BLAZE MESSAGE: 14 lessons fire comms can teach everyone

sapA thousand flowers are blooming in this new era of digital communications.

Amazing things are happening, new rulebooks are being written and old ones tossed away.

But if you are too busy growing roses you won’t spot the great things happening.

Or in other words, look outside your own corner of the world and you’ll find great things.

And so it is with fire and rescue services not just across the UK but across the world. I’ve done some work in the sector and got to know some people and I’ve always left with knew ideas on how to do things.

Often, people in the sector don’t realise just how great their work is. Less in number than local and central government comms people from the sector communicate to save lives and to prevent them. I’d love them to be bolder. They don’t just get you to test your smoke alarm. They save lives.

One myth exploded, though. In the UK the comms is not geared up primarily for documenting heroic rescue. Prevention is better than cure. Statistics say there were 258 fatalities in the 12-months to March 2015 and 3,225 were taken to hospital. There were almost 155,000 fires. This is the second lowest in UK history.

Fire comms people need to move from the pedestrian pace of advice to business to communicating death and sometimes the death of their own colleagues. That takes guts. Not everyone can do this.

There is a community of fire communicators

The FirePRO organisation is the umbrella group for the sector and a bright bunch they are too. But Twitter also connects them not just across the UK but far further. The fact I asked a question about best practice on a Friday night and got a pile of responses is perfect evidence. Neil Spencer from West Midlands fire describes this as a ‘can do, will do, let’s give it a try attitude.’

Here are 14 things you can learn from fire comms

#1 Using planning to get your shizzle ready

Nobody wants an emergency. But they tend to happen and when they do public sector comms people have to react. I’ve lost count of the number of blank faces in local government when I ask what they’d do if a plane crashed, a bomb went off or a tower block started to fall down. Not so fire and rescue.

As award-winning Bridget Aherne wrote in a blog post for comms2point0:

“The way to sum this up quickly – and sorry to anyone who knows me because you’ll have heard me utter this phrase, annoyingly, hundreds of times before – you have to be proactive about your reactive communications.”

Lesson: Good comms planning always helps.

#2 Using Periscope for realtime situation reports

Lesson: If an incident is breaking live video from the scene to give situation reports has real value and can plug into online networks as well as media organisations.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last 18-months co-delivering workshops on making effective video for comms. It teaches people to plan, edit, shoot and post video. However, in an emergency the value is not the well-shot video. The value is have video footage from that particular spot at that particular time. Why? So you can communicate with people in realtime. In the UK, there is a duty on comms people in local government, fire, police and other agencies to warn and inform.
As this US example shows, a firefighter giving a commentary or even a brief situation report – has value. Don’t forget anyone with a smartphone and the Periscope app has the ability to fill that information vacuum. Questions can also be posed by people following the stream and answered by fire crew.

In an era where video is highly sought by media organisations online to be in the frontline is priceless.

#3 Using a hashtag

Lesson: A simple sharable hashtag can help spread a campaign.

One of the greatest uses of a hashtag by anyone in the public sector is the excellent #testittuesday tag. Started by Norfolk Fire and rescue it is that brilliant thing of basic advice shared as a hashtag. It encourages people every Tuesday to test their smoke alarm. As basic good advice it can be hard to measure the effectiveness or the fires that didn’t happen because of a test.

#4 Using Instagram as a channel

Lesson: Instagram can be used for soft power. Images of the work people to do interspersed with more serious messages.

Services across the world are starting to make headway with Instagram. Really, there’s no surprise. It’s not like there’s nothing to photograph. If there isn’t a fire there’s the equipment or the staff in the equipment. Kent Fire and Rescue Service excell in this area. A stream that is engaging, fun and personable people could do worse than looking at this.

Keep smiling after after a good night out. Being drunk and cooking don’t mix. #smilesafe #fire #firefighter

A photo posted by Fire and Rescue (@kentfirerescue) on Jul 12, 2016 at 5:41am PDT

 

#5 Using mapping

Lesson: Maps can communicate with the media and residents and reduce avoidable contact.

Back when I was a journalist we made a round of calls to fire stations on our patch at 7.30am, 1pm and 10pm. There were six in our patch and a further 14 in surrounding areas which we sort of covered. That’s 60 calls a call.

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service have a mapping page embedded in their website which gives news of incidents with some basic details. They also post images and videos which can be used with a credit. This must cut the amount of time on routine calls. Hats off to Sarah Roberts for this.

mapping

#6 Using the social web as a firefighter and human being

Lesson: People respond to people so let your people.

One thing I’ve long argued for is for public sector people to use social media as themselves. There’s far greater cut-through. People connect better to real people than a logo. So, it’s always inspiring to see real people doing just that. Thanks to @rubonist on Twitter for flagging this.

#7 Using the social web as a senior officer

Lesson: Using the social web allows senior people to be visible and to listen better. It also allows partners and the organisation to better understand their thinking and priorities. 

There has been a trend in recent years of senior public sector people using Twitter to engage, listen, share ideas and give some visibility to yourself.

#8 Using embedded social media video

Lesson: Embedding video to drop into people’s timelines can be a good way to communicate.

Sometimes things don’t always go to plan as this incident which saw five people die in Nechells, Birmingham. Video content posted to Twitter shared the press conference to the community. This could have been uploaded to Facebook too.

#9 Using humour and newsjacking

Lesson: Being creative about your communications and the channels you use can pay off.

As London Fire Brigade showed in their epic news jacking of the racy film 50 Shades of Grey imagination on comms works. A campaign followed in the wake of the film to talk about the number of times people had called for help with locked handcuffs, penis rings and other rather embarrassment-creating problems. The #50shadesofred campaign is a benchmark in public sector comms. Data driven it used a range of channels.

#10 Using data to allow people to build their own picture

 

Lesson: Data can be turned into something searchable to give people street-level insight.

Everyone’s experience is different. This is why it is refreshing to see West Midlands Fire Service use their incident data to allow you to search by postcode to see what incidents happened in your neighbourhood.

merry

#11 Using Flickr as an image library

Lesson: A Flickr library can make thousands of images available for re-use.

Social photo storage site Flickr may not have the sexiness as Snapchat but as a place to be your public image library it remains peerless. There are several organisations in the UK using it well. However, the US use is the benchmark. Los Angeles Fire Department post images to the stream. They have almost 20,000 images. With an open licence anyone can use them. As the argument goes, public money paid for then so why shouldn’t with the permission of the photographer people and organisations re-use them?

LA fire

 

#12 Using Facebook for large communities

Lesson: Facebook pages are a start but not the last word on how people can be reached on the platform.

Pages can be a useful way to have some Facebook real estate although they deal with broadcasting to small corners of the web that can be shared on. Manchester Fire and Rescue and Scottish Fire and Rescue are examples.

But to really engage, you need to use Facebook as the page to comment and add content on other pages. Or join Facebook groups as an individual.

#13 Using Facebook for niche communities

Lesson: Facebook pages for smaller communities can be effective ways of reaching them. The Polish community, maybe. Or in Biker Down‘s case motorbike riders.

Facebook has the numbers so it is worth using. Seeing as it has the numbers yo can also carve out niches where people will congregate. There were more than 5,000 serious incidents with motorbikes in 2014. I’ve long believed that the single corporate page is almost always not the answer for large organisations. There are communities within them, so plug into them. If you are a biker the Biker Down page would work.

kent biker down

#14 Using Facebook quizzes

Lesson: Quizes reach people. Often people who are hard to engage with.

Facebook quizzes can engage with audiences that may well be resistant to leaflets and other comms. London Fire Brigade uses them well and creates them to accompany campaigns. They’ve done them to see if people fancy being firefighters, for example. With this one, they are celebrating their 150th anniversary with helmets.

london quiz 2

#15 Using Snapchat

nimesLesson: Yes, you can use Snapchat.

One of the good things about the web is coming across organisations doing good things in other countries. Take Sapeurs Pompiers Volontaires du Gard. They are a French fire brigade in Nimes in the south of the country who have an imaginative use of images on Twitter and Snapchat too.

 

Thanks for the input for this post from people across the Fire and Rescue comms community. In particular: Catherine Levin, Neil Spencer, Bridget Aherne, Sarah Roberts, Robert Coles, @Rubonist, Thanh Ngugen, Steven Morgan, Phillip Gillingham, Jim Williams, Pave Dhande, Leigh Holmes, Jack Grasby, Pete Richardson, Dave Walton and Dawn Whittaker.

OLYMPIC LEGACY: Twitter wasn’t sure about #london2012… but it is now

How do we look back at London 2012? If Twitter is anything to go by with fondness and nostalgia.

That glorious summer where Mo Farah won double gold, volunteers with foam fingers greeted the nation and Horseguards Parade got turned into a beach volleyball venue.

For some, 2012 was the last of Britain. A summer where we came together and welcomed the world and the world were impressed. For others, it was a summer where it was harder to get to work and G4S had to be bailed out for bungling the security.

Me? Some mixed feelings. One of the #localgov community left us early which cast a shadow. But of the sport and the feeling of unity looking back with fondness. I liked that Britain. I’d like that one back, please.

What did Twitter think in the run-up to London 2012?

In the run-up to London 2012 we ran some analysis of what people were saying on Twitter to benchmark. Of 1,393 tweets:

38 per cent were positive.

32 per cent were negative.

26 per cent were neutral.

Bearing in mind the months of negative stories those figures were hardly surprising. In the run-up to the games the security, venue completion and what would be in the Opening Ceremony all took a beating.

 

But exactly four years people look back with fondness

Looking back the same analysis of 1,505 tweets but four years on in 2016 looking back to London 2012 show a positive picture:

87 per cent were positive.

3 per cent were negative.

10 per cent were neutral.
A BBC Sport tweet that looked back to London 2012 shared more than 200 times led the way. A similar one from BBC Newsbeat was shared almost 40 times.

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Gold and Pandemonium

At the time, the sea change in perception felt like it happened with the Opening Ceremony. If you’ve forgotten it this Buzzfeed round-up does the job perfectly. Me? I started it a cynic and within 15 minutes I was in tears. This wasn’t synchronised gymnastics or Kings and Queens. It felt like my story. This was the story I learned from my Grandpa about how life was hard and all the good things we have we had to struggle for. Would the Empire Windrush appear at an event today? I’d like to think so but I’m not sure.

But on the night, I knew I was in safe hands when I heard a snatch of the Sex Pistols. Anything that has that in wasn’t going to send anyone to sleep.

 

That the results on the track, field, pool, velodrome and everywhere else resulted in medals was great but the Opening Ceremony gave my strongest memories.

There’ll be a whole series of other metrics on London 2012 to judge if it was a success.

 

SIMPLE TIPS: How to run your own unconference

19647936231_193292f98c_kMy favourite day of the year from a professional point of view is one where I earn no money and work like a Trojan with others to make happen.

Commscamp has been staged for the past four years in Birmingham and brings 180 largely public sector comms people together.

It’s an unconference which means that the agenda is decided on the day.

But aside from the conversation, ideas and connections from the day the best thing was hearing some people also want to stage an unconference too. There may be one. There may be two. Who knows? Fantastic. I really hope they do it.

The basics about unconferences I learned from Dave Briggs, Steph Gray and Lloyd Davies. All wonderful people. We staged unconferences because we’d been to a few and fancied having a go ourselves. John Peel used to say punk made it easy. All you had to do was push over a telephone box and sell your brother’s motorbike and you had enough money for a demo. It’s not that different with an unconference.

So here are a few tips.

  1. No-one owns it. Lloyd is quite right in saying that unconferences are not owned by anyone. So have a go.
  2. Find some likeminded people.
  3. Just book some space.
  4. Put up an eventbrite to distribute the tickets.
  5. Scrape together a smidge of sponsorship and UKGovcamp can help with that.
  6. Shout about it.
  7. On the day relax and have fun.
  8. That’s it.
  9. That’s really it.

See? It’s that simple.

I’d also be tempted to do it slightly seperate with what you are doing at work. So, it’s not the day job. But it’s a seperate thing helps the day job. That way you get all the fun stuff but none of the middle manager barriers.

One absolute true-ism from Lloyd is that everyone who goes tends to to love them. But then would like to make a minor change. ‘It was great, but if only we could pre-plan the sessions, that would be marvellous.’ Or whatever the suggestion is.

Don’t.

Keep it simple.

Just have some space. A Facebook group works to get people thinking about sessions beforehand. Decide what you are going to talk about on the day. Then give the thing to the people in the room and they will always, always, always deliver.

Picture credit: Sasha Taylor / Flickr

 

UNCHANGE: There’s never been a more useful time for commscamp

14421878978_abaee4b2e5_k.jpg

It’s happening again, I can feel it.

I wasn’t sure if the magic would return somehow but it feels as though it has already.

The magic is Commscamp. It’s a sort of magic that happens once a year when 150 people come together determined to make brighter ideas.

What makes the magic? People who give a damn and want to do things better. People who want to help see that too. And people who like cake. Definitely, people who like cake.

The truth is it also feels like there’s never been a more important time for an event like commscamp. It feels as though it is really needed this year.  Against the backdrop of Brexit, cuts and rapid change there is a need for people to come together compare notes and work things out.

And yet

The phrase that runs through what I’ve done over the past seven or eight years is ‘militant optimism.’ At its heart is a resolve to do things better despite everything

At times, optimism takes a battering. A change of boss. Cuts. More cuts. Brexit. Change. New platforms. Keeping pace. The firm request for a back of bus ad you have to push back on. The easier thing would be to throw in the towel.

Why I think the magic is back

Planning an event like this is easier the more you do it. Writing emails to printers at 11pm when you haven’t seen your family all day is not ‘fun.’

But one moment this week made me think the magic was back. Late night I was looking down the session idea pitches in the Commscamp Facebook group.

  • Income generation. How do we?
  • Live streaming video. How should we?
  • If everyone is a comms expert how do I make my professional advice heard?
  • How can you stay politically restricted and still have a voice?
  • How can I put a cat amongst the pigeons?
  • Coping with guilt and reality post-cuts.
  • Virtual reality video: a beginners guide.
  • A cathartic session just to let rip a bit.

I want to go to them all. Reading them I was reminded why I love it. And I looked at the list of people who want to volunteer to make that happen.

If you can’t come you can still play a part

There’s a limited amount of room and we know that not everyone who wants to come can come. We’ll look to livestream some sessions, post to Twitter on the #commscamp16 hashtag and blog. If you are out of the room we’ll try and find a way you can catch-up.

But one thing makes it worthwhile

If there is one issue that makes commscamp this year really worth it for me it’s Brexit and how we cope with it. I’ve got this strong sense that there’s a strong sense of uncertainty that we would do well to tackle.

It would be great if we could tackle that together.

It feels like the magic is back.

Let’s make it so, shall we?

Commscamp is staged in Birmingham on Thursday July 14. Tickets are sold out.

Picture credit: Ann Kempster / Flickr

SOMME ECHO: It’s simple… as #wearehere shows, just be human

I’m writing this on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

Just a week before the UK voted to leave the European Union. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay. A majority in England and Wales wanted to go.

Division, spite and rancour is in the air.

Yet, for all sides, the First World casts a long across Britain. It helped make the country we live in. Never such innocence, as Siegfried Sassoon wrote, as when we marched to war in 1914. Never such shattered innocence as the first day of the Battle of the Somme. If there was a day when modern Britain was born it was this.

I’m writing this to capture the #wearehere project. At key railway stations across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland volunteers dressed in First World War battledress appeared. Talk to them and they quietly give you a card with the name of a soldier who was killed on this day a hundred years ago.

It’s a gentle reminder that those who were lost were people too. Just like you.  It’s beautiful. I’ve blogged about my own family’s First World War story and the pain it caused.

As a child, a teacher taught us how much the First World War had changed Britain not with numbers. He pulled three empty chairs to the front of the classroom.

“Those chairs,” he said, “are empty. But they would have had three children just like you sat on them. But they weren’t born because their grandfathers were killed in the First World War.”

I seem to spend a lot of time telling people in training that the key to good communication is to be human. It’s why #wearehere works. It’s a real thing with real people. And the real people who saw it and were moved shared images and thoughts online.

I don’t know who is behind the project, but thank you for a chance to say ‘thank you’ to the 704,803 who died like cattle to show us that modern war was something to avoid.

But thank you too for a reminder that we are all human.

 

 

EURO CHANGE: Embracing chaos calmly and six things post-#euroref for comms people

24539503395_e776784dc2_bYou may be happy with the EU Referendum result or you may be devastated. Either way this will change things for you as a comms or PR person.

You may find your job under threat or you may find your job disappeared. You may find a new post created as a result of it.

The truth is that it’s too early to tell how this is going to play out.

In the immediate aftermath, talking with Mrs Slee this morning I was reminded by the line from Robert Phillips’ book ‘Trust Me: PR is Dead.’ It is simply this:

‘Embrace chaos.’

The line troubled me slightly and when we staged an event with him in Birmingham a while back I asked him what he meant.

He just meant that everything is uncertain. Everything is changing. The internet has undermined many certainties and created new ones. Accept it and try and work with it. It’s advice we’ve repeated to teams several times. To embrace the chaos of change in the comms landscape is to realise that new skills are needed and to know that nothing is fixed.

It’s a bold line.

You are free to disregard it.

But Adam Buxton, the comedian, writer and actor, said that good ideas keep coming back and re-presenting themselves. Bad ones don’t. That line keeps returning for me.

But change could take shape in different ways.

Politically restricted 

Many comms people in the public sector are in ‘politically restricted’ posts. In layman’s terms that means that they are able to be members of a political party but they can’ty express public positions or campaign. This is how it should be. After eight years of this in local government it made life much easier.

But sitting on your hands and shouting at the telly can be difficult. I know this. I’m pitching a session at commscamp on July 14 to let public sector talk about this in a safe space. If you are going do come along.

Ripping up your plans

There’s every chance your best laid plans could be in tatters. The organisation’s business objectives could have taken an overnight lurch somewhere new. As difficult as this sounds, this is a chance to put your foot in the door to help shape whatever new comes. Review what you do.

Be straight, a cut is a cut

There’s a conversation that I had with someone who knows someone who processes EU grants for community groups. The liklihood is they will be at best under threat. But just as austerity has led to services stopping I’d counsel to steer clear of weasel-words like ‘efficiencies.’ A cut is a cut. If it’s stopping, say so.But do it factually and without finger pointing.

Know what you can and can’t say 

With a new landscape, there’s a chance people in the public sector will be under renewed pressure to say more than they can. The easy answer is don’t. But be prapared. Check your constitution to see what you are allowed to say. Check the document that governs what you do. Have those relevant passages cut, pasted, saved and circulated.

Don’t stop learning, you

I’ve banged on about the pace of change for a long time and the need to learn new things to keep your skills honed. The impact of the EU Referendum hasn’t slowed this down. If anything it’s made the need quicken.

Be excellent to each other

I’ve been reminded in my timeline that many people are feeling worried. Sometimes this has been fear of the unknown. Sometimes, almost unbelievably, this has been abuse in the streets. Thios may sound like vaguely hippy wisdom but the need to be excellent to each other has never been greater.

Look after yourself.

Picture credit: Christoph G / Flickr

 

OWN GOAL: What Aston Villa’s demise teaches comms and PR people

19753404670_9bf9cf0977_bSometimes it’s tempting to say that better PR can make up for anything… but that’s just a big fat lie.

Take Aston Villa Football Club. They’re a team that has just been relegated from the top flight of English football with four games of the season left.

This was the football equivalent of the Charge of the Light Brigade only with none of the honour, heroism and poetry. This was not a rush towards the Russian guns with lightly armed horses to maintain a reputation. This was a dash towards a brick wall in an ice cream van. Driven by a bloke in a circus clown’s outfit. Blunders to the left of them, fowl-ups to the right. Into the valley of PR nightmares they rode.

It’s tempting to feel truly sorry for the actual PR team at Aston Villa who have had to all too often pick-up the pieces. How much of a thankless task must that be?

However, in the interests in learning from failure, here are some lessons.

You cannot polish a turd

Yes, PR can do much. But if the product is broken all the PR and comms in the world can’t make up for it. If the owner isn’t interested and a string of bad appointments have been made there really is very little you can do.

I’m reminded of Robert Phillips’ ‘Trust Me PR is Dead.’ His advice to a burger chain facing flak for excrement traces in their burgers was not to talk about the community grants they gave and corporate social responsibility. It was to stop putting crap in the burgers.

Speak truth to power

Of course, what you say may not always be welcome. But honest, diplomatic feedback of what your customers are saying should be given house room. If the customers are angry about something it’s as well to know early. You won’t be welcomed in the short term, but speaking truth to power is a role of the comms person.

What happens on a night out…stays on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube

Aston Villa players carved out a special place for themselves through the season by being spotted ‘tired and emotional’ in a range of places. Jack Grealish started the trend pre-season in Tenerife. He then added Manchester to the list after losing to Everton.

Know how to spell

Eyebrows were raised when Frenchman Remi Garde was plucked from the French league to become the man who was going to save Aston Villa from a spiral of despair. In fine tradition the club took to the internet to orchestrate a welcome campaign.#welcomeremy the image on the club website read. Perfect. But his name was spelt wrong. It was Remi.

Know when to be humble

Defender Joleon Lescott has got very rich playing football for a number of clubs including Manchester City. A player who has won a handful of caps for England he has cashed in on the Premier League era. But after losing and getting abuse on Twitter he responded by tweeting a picture of his new car.  Then he hurriedly deleted the car and blamed the fact that his pocket had accidentally tweeted the image.

Beware the corporate re-branding

Of course, a new look can breathe life into a new brand. But when the chips are down it can lead to criticism. You have taken your eye off the ball looking at fancy marketing stuff when you should be looking at the basics. Like winning games. Unfair? Perhaps. But perception is everything. So when Villa rebranded for £80,000 losing the traditional motto ‘Prepared’ from the badge they were open to criticism. Especially as they looked so unprepared losing every week.

Follow back… don’t unfollow

On social media, it costs nothing to follow someone back. On a basic level it says that you have been recognised even if your content isn’t slavishly being read. So as a time of the season when Villa needed all the friends they could mass unfollowing 47,000 fans on Twitter wasn’t the best thing to do. The reaction was not positive. Don’t do it.

There is no such thing as off-the-record

With Aston Villa relegated former player and radio phone-in host Stan Collymore laid into some of the more under-achieving players. Singling out Joleon Lescott the car tweeting defender responded by Twitter direct message privately offering to meet and sort things out as men. The screen grab was then tweeted by Collymore.

Say sorry… and mean it.

As the final whistle blew at Old Trafford and Villa were relegated the chief executive Steve Hollis posted an open letter to supporters. It expressed ‘regret’ for how the season panned out and was an exercise in acknowledging responsibility. As an attempt, it was good. No doubt he was hurting. But it would have been far more effective if the word ‘sorry’ had been used.

In the Middle Ages, stocks were used for public contrition. The miscreant was forced to sit there while rotten tomatoes and excrement was flung at them. There’s actually a social role for this. There’s also a place where this takes place today. It’s called the radio phone in. A grovelling apology by the owner on BBC Radio WM may go some way to healing the rift.

Creative commons credit: joshjdss / Flickr 

BE LEGAL: A guide to surviving tricky elected members in three minutes and three hours

SONY DSCIt can be truly great working with politicians. It can also be tricky. You can be pressured to help one side or the other. But if you do you’ll be in the cross-hairs of rival politicians. Here’s a simple guide to avoid pitfalls. Not just during Purdah but all year round.

Here’s a scenario for you. You pick up the phone to an important politician who is up for election.

They’re asking about that picture you took of them at the launch of the new play equipment.

Can you just send it across?

You’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the image will go into her campaign leaflet. So you ask what the picture will be used for.

Of course, if it is for a leaflet you don’t send it. It was taken using public resources so shouldn’t be used for political campaigning. But how do you say ‘no’ constructively?

Take it from me, unless you have chapter and verse in front of you that conversation is going to be a little bit tricky. At best, you are going to look a bit evasive and unhelpful. At worst, you are going to look uninformed and when the politician complains you may have more pressure put on you to do the wrong thing.

Of course, in an ideal world, every elected member knows what they can and can’t expect you do and wouldn’t dream of leaning on you to bend the rules. But, of course, we aren’t in an ideal world.

In my experience, every authority has at least one elected member who will try and push the rules. Especially with junior members of staff. And every authority has at least one elected member who will spot what you’ve done and attempt to nail you to the floor. Comms teams can often be accused of being ‘political mouthpieces.’ Mainly by people who don’t understand the role they do. My advice is don’t let them. But to do that successfully you’ll need to know very, very clearly what you can and can’t do.

It’s not just councils, either. This covers partners, police, national parks and very often fire services too.

Why three minutes and three hours?

It’ll take you three minutes to read this post. It’ll then take you three hours to do the groundwork you’ll need to do. Put it off until the merde hits the fan and it could be too late. Do you and your team a favour and put the work in ahead of time. It’ll be one of the best things you ever do.

What do you need to do? You need to read through several key documents. You need to cut and paste the passages that govern what you can and can’t do for elected members. Don’t paraphrase. It’s far more effective to read back the page, paragraph and chapter and verse. Make sure all your team know it, have a copy and have access to it.

Read your media protocols

Every communications unit needs a media and publicity protocols document. This sets out what you’ll do for elected members. It also sets out when and where the team get involved. Normally, this will be agreed between you, the chief executive and Leader. It can change and be updated two or three times a year. It’s an important document but not the best one in your armoury.

The Council DCLG Code

The Department for Communities and Local Government has issued eight pages of guidance on what councils should and shouldn’t do. In England, the guidance from 2011 can be found right here. You may want to cite one of the key principles of the guidance that it is even-handed, for example. For Scotland and Wales the guidance dates back amazingly to 1988. You can find it here.

If you work in a local government comms team you should know your guidance backwards. It’ll also give you some good ground rules on what you can and can’t do.

Your authority’s constitution

It’s a funny thing but your constitution has a power over politicians that is practically unmatched. Your protocols they can debate. The DCLG code they can decide to defy. The constitution? That’s a whole different thing. It’s the day-to-day rules they are governed by. You’ll find things in there about publicity, sure. You’ll also find things about the staff – elected member relationship and probably some safeguards against undue pressure too.

Professional codes of conduct

Back when I was looking through my council’s constitution there was explicit reference to professional codes. For comms people this can provide two helpful routes. Firstly, the National Union of Journalists. Their code applies to comms people just as much as reporters as they have comms members. The line: ‘Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair,’ is a particular favourite.

Secondly, you can also draw on the Chartered Institute of Public Relations code of conduct too.

Purdah guidance

The LGA have written some excellent Purdah guidance for 2016 which you can see here. We’ve also blogged some guidance on Purdah and social media and you can read that here. If you are central government, look out for Cabinet Office guidance that will be published ahead of elections.

What next?

In short, there’s some legwork involved here. Yes, I know you are busy. But this could save your skin in the long run.

Once you’ve pulled things together, publish it on your web pages and make it public. Let the leaders of each group know the contents on the internal guidance too so they can’t pretend to be in the dark.

Picture credit:  Clemens v Vogelsang / Flickr / https://flic.kr/p/iWUJBn

HOT DIGITAL: What lesson does the decline of print journalism have for comms and PR?

18968690604_ffda899120_bYou know the good old days of newspapers have gone, don’t you?

You know that the press release is at best dying too?

If you don’t, here are three more nails for the coffin.

Firstly, the digital first Manchester Evening News have been telling PR people, apparently, they won’t look at what you send unless there is an image or a video attached.

Secondly, when Birmingham New Street re-opened central government comms people by-passed the Birmingham Mail and the BBC and went straight to the Birmingham Updates hyperlocal site with a video for their 200,000 Facebook page.

Thirdly, the Independent newspaper is to scrap its print edition and concentrate on the web. ‘There are not enough people,’ Independent editor Amol Rajan wrote ‘who are prepared to pay for printed news, especially during the week.’

A downward spiral for print

But it’s not just one national title that’s fading from print. More than 300 have closed completely in the UK in the last 10 years.

Brian Cathcart, a journalist professor and Hacked Off co-founder on the day the Independent announcement was made wrote in The Guardian mapped the decline:

“Trace the downward curves of print sales over the past couple of decades and then extend those lines into the future: you will find they all hit zero at some point in the next 25 years or so – and of course they will have to cease publication long before that zero moment comes.

“Indeed for most people under about 25 it is already extinct – a couple of years ago I stopped talking to my students about newspapers because even budding journalists don’t see the point of buying a wad of newsprint every morning.

“The grand tradition of newspapers, sometimes noble sometimes shameful, is coming to an end. Connections that go all the way back to Gutenberg are fraying and we will soon be left with little more than old people’s memories.”

But let’s not be sad

I love newspapers. I worked on them for 12 years and started my career on a Staffordshire weekly carrying pages of type on a hot metal newspaper that used 1880s technology. I’ve had printers ink under my finger nails. It’s sad to see an industry in decline. But watching this trend for communications and PR people is a red herring.

People aren’t consuming the media through newspapers in print or web in the numbers they were.

The future of news debate, I once heard it said, is the most boring debate imaginable. The only people having it are hacks and ex-journalists. Everyone else was already hearing Osama bin Laden was dead on Facebook.

Stats confirm it. Ofcom say the average UK adult spends 15 minutes a day reading newspapers in their hand or online. That’s just over half the amount of time they spend scrolling through their Facebook streams and on their other social media sites. Newspapers are also the least popular way of getting news.

Yet there is an unhealthy fixation with the newspaper industry in some parts of public sector communications. The tyranny of the local newspaper frontpage is a thing.

Print may go but journalism evolves. This is the death of a redundant medium and not the message, Brian Cathcart in The Guardian says. He’s right.

The lesson remains the same

But communications people shouldn’t smugly ignore the lesson here. You may not have to live or die by newspaper sales. Your .gov website may be well placed for SEO. But nobody is queueing up outside their town hall, head office or headquarters for their press release. They’re too busy reading the BBC website, watching a 20-second Facebook video or finding out the football score on Twitter.

Newspapers have woken with a jolt to realise that shorter, sharable, engaging content is what people want. Communications people should pay heed.

The lesson remains the same. Change and get new skills or be irrelevant.

Credit to Albert Freeman for spotting the Independent editor’s comments.

Picture credit: Peter Burka / Flickr / https://flic.kr/p/uUcuRJ

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