EYES DOWN: An end of year quiz for comms people

Your Christmas jumper is on and the workstation has tinsel… what better way than easing off than with a fiendishly hard 2020 quiz for comms people.

Part teaching device and part team building exercise this is a chance to pit your wits.

Take ha tea break to run this quiz past your colleagues to see how well you can do with this mixed bag of media stats and data points that every self-respecting comms person needs to know.

Answers are at the bottom of the post.

Q1 – In 2020, which is the largest social platform in the UK, according to Ofcom?

A) Facebook

B) YouTube

C) TikTok

D) Twitter

Q2 – What was the combined TV audience for Boris Johnson’s lockdown address to the nation in March?

A) 22.6 million

B) 30.1 million

C) 18.9 million

D) 27.1 million

Q3 – In 2020, we’ve never spent more time online. How long is the national average?

A) 4 hours 2 minutes

B) 3 hours 57 minutes

C) 5 hours 9 minutes

D) 2 hours 26 minutes

Q4: How many Netflix subscribers are there in 2020?

A) 7.1 milluion

B) 17.1 million

C) 12.4 million

D) 6.3 million

Q5: How many people like the Downing Street Facebook page?

A) 1.2 million

B) 4.3 million

C) 1.5 million

D) 10.1 million

Q6: What percentage of all Facebook users are members of Facebook groups?

A) 10 per cent

B) 66 per cent

C) 42 per cent

D) 71 per cent

Q7 – How much did Sir Captain Tom Moore raise through his sponsored walk?

A) 14 million

B) 40 million

C) 44 million

D) 130 million

Q8) What is the most popular museum anywhere in the world on TikTok?

A) New York Museum of Modern Art

B) Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam

C) The Louvre, Paris

D) The Black Country Living Museum in Dudley

Q9: On average, how long does an adult spend watching video in 2020?

A) 29 minutes a day

B) 4 minutes a day

C) 14 minutes a day

D) 59 minutes a day

Q10: According to industry regulators PAMco how many people read a national news title in print or online in 2020?

A) 8 million

B) 18 million

C) 30 million

D) 16 million

Q11: What is QAnon?

A) A disproved conspiracy theory that alleges a cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophioles run a global sex trafficking ring and plot against Donald Trump

B) A series of posts on anonymous messageboard 4Chan.

C) A movement classified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat.

D) All of the above.

Q12: Which track is used in the 2020 John Lewis ad?

A) Please, Please, lease Let Me Get What I Want

B) Your Song

C) Give A Little Love

D) Somewhere Only We Know

Q13: What is the most popular messaging platform in the UK used by 40 per cent of adults daily?

A) Messenger

B) WhatsApp

C) Telegram

D) Signal

Q14: Which pop star is the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS choir singing with for their attempt at a Christmas number 1?

A) Justin Beiber

B) Harry Styles

C) Maria Carey

D) Cliff Richards

Q15: If over 55s hold the record for spending time on news sites with 25 minutes a day how long do 18-year-olds spend on news sites?

A) 15 minutes

B) 3 minutes

C) 4 minutes

D) 12 minutes

Q1: A: YouTube, Q2: D: 27.1 million Q3: A: 4 hours 2 minutes Q4: C: 12.4 million Q5: A: 1.2 million Q6: B: 66 per cent Q7: B: 40 million Q8: D: Black Country Museum with 367,000 followers Q9: A: 29 minutes a day Q10: C: 30 million Q11: D: All of the above Q12: C: Give A Little Love Q13: B WhatsApp Q14: A: Justin Beiber Q15: D 12 minutes.

LONG READ: The alarming state of mis and disinformation across Facebook… and what the heck are Reach plc doing?

TLDR: We’re faring better than expected with COVID-19 disinformation but science’s message is losing in community groups… and what the hell are Reach plc titles playing at?

I’ve long said the battle against COVID-19 misinformation will be won or lost on Facebook so I decided to take a deep dive into that so you don’t have to.

Over three days I read 675 posts in community groups, public sector pages and news pages across the wider West Midlands.

It’s clear science says the path out of the pandemic is through inoculating at l;east 70 per cent of the population. But the path is a rocky one with Facebook scientists telling you otherwise.

As a country, we need to win the information war to reassure people that tests have been done on innoculations. In the summer, just 50 per cent said they’d have the jab. The absolute minimum to make it work is 70 per cent.

Bridging that gap is the key comms challenge of all our lifetimes.

Within that gap are two sets of people.

The first are those who have genuine concerns. I’m allergic to penicillin. Does this mean I’m safe to have it? I get that.

But there others, the anti-vaxxers who ignore the science and circulate debunked tropes arere dangerous. These ideas kill people.

But are they winning?

I’ve mapped the conspiracy to see what communicators can learn from the underlying trends.

Wading through almost posts and thousands of comments I saw plenty of frustration with lockdown, a wish for Christmas, some conspiracy and abuse but also plenty of togetherness, humour and help.

I looked at three areas.

Facebook pages run by the public sector, pages run by news titles and groups run by members of the public for communities where they live.

Each had a different tale to tell.

This is the sometimes alarming picture I found.

How much incorrect information is being seen? 29 per cent of people see inaccurate information in December 2020.

COVID-19 as a topic is not wall-to-wall

In the future, people will look back and wonder why every conversation was not about the virus.

Easy. In wartime, people want to talk about other things than the events at the front. The pandemic is news, of course news companies are going to be covering it.

More than a quarter of content posted to news site featured COVID-19 whether it was the latest infection rates, debate about tiers or people from the circulation area in the first round of of inoculations.

Less than a fifth of public sector posts were COVID-19. This reflects two things. Business as usual has returned in earnest and that there is less appetite for pandemic updates nine months in. That’s borne out by the community groups. A tenth of what people post about is about the virus. There are other things to talk about.

Fig 1. Percentage of COVID-19 content by Facebook channel

Misinformation and disinformation is rife in community groups

They may talk about it less in community Facebook groups but when they do this brings out the conspiracy theorists.

Misinformation is getting the wrong end of the stick. Disinformation is far more sinister. It’s the deliberate sewing of lies knowing they are lies.

I looked at 25 Facebook community groups with a combined audience of up to 261,000.

A total of 61 per cent of COVID-19 content attracted misinformation and disinformation – far more than public sector and news pages.

Fig 2. Percentage of COVID-19 content with disinformation or misinformation in the comments

If you’ve not been onto Facebook recently, hang onto your hats.

There is the idea that the Government is doing all this just to record people’s DNA…

Or, there is the story that originated in Australia that a can of Coke tested positive.

Or there is the QAnon conspiracies that all of this is the ‘great reset’ by the New World Order. People who trusts the scientists are ‘sheeple’ who don’t think for themselves.

It may be tempting to dismiss this sort of talk. But don’t forget that the US has elected QAnon conspiracy theorists.

But there are those who respond. Don’t think that theoriests have it all their own way.

Striking as I looked around community groups was the lack of public sector content being shared in them. Anti-vaxxers have all the best memes that are easily sharable.

Local stories for local people work

What does work in community groups is content with people from the area getting shots.

If anything is, this is the secret sauce in the battle.

Often this leads to local people recognising the people in the picture.

It’s brilliant to see.

News companies… especially Reach plc… are attracting misinformation and disinformation and appear not to act against it

As a former journalists, the way that news companies are handling the pandemic troubled me the most.

Of course media companies are going to be attracted to to COVID-19. It’s the story of the decade. But what was interesting was the comments they attract. Posting COVID-19 content attracts sceptics like a moth to a flame. But there is a marked difference between Reach plc titles and non-Reach titles.

Here, there is a striking disparity between how Reach plc police their comments and write their content and other news organisations.

Almost half Reach plc content attracted mis and disinformation – that’s twice as much as other news companies.

I have a lot of time for journalists working for Reach plc. I know several and as a company they have a firmer grasp of how to make online news work than many others. However, the data does not lie. I don’t want to go into the question as to whether this devisive approach is deliberate but I would challenge this company to do a better job at policing Facebook than they are.

Some of the comments on Reach’s Facebook pages are dangerously inaccurate.

All to often comments on Reach plc Facebook pages turn into a rancid free-for-all that can’t be good for the long-term trust and business of journalism.

Fig 3. Percentage of COVID-19 content with mis or disinformation by ownership

Public sector pages are mis and disinformation free

If there’s good news it’s that the conspiracy theorists are not on their pages. Or if they are their content doesn’t last long.

But if people’s only experience of the topic is pages then they’d be lulled into a false sense of security.

One alarming issue through the review was a lack of public sector content making its way into community groups. It is getting cut through in news pages but not in the community.

What public sector communicators can do about it

The failure to get public sector uinformation into Facebook groups is alarming. But without direct action this is unlikely to change. Group admins are as influential as as patch journalists. They are the new gatekeepers.

Good relations with Facebook admins are important but so is the ability to enlist the help of the community into sharing the message.

Staff, community leaders and members of the public who all signed up to help in the early days of COVID-19 need to come into play.

But a discussion with Reach plc editors is beyond time. Of course, people can debate topics. But when the information in the comments is dangerously inaccurate it makes a mockery of the noble ideals of journalism. This is a shame when there is some good work – Reach included – going on in the content.


Facebook media pages analysed: Birmingham Live, Black Country Live, Stoke-on-Trent Live, Burton Live and Coventry Live (all Reach plc) as well as Stourbridge News, Hereford Times, Worcester News, BBC Midlands and Express & Star.

Facebook groups Halesowen Times Take 2, Atherstone & District People’s Forum, Great Barr Neighbourhood Forum, Streetlifers of Stourbridge, Uttoxeter Community and Events, Kenilworth Vibes, Indians in Birmingham, Leek Community, I’m From Dudley, Blackheath / Rowley Page, Stoke-on-Trent Past and Present, Everything Moseley, Ross-on-Wye Noticeboard, Wolverhampton COVID-19 Mutual Aid, Spotted Tipton, BrownhillsBob, Friends of Stafford, Stoke Prior, Worcestershire Noticeboard, Bridgnorth Chat News Rants and Idle Speculation, Stratford Upon Avon Forum, Helping Hereford Through COVID-19 Bedworth Community Forum, Leek Awakes, Voice of Ledbury, Solihull, For the Love of Shrewsbury and Nuneaton Local.

Facebook pages held by the public sector included Dudley Council, Sandwell Council, NHS Birmingham & Solihull, Warwickshire County Council, East Staffordshire Borough Council, Birmingham City Council, West Midlands Combined Authority, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Trust, Herefordshire & Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust, Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, West Midlands Police, Hereford & Worcestershire Fire & Rescue and Warwickshire Police.

For the review on December 15 and 16 2020, the first 15 posts were analysed with comments.

STOP ABUSE: Here’s a free set of social media House Rules for you

Of the five sessions from the new workshop I’m running online one was most fun to put together and deliver.

That’s the final one which looks at when to engage and how to deal with online comment, criticism and abuse. You can see more about that session and the wider programme here.

I’ve always been a firm believer in teaching both the theory and the lived experience.

It’s fine showing people what channels and what content works. But what happens when people shout?

For me, comment is fine. Criticism is also fine so long as its not abusive and abuse is never fine.

We should not tolerate it.

But if we say we don’t tolerate it we need to set that out in black and white.

For me, that starts with a set of social media House Rules that say this is what you can expect of us online and here’s what we expect of you. Without those House Rules how do you take action with confidence?

Here’s a set of boilerplate House Rules for you.

Feel free to adapt.

INSERT ORG’S NAME social media House Rules v1.0

We believe that social media is an important part in how people live their lives.

At INSERT ORG NAME we’re adaptable and continually changing how we improve the way we work. We pride ourselves in being open. 

We’ve a set of house rules on how we use social media and how we expect people to use it too.

What we’ll do…

We’ll confirm its us. If you see a INSERT ORG’S NAME account online you can check its us. We’ll list our social media accounts on our website here INSERT LINK. 

We’ll listen. We’ll read all messages and look to flag-up problems with the most relevant part of the organisation. We’re keen to hear from you. 

We’ll say when we’ll monitor each account. We’ll not be online 24-hours a day. But we will say when we’ll be online on each social media account we use.

We’ll be human and polite. We’ll treat each message with the politeness you’d expect if you were dealing with us face-to-face or on the telephone.  

We’ll follow people where we can. But this doesn’t mean endorsement.  

What we’d like you to do in return…

We’d like you to be polite. We know that sometimes things don’t go to plan and you’ll want to flag things up with us. But do remember, we’re human and the person monitoring the social media account is only trying to help. So are other people who use social media.

We’d like you not be anti-social. We won’t tolerate swearing, threats or abuse online just as we don’t offline. We won’t deal with your query on social media. We’ll direct you to other channels instead. 

We’d like you not to be personal. If you’ve a complaint to make against an individual we’ll look into it. We’ll point you towards our complaints page INSERT LINK.  

We’d like you not to spam or advertise. Our social media channels aren’t the place for followers to advertise. Making the same points over and over – otherwise known as spamming – isn’t for our social media. You’ll be better off making a complaint or contacting us another way so we can look into the issue for you. 

We’d like you to not over-share. If you’ve got an issue we’ll happily look into it. But be careful not to post private information about yourself or others.

We’d like you not to spread disinformation or misinformation. That includes anti-vaxx, QAnon and other tropes. We are committed to ensuring clear public health messaging.

Of course, most of the time social media works fine but on the rare occasion where you don’t stick to the house rules we reserve the right to delete offending content and block you from contacting us through that route. We also reserve the right to contact police.

If you have any questions about our social media or feel a post may be taken down unfairly email us at INSERT EMAIL ADDRESS.

You can download here:

You can find out more about the programme I deliver ESSENTIAL COMMS BOOSTER SKILLS online here. There are sessions starting in the coming weeks.

PRESS THIS: Here’s how to win the life and death struggle with lies and antivaxxers

In March, we clapped the carers who were on the frontline of the pandemic.

Now in December, the frontline has moved overnight to our friends, family and neighbours.


Because now the battle to create a vaccine has been won the battle is to win public opinion to accept the approved vaccinations as safe.

I’ve long said that all this will be won or lost on Facebook and I’ve never been more certain.

Where the public are

Accordng to the Ofcom coronavirus media opinions tracker, a third of people last month came across information they thought was misleading or false.

Only 53 per cent three months ago said they would be happy to be immunised while there was a need for at least 70 per cent of the population to have the jab. In a more recent poll a third were hesitant or unhappy to received the jab.

Just 11 per cent were sharing COVID-19 messaging, the Ofcom study shows, less than half the number from week one.

So where does that leave us?

Not to put too fine a point on it, immunisation is the route out of this and it’s hanging in the balance.

The debate that needs to be won

It leaves us with a debate to be won.

Some of those hesitant have reasonable questions. A caller to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, for example, asked if a long COVID sufferer would be at risk of having the jab? Answer: on balance, no.

Such questions are quite reasonable and the assurances that the UK drug watchdogs the MRHA are that they have thoroughly tested the drug.

But then there are the others, a rag tag army of conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers. I blogged last week in praise of Glasgow City Council who took the view that they would be banning people who posted false information from their social media pages. Bravo them. But that doesn’t solve the whole problem.

Public sector pages are a fraction of the problem

Spending time online for research leads me to spend several hours on Facebook a day. It also leads me to read a lot of misinformation. There are two places where this crap really builds up. Number one, Newspaper Facebook pages in the comments section and number two, Facebook group comments. There, the information is often wall-to-wall.

A quick trip to Birmingham Live my local Reach publication on Facebook leads me to:

“We know this is part of a bigger plan to force everyone to get it.”

“The flu’s been around forever there’s a vaccine and still kills thousands each year yet we just get on with it.”

“We’re being lied to.”

If you’ve spent anytime online you’ll have seen this.

I worry that many of those making decisions haven’t.

So, what’s to be done?

Newspaper editors need to take responsibility for the misinformation that their Facebook pages and comments sections are filled with. It is killing people.

Facebook group admins also need to take responsibility for their share too. It is also killing people.

It’s tempting to throw your hands into the air and say this thing is bigger than all of us but there’s one group of people who can help with this fight that we’ve forgotten all about. In the first weeks of lockdown, a million people came forward to volunteer their services. They are perfectly placed to act.

If only two in 10 came forward to help spread the public health messages about the vaccine that’s 100,000 people. Around 69 per cent of the population use Facebook. If 69 per cent of this number shared information to the 200 friends in their feed that’s upwards of 26 million people reached.

Of course, these are hypothetical numbers and the eventual reach could be more or less that that. But the concept makes sense because.

How about a full on rebuttal?

The traditional way to challenge an inaccurate story is to write a follow-up. So, X hits back at claims that Y is the next book in this series.

However, good evidence exists that if you do that you just reinforce the original misinformation which is pointless.

As my Uncle Keith once told me: ‘Never argue with an idiot. To a passer-by it’s just two idiots arguing.’

But comms people are tired

Worn down by long hours and stress we’ve entered the arena of burn-out and more severe mental health problems.

If the Manchester Arena bombing caused problems with 22 deaths what does 50,000 dead cause?

Public sector comms people can’t do all the communicating on their own.

They needn’t.

How to reach them and with what?

How about UK Government and national NHS content?

Hmmm. But fewer people have been sharing national messages that bring with them unhelpful baggage.

But how about the local council and NHS corporate Facebook, Twitter, email or Instagram page? Isn’t that the answer?

My answer to that is that clearly on its own, it isn’t.

While some good locally-made content with a local voice is being made the public sector page on its own attracts a minority audience.

For me, the answer is to create highly sharable local content that helps make the point that the vaccines have been tested and cleared by the country’s finest scientific brains.

But it needs to be local content that repeats the central message.

So, create it locally on Facebook but drive your band of NHS volunteers to it through dedicated email lists or new WhatsApp for Business broadcasts.

So the request…

Hello volunteer,

Can you share this <INSERT LINK> weith your friends and family?

By sharing this you will help save lives.


There is time to get this going but precious little of it.

The clock is ticking.

So, what are you going to do?

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.

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