SPACE LAB: We need to create time to experiment to survive

3105377322_82475318c6_oThere’s been a real drive for evidence based campaigns in the public sector just recently.

Government communicators have been asked not to do anything unless it’s based on data.

The argument goes that this cuts out the vanity campaign or the SOS – the Sending Out Stuff – that sees press releases and other things shovelled out the door because some action is better than nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, I can see real merit in having a get out of jail free card when faced with a senior request ‘for stuff.’

But I’m starting to think about if we need to create some space for experimentation. Things like Trojan mice. These are things that see you try something out low budget just to see if it works and you can learn from.

One example of this skunkwork lab is the excellent Torfaen Council Elvis gritter YouTube that’s been around for a while. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the low budget Elvis impersonator from the Valleys singing about how the council can’t be everywhere and not to panic buy bread. It’s brilliant.  It was done on a shoestring to make people smile, to tell them some important things and done entirely without research.

It works because it’s human and is entirely without strategy.

I was helping train a local government comms team last week when this clip came up and we showed it just to see the reaction. There was disbelief. Then laughter. Then real affection. It works. It just works. I rememberdiscussing it 12-months ag with someone who works for an authority who ruthlessly apply the research-led ROSIE logic.

“It’s really, really good and I love it,” she said. “But of couse we could never do it where I work.”

So how do you create the space needed to make the Trojan mice flourish?

Google famously give staff a day a week to work on their own projects. Some of those projects have become key to their future strategy.

Tectonic plates in the world of communications are shifting. The centre cannot hold. Different channels are emerging and with them the demand for new skills. If you want the evidence, more than 70 per cent in our survey four months ago said the job was getting harder.

So, the task facing the the comms leader is how to create some safe space to experiment.

And if you are a comms person in the trenches, how are you going to carve out some Google time for yourself to look after your future?

Creative commons credit 


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  1. Hi Dan. Good post that chimes with some of my thinking at the minute. Finding space is hard, now more than ever. In my team I am one of 3 senior comms officers who work for multi-agency partnerships with a more project-based approach. We’re outside the core comms team but are keen to bring our experience of project/campaign working to help shape the approach. Though all very busy we do have some ‘luxury’ of a little more space to try to innovate. For us, this means adopting a more evidence-based and measurable approach, embracing behaviour change thinking and being customer and outcome-driven. We meet monthly to discuss a theme each time. We then bring our ideas to whole team meetings to try and get people thinking and apply it to their work. The wider team just had a very helpful LGA peer review which threw up lots of questions about the way we work – too media-led, too press release-focussed, etc, etc. Personally I’m trying to linking my project comms with customer services, channel shift and direct community engagement, being much less media-focussed than I was in a central ‘press office’ team. The Google approach is maybe a bit far to reach for localgov now but we shouldn’t make excuses not to be creative. Indeed the situation necessitates innovation and doing things differently. It’s an exciting/scary time.

    1. That sounds really interesting, Mike. That sounds like you are pointing in an interesting / right direction and you are right. It is exciting and scary all at the same time because we’re tracing new paths and we’re not sure if they are the right ones yet or even where they will end up.

  2. Great minds think alike Dan. I have also mentioned the Torfaen ‘In the Depot’ campaign in my blog today. I was really impressed with not only the results but the warmth towards this campaign from the public. The video is fun but not for funs sake, there is a message running through it that is informative and useful. Its also a good example of how using video successfully doesn’t need high-end production values, just a good solid idea and some clever promotion.

  3. I’m probably going to come across as a miserable old git (I often do), but the desire to innovate does need to be backed by doing the basics right (and this isn’t aimed at anyone in particular).

    Specifically, I’m fed up with seeing whizzy ideas carried out in the interests of ‘innovation’ routinely ignoring basic (indeed any) accessibility needs.

    Communicators need to earn scope to innovate by ensuring that no one is excluded from the key messages they’re sending out.

    As an aside, I’m sure I read recently that Google are gradually leaving the 20 percent concept behind now…


  4. That video is *genius* and one of those “I wish I’d done that” moments. It would be very sad to see all creativity and spark SMARTed and ROSIEd out of existence. Yes, we need to do the important and urgent stuff to the best of our ability but this is the kind of thing that really connects with people – because it’s human.

  5. I think creativity balanced with getting the basics right is the key. Making time to get teams together sharing ideas, good old fashioned brainstorming and trying to innovate are vital to any good comms agency. This needs to be supported and actively encouraged by managers within and outside comms teams. Sometimes the opportunities for creativity are lost because of the ever growing pressures we are all under with fewer staff and resources, team that with risk aversion and it’s easy to see how some public sector comms becomes stuck in a rut not changing and adapting to the audience and channels available.

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