TIKTOK: Six top tips from a public sector comms team who are smashing it

TikTok is no longer a fringe platform. It’s becoming mainstream. Amongst the vanguard of the public sector are South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue who now have 100,000 followers. In this post he shares some of the secrets of their success.

by Jack Grasby

Eight months ago me and my colleague Zander decided to take a leap of faith – we set up a TikTok account for our organisation.

We made the jump after weeks of planning, discussing and lurking on the channel in a desperate attempt to understand how it worked.

Having done a ‘quick and dirty’ social media audit at the start of the year, we knew that setting up an account on the platform was essential, not desirable, as it had become clear that we weren’t hitting enough 16-24-year-olds through our existing channels.

But what had become apparent is that TikTok is like nothing we’ve ever used before – and it would take more than some South Yorkshire overconfidence to make it a success.

Videos we didn’t find funny at all were blowing up, whereas what looked to us like good content was flopping. And then there were the trends. And sub-cultures. How did all that work? Oh, and what’s ASMR when it’s at home?

Eventually we decided that, having had some brilliant training to get us warmed up, the only way we would fully understand the channel is by diving in head first.

So, armed with our one page strategy and social media audit results, that’s what we did.

Here’s six top tips for anyone else considering doing the same…

Have a purpose

Whilst we eventually decided to take a gamble and dive in head first, we did set a clear purpose and strategy for our work on TikTok.

By clearly outlining why we needed to use it, and how the channel would help meet certain organisational objectives, we put ourselves in a strong position to deal with the inevitable questions we would get from curious members of staff.

Given TikTok has built up a (largely false) reputation for being a place that teenagers go to mess around and do ‘silly’ dances, this proved extremely useful.

Understand the audience

It’s no secret that being human, rather than corporate, on social media is generally the way to go when it comes to getting good engagement.

However, when it comes to TikTok, this rule applies more than ever. People use the channel to be entertained and educated, not hit over the head with dull public messaging. 

There really is absolutely no place for anything that isn’t, in one way or another, entertaining. So yes, feed in your core messages, but find a way to make it fun.

Assemble your squad

One question we keep getting asked is around how we’ve got our staff on board. It’s a good question, given what’s already been covered above regarding TikTok’s reputation.

The answer, in a word, is persistence. Since launching the channel we have asked everyone we know across the service if they’ll be involved.

We knew from the off that not everyone would be game, and a key lesson we learned early on is that if people are only ‘lukewarm’ then there’s probably no point using them – their lack of energy will only kill your Tok vibe.

So our mission has been to assemble a squad of people who are up for it – and who will give us extra when we come calling.

Keep it snappy

When I close my eyes at night, I can still hear Zander’s voice telling me to mercilessly cut, cut and cut my edits down until there is hardly anything left.

And he’s right. Our figures suggest that the shorter the video, the better. After all – TikTok is a platform designed for short form video, and who are we to argue?

Embrace the chaos

With over 100,000 followers in the can, and the numbers continuing to grow, TikTok has now become our biggest social media channel by a country mile.

But that won’t stop me holding my hands up and saying, in the name of complete honesty, that this platform is completely bonkers.

Unfortunately for the more organised amongst us, it’s not a place where you can have and stick to a clear content plan. Trends will appear, and disappear, right before your eyes. 

For us to be successful on the channel, we had to throw ourselves into it and accept the fact that it’s all a bit crazy. 

Roll with the punches

Whilst we wouldn’t change anything about our TikTok journey, it’s certainly not been easy. In fact, it’s been a complete rollercoaster.

We’ve had days where we couldn’t sleep for excitement. Our videos have been ‘blowing up’ and, simultaneously, our follower numbers have been increasing at rates we’ve never seen before in our careers.

But then we’ve had days, weeks and even months where nothing has stuck. Videos we thought would do well have flopped, and we’ve felt like giving up.

The algorithm is a cruel beast that will chew you up and spit you out. But, as long as you have a purpose and a strategy, stick with it – your time will come.

Jack Grasby is campaigns manager at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue.

DAFT COMMS: ‘Can you send an all staff email? Someone has taken the scissors from the post room and I need them back.’

Every now and then I’ll crowdsource daft requests made to comms people.

I thought it high time to ask the same question again of the 6,500 Public Sector Comms Headspace. 

Here you go. Can you beat this? 

Daft comms requests

“Can you make this go viral at 2pm on Wednesday?” – Lucy Salvage.

“The man on the left of the group in this photo is standing sideways can you change it so he’s looking at the camera?” – Steve Collins.

“Can we have more white faces in the brochure for BME?” – Anon.

“Can we have a Twitter account to reach young people” and “Can we do a Facebook Live to stop drug addicts taking ketamine?” – Nick Lakeman

“‘I need to submit an awards entry on Twitter by 5pm today. Can you set up a company Twitter account urgently so I can do this.’ Bearing in mind the organisation had no Twitter account and no plans to have one either.” – Becky Kasumba 

“‘Here’s a template 1200 word spokesman press release from industry body and four A4 posters for our awareness raising month.’ That’s it. That is the request.”– David Grindlay 

“Can you send an all staff email, someone has taken the scissors from the post room and I need them back.” –  Pete Le Riche

“Graphic design job: can you make the white, whiter?” – Victoria Edmond.

“There are three cars parked on the overspill car park and the circus has just arrived to put up the Big Top. Please can you send out an all user email to tell them they need to move their cars?” – Louise Sharf

“Call from a member of security direct to me, head of internal comms: ‘There’s a student in the library wearing a t-shirt that says: ‘Jesus is a c**t’. What should we do?’ In the end security stared for so long trying to figure out their next steps that the student got a bit self conscious and sheepish and put their hoodie back on.” – Alice Oliver.

“Can we have a QR code? We want to email or text it to people”– David Bell.

“Can u send an email to let everyone know all the emails are down?” – Ghazala Begum 

“Incoming media query: ‘Can you tell me if the Bat Plane will be landing near the A9?’” – Sarah Anne O’Loughlin.

“Can you write an awards submission for this survey-based campaign, but we should only enter it if the survey-based campaign results are favourable. Awards submission deadline is early June, survey-based campaign results expected early July.” – Stephanie Robinson Cutts.

“Photographing the 5’6 Town Clerk presenting an award to the 6’4 Mayor – ‘Just fiddle with the photo and make us the same height.’” – Emma Bye. 

“Can you photoshop eyes onto the Trust Chair in this group photo? My colleague tried and the results were HILARIOUS.” – Charlie Grinhoff.

“Can you make this look pretty?” – Megan Olivia Duggan.

“One from my charity days but my favourite 4pm on Friday media request ‘I understand you hold the media rights to Captain pugwash?’ We didn’t. The journo had looked at the wrong line in their contacts spreadsheet. But being the media professional I am, I didn’t immediately rule it out and said I would go away and check.” – Suzi Robinson.

“‘You’ve sent us this mock design of how our leaflet would look in the wrong language.’ Lorem Ipsum anyone?” – Karen Rowley. 

“Going back in time regarding a print quote submitted with a new brochure: “Well if I’m paying for 4 Colours I expect to see all of them.” – Philip Mackie.

“Please can Comms turn off the fog horn, I’m struggling to concentrate.” We work on the waterfront.” – Cath Akins.

“Asking us to remove a post and ban a user from a Facebook group that has nothing to do with us, because they complained about bad service they received from us and named a staff member directly.” – William John 

“Can we have a map with QR codes linking to things to do in each area? Sure, just send me the links. Oh, there’s no links, we don’t actually have a list of things to do, a website, or any intention of producing one.” – Ruth Fry

“‘Can we have lines to take, Q&A, full comms plan, photos, videos and the moon on a stick by COP a week last Thursday please for something maybe might be happening in 2044, we dunno yet. We have no idea on the hook or the key messages, but will definitely need a press release for it.’ Obviously, not a real request, but sums all requests up in a nutshell.” – Pam Pye.

“At 3pm. The awareness day is today, can you just chuck some content out both internally & externally that links it to something we are doing, be great if you can get some staff and customers to take part.” – Caroline Howarth

“‘Make the most accessible website, ever.’ Same person, same website: ‘You need to use this  specific shade of light green behind white text.” I suggested many accessibility compliant combinations, but eventually relented to make it that specific light green, only to be told it was the wrong green and change it all again to a different but still non-compliant shade.” – Keely Gallagher.

“Make this go viral,” will always be my biggest head-banging-against-wall moment.”– Sarah Rochester.

“I’d like everyone in the organisation to know what great charitable work this team is doing, without writing an article about it, or doing anything that may be perceived as us promoting it.” – Brioney Hirst.

“Can you email everyone to tell them that emails are down?” – Penny Gibbs

“Can you send me a word document of the entire website so that I can use it to learn how to create an App version of the website?” – Sacha Taylor

“Can you ‘comms’ this?” – Christine De Souza

“Got asked if I could make a video go viral again this week. You think I’d still be working if I could make videos go viral?” – Tøbias Der Mönch

Thank you to Anon, Tobias der Monch, Christine De Souza, Keely Gallagher, Vicky Croughan, Nick Lakeman, Becky Kasumba, David Grindlay, Alex Thurley-Ratcliff, Sarah Rochester, Penny Gibbs, Brioney Hirst, Pete Le Riche, Victoria Edmond, Louise Sharf, Alive Oliver, David Bell, Ghazala Begum, Debbie Goodland, Sacha Taylor, Sarah Anne O’Loughlin, Stephanie Robinson Cutts, Emma Bye, Charlie Grinhoff, Megan Olivia Duggan, Suzi Robinson, Karen Rowley, Philip Mackie, Cath Atkins, William John, Kaylee Godfrey, Lucy Salvage and Steve Collins.

If cricket can nail remix culture on TikTok what’s stopping you?

One of the beautiful things about the internet is remix culture… taking something and making something else.

It’s been at the heart of the internet since it started. Think CassetteBoy back in the day. Or creative commons licences. Or memes.

TikTok has really taken the idea of remix culture and given it an oxygen mask filled with pure mountain air. Baked into the platform is the abillity to re-use and repurpose.

So, the duet can be a video you shoot where you respond to another video, for example.

Or it can be using the audio of another video to create your own take on the original.

Scrollingh through TikTok I noticed four examples of remix culture not in high fashion or pop culture but… cricket.

Cricket? You mean that stale sport played in front of a handful of elderly people?

It turns out that cricket is really embracing remix culture on TikTok.

Why is this useful to a comms person?

Because people like remix culture. They like and share it. It builds your audience because they’ll stick around for your next video. Your next video may be one you really want them to see with a call to action.

I’ve said it dozens of times before but if 80 per cent of your content is not about selling things that’s a decent number to aim at.

Durham cricketers react to a village cricket clip

‘That’s so village’, is a term attached to really bad cricket. It’s the red ball equivalent of being a pub team.

Thanks to the advent of decent cameras and the internet there’s a whole host of clips that are attached under the village umbrella.

Shooting reactions is a well established way of generating content. In this case, Durham County Cricket Club show village cricket clips to a couple of their players and they film their reactions. They then mix the original with the reaction. It’s not hard to do.

The result is a fun clip with LOLs…

Reacting to a reaction video

Even more meta is Worcestershire County Cricket Club’s reaction to a reaction. In this case, football pundit Rio Ferdinand reacts in the studio to a goal being scored.

That clip is repurposed by WCCC as a means of underlining just how good a wicket one of their bowlers has taken.


Remixing the audio

David Warner is Cricket Australia’s pantomime villain. He’s been suspended for his role in cheating in the past.

In this clip, they get Warner to lipsync what looks to be a Bollywood clip about violence.

What does the film do? It underlines the player. The player makes a joke about his reputation. It reaches an audience who probably are not listening to Test Match Special.


Remix culture is part of the landscape.

If cricket can do it, why can’t you?

DATA SEARCH: WFH v Back to the Office: I’ve read the academic research so you don’t have to

‘We’re a data driven organisation,’ many organisations boast before throwing the data out of the window when it comes to ordering staff post-pandemic to return to the office.

If you work in Government you may have observed the sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Minister for government efficiency, touring offices to count civil servants at their desk.

More is better, he argues.

So, I thought I’d read through the academic evidence over whether the office or WFH – working from home – is better. 

The simple answer is that it depends.

However, one core thing that runs through all of the research is that one size does not fit all. All WFH or all in the office is not the best outcome.

For those that do work from home, working out where the boundaries lie between work and non-work is the biggest single challenge to keep burn-out at bay. And the danger of burn-out is real. 

It’s better for efficiency

People are more efficient when working from home is one of the findings of Danish researchers Ipsen, van Veldhofen et al in their academic paper Six Key Advantages and Disadvantages of Working from Home in Europe during COVID-19. The other advantages are better work – life balance and greater control over work. 

The downsides, they found, were home office constraints, work uncertainties and inadequate kit. That the survey spanned 13 European countries including the UK strengthens the findings.

Well motivated workers thrive

If you’re self-motivated and are well led you will thrive with WFH, is the finding of Jelena and Rosa’s research. However, those not well motivated won’t adapt well and a purely online approach can lead to burn-out, unhappiness at home and a lack of sleep.

Managing the boundary between work and home is one of the most important challenges to make it work, the report from the Bosnian academics suggests

A lack of contact with colleagues is a problem

During the pandemic many areas of life went online. In this research amongst psychologists, 80 per cent enjoyed working from home but 42 per cent found it difficult at some stage.

Work life balance was again singled out as being the single biggest problem in the research published in the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology

Allowing staff the freedom to decide when to work from home is vital 

In this study of public sector workers fewer interruptions emerged as a key benefit. 

Employees perform better when they are given the choice of when and where to work at home, according to the report from Becker and Thorel in the Journal of Applied Organisational Psychology.

It can penalise women with young children 

While there clear benefits for working from home there are far fewer for women with young children. The burden of looking after them falls proportionately more on them than it does on men.

This Brazilian dissertation from Daniel Arenas also flags up higher burn-out rates amongst mothers with young children.  

One to two days in the office is best

The answer to the organisation-wide problem is hybrid. A bit at home and a bit at work. Harvard University research has looked into the deployment of hybrid working and what model generally looks best.

Two days at home was the conclusion.

So what now?

What’s also interesting is that the drumbeat in Government for a return of staff to sit at desks is not replicated in other parts of the public sector. Naomi Cook, LGA head of workforce,  last summer blogged that hybrid working is here to stay.

Where the sector is

Back in January, I asked the question of where people were with the process of the return to the office. Of almost 300 public sector comms respondents, most – 43 per cent – were working from home and 39 per cent working hybrid. 

Working practices of public sector comms, January 2022

Just over 10 per cent were in limbo waiting for a new process, five per cent never left the office and just one per cent had moved back to the office.

It’ll be interesting to see how things change.

BOOK MARK: How a comms team pulled together a book to mark the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be turning point in history. There was the UK before it hit and after. Oxford University hospitals director of communications Matt Akid talks of how the pandemic has been captured in the staff’s own words.

Beyond Words is a unique book of images, many taken by frontline NHS staff at Oxford University Hospitals (OUH), which reflect their personal and professional experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our aim was to create a book to chronicle an extraordinary time in the lives of all staff working at OUH and to produce something of high quality which would show that in-house NHS communications and graphic design teams can match anything from the commercial PR world – at a fraction of the cost.

The total budget was less than £10,000, to cover the costs of professional printing of the book, which was kindly provided by a grant from Oxford Hospitals Charity whose remit is to support patients and staff at OUH.

The book was written and designed in-house by our Communications and Oxford Medical Illustration (OMI) teams – with photos provided by OMI, Oxford Hospitals Charity and our own staff.

We wanted to enable staff to submit their own photographs for inclusion in the book to document their own experience, and we also wanted to thank staff for their incredible service during the COVID-19 pandemic by enabling them to order a free hard copy of the book.

All of this fitted in with our Chief People Officer’s Growing Stronger Together – Rest, Reflect, Recover programme to support the health and wellbeing of all staff working at OUH as we emerge from the pandemic.

In April 2021 we launched an eBook called Stories from the COVID-19 Pandemic – #OneTeamOneOUHwhich told the story of OUH’s response to the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to help our staff to make sense of their experiences by telling their stories, to share how they felt, and to talk about what they did as individuals and in teams.

And so we invited all staff to submit their contributions in order to truly reflect the experiences of our people. More than 50 teams and individuals submitted their stories and many were included in the final eBook.

Based on this evidence that there was a genuine appetite from staff for communal storytelling in order to reflect on personal and shared experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we came up with the idea of a printed book of photographs.

Jackie Love, our Head of Design, came up with the title of the book, Beyond Words, to reflect the fact that these experiences can be difficult to put into words but powerful images can tell a story and evoke emotions.

Our strategy was to encourage staff engagement in the project and so on the NHS Birthday on 5 July 2021 we communicated a call to all staff to submit their photographs. We also collated images taken during the pandemic by our in-house teams while Jackie developed the creatives, the look and feel of the book, structured around our six OUH values of compassion, respect, delivery, excellence, learning and improvement.

We made the decision to publish the book in January 2022 as we approached the two-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 positive patients being admitted to our hospitals, in order to maximise media interest and as a milestone for our staff.

We also invited staff to order a free copy of the book to meet our key objective of the book being a thank you. We had a pre-ordering window in November 2021 and a further ordering window in January 2022 after the book was published. We also worked with our Voluntary Services team and with Oxford Hospitals Charity on the logistics of distributing hard copies of the book to staff working across four hospital sites and at multiple other community locations.

3,500 OUH staff ordered a copy of Beyond Words, both before and after its publication in January 2022, and we have also had overwhelmingly positive feedback from staff about the book and free copies being made available as a thank you gesture.

Helen Doling, a nurse on our Haematology Day Treatment Unit, said: “Truly amazing book. Very grateful for my copy, providing a lasting memory of dedication and hard work of so many in such a difficult time.”

Daljit Dhariwal, a surgeon in our oral and maxillofacial surgery team, said: “A really fantastic record of one great team coming together through the adversity of COVID to deliver the best care for our patients.”

Beyond Words has also been read online more than 4,000 times since launch by readers as far afield as the USA, Australia and India.

And it has attracted positive national media coverage by BBC Breakfast News, as well as local media pick-up.

We’re proud of the book and we’re thrilled it’s been shortlisted in the ‘Best Publication’ category of the CIPR Excellence Awards – fingers crossed for the awards ceremony in June .

Matt Akid is director of communications at Oxford Universities Hospitals NHS Trust.

QUICK QUESTION: The important questions needed by a comms and PR person

It’s been a busy few weeks and over a cup of coffee I was reflecting on what I’d learned.

It’s a useful exercise I sometimes do after a particularly rapid period.

For some reason, it was the questions that people asked during training that really stuck with me.

I was reflecting on how my answers are often around what questions they can ask of the people they work with. All of that points to the importance of building a relationship with people. For some communications is science. For me it’s a lab coat and a piece of cake. The lab coat represents the data and the cake is the soft skills you need.

It led me to what questions I most find myself asking or recommending.

Q: You want half a day from me, I need 15 minutes from you, is that alright?

The comms inbox can be a wondrous thing. It can move from command ‘we need a poster by tomorrow or this thing will fail and it will be your fault’ to ‘can you help me reach young people?’ In other words, some people think they can click their fingers and some don’t.

The question I often find myself reaching for when people prescribe what they want is this: ‘You want half a day from me, I need 15-minutes from you, is that alright?’

The need for 15 minutes is to go through a basic comms planning template. I’ve blogged about this before here. You can rattle through in 15-minutes or take far longer.

There’s a load of supplementary questions in the comms plan but it starts here.

Q: Who are you trying to talk to?

The more aopproachable way of asking: ‘who is your audience?’ It’s a question to pin down who they need to talk to. They know the people they serve better than anyone. Plug into that.

Q: When you say ‘our audience is everyone, can you jot down what that looks like on a piece of paper… and then identify the top three?

The audience is rarely everyone. When it is, you’ll probably need to break it down into demographics and channels to find each audience. This helps them understand this. If you’ve only got finite resource would it be young people on TikTok or the over 55s on Nextdoor? What would you go for?

Q: We both want this to succeed, we know that don’t we?

Sometimes at the start of comms planning, I’ll mention this just to name check the elephant in the room. They may be engineers / clinicians / a station officer. You are a comms person and your expertise is to help people communicate. You both want a successful outcome but it helps to spell it out.  

Q: What does success look like?

A broad question to help them pin down what they’d be happy with. That needs to come from them. Selling 100 tickets? Selling 100 ice creams? Recruiting 100 firefighters? What is success? That’s your starting point. So, if you recruiting firefightersd, how old do they need to be? The questions start flowing from the number.

Q: Who, what, when, where, why, how?

Kipling wrote that everything he learned came from six good men. Their names were Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. These are known as ‘open questions’. They encourage open answers. The question ‘Is your favourite colour blue?’ encourages a closed answer that doesn’t encourage conversation.

Q: Why, why, why, why, why and why?

Toddlers in supermarkets ask questions. ‘Why is tiger bread called tiger bread?’ They are curious. They find out information. Be like a toddler. Ask a why question politely six times and it’s amazing what you find out.  

Q: What is working and what is not?

Evaluation means you can see what works and what doesn’t. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. It’s that simple.

VIDEO VIEW: 5 ways the public sector can use TikTok

There’s no question that the wind is filling the sales of TikTok the short form video channel.

What has started as a Chinese platform with music is morphing into a genuine contender to break the Facebook monopoly.

The public sector, by and large, has been eyeing up TikTok warily. Innovators have been experimenting.

Trends and audio

One key way to get people to see your content is to ride on the coat-tails of poppular trends and popular audio.

In a nutshell, a trend can be a particular style of video. It can originate in one part of the world, burn fiercely and just weeks later be burnt out. Similarly, a music track can drive a popular style of video.

If you watch one video on a trend, say, you can lose yourself in exploring other takes on the trend.

With this crop of video, there’s some examples of public sector creators using trends. Why bother? Because if you do this you are likely to reach a a larger audience so when you’ve got that must-share content you are reaching more people.

Not all of the examples here are public sector but all have ideas that can work well in the sector.

Public sector TikTok ideas

Creator: @redbridgecouncil

Purpose: Voter registration amongst young people.

Trend or Audio: ‘Everybody’ by Back Street Boys.

Why this works: It’s self deprecating and shows a sense of humour. It links a music track with a call to action. You’re original. You’re the only one. You may or may not be sexual.

Creator: @thisisrangerkeith.

Purpose: By having no clear call to action the video reminds viewers that it’s good to take a break in the wild and listen for just a moment to bird song.

Trend or Audio: None.

Why this works: It deliberately shuns trends and trending audio that people can jump on to reach an audience. By doing so it reinforces why the countryside is a good place to go and recharge. This isn’t a service. It’s a bloke called Keith that you can build a basic web relationship with. You can even by merch.

This is by an individual rather than an organisation. I’m taking this that he could be a countryside ranger.

Creator: @southyorkshirefire

Purpose: Entertaining content.

Trend or Audio: #ringlightchallenge and the ‘Nobody wants to see you naked’ audio.

Why this works: This is a really good example of a public sector account embracing the platform. It creates entertaining content so it can build an audience and then deliver calls to action. This is a piece of that entertaining content.

The #ringlightchallenge began as a trend amongst super fit gym goers so they could show off their rippling shoulder muscles. It was then subverted by others. The overweight girl with the light disappearing into the fridge, for example. The audio ‘nobody want to see you naked’ is also a trend which the service have used here.

Creator: @livingliverpooltour

Purpose: Explainer video.

Trend or Audio: None.

Why this works: Living Liverpool Tour is a man who loves Liverpool and wants to explain and explore the city he clearly loves. The purpose is to educate and inform. This video is an answer to a question posed to him why playiong fields in the city are called locally ‘The Mystery’. By using period pictures, a voiceover and original video it tells the story of a mystery donor.

“Now,” each video concludes, “where shall we go next?”

It’s a lovely piece of place marketing.

Creator: @worcsacutenhs

Purpose: Celebrating a patient story.

Trend or audio: none.

Why this works: This is a video that works on its own independent of trends. A patient story its a celebration of a baby born 15 weeks early finally going home.

POST EMERGENCY part 2: How to shift out of emergency mode

The issue of ramping down after an emergency is the pressing issue facing public sector comms. How can work get back to an acceptable pace? Here are some crowd-sourced excellent ideas that may be a bit life saving too.

When rabbits are pulled out of hats every day the act stops being magic and it starts to be normal.

Over the last two years public sector comms teams have worked long hours to communicate in a pandemic. Their work has helped saved lives. They have pulled a field full of rabbits out of a factory of hats.

But let’s be honest. The cost of this sacrifice is being overlooked. You only glimpse the real cost in conversations. Heard about the entire team who burnt out and walked off the job in the space of a month? Or the one who went off with stress and never came back? Or the one who can’t sleep regular hours anymore?

More than half of public sector comms people say their mental health is worse now than before the pandemic. Physical health isn’t much better.

In March 2022, there is a sense that the worst has passed and business as usual has long since returned. With 100,000 daily cases and 192 dead on the day in March 2022 I’m writing this the idea that the storm has passed is open to debate.

But anyway, how do you return to normal?

In an anonymous blog, one senior comms person observes that the emergency pace of long hours has become expected. It’s now baked in.

But should it be?

Of course not.

The major comms challenge of 2022 is not how to ramp up delivery but ramp it down before even more people burn-out, go off with stress or quit the profession.

How to ramp down is the big strategic question.

I’ve asked members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace to come up with some ideas.

A comms strategy and a plan

A comms strategy and plan. Some clearly identified organisation priorities, comms objectives linked to them and an activity plan so we can plot resource against it. So that we know what we’re working towards most of the time and can schedule our days and weeks, and our leave – apart from, say, 10 to 20 per cent of the time when there’s a genuine emergency or reactive situation.

Bridget Aherne

Learn to say ‘no’

Build and maintain a strong comms team and wider network so you always have other people to share your experiences with, to vent to, to support and be supported, to laugh with in the dark and not so dark times, to be a touchstone so you know it’s not just happening to you.

It’s really tough and it’s not over yet, but at least you’re not alone.

Giuseppina Valenza

Ask why is it urgent

When people say ‘this is urgent’, ask why?

Is it a legitimate, couldn’t-be-foreseen priority which will achieve a real outcome for the organisation. Or is it ‘shit, we forgot to tell comms – quick fire them an email.

If it’s the earlier, fair enough. If it’s the latter, well, sometimes saying ‘no’ can be a good thing and demonstrates planned, professional comms is not a rabbit-out-of-a-hat demo.

Sharon Dunbar

Have a workplan and make it visible

Show senior managers the service’s workplan on a regular basis. It might not stop the request coming in but it will make it a little easier to push back.

Suzie Evans

A detailed plan for you

We are currently addressing some of these issues…

Slowing down the inbound requests by making customers think about what they need before they ask. A drop down menu of options available negates the need to send unsolicited ‘we need some comms’ emails. Also an auto response to acknowledge and manage expectations- business critical? Patient safety related? We’ll be with you within 24-48 hours. Time specific but no major impact? That’ll be within 3-5 days. Longer term request? We’ll put it in the queue and you’ll hear from us within 7-10 working days. Customers need to understand Comms aren’t sat there playing Wordle waiting for the next request to land.

Also try to work with programme and project managers/directors to educate them into understanding that they need to identify the comms outcomes they need to achieve before they can ask you for resource. Because if they don’t know, then you can’t work out if you have the capacity to offer support for it.

Develop some self serve options so that some of the ‘small c’ comms can be delivered by colleagues across the organisation. One of our execs recently took a selfie with staff, submitted it with a couple of lines and we did the rest. Not all content needs to be created by Comms…😁

Finally, be supportive of your team and help them decline unnecessary requests and meetings and enable them to ask ‘why’ rather than simply react with ‘yes’.

Louise Sharf

Research through social listening

Use social listening to show whether there there is actually public interest… people are often actually looking in a different direction

Susannah Griffiths

Never stop challenging

Never stop challenging and asking why. Urgency has become a habit with corporate colleagues, perhaps due to the amount of actual crisis comms needed to be turned around at pace over the last two years. Time is needed to check work aligns to priorities and has purpose, and there needs to be a clear recognition of the difference between crisis comms and poor planning.

Sacha Taylor

Relax and cut the audience some slack

Our audiences are also exhausted. After two years of having to pay attention to our channels to access vital information they needed to meet their basic needs, such as income and healthcare, they’re finally able to get back to some level of normality. We need to cut our audiences some slack and stop communicating like they’re hanging on our every word, they’re not.

Ruth Edwards

Selfcare: Deliberately cut back on work hours

Make yourself less available and work to a sensible drum beat, so you have the capacity for genuinely urgent matters. Work out what actually isn’t going to break any eggs if you slow the pace down.

Melinda Brown

Selfcare: Look after yourself first and then others

‘Put your mask on first’ is advice I often give out, but forget to tell myself If you are not ok then you aren’t in a position to help others and do your job effectively. So, hard as it is, look after yourself. How ever that looks to you.

Sara Hamilton

Selfcare: Book and take proper leave

Take your annual leave.

And really take it – no ‘Oh, I’ll just log on for a minute,’, no ‘Oh, I’m around if you need me Mr/Mrs CE.” No, ‘I’m not going anywhere therefore I’ll pick up my phone’.

Kate Pratt

Selfcare: Switch off

My other half was prised away for his birthday weekend recently, two days of no internet and Scottish sunshine. On return he remarked that a really difficult issue he’d been dealing with had been made worse by people emailing each other all weekend about it. A bit of perspective and energy helped him resolve it on the Monday. His advice to his senior, academic peers was, switch off more and make better decisions.

Lucy Hartley

Don’t say ‘I’m busy’

Being visible about what work you have on. Just saying ‘I’m busy’ doesn’t cut it with others who also think they’re busy.

Lead-in times really help, and a clear message that if this work is taken on, something else has to give. Usually does the trick.

Clare Parker

Thank you to Bridget Aherne, Sarah Forgione, Melinda Brown, Sam Kemp, Caroline Howarth, Georgina Button, Kate Pratt, Hannah Rowley, Kelly ShutlerRosalie Fairbairn, Suzie Evans, Louise Sharf, Sacha Taylor, Sara Hamilton, Clare Parker, Lucy Hartley, Susanna Griffiths and everyone who contributed.

To read part one of this mini series head here.

POST EMERGENCY part 1: We’re still stuck in crisis mode but the emergency has eased

The pandemic has been the biggest emergency the UK has seen in 70 years. More than 160,000 people died but just as many lives were saved through advances in medical science and strong public sector communications. But now the worst of the emergency has passed teams are still stuck in the emergency response loop of long hours, stress and burn-out. This time servicing business as normal. One senior comms officer is wondering if there’s a better way.

by Anonymous

The wheels in local government often turn slow. Over stretched, under resourced and driven by the whims of the government of the day even the simplest decisions can take an age to implement.

Unless you happen to work in comms. Tight deadlines, fast paced and quick turnarounds are what we do.  Tell a comms officer you need it tomorrow and you can consider it done.  Give us a 3pm deadline and we’ll say no problem. It doesn’t matter that we’ve got a million things to do because we’ll perform minor miracles and get it done.

Then COVID happened. Fast was no longer good enough. Deadlines went out of the window. Everything needed to be now, immediate, ready to go before anyone knew what they needed.

With government guidance changing every 10 minutes (sometimes literally) and the public in a panic we became a public information service. Webpages, social media, press releases, videos and more were created within hours and constantly updated.    

Saving lives 24/7

We weren’t saving lives, making PPE or keeping essential shops open but we played our part by keeping the public informed 24/7.  Working 12 hours a day became the norm – 16 and 18 hour days weren’t unusual.   

While government Ministers held daily press conferences and the media ran dramatic news stories, public sector comms officers made sure people got the information and support they needed to stay safe.

Lockdown after lockdown, tiers, local restrictions, roadmaps – whatever the government planned – we were there to make sense of the guidance and to pick up the pieces when things went wrong.

Then came the announcement so many hoped for, not for the first time but hopefully the last, life was finally going to get back to normal. Public sector comms officers can return to the slower pace of tight deadlines and quick turnarounds – or can they? 

Back in the real world it turns out we did such a good job of responding immediately during the pandemic there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same now.

The pandemic may officially be over (unless a new variant appears) but for public sector comms officers the pressure continues to build. After all it’s not like comms is difficult, everyone did comms during COVID, anyone can design a poster and social media is something to do in your spare time.

By stepping up and doing the right thing we’ve made a rod for our own backs. And now we need to find a way to live with a COVID defined future for comms.

The author is an experienced communications professional who works in local government.

MEDIA RELATIONS: How to make dealing with a reporter’s media query less stressful

The greatest fear of someone new to dealing with media queries is simply this… answering the phone to journalists.

The nightmare runs along the line of a phone rings and at the end will be an angry person demanding answers NOW.

That’s the fear. The reality is very different, of course.

In life as in anything, preparation leads doubt and doubt leads to worry.

Here’s a simple approach.

Not all reporters are scary

First things first. Not all reporters are scary. They’re just trying to do a job just as you are trying to do a job. They need your help to get the right information. You need them to tell people about the job your organisation is doing. It’s a two way street.

I was a reporter for 12-years and I worked in a Press-heavy comms team for eight years. I’ve asked thousands of questions of press officers and I’ve answered thousands, too.

Here’s your script

Here’s what you need to know when dealing with a media query.

If you ask the reporter:

  • What’s your name?
  • What’s your publication?
  • What are your contact details?
  • What’s your question?
  • When’s your deadline?

Top tip: read the question back to them and email it back as a confirmation that you are on the same page.

You won’t go far wrong.

A more experienced reporter may try and pump you for a steer before you’ve gone and checked out the information. A couple of occasions as a press officer I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to give unapproved information to help a reporter on a deadline. It’s not always ended well.

One time I told someone what I knew. Turns out it wasn’t all accurate. It came back on me. Yes, I was quoted. No, it wasn’t ideal. I did it once.

I realised at this moment that name, publication, question and deadline was what I’d stick to from here on in. Even if I had some background knowledge.

One time I was buttered-up by a reporter who asked me how long I worked there. “Five years,” was the answer. Five years? Then I clearly knew more than I was letting on.

I stuck to the script.

This formula may seem simple.

But the best ideas always are simple.


I help deliver ESSENTIAL MEDIA RELATIONS workshops to help people with the proactiove and the reactive of dealing with journalists. More here.

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