COMPUTER RULES: What you need to know about social media algorithms

Over the past few months I’ve been delving into research on social media algorithms to keep my training deck updated.

Like mystical golden fleeces these evolving rules are secret codes locked in Mark Zuckerburg’s golden throne.

So powerful are they that they can dictate what is rewarded and overlooked on social media. Each platform has one. They are unique and complex. But there are some common themes that run through them all that I’d like to share.

Please remember, the algorithm doesn’t care about what that that middle manager wants. It’s going to tickle the tummy of people doing the things IT likes.  

Don’t repeat yourself. I repeat, don’t repeat yourself

Nobody likes a bore. That same story repeated over and over. But what if the same thing is what you are being asked to do over and over? If you are bored creating it you can bet your audience is too.

Well, for one, think of a variety of ways to tell the tale. Video, an image with text added. But don’t use the same image over and over. When briefing a freelance photographer ask them to take a spray of images moving the camera or the subject so there is some motion. This way the algorithm can work out that this is a different image.

Use a different type face or choice of colours.

Don’t link

All the algorithms HATE, HATE, HATE it when you link away from their site.

They want you to stay and never leave. Why? Becuiase the longer you stay the more attractive you are to advertisers. So, Mark wants you to put your holiday snaps, jokes, events, fundraising, video sharing and messaging of your Gran all in the one place and never leave. So, basically, do the other platforms. Twitter rewards threads and LinkedIn encourages long form posts.  Everyone rewards video.

Tell real human stories

Think of your audience, who are you trying to connect with? New parents? The Edelman Trust barometer every year confirms that ‘someone like yourself’ is trusted higher than the chief executive for routine matters.

So, a homeowner talking about their experience to another homeowner connects and will get more engagement.

The additional benefit of this is that those real people will also have social media accounts where they share your content with friends and family. Make a point of enlisting their help when sharing it and telling them what time you’re posting.

Enlist supporters offline to go online

When you post can you call on a tribe of supporters?

The family who are warning people against swimming in the reservoir because their son drowned have their own network of friends and relatives. So does the staff member who has won an award. Ask them to share the contact with them and tell them what time you’ll look to post, too.

Birmingham City Council have a network where they alert residents when they post COVID-19 information. They ask them to share with their friends, families and communities. That’s such a good idea.

There is no number, there is just quality

Don’t fall into a trap of making yourself post only twice, five time or ten times a day to a particular channel.

The truth is that quality is the benchmark. If its fresh content that will chime with your audience then you’ve got a chance.

If you engage then others will engage

Another consistent trend amongst algorithms is that it encourages and rewards you for engaging with people.

In other words, that may include asking them questions they’re likely to respond to. Answer their questions. Like their Instagram post. Comment on their answer. This stuff isn’t hard. Before the internet it used to be known as manners.

Avoid catch-all studies and look at YOUR data

You can find them if you look online, the ‘best time to post to Twitter’ studies that crunch tens of thousands of tweets. Avoid them. Your audience is your audience and if it’s 18 to 24 Afro Caribbean men think about what time they are likely to be online.

Look at your insights and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

Each algorithm has differences

I’ve written about the generalities. If you really want to dig into a platform you need to dig into the research. TikTok, for example, likes it when you use existing video trends. Twitter likes threads. Get to know them.

I’ll go into more detail into social media algorithms at the ESSENTIAL COMMS SKILLS BOOSTER workshops here.

SCREEN TIME: TikTok is beating YouTube in a UK head-to-head

Broadcasters have a comprehensive rule book when they are reporting on elections.

In that book, outlying polls are not reported until they are supported by at least two other polls. It saves everyone from looking stupid.#

So, I was fascinated to be forwarded a link to a US study which shows that US and UK TikTok users spend more time watching the Chinse-owned channel than they do YouTube. Thanks for the spot, Gareth Wood.

The figure is 24 hours of content plus a month for TikTok against 14 hours for YouTube.

Now the small print. This was Android users only. And it is limited to the platform’s users. So, disclaimers right there.

No, I don’t think anyone should be deleting YouTube but it does show the trend towards video accelerated by the pandemic and will get a further boost as 5G continues to roll out.

But what it also does, I think, is to again re-inforce the position of TikTok as a genuine contender and something to really take seriously as a channel.

One of the reasons for these figures is that TikTok users leave the platform feeling happier. For social media in 2021 this is quite a novel experience.

If you’ve not tried it yet, try it.

Here are some clips to get you started.

History Hit is a subscription History TV channel and their video here shows a quick viewing of historic gloves, Dr Julie Smith remains my favourite clinician narrowly ahead of GP Dr Nighat Arif.

Liverpool City Council show how you can do place marketing effortlessly. You can see what deep sea fishermen do to protect fish stocks and one of my favourites a block who does one minute beer reviews.

GUEST POST: Top 10 tips for writing winning awards entries

With normality creeping back so have awards. There is value in entering them so Joanna March has some tips for success.

After a year of cancellations and digital ceremonies, face-to-face award events are back on – these events provide fantastic opportunities for networking with your peers and getting to learn more about exciting initiatives within other organisations.

Awards showcase best practise and being able to demonstrate excellence amongst your peers is great for both personal and organisational reputation.

As they say, you’ve got to be in it to win it so, hands up, who likes writing award entries? Collating the evidence you need and writing entries is also a fantastic exercise in both evaluation and reflection, two things busy teams often don’t have time to do as well as they would like. 

In recent years I’ve written and submitted countless award entries, the majority of the submissions I’ve worked on have been shortlisted and some have won. One of my weirdest experiences was following an event Twitter feed sat in the dark at home (senior colleagues attended the ceremony). Everyone in my household had gone to bed and an automatic timer switched my lamp off as the category I had been waiting for was announced. My entry won so I posted a quick congratulatory message on Twitter, joined in the banter on the team WhatsApp and celebrated by finally going to bed.

Most people who work in PR and communications will have to write an award submission at some point in their career so here are a few things I’ve learned in over twenty years of writing them:

  1. Research awards that are most relevant to your organisation and the projects you are especially proud of – I use the free lists created by Boost Awards and receive their free monthly award reminder emails. This list is an excellent starting point but don’t forget to double-check details directly on award websites as there has been a lot of change since the start of 2020. It is also worth checking out relevant trade journals and local business press for new ones that may not make the Boost list. Don’t forget to use your professional judgement to see if the awards are worth entering by checking out previous winners to see if your peers have entered. 
  1. Once you have identified the awards you wish to enter, make a note of the entry deadlines and any other important information (such as entry fees) in a planner. I use an Excel spreadsheet but there may be a more efficient method out there. 
  1. Four – six weeks before the entry deadline review the award categories and entry criteria. Most entries need evidence to prove you achieved your aims and objectives, solid facts and figures are essential so make sure you collect this information as early as possible.
  1. A strong entry often includes testimonials so take some time to identify people who will be willing to provide one, submit your requests and allow some time to review and collate them. 
  1. Review your photography – do you have suitable pictures? I’ve sometimes had to rush out to take pictures just before submitting an entry so be prepared.
  1. Writing your entry – if there is an online entry form, copy it into a Word document noting word and character counts. In my experience the longest entries can take more than a day to draft and review, technical entries may take longer if you are not an expert in the area.
  1. When your draft entry is ready review it against the criteria, this helps to make sure you’ve covered everything.
  1. Once you are happy with your draft, ask someone else to read it through and follow whatever sign-off procedure you have in place.
  1. Allow time to upload your entry onto the website – some online forms are easier than others. I’ve experienced entry forms crashing as everyone scrambles to upload their submissions. When this has happened I’ve contacted the awards administrator and have been advised to submit by email (this is where your Word document comes in useful) or wait until the following day.
  1. Make a note of the shortlist announcement and keep everything crossed for a good result that you can use for social content and corporate news pages. 

You’ve got to be in it to win it, so start looking at the award you’d most like to win and see if you can submit an entry.

Joanna March has worked in public relations for more than 20 years in the public and private sector. She is available for freelance and longer term opportunities. You can follow her on Twitter at @MsJoMarch.

VIDEO VIEW: Using effective TikTok as an NHS Trust

TikTok, isn’t that just teenagers dancing? Not really, no. As Pete Orton shows this is an opportunity for the NHS to reach new audiences.

by Pete Orton

You know TikTok… it’s that dodgy Chinese state-owned video app that’s corrupting our children and stealing our data, right? Well for us at Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust it’s our most followed and most watched social media channel.

There are so many myths and misconceptions about TikTok, with many believing the app is somehow worse or more sinister than any of the other social media that we happily use every day. But I simply don’t believe this is true.

Yes, TikTok is used to spread misinformation. Yes, it hosts inappropriate content. And yes, it’s incredibly addictive. But you can’t tell me that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram don’t do all these things and more – and that doesn’t stop us using these as channels for sharing public sector messages and content.

Why some people don’t get TikTok

I think a bigger reason is that many people just don’t fully get it yet, so let me explain.

TikTok is an app for making and sharing videos, displayed as an endless roll of full screen videos in vertical format – therefore taking up all of your attention for that moment, unlike almost all other social media channels.

Users have access to editing tools and filters as well as the ability to add sounds or songs, including an enormous free library of the latest trending or chart music (and some of those old masterpieces too!).

Videos can range from five seconds up to three minutes in length and can either be created within the app or uploaded to the app and amended or timed to something from the comprehensive music library.

Something else different about TikTok is the default homepage view. It’s not necessarily those people that you choose to follow whose videos you are shown, instead you get a personalised “For You” feed.

This feed is created by the true jewel in TikTok’s crown – it’s algorithm. Thanks to the complex and closely-guarded algorithm, the TikTok “For You” feed is the most intuitive and fastest-learning of any social media platform.

Within just a few minutes of joining and choosing to watch, interact with, or scroll past different videos, you start to get served up content that you might be interested in, gradually filtering out the stuff you’re not. The algorithm gets more intuitive the more you consume and engage on the app, allowing you to consistently discover new people and interests.

Accounts with fewer followers are not punished either, content and engagement take primacy over the follower count of the user, in theory giving anyone the equal chance to go viral – given the content is good enough.

But why should we care about TikTok?

Well for starters it’s the fastest growing social media site in the world. And it’s not just another short-term fad, TikTok was the world’s most downloaded app last year.

In the UK alone, it was downloaded 22 million times in 2020 – that’s more than Zoom, Teams or the NHS Covid-19 App – with latest figures showing almost 14 million of those are regular active users (at least monthly). It’s not just young people on there either. Spend a bit of time on the app and you’ll quickly see content aimed at your age group or from likeminded individuals.

In fact, its competitors are so worried about it they’re queueing up to steal the concept. YouTube recently launched YouTube Shorts, Facebook brought Reels to Instagram and is now encouraging users to post short, vertical videos on Facebook itself.

With TikTok recently allowing videos of up to 3 minutes long, (and reportedly even testing video lengths of up to 10 minutes) its dominance and influence of the social media landscape is only increasing.

The time that users spend on the app too is far greater than that of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. It’s safe to say that TikTok is not going away anytime soon.

So how could you use it?

To be clear, TikTok is not the answer to all our public sector comms problems. I don’t believe it’s the place to consistently run awareness campaigns or achieve some of our behaviour-change goals.

But want to tell a compelling or heart-warming story to potentially millions of people? Then TikTok is the perfect place. People go to TikTok to laugh, to learn, to join in and to escape.

The video quality doesn’t even need to be that high, an old iPhone will do – but it’s all about the content. That’s not to say you don’t need to put a lot of thought and effort into it, but it does mean you don’t necessarily need to use the latest high-end equipment to get good results.

One creator called Khaby.lame has amassed 107 million followers without ever saying a word. His brief skits sarcastically pointing out when people needlessly overcomplicate simple tasks frequently receive tens of millions of views.

To put it into some context, your NHS Chief Exec introducing the latest patient safety initiative isn’t going to go viral, but a video of a real person who has been through a treatment journey and is now back doing what they love just might.

Your latest local bin collection scheme won’t turn into a big hit, but a clip of a bin man building a bond with someone on their round might well do.

The point I’m making is, don’t think of TikTok as a local solution to local issues – your video won’t just be shown to people in your area. Think of it as a platform to tell your story to the world in a compelling and succinct way to show off what your organisation is all about.

How have we used it at Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust?

We decided to first join TikTok as a Trust back in December 2019 – at the time we were the first NHS organisation we could find on there.

We place a lot of value on our social media content, finding it is now often a much more effective way to reach audiences than more traditional media. We also felt that TikTok was well-suited to engage with audiences using the more relaxed, friendly and sociable ‘tone of voice’ we’d carefully been cultivating across our social channels.

As an NHS Trust caring for hundreds of thousands of people every year, and employing thousands of wonderful, compassionate people, we always have a story to tell. If you strip everything else back, the NHS is really just people caring for people. This notion has huge potential on TikTok.

Whenever we have a message to share, we will always try to tell it with a story, and deliver it in an entertaining or emotionally powerful way – making it as relevant as possible to a particular audience. Sometimes that means trying new things or going to where a new audience might be.

So I wanted to use try using TikTok to share some of these positive or touching human stories, and the channel leant itself perfectly to video creation for this, with moving stories able to be set to emotional or trending music.

I’ve seen TikTok perfectly described as a place where you aim “to get the most ‘ooo’s’, ‘ahh’s’ and ‘ha-ha’s’ per second”. Well so many stories from our hospitals are full of these ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ moments, so why not show them off – you might just influence a few attitudes of what we’re really all about.

Our early steps

We posted our first videos in January 2020, initially using content that we’d previously shared on our other channels that I re-edited and repurposed for TikTok. I’m sure every public sector organisation will have some of this type of video already – hard-hitting, emotionally relevant and engaging. Look at what’s already performed well on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and think about how it could be repurposed or re-edited for TikTok.

The first few videos we did performed OK for a new channel, but didn’t initially gain loads of traction. But after coming up with more ideas and covering more stories on the channel, we began to get some real cut-through.

Something I noticed once we’d started posting on TikTok, was how high the engagement rate was, this is something that sets it apart from Facebook and Twitter, etc. We were seeing at least 25 per cent of all those who had seen the post, either liking, commenting or sharing the video. On Facebook this is typically more like 5% – 10% and even lower on Twitter.

I assume this is mainly because of TikTok’s attention grabbing display, with the whole screen of the app showing your video with no other posts poking out directly above or below. Therefore, it’s easy to argue that this means the effort you put into producing your content is more worthwhile.

Getting the hang of it

We then began to get a couple of videos hitting 40 to 50,000 views (which was generally better than we were getting on Facebook or Twitter before Covid), before a couple started breaking the 100,000 views mark. There seemed to be a real appetite for this kind of emotional, positive patient story, as a break from a lot of the more light-hearted content on the channel.

TikTok is known as a ‘viral’ video app, whereby if a video performs well in the algorithm it can really take off and be shown to huge audiences. We got our first taste of this virality on a couple of videos of some of our cancer patients ringing the ‘end of treatment bell’. These often perform well on our other platforms but on TikTok they were viewed hundreds of thousands of times and received huge engagement, including feedback from local patients.

These successful videos reinforced how different the TikTok algorithm and way of displaying videos to users is. With Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, posts have a very short ‘afterlife’ (the time when posts are actually shown to users in their timeline), but on TikTok if a post begins to prove successful, it can be shown for weeks or even months after it was first posted.

Last summer, after receiving a phone call from the nursing team on a ward to come along and capture a wedding that was taking place on the ward for an end of life patient, I immediately realised we had an incredibly moving story to tell. The couple involved were really keen to share their special moment “as far and as wide as possible” and thanks to TikTok we did just that.

After cutting up the video (which was solely shot on my iPhone) using the Kinemaster app, and storyboarding the clips, we had a video that was pulling at my heart strings. But being able to time the video to a popular, emotional song really gave it something extra. With a few captions added on TikTok, the video was posted and immediately took off.

You can see the video here.

Within 12 hours of posting it, the video had been watched over 1 million times and just kept growing. The video has been seen over 5 million times on our TikTok channel alone, has had over 1 million ‘likes’, received 18,000 comments and been shared more than 30,000 times.

This video showed the true power of TikTok, as this was something we didn’t send a traditional press release out for, but because of the success of the video we ended up receiving international TV and news coverage.

Various viral sharing accounts on TikTok and Instagram contacted us for permission to share the video on their own channels which we allowed with credit. To date across these different accounts, the video has had over 10 million views on TikTok, over 5 million views on Instagram, and over 2 million views on Facebook, as well as appearing on TV news in USA, Australia and beyond.

I understand that not every public sector body has access to this kind of story on a regular basis, but where and how you tell a story is often more important than the actual story itself.

We really struggled to find the time and headspace during the second wave of Covid in our hospitals to create content for TikTok, but we plan to continue using the channel to make the most of our stories. Another positive of TikTok is, it doesn’t seem to hurt your performance by not posting for long periods of time, providing when you do, it’s good content.

What is next for the Trust and TikTok

We now have nearly 45,000 followers on TikTok which is more than our Facebook and Twitter pages combined, proving it’s possible for an NHS Trust to build a reasonable following on the platform.

Every type of interest, hobby or occupation has a place on TikTok. Whether we use TikTok or not, the NHS (or your local area) is being talked about on there. A lot. There are well over 1 billion videos on the app with the hashtag #NHS. And both #ThankYouNHS and #ClapForOurCarers were some of the most popular topics on the app in the UK during the first national lockdown.

Most importantly for comms professionals, it’s about getting the most out of the time and effort you put into producing content in the first place. If you go to an event or come across a great story, if you can repurpose the same content to make it flourish on a number of channels, that’s the best we can hope for.

We don’t all have to love TikTok or use it in a personal capacity, but as Comms professionals I feel we have a duty to understand it in the same way we do with other social media.

If you want to use TikTok for your organisation, my advice would be to get on the app and spend some time on it to properly understand it for yourself. If you want any inspiration you can find us on TikTok (or any social media) @WorcsAcuteNHS

There are plenty of great public sector accounts on TikTok already. I’d definitely recommend checking out Lancashire Police @lancspolice; Liverpool City Council @lpoolcouncil; and the British Army Guards @the_guards.

And of course, if you truly have the capacity to commit resource to it, just see what the Black Country Living Museum have done, whose characters even have their own fanbases!

Thanks for reading and I hope I’ve encouraged some of you to look again at using TikTok for your organisation.

Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust can be found across social media on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Pete Orton is Communications and Content Specialist at Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust.

LONG READ: STRESS, ABUSE AND LIFESAVING RESULTS. The impact of the pandemic on the UK public sector country-by-country and sector-by-stress

So far across the UK, 130,000 people have died and millions of lives have been affected.

It is a story is still being written and the heroes who will populate the story will include doctors, nurses, police and paramedics.

However, through it all public sector communicators have played a massive role from warning and informing to encouraging 90 per cent of the country’s adults to have the COVID-19 jab.

From June 2020, I’ve been running a tracker survey on how the pandemic has been affecting public sector communicators across the UK.

In this post, I’ve taken the chance to go through 19,920 individual responses from 1,660 communicators over a 12-month period.

A tracker survey was run in June and October 2020 and again in January and June 2021. What the data has reveals is a sector that is paying a shocking price for living as a public sector communicator in the biggest pandemic in a hundred years.

Mental and physical health has been damaged by individuals who have gone the extra yard for days, weeks, months and now a timeline that can be measured in years.

Employers, managers and heads of comms should not underestimate the impact of the pandemic on teams. Behind the wall of black windows on a Teams call are people who have performed heroically and some have paid a high price.

This survey hopes to track their successes as well as the prtice they’ve paid.

If you work in the sector scroll down and look sector by sector as well as country by country. While many experiences of working in a pandemic have been shared others have not.

For example, Scotland and Wales have enjoyed a clear sense of direction from their home government. England and Northern Ireland have not.

Police communicators have faced a remorseless barrage of abuse and stress – the highest of any sector.

What is striking is the sense that a sense of working for the common good never collapsed during lockdown 1.0, the summer of eat out to help out, the dark days of lockdown 2.0 and then the easing of measures in Spring and summer 2021.


If the pandemic blighted all parts of the UK it had a different effect for public sector comms in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England and Northern Ireland there was a marked feeling of a lack of leadership in the home government. In Ulster, this issue never dropped below 71 per cent while in England the rate was about half.

However, in the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland there was a clear sense of leadership from their governments. By summer of 2021, just 2.2 per cent complained that the Welsh Assembly had no sense of direction compared to 11.1 per cent in Scotland.

fig 1. A lack of leadership from my home government

ENGLAND: the high sense of a lack of leadership from home government

In England, communicators reported the highest rates issues with home schooling – 43.9 per cent had this as a problem in January 2021. Isolation rates also peaked at this time with 48.1 per cent saying they felt more3 isolated.

Comms teams in England also reported the highest sense of being short staffed peaking at four in ten reporting this in Autumn 2020.

However, a sens eof working for the common good has been maintained at around 70 per cent with a sense of working as a team level at around 50 per cent.

Fig 1: A sense of working for the common good, June 2020 to June 2021 sector by sector

England also reported the worst single rate of worse mental health – 69.5 per cent saying it had deteriorated – in Autumn 2020.

Racist abuse was seen by around 10 per cent of people every week. While the abuse of high-profile footballers leads to a well-deserved campaign and a crackdown by police the same abuse elsewhere online thrives.

SCOTLAND: Most stress, spiralling targeted abuse but a strong sense of working for the common good

Despite a clarity of leadership from devolved Government communicators in the country reported the highest rates of stress and isolation.

Eight in ten by summer 2021 felt more stressed and 61.1 felt more isolated.

That these figures come through when the worst of the pandemic death rate is over suggests a long tail for mental health that deserves to be taken seriously.

Physical health has also been worst amongst comms people in Scotland by summer 2021 with 61 per cent reporting it was worse than before the pandemic.

Racist abuse was lowest in Scotland and never higher than 4.1 per cent of people seeing it aimed at their own organisation. However, around four in 10 in Scotland saw general abuse aimed at their organisation every week. Targeted abuse has risen in Scotland from 2.7 per cent reporting it in summer 2020 compared to 30.5 per cent 12-months on.

What has pulled through comms people from north of the border is a clear sense that they are working for the common good. An impressive 83.3 per cent felt this – 14 points up on England.

Home schooling in Scotland was the most complained about in the UK with a peak of 52.7 per cent raising it as an issue in June 2021.

Leadership from home government was strong with as low as one in 20 complaining of a lack of leadership in June 2020 – compared to a consistent one in every two communicators in England.

WALES: Strong teamwork and a clear sense of direction

Communicators in Wales have been hard hit by the pendemic but the physical impact has been less than other parts of the UK.

The surveys show 37.7 per cent report a worse physical condition amongst comms people from the Principality. Home schooling complaints were registered by around a third a shade lower than other parts of the UK.

There has been a strong sense of leadership from the Welsh Assembly and the best rates of leadership in the UK from people’s organisation.

Teams have generally felt well staffed with the lowest sense of being short staffed at less than a fifth early in the pandemic.

Comms teams in Wales had the strongest sense of teamwork across the UK with as many as two thirds buying into this ethos.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Poor national leadership

The worst guidance of any UK home government is reported loud and clear.

Complaints about this lack of stretegic direction shine through with never less than seven in ten complaining about it throughout the four surveys.

This is hardly surprising given that until early 2021 there was no devolved government.

As a result, Ulster public sector communicators had the lowest sense of working as a team with the figure dwindling to less than a third by summer 2021. By the same point in time, almost eight in 10 said that working in the pandemic was harder than before.

However, Northern Ireland fire, police, local and central government communicators had the lowest sense of isolation amongst comms people with two thirds not reporting it as a problem.

Despite everything, a sense of working for the common good was highest in this country and stands at 85.7 per cent in summer 2021 – 14 per cent ahead of England.

Also a postive, mental health rates were the best in the UK at 57.1 per cent the same as before – almost double that of England and Wales.


NHS: communicators are most likely to feel they were working for the common good

Communicators in the NHS were the most likely to say they felt they were working from the common good.

From Summer 2020, 81.3 per cent shared this attitude which maintained through the winter before dipping to 73.6 per cent – the highest figures across the public sector.

Fig 1: NHS communicators attitudes through the pandemic

However, stress levels in NHS comms have been the highest in the public sector. In January 2021, 85.3 per cent said they felt more stressed than before the pandemic.

The health sector was also been the most likely to say that it was short staffed. Less than a third felt this at the start and building to almost half of people sharing this view by June 2020.

However, NHS comms people did not report they felt more of a team than other sectors – the level stayed constant at around 50 per cent.

For abuse, the NHS comms team have consistentlty had to deal with the lowest rates of targeted abuse. Never more than seven per cent of staff saw this targeted abuse weekly. They also saw the least racist abuse of the public sector with the peak of 7.8 per cent seeing something weekly coming in January 2021.

Winter saw the toughest time for abuse with 31.2 per cent seeing incoming abuse – the third highest level.

A lack of leadership from the organisation maintained as an issue by around a fifth.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: communicators were most likely to face abuse

Pity the council comms team as they presented the Public Health face of the pandemic locally.

Theirs has been a thankless task in delivering the messages at a local level and reporting COVID-19 infection rates.

Stress rates have been endemic starting at 67.3 per cent of respondents reporting it in June 2020 before peaking at 85.3 per cent in January the following year.

Isolation has also been reported by nearly half of respondents.

However, the sense of working for the common good has maintained despite it all with around eight out of 10 consistently feeling this sentiment

Fig 2 Local government communicators attitudes during the pandemic

However, abuse has been a problem. The highest rates of abuse were reported in local government during gthe pandemic with around 40 per cent of comms people seeing abuse aimed at the council weekly through the period.

Racist abuse was highest in this sector with a peak of 16.4 per cent seeing such abuse weekly in the autumn of 2020.

CENTRAL GOVERNMENT: comms saw the least racist abuse

Less than one in ten Government communicators saw racist abuse while the sense of working for the common good – at about 60 per cent throughout – was the lowest.

Perhaps, these are unsurprising figures for an organisation which works on more strategic levels.

Fig 2 Central government communicators attitudes during the pandemic

A sense of teamwork was the highest anywhere in the public sector in autumn 2020 with 62.5 per cent agreeing with this sentiment.

However, physical health suffered with around half reporting worse condition and even by summer 2021 60 per cent were still reporting worse mental health.

The worst month for abuse at central government accounts was October 2020 with a spike of 37.5 per cent seeing abuse.

FIRE AND RESCUE: Comms saw the least abuse but stress high

A pandemic has a focus on health which saw fire and rescue comms people stand away from the eye of the storm.

Fire and rescue comms saw the lowest incoming abuse with no reports of abuse aimed at individuals for three surveys. An average of seven per cent of staff saw general abuse aimed at the organisation – an eighth of that facing councils, for example.

Perhaps surprisingly, this sector has seen the worst effect on mental health across 2021 with more than 60 per cent of team members reporting a deterioration.

fig 3: Fire and Rescue comms attitudes during the pandemic

However, this sector did not escape stress. A pandemic affects all parts of society and stress levels were in line with other sectors. Around 60 per cent found their mental health worsening.

POLICE: comms took the brunt during enforcement in stress and abuse

While the NHS may have got the applause in the early months of lockdown 1.0 it fell to police to enforce regulations.

That has proved to be a singularly difficult time to be in law and order.

Police comms have faced the worst abuse online, reported the most stress, felt the most short handed and felt the worst sense of a lack of local leadership from their organisation.

Police also complained of the worst sense of poor leadership from national government with 57.1 agreeing with this sentiment in January 2021.

On top of this they hace the lowest rate of working for the common good – hovering at about 60 per cent through the pandemic.

Almost a third saw abuse weekly – the peak being in January and June 2021 with around 29 per cent seeing it with almost 30 per cent seeing racist abuse weekly from October 2020 to June 2021. That’s four times the amount directed at the NHS.

The numbers are hard reading.

A total of 1,660 responses to surveys in June and October 2020 and January and June 2021 shape the results of this analysis. The study will be continued for as long as the pandemic lasts.

LONG READ: Now half of all time spent on Facebook is spent on video… so what are you going to do about it?

Five years ago I came across a stat that changed the direction of whast I do… that 70 per cent of the internet would be video by 2017.

I looked at the data and I looked at the skills that comms people have and saw the gap and saw the need for bespoke training for comms people to plan, shoot, edit and post to the web using a smartphone.

By 2019, in the UK Ofcom confirmed that it was.

By 2021, that pace of change is accelerating.

I’m pleased to say working with filmmaker Julia Higginbottom over the past few months I’ve rebooted the Essential Video Skills for Comms workshop to deliver it online. You can find out more here.

But rather than just blog about the exciting new workshop I’ve been quietly beta testing I want to blog about where video is in 2021 and why these skills matter.

Firstly, two big announcements.

Half of Facebook is now video

For public sector people, Facebook is now the key primary route to reach peiople aged 30 to 70. In the UK more than 40 million people use the platform and two thirds use community Facebook groups.

It is the Parish pump, the local noticeboard and the place to learn, ask and check in with friends and family.

So, the news from Mark Zuckerburg in a conference call to Facebook investors that Facebook users now spend half their time consuming video is now deeply significant.

The direction of travel from a couple of years ago has become faster.

Video, in particular, is becoming the primary way that people use our products and express themselves. Now I know this is a theme that we’ve been talking about for a few years now, but we’ve been executing on this for a while, and video has steadily become more important in our product. Video now accounts for almost half of all-time spent on Facebook and Reels is already the largest contributor to engagement growth on Instagram.

Mark Zuckerburg, earnings call transcript to Facebook investors, July 2021

To put that clearly, if half the time people spend on Facebook is video, you need to be factoring in video content for Facebook.

Instagram is becoming a video platform

Follow that up with the news that Instagram is moving away from the still picture to become a video network.

Video is driving an immense amount of growth online for all the major platforms right now and its one I think we need to lean into more… I want to start by saying we are no longer a photo sharing app. The number one reason people say they use Instagram is to be entertained so people are looking to us for that. We’re trying to lean into that trend into entertainment and into video. Because, lets be honest, there;’s some really serious competition right now. TikTok is huge, YouTube is even bigger. We’ll be experimenting with how to embrace video more broadly.

Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, June 2021

You can see the full clip here:

From Zuckerburgh’s comments and those of Mosseri, a key direction Instagram will take will be its TikTok take off Reels. These are portrait videos that may now be full screen as they are on TikTok.

Right now, I’m not so convinced that Reels are a competitor to TikTok. They haven’t really developed their own sense of spece and innovation but it’ll be fun to see.

And TikTok

I’m spending more and more time in my downtime on TikTok. I’ve blogged before that I think that the platform is moving away from it being a platform just for under 24s and into a space where older demographics and brands are.

Not just that, TikTok have been also being busy wooing small business too. It’s not the global brands like Adidas that TikTok are after. It’s business with a more local reach, too.

While the Facebook ad-engine is undoubtedly more powerful and able to reach more segmented people there’s a sense that TikTok is making strides in that area.

And the UK data supports video as a booming channel

I know what you are thinking. All these big picture trends are all well and good. Right now my chief executive / councillor / Minister just wants a poster / tweet / Facebook update. That’s fine. But I firmly believe that its the job of comms to understand the trends and educate the client. A comms person in 2008 who just wrote press releases was an asset. They have long been a dinosaur.

The good news is that the Ofcom UK data support these global tectonic shifts. In Ofcom’s 2021 Online Nations report, 97 per cent of internet users had used video. Under 24s spent on average an hour and 16 minutes a day on YouTube with the figure for all over 18s being 35 minutes.

Daily users of social video are also significant. Almost three quarters of under 24s fall into this bracket. The figure remains high with 45 to 54-year-olds with almost a third watching on a daily basis.

Arghh! Public sector video? Where do I start?

Research, experiment and learn. Have a good planning process to work out if its a video you need at all and then a swift workflow. You’ll need big ticket expertise for that really important film to showcase your town to new investors. But you’ll also need video skills across the team to shoot the Mayor / Councillor / Minister / Leader’s response to breaking news or a Punjabi doctor speaking in Punjabi to other Punjabi speakers.

I’ve helped train more than 3,000 people in person over the last five years but I wanted to wait to get the online delivery right before letting you know about it. After trials and working with Julia I think we’re there.

For more information about ESSENTIAL VIDEO SKILLS FOR COMMS REBOOTED head here or drop me a note via the web form.

Picture credit: istock.

GUEST POST: How to handle communications when your council hits the budget buffers

When a council runs out of money, it’s not just a finance issue it’s a comms issue too. Here, an experienced local government communicator talks you through how her team handled it.

by Kate Pratt

A ‘Section 114’. Words that strike fear into the heart of local government officers everywhere.

Bankrupt, broke, gone bust scream the headlines.

And for communications teams there is the horror of being thrust into a world of numbers, complicated local government finance and the world of revenue, capital, treasury management, public loans, interest rates and more things we, let alone the public, can’t comprehend.

A smorgasbord of acronyms is laid out before us. Think working in local government for 20-plus years means you know all collections of random letters there is to know? Think again.

In Slough, the Section 114 at the beginning of July was not a surprise. Our financial issues had been well documented locally for a couple of months with scathing audit reports, budget gap numbers growing by the day, the resignation of a director of finance.

But no one had wanted this particular axe to fall. But fall it was going to. Slough was to become only the third council in the country in living memory to declare a Section 114.

Use the advance warning to own the story

I had around 10 days warning. 10 days (if you included a weekend) to put in place a comprehensive external and internal communications plan and get everything ready for 114-day.

Externally in some ways was easier. Internally we were coming off the back of a whole council restructure and 18 months of covid; staff were sore, exhausted and desperate for a breather – one which we were now taking away.

Luckily, senior staff needed no real persuasion to get the comms right.

I am sure I am not the only one who fully believes we should be first with the news – good or bad – should own our story, no matter how bad it is. We should be open, honest – really nothing hidden, give everything to them. And they agreed.

Comms was now at the forefront of the issue, front line, in all the meetings, part of the decision making.

There was no time to feel heady about their belief in me. There was no time to feel gratified when external advice on media relations aligned perfectly with what I had said. There was certainly no time to consider what might be if we got it right – only what it could be if we got it wrong.

Get your timing right

Timing was everything. No it could not happen on a Friday afternoon (bit of a bun fight over that one). Yes members had to be briefed beforehand – but not too far beforehand to allow for leaks. Yes the official documentation had to go to everyone formally before it went to the media. Yes staff should hear it first and see it all as well.

11am on Friday 2 July.

The actual comms actions weren’t anything we hadn’t come across before.

Narrative, key messages, press releases, all user emails, website updates, social media, Q&As, interview requests, interview prep, briefing key reporters the night before, clearing diaries to make way for potential interviews, arranging drop in sessions for staff, follow ups on key queries, online forms for those with concerns.   

But the enormity of the topic, the level of accuracy needed and the absolute need for secrecy in the run up made the pressure that much more.

I had help. External help. Which I could have been offended by; after all they didn’t say anything I hadn’t said and who knew Slough better than me?

Be brusque in your planning

But when I watched them drag my CE over the coals in a mock media interview as part of media prep, being every nasty, snarky, rude, know-it-all journo we have ever hated, I was grateful to them. Even if given permission I am not sure I could have been that rude to my boss!

The day dawned and as time ticked on, as things went out in order, on time, to the right people, as requests for interview came and were done. It became clear the mountain of Percy Phizzy Pig Tails, flapjacks, chocolate rolls and other things that would make our public health team pale in horror, were not as vital as we thought they might be.

Yes it hit the national newspapers – even The Guardian which prompted my mum to text me to check I still had a job – but the plan had worked.

We had owned the story. We had told them about it. We had been open and honest. We hadn’t hidden, pretended it wasn’t happening, hoped no one had noticed.

We had been brave, put ourselves out there, said “we have made mistakes, we have not been good enough”.

Of course in the world of local government and social media, that high lasted until one particularly erudite twitter commentator stated we should fester in our own p*** and s***. Back down to comms earth with a bump!

It isn’t over, of course. It is the story locally. And when the impact of the financial difficulties become changes to services a whole new level of hell will be unleashed.

But while we continue to plan for full council meetings, votes of no confidence, petitions, endless social media posts calling us some rather unimaginative names, it has been a lesson for all of us here.

Comms can make a difference for the better even in the darkest times. But only if people in power listen to us.

Kate Pratt is group manager for communications at Slough Council.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Panic As Man Burns Crumpets: The Vanishing World of the Local Journalist’ by Roger Lytollis

When I was a kid I fell in love with a marvellous French film that began with the words: ‘I was born in the last days of the goatherds’.

The film was an idyllic look back by an old man to his childhood in the Garden of Eden that was growing up in an idyllic lost pre-First World War Provence.

I started my career in the last days of hot metal newspapers in the early 1990s and I stayed for 12-years until the responsibility of fatherhood edged me out of the newsrooms to public sector communications. Standing outside burning factories in Smethwick was no longer as exciting as they had been. Besides, I had an extra mouth to feed.

When I left newspapers in 2005 the cracks were already appearing. Today, the busy room of 12 reporters and three photographers in a regional daily district office building which shook when the presses rumbled into activity have gone.

Like a pit head deputy, the skills I learned there were hard won but no longer valued.

The start of my career mirrors Lytollis’. He remembers the newsroom when it started where the climate of dark humour felt like home. Much of the day really did pass to a soundtrack of laughter and the journalists’ mantra: ‘for fuck’s sake.’

Lytollis’ newsroom was in Carlisle, where the News & Star sold 28,000 a day and the Cumberland News 37,000 a week. Readers would come into the front office to make a complaint rather than abuse people online.

He remembers the vox pop, where armed with a photographer the author would venture onto the streets to capture the wisdom of people on the street. I found myself nodding at the recollection of the street interviewee who will pass five minutes on a topic with a reporter and then vehemently refuse to give a name making the whole exercise a waste of time.

He recalls the Elvis tribute act and interviewing Dave Allen but also covering the story of the gunman who left a trail of dead across the county and the storms that flooded Carlisle. There is dark and shade as well as colour.

I laughed more at this book than I have done at a text for a long while. Lytollis captures the weird character of local newspapers. Their readers, subjects and reporters had an undertow of oddball. He is a Bill Bryson of what made the local rag work.

But what makes this memoir excel is not just the fond recollections and anecdotes. Something happens to the tone part way through the book. The internet lands. Sales fall. The old guard at Lytollis’ employers CN are gradually thinned out.

Renowned news brand Newsquest come in to buy the company and the cycle of job losses and being asked to apply for jobs that weld four jobs together commence.

The book does not shy away from what this feels like for those left behind an analogue artist in a digital click world. The warm colours of the author finding his feet are replaced by a sinking despair.

“Newsquest might not have been notably worse than other big local newspaper publishers. All were partial to making staff redundant,” Lytollis reports.

“All were searching for a solution that may not have existed. Newsquest demanded we slow the decline in newspaper sales while insisting that we put even more stories online.”

Newsquest as a company, Lytollis observes, likes to talk about investing in frontline journalism by cutting journalists. In 2009, the Glasgow Herald had 240 reporters and at the time of writing now has six. As a former reporter, I just can’t imagine there being any fun in local journalism when it looks like that. As a former Newsquest employee I can see they have not changed.

I commend anyone who has ever bought a local paper to buy this book.

‘Panic as Man Burns Crumpets: The Vanishing World of the Local Journalist’ by Roger Lytollis is available in hardback published by Robinson priced £16.99.

VIEW VIDEO: What the Ofcom’s stats on booming video means for public sector comms

You’ll not be surprised that video consumption boomed during the pandemic but the data behind the headline does surprise.

Overall, video consumption soared by 47 minutes a day for adults in 2020 reaching a rather significant five hours 40 minutes of screentime.

However, the headline figures only take you through part of the story. What’s particularly interesting is the demographic breakdown of age groups.

As a communicator, its hugely important to know the age of your audience as this may significantly skew the way you need to think about reaching them.

Because I love you, I’ve gone through the Ofcom Media Nations 2021 report to look at age ranges for the UK. If you are from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland there are supporting reports with a bit more local colour.

Glancing through all of them, there aren’t huge difference between the Home nations.

Here’s how people spent that five hours 40 minutes a day.

Live TV (162 minutes) accounted for most with streaming video sites like Netflix (65 minutes) and YouTube (41 minutes) supporting.

Trends are accelerating

Things are getting faster and video is hoovering up people’s time.

“The pandemic caused an acceleration of existing viewing trends as people spent more time watching on-demand services.”

– Ofcom Media Nations, 2021

Aside from the overall boom, subscription TV services are now used by 60 per cent of all UK households adding just over an hour to the telly. Terrestrial telly has proved resilient in 2020.

Half of UK households now use a smart speaker daily with two thirds using it to listen to streaming services and 39 per cent carrying out voice search.

Radio also remains resilient with live radio on a DAB device the most popular use (63 per cent) with podcasts flat at 15 per cent.

The boom in social video remains vibrant with 82 per cent of online adults – that’s almost nine out of 10 people who are web-connected – watching it at some point in the last 12-months.

Video booms amongst all age groups

Delving into the data, video is no longer the preserve of the young. While 97 per cent of under 24s watched some kind of social video in the last 12-months that’s to be expected.

More surprising is the older 24 to 34 group were only two per cent behind and ratcheting through the age groups almost three quarters of 55 to 64-year-olds watch. Just short of half of over 65s also have watched short video in the last 12-months.

But video has been consistently high performing over the past five years.

It’s something I’ve been flagging for a good five years.

Social audio

The hot topic of social audio is also showing up in the data.

The Clubhouse app which introduced the concept hasn’t cut through with only 0.3 per cent of the population using it by March 2021.

The report flags up audio for Twitter and Facebook as something to watch. That’s fine. I’ll wait to see them become a measurable thing.

What the public sector needs to know

Toto, we’re not in 1998 anymore.

The pace of change is ever changing and it’s never going to be this slow again. The trick is to evaluate the data before flying headlong into new trends but be across those trends.

Video remains increasingly important.

Telly and radio are in a slight decline but they remain a significant chunk of how people consume the media. For the most part, what’s happening on Netflix is irrelevant as far as the public sector is concerned. But radio, that Cinderella platform, remains a thing.

I help train communications people in how to plan, shoot, edit and post effective video. You can see more here.

OPEN UP: TFL’s useful use of upbeat video to mark easing restrictions

The people who run London Underground TFL have quietly done a really interesting thing with video.

As pandemic restrictions ease, more people will be looking to do things in the capital city which at times has been deserted in lockdown.

Their social media video reflects this, with upbeat music and information on what people can now do on information boards themselves.

So, ‘swimming’ is displayed as a tube sign, ‘playing 5-a-side’ is on a platform info board and ‘Going Out-Out’ is displayed as a neon station sign.

You can see it here:

It’s witty, vibrant and lively with fast cuts, smiling faces from as diverse a background as London has.

Shorter cuts for social media

Even more interesting, the clip is chopped up fo social media with shorter edits.

This one is six seconds…

And so is the Facebook edit. It’s six seconds. It almost works as a long GIF.

This flies in the face of perceived wisdom that sees Facebook encourage you to post three minute video ideally or 60-scond video as a second prize. It would be fascinating to see the insights for this. Glancing at them, there’s just three shares and 70-odd likes. That’s not the best performing video content TFL has.

The people lesson

At it’s heart, this is about PEOPLE. People connect to people. People can go to stand-up shows, five-a-side shows and to the museum. It’s about THEIR experiences. The buses and tubes that TFL run are just the enablers.

The typeface lesson

There’s been masses written about the typefaces used by people like the British Rail typography. It’s unfussy and its purpose is to convey information swiftly and clearly. We have a lot of trust invested in this typeface. It tells us where to go and when. It keeps people moving and the city vibrant. By using these typefaces TFL are tapping into that.

Channel specific

The landscape video here is on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter but not on the portrait-focussed TikTok and Instagram.

If you found this useful you’ll find the weekly email of useful content I write useful too. Join other communicators and sign-up here.

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