face of stress and abuse

Police communicators reported the highest levels of stress with 71.2 per cent report feeling more stressed during the pandemic.

Team work in thin blue line comms has been strong with the highest rating – 62.5 per cent – of any of the public sector.

Abuse is rife with comments aimed at their force is seen daily by four fifths of comms staff. In addition, almost 10 per cent report being personally singled out for abuse and seeing threats of violence daily.

Racist abuse was highest with a third of communicators seeing it weekly – three times higher than any other sector.

The fire experience: less stress away from the COVID-19 sharp end

Fire comms people have felt the lowest rate of all sectors for feeling as though they were working for the common good.

Unsurprising as they are less in the public health or law and order front line.

They are the sector reporting the lowest increase in stress – 42.9 per cent – but complain they are the worst informed. Almost 60 per cent say there is a lack of information from central government

Generic abuse is lowest in fire and rescue with just 4.6 per cent encountering any.

The experience in England: poor leadership from home government

A lack of leadership in UK government which managed the pandemic in England was the stand-out issue.

The problem was flagged-up by 41 per cent of public sector comms people – eight times the rate of Scotland and twice the rate of Wales and Northern Ireland.

A lack of information from government was also highlighted with a third of people – twice the rate of other countries.

Communicators in England also found it more difficult than other UK countries but they reported the highest rates of feeling part of a team at 54 per cent. More than half witnessed abuse.

The experience in Scotland: strong leadership but difficult home schooling

In Scotland, there was the strongest sense of working for the common good (83 per cent) and the lowest complaint of a lack of information from home government at less than one in ten.

Home schooling was the biggest problem in Scotland than anywhere else in the UK with 41 per cent raising it as an issue.

The Northern Ireland experience: hard but no extremes

In Northern Ireland, public sector communicators avoided the more extreme fluctuations.

A majority said they found working in the pandemic harder than before and were more stressed but the country did not top any tables.

A total of 48 per cent said they saw abuse – the lowest in the UK – and 22 per cent complained of a lack of staff – the second lowest if the four countries.

The experience in Wales: for the common good

There was a strong feeling of working for the common good (75 per cent) with comms teams in Wales reporting the highest country for working as a team with 54 per cent.

One in five complained of a lack of information and a sense of leadership from Welsh Government – up to half the comparable rate in England.

Complaints about the difficulty of home schooling were broadly similar across the UK with Wales rate of 36 per cent marginally less than other countries.


The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest upheaval to the UK since World War Two ended 75 years ago. It has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

Communicators across the public sector have responded strongly.

But behind the headlines, there is a workforce of public sector communicators working at stress with abuse in local government and police endemic.

Working at pace and under stress is not sustainable and attention needs to be paid to the long term health of those being asked to respond. A reminder email asking staff to take breaks on top of

What’s been fascinating looking at the June figures is a feeling that the landscape has changed for the worse. They’ll be a useful benchmark against a new October survey.

Of course, this survey is unscientific. But it does carry representative samples across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in NHS, fire, central government and local government.


The survey included the views of 456 UK public sector communicators with 88.2 per cent classing themselves as White English, Welsh, Scottish or British, 4.1 per cent white Irish, 1.5 percent Asian or Asian British, 1.8 per cent multiple ethnikc groups and 3.5 per cent other.

Of those surveyed, 76.7 per cent were English compared to English making-up 84.1 per cent of the UK population. Scottish respondents were 7.8 per cent in the survey compared to being 8.1 per cent of the UK’s population. Wales represented 9.6 per cent of the survey and 4.6 per cent of the population with Northern Ireland 5.9 per cent of those who gave their views – twice the comparative size of their population.

If you’re public sector, do please spare a few minutes to say how you feel in October after this months of pandemic comms.


References to home government in Wales were updated to Welsh Government.

SKILL UP: I’ve launched a new online workshop

How is your pandemic? I’m struck by the fact that there are many answers to this.

If you’re in-house the chances are you’ll be run ragged and struggling to keep up. I feel for you.

Me? I spent the first few weeks ill with low grade COVID-19 and it’s taken months to get back to being fighting fit again. I changed what I did from training to working on COVID-19-related special projects.

For a while I’ve been pondering online training but I’ve not wanted to rush it for the heck of it. I wanted it to be right.

After months of research, shaping, re-shaping and speaking to people I’ve launched a programme I’m calling ESSENTIAL COMMS SKILLS BOOSTER.

I want to tell you the thinking behind it.

I wanted it to be what you need to know right now to help you do important things.

But I wanted it to fit into a busy week.

It’ll be human. It won’t be watching something on a screen in an audience of hundreds. You’ll have questions. That’s fine. Ask them. I’ll use Zoom and each programme will be for a maximum of eight attendees. There’s a Facebook group for each programme where you can ask questions or share your work.

It’s five hour topic blocks manageably spread across several weeks. You are busy. I get that. You also need to refine your skills. So, hour-long blocks fit into the working day better. People have told me they can go off the grid for an hour but a half-day or a full day? No chance.

It’s okay if you can’t get to a topic block. COVID-19 and life gets in the way. So, there’ll be a recording available, notes and I’ll look to re-arrange at a time that works for you.

It’s online. Because we’re not in a place where booking a room and squeezing into it with a plateful of biscuits works. Obvs.

It’s a mix of digital comms and traditional comms. Because I’ve long thought that social media shouldn’t be this bolt-on. Use the right channel at the right time. It’s Essential Comms Skills. Of course its going to be both.

CONTENT #1: It’s got comms planning and evaluation in it. Because I’ve rarely met a comms team who have this nailed. So, it makes sense to start off with this alongside what the media landscape looks like and boy, lockdown has made it change.

CONTENT #2: It’s got the algorithm. What the algorithm says should shape what you are creating. I’ll go through pointers for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and TikTok.

CONTENT #3: It’s got the new platforms. If you’re too busy to find out about NextDoor’s 4 million UK users, TikTok’s 12 million and WhatsApp’s more than 25 million then here’s the place. I’ll look to tell you how to practically deploy them.

CONTENT #4: It’s got Facebook groups. With Facebook pointing its future direction at friends, family and groups it makes sense to head this way. I’ll show you proven strategies.

CONTENT #5: It’s got dealing with online abuse. This maybe for the Facebook admin, the elected member or the officer. When to engage, when not to engage and the strategies and legal routes that are open to you if things escalate. It’s here.

You can find full details of the programme here with details on how to sign-up. Give me a shout if you have any questions.

COVID COMMS #30: How people are getting their COVID-19 info should shape your future comms

Yet again, Ofcom should stand up and take a bow.

Quietly the telecoms watchdog have published a 614-page XL spreadsheet of data collected last month on COVID-19 media consumption trends.

Like Bletchley Park operation Ofcom are producing quality intercepts that can give you a headstart if you are communicating advice on the pandemic.

Because I love you very much I’ve read it and I’m blogging it here for you.

It’s fascinating reading.

The majority of all UK adults use social media everyday

Social media consumption in the UK is voracious across all age demographics.

Three times as many over 65s use social media every day compared to those who don’t use it at all.

Just look at the use once a day v don’t use at all data.

Aged 16-24: 96 per cent use social media daily versus one per cent don’t use

Aged 25-34: 93 per cent versus one per cent

Aged 35-44: 87 per cent versus two per cent

Aged 45-54: 76 per cent versus 11 per cent

Aged 55-64: 73 per cent versus two per cent

Aged 65+: 69 per cent versus 20 per cent

UK adults check COVID-19 information daily more the older they are

If you’re over 65 you are checking COVID-19 information more often than any other age group. That’s no surprise. The group most at risk also have the most spare time and watch the most TV. But across all age groups there is an interest whether that’s TV, radio, email, web or social media. Just three per cent of any age group say they’re not interested.

Daily COVID-19 information consumption by age group

Aged 16-24 – 77 per cent

Aged 25-34 – 81 per cent

Aged 35-44 – 85 per cent

Aged 45-54 – 81 per cent

Aged 55-64 – 84 per cent

Aged 65+ – 91 per cent

The near-universal popularity of BBC TV News

Perhaps surprisingly, the most popular channel for getting COVID-19 updates isn’t Facebook, TikTok or Twitter… it’s BBC TV News.

From youngest to oldest, across the UK, BBC News presenters Jane Hill, Fiona Bruce and Huw Edwards are the most influential suppliers of pandemic news.

Surprisingly, the youngest sector, 16 to 24-year-olds, cite BBC TV News as the most regular source of coronavirus updates. Forty per cent of this demographic pointed to this while 77 per cent of over 65s chose BBC TV News.

Only 25 to 34-year-olds ranked BBC TV news in second place with Facebook coming top for them.

Public sector sites are a minority information source

The number of people getting their data from UK Government rises from 11 per cent for the youngest to 15 per cent for over 65s. NHS websites, email and post fares little better with 14 per cent for 25-to-34s being the highest.

Community health services are seen by barely more than eight per cent of any age group.

Radio cuts through to a minority

Commercial radio peaks with 17 per cent of 55 to 64-year-olds with BBC local radio faring best with over 55s with more than a quarter listening.

Non-mainstream media isn’t cutting through

Sites like Breitbart, Russia Today or Skwarkbox with highly partisan slants on events aren’t reaching a wide audience. No more than three per cent of any age group see their content regularly.

Online news sites like Joe and Huffington Post are five times more popular with younger audiences but don’t attract older audiences.

E-mail schmeemail

The largest demographic getting pandemic info from email are over 65s with 13 per cent.

If you’re 16 to 24-year-old…

This demographic is more likely to get their COVID-19 information from BBC TV news more than any other channel. Forty per cent watch the Auntie’s broadcast news.

Friends and family (34 per cent) come second with Facebook third (26 per cent), BBC News online on 25 per cent with Twitter on 24 per cent.

The single lack of one dominant channel makes communicating with this age group more time consuming.

YouTube and news aggregators (both 20 per cent) and Instagram 21 per cent also make up the landscape.

Overall, 16 to 24s have seven ways to find out information which are used by a fifth or more of their number.

News sites like Huffington Post or LadBible reach a combined 17 per cent.

You’ll find this surprising, but this age group are twice as likely to get the low down from traditional media – 75 per cent – than friends and family.

They rank traditional media (45 per cent) and broadcasters (42 per cent) as the most important sources and they’re most likely to see public sector content on than any other pandemic source.

Influencers? Four per cent see COVID-19 content from them.

Snapchat? 12 per cent.

Mind blown?


If you’re 25 to 34-year-old…

If you’re late twenties and early thirties, you’ll use social media every day and you’ll see, watch or hear pandemic info every day too.

For this group, Facebook is your channel of choice (39 per cent) outranking BBC TV News (33 per cent) and BBC Online is third on 27 per cent.

Like their younger relatives, traditional media and broadcasters are the most important sources with around 40 per cent rating this group.

If you’re 35 to 44-year-old…

Social media and COVID-19 updates are daily and BBC TV (45 per cent) is where you get most information.

Friends and family and Facebook which both are seen by a third.

Newspapers make an appearance with 25 per cent while traditional media overall is 72 per cent.

Broadcasters and traditional media are the most important sources.

If you’re 45 to 54…

Every day, three quarters use social media daily and four fifths consume pandemic information.

BBC TV News is top with 56 per cent with ITV News on 31 per cent beating Facebook into third place with BBC Online and Radio close behind.

Broadcasters are the most important source.

If you’re 55 to 64…

Almost three quarters use social daily with BBC News 66 per cent the largest source of information far ahead of ITV news on 38 per cent.

Friends and family are third with BBC Online and News close behind.

Yet again, broadcasters are the most important source.

If you’re over 65…

A total of 69 per cent use social media daily and 91 per cent are consuming COVID-19 info daily.

A bumper 77 per cent watch BBC TV. That’s almost double the nearest most popular channel – ITV News- which has 40 per cent.

In third place are newspapers (38 per cent) friends and family (28 per cent) with BBC Radio 4th a point behind.

Overall, there are 15 different ways 10 per cent or more over 65s get COVID-19 information.

Anti-vaxx tops the misinformation charts

More people have seen anti-vaccination content than any other and it is the content most likely to be challenged.

Overall, 46 per cent have seen content claiming anti-vaxx statements are true rather than 23 per cent debunking them. This must be a long-term challenge for public health. There’s no point scientists working on a jab if the info war has been lost.

Almost one in seven would have a jab declared safe by the NHS.

The one piece of misinformation likely to be attacked is the idea that mainstream media are exaggerating the pandemic. That’s outscored by 25 to 47 per cent.

Picture credit: Flickr / Documerica.

While you’re here, I’ve just launched a new online workshop programme ESSENTIAL COMMS SKILLS BOOSTER. I’ve done the research to pin down what comms people need. See more here.

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