FINAL EDITION: War stories on the demise of the newsroom

So, farewell the newsroom, that place of blood, sweat, tears, joy, despair and stories.

Reach plc has announced it wants to keep reporters working from home retaining a few sites where people can catch-up with people.

What may seem a routine accommodation matter for a national newspaper chain also strikes at something fundamental that public sector comms teams also must grapple.

How can you learn when you’ve no-one to watch and learn?

But that’s for another day.

I wanted to just celebrate the best office I ever worked in, the Sandwell Express & Star district office in Black Lake.

It was built on a West Bromwich rubbish tip underneath towering overhead power cables downwind from the Robinson Brothers’ chemical works that put the identifying smell into the odourless North Sea gas.

Window screen tint was put onto the newsroom windows to reduce the glare on our screens so everyday was mid-February.

Everything about the bricks and mortar was ordinary but it was the people in it and the stories they made that made it special.

Through the reception on the ground floor was sales and production and a corridor led to the aircraft hanger at the back where two newspaper production towers loomed. From them, newspapers were produced in a river of drying ink and warm newsprint that would be sent down to be bundled ready for the waiting dispatching fleet of red Express & Star vans.

Sometimes, I used to go down to the press hall to catch an early copy if there was a particular story I’d been working on and wanted to see how it was used. When the towers were running the building would hum and shake and you could only talk by shouting. Journalists can be as cynical as chip paper but let me tell you I was as deeply impressed by that towering newspaper production line on my last day just as much as I was on my first.

The newsroom

But it was the newsroom that really mattered.

Walking through the door, on the right were a large bank of tables with chunky apple terminals, chairs and on each desk the detritus of Firkin sandwich bags, old newspapers, committee papers and letters.

To the left was the darkroom, a table for photographers and over in the far corner by the fire exit a desk for the Birmingham edition reporters. That was the fire exit Dave dragged Paul the chief photographer mid-row.

“That’s enough,” Dave said. “I’ve had enough. I’m going to throw you off the top of the fire escape.”

And he meant it.

“Don’t throw me off,” Paul begged. “Anyway, you’ll get the sack.”

“Yes,” Dave fired back, “but I’ll get the biggest leaving present in history.”

When I started on the Express & Star in the late 90s the internet was still finding its feet. The print edition was what counted. There were 14 reporters and three photographers in the office. First edition had a deadline of around 9.30am and our edition – the Sandwell edition – was the last of 10 editions at around 2pm.

The whole reason the print works was built in West Bromwich was so that we could be as late as possible producing the evening paper so there was a golden couple of hours when news breaking could be ours alone. In that way the competitive advantage was retained.

But it was the people in the newsroom that made the newsroom.

I became a better reporter because I watched and learned and when I was stuck would ask. We were led by Ken, a sage bearded man in his 50s who had been there since 1968. There was no crisis that Ken could not think through a solution for.

Each strategic crisis was measured in what Ken was eating. A minor crisis was met with Ken going to the canteen where he would plot his way through company politics.

But a trip to McDonald’s signified a much deeper crisis to plot through that only a Big Mac meal could provide the answers to.

His deputy was Dave who had joined in 1976. Dave hated gardening while Ken was gardening correspondent. Dave knew the borough backwards but was all at sea four miles down the road in Dudley.

Dave cracked the same repertoire of jokes that had long since stopped being original. The laughter came from eye-rolling disbelief that Dave was still cracking them.

These jokes were for an occasion.

A fire engine with lights and sirens?

“They’ll never sell any ice creams going at that speed.”

A murder?

“Smaller turkey in their house this Christmas.”

The mention of Dudley?

“I had a very sheltered life. I though the third commandment was ‘Thou Shalt Not Commute to Dudley.'”

Dave’s age was a constant source of mystery only solved when he died years later.

Not always good

When things were good on the Express & Star they were the best and when they were bad they were indescribably bad. A Victorian family-owned company they had retained working practices back then that should have stayed Victorian. The photographers who walked off the job because they had had enough, for example. The lack of brown faces in the print edition was another. This was no Garden of Eden but in Sandwell we worked hard to make it so.

When the internal phone rang it was the news desk and your heart skipped a beat in case you fucked up or they demanded more. It was your job to make more happen. Sometimes in 10 minutes.

Once, we’d printed the wrong picture of the road traffic accident victim so we had two lots of family on the war path.

There are so many stories I could tell you, but to really get them you’d have to know the office. That’s how good offices work.

I left Sandwell office, the Express & Star and journalism in 2005 to go to Walsall Council’s press office. After 12-years as a journalist I didn’t want to go to London or go to the Express & Star head office. There was a baby in the house and I needed regular hours and more money.

A few months back in lockdown, we had a leaving do on Zoom for a Sandwell colleague who had retired through ill health. Getting the band back together would be strange, I thought.

Black Lake was long closed and the printing was moved to Shropshire. The internet had done for it.

On the Zoom re-union, we laughed, remembered Dave’s jokes, the time Ken was stalked by a gent with a stained duvet, when Marion went out for the Evening Mail and was so shocked to see a story she’d missed she left her battered Datson with the engine running outside the paper shop. She returned hours later the car unstolen. Not even the criminals of the Black Country were tempted by it.

We remembered the annual bun fight over who was arranging the Christmas party, how Anne never went to the canteen, Ken would cover-up for people with white lies and how we’d repay his loyalty in spades.

I’m raising a cup of tea to the newsroom. That place of joy, laughter, graft, panic, ego, fun, terror and swearing where people learned how to do their jobs by seeing how the best did it sat next to them.

That’s a problem for comms teams, too.

Looking back, I was lucky.

Thank you Ken, Dave, Marion, Jo, Nina, Anne, James, Joe, Anuji, Wynn, Kath, Louise, Paul F, Paul P, Tony, Sunny, Chris, Marie, Phil, Tim, Viv, Katie, Irena, Eileen, Bob and others I’ve missed out.

To quote Paul the miserable photographer: “Things is mate, I made the mistake of joining this place when it was a proper newspaper.”

BRICKWALL: How do we learn when there’s no-one to watch and learn from?

In all the rush to the brave new world of sacking the office for WFH with touchdown spaces one thing has been missed.

It took a junior member of a comms team on a Zoom call to point this out to me.

“I don’t have much confidence,” they said “because I started two weeks before lockdown and I’ve never really sat opposite from anyone who has dealt with a call from a journalist.”

It got me thinking.

I worked as a journalist in an office where I learned watching and listening to other journalists.

I worked as a press officer where I learned watching and listening to other press officers.

I wouldn’t have been the person I was without watching and learning.

So, how do we pass on like passive smoking the ability to do jobs where judgement and confidence is key?

GUEST POST: People are bored of ‘hands, face, space’ but our local human stories of compliance work

After 12-months we’ve all grown bored of the generic messages reminding us of the rules. So how can we remind people to stick to the rules? By showing people… sticking to the rules says Julie Walden.

Back in January I read a blog about how we should be sharing stories of compliance to encourage compliance.

The author had heard Radio 4’s Today show sharing stories of compliance. As his email dropped into my inbox I realise it linked directly to recent Government behavioural science workshops I’d attended that said the same thing…

Positive messages encourage positive behaviours.

Government data shows that 80 to 90 per cent of people do follow the rules to a high degree. However, when stories circulate – particularly on social media – about those who don’t follow the rules, compliance begins to fall. Behavioural science at a very basic level.

Our Government Covid-19 ‘hands, face and space’ messages, and those from our Local Resilience Forum, consistently received very little interaction or response on our channels. Even the trolls and Covid deniers had given up commenting.

Each post we put out was met with a tumbleweed and no interactions at all. After ten months, I’d exhausted the different ways to say wash your hands, cover your face and keep your distance. I was bored of writing it and our residents were bored of reading it.

It was time to rethink our communications approach.

Compliance comms shows people sticking top the rules

The blog sparked an idea and I created a series of ‘compliance comms’ (not the snappiest title, I know) messages around the activities we all do week in, week out – catching up online, staying home and staying local: following the rules.

Members of staff and the local community submitted their photos to show us of how they were following the rules in their own ways. Each social media post had to have a ‘scene setting’ introduction explaining that most of us were staying safe and following the rules to reduce rates in our area and keep the community safe. Then I added the compliance story and each post was finished with the reminders about the hands, face and space guidance.

We shared individual, real stories about how people were sticking to the guidelines, including:

Messaging on lots of different platforms to keep in touch with grandparents.

Coping with elderly, vulnerable relatives living far away (staying away to keep them safe).

Delivering shopping for grandparents without going inside their house.

A grandad facetiming his 9 week old granddaughter

But we also shared stories around:

Working from home, missing people but with cute dogs for company (dogs always a hit on social media.)

Visiting local beauty spots but choosing less well-known areas to keep away from crowds.

Children playing Guess Who online with vulnerable family members.

A primary school child’s view on home schooling and missing friends.

Walking the same routes locally and Facetiming family members who couldn’t visit.

Real stories, real people doing things we all do every week to follow the rules.

The impressions and reach of the compliance posts compared with our previous posts was dramatically different. We went from a tumbleweed to each and every post having a really positive reaction, with lots of likes, shares and comments with examples of how others were following the rules. The campaign was an easy to organise, no-cost and a creative way of boosting messages that were previously falling flat.

Twitter impressions were for the most part between 1-2,000 per post with similar figures achieved for the reach for these messages over on Facebook. The one video we used performed strongly on both platforms which supports what we all know about how the algorithms work on these platforms.

Not surprisingly the posts featuring dogs and children worked particularly well, especially 9 week old Penelope going down particularly well on Facebook.

Not everything was perfect. The messages were tricky to make work on Twitter. Next time I’d use Twitter threads rather than tweets using photos containing the text – from an accessibility point of view this is a better approach. I used it here but I wasn’t consistent sharing messages in this way.

We’re now looking at how we can re-use some of this content for further messages over the next few tricky weeks, while lockdown is still in place but people in our communities are going out and about much more.  

Julie Walden is marketing officer at Selby Council.

GUEST POST: Encouraging vaccine take-up through research, data and behaviour change

Encouraging people to take the COVID-19 vaccine is the challenge of our time. Hounslow Council shaped their approach by talking to residents and using behaviour change techniques. Sterling Rippy and Eddie Coates-Madden explain.

In Hounslow, comms started planning for a vaccine comms campaign with behaviour change specialists from the public health team towards the end of 2020.

Even at the earliest stages it was clear misinformation was going to be an issue.

The plan set out comms in four key areas:

  • Logistics – ensuring residents know where to attend, how to get there and how to get away, to avoid bottlenecks
  • Encouraging take-up.
  • Myth-busting for key groups as part of the encouragement work, and 
  • Contingency crisis responses to any actual problems with the vaccine.

We were clear about complementing NHS comms work, not replicating it by doing personal communications to patients, or providing medical information.

We set out to use local government’s key strengths: comms that knows the area and knows local communities.

We laid out some principles: partner branding, socialisation, behaviour change ‘rewards’ and detailed segmentation identifying, for example, messengers, community languages, tailored assets, messages, channels and rewards. 

In one of the most diverse council areas in the country, we were very aware we also needed a clear view of the vaccine concerns of particular communities, e.g. South Asian origin communities, the financially excluded, Afro-Carribean communities, women aged 30-40, and younger people.

The key realisation has been that the challenge of hesitancy is about getting good information – as opposed to bad information – into those communities.

In the absence of other sources, we created detailed, extensive FAQs on our website

The challenge is getting that right information to the right people. The approach developed with behaviour change colleagues seeks to use the messenger principle to address misinformation. Working through surveys and engagement sessions, we realised misinformation was circulating, specifically among South East Asian and Black Afro-Caribbean communities.

We ran focus groups with members of these communities to identify barriers and enablers. Across all conversations residents wanted to speak to their GP about their questions in order to make an informed decision.

One of the prevalent rumours is that vaccine trials were rushed and skipped important safety trials. Residents also told us they didn’t want to be forced, or attacked for their hesitancy. Utilising feedback gained from the insight sessions and, recognising people are generally more receptive to information coming from figures they trust, we designed and tested four types of messages and messengers.

Hounslow Council’s four types of messages and messengers

  • An NHS infographic stating the vaccine went through all of the same trials as other vaccines and medications.
  • A council branded message redirecting viewers to a FAQ page with information on the vaccine.
  • A quote from a local GP of either South East Asian or Black Afro-Caribbean background stating that the vaccine went through all the same trials as other vaccines framed as a ‘MYTH vs FACT.’
  • A quote from a local GP of either South East Asian or Black Afro-Caribbean background, stating that the vaccine went through all the same trials as other vaccines but framed as ‘you asked, your GP answered’.

Testing all four on Facebook, we targeted people within 10 miles of Hounslow, and recorded click-through as the outcome metric – an indicator of engagement – as tracking actual vaccination rates was not available.

Message version four was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the clear winner. What was more surprising is that people preferred the ‘you asked, we answered’ questions over ‘myth vs fact’.

We’re using this testing to inform the basis of our campaigns to ensure informed decision making in hesitant communities.

Other quick wins have included, using local GPs to deliver FAQ sessions, and leveraging social norms by providing residents with stickers to display prominently showing they’ve had the vaccine.

There is much yet to do, and we recognise we have yet to reach the more hesitant priority groups. Hounslow has had good uptake to date, with over 90 per cent of our top four priority groups, and over 54,000 people in the Borough having had the vaccine in total. There has been excellent uptake in care homes amongst both staff and residents, with some of the highest rates in the capital. 

We won’t be getting into arguments with anti-vaxxers, because our focus is on that segmented, targeted, tested approach. The prize is to convert hesitancy and it’s our belief that that is best done through local knowledge, local partnerships and driven by Behaviour Change expertise.

Sterling Rippy is strategic lead behavioural insights at Hounslow Council and Eddie Coates-Madden is interim head of communications and events.


ONLINE COMMUNITY: Key points from NYU research on Facebook groups

Quietly, Facebook groups have undermined the pillars of what made a local newspaper work.

Small ads? Why pay £7 for 20 words in the back of an inkie when you can whack it up onto Facebook Marketplace and sell it within an hour?

Same for local news, sport clubs and society news. Why wait until Friday when you can keep track of the game in real time and debate it as you’re doing it?

Of course, none of this is new but it took the COVID-19 pandemic to really bring it home to some people.

New York University with Facebook have produced ‘The Power of Virtual Communities’ based on interviews and research into Facebook groups in 15 countries. It’s authors in the introduction were sure they made clear they retained editorial control despite the document being part Facebook-funded.

The research is not so strong on numbers and repeats YouGov/Facebook research from late last year over overall numbers. There are 1.8 billion Facebook group users, it says.

But there are a few gems. Online groups have become in the UK the most important commuinities to members with 38.9 per cent preferring them to offline groups (35.2 per cent). A mix of the two accounted for 25.8 per cent.

However, the research is particularly strong at the opinions and views on why and how groups work and how long lasting they could be.

What Facebook groups show

People find a strong sense of community in Facebook groups despite them not being physical. But they very often lead to meet-ups that bridge the on and offline divide.

New leaders have emerged through groups. They are often marginalised and not represented through traditional offline structures. They do it through love rather than as a career decision.

Facebooks show what academics described as ‘networked individualism.’ Individuals join groups rather than kinship groups or families.

Often the admins of Facebook groups are accidental leaders.

What drives Facebook group’s success

A strong admin of the group that allows differences of opinion and acts with ethics makes groups work.

They can form and take-off at speed.

In COVID-19 times, Facebook groups show people coming together over a shared wish to support each other.

What can be Facebook group’s failures

Interestingly, the research also called into question everything about groups. They are not perfect in every way.

Because of the speed of their formulation, longevity is still up for question. Some critics question the value of online connections against offline face-to-face relationships.

Those are perfectly valid criticisms.

For me, what they are are ways that people are consuming the internet in 2021 and the way they connect. May they be in ten years time? I honestly don’t know. But what I am confident of is this. The lessons learned in connecting with Facebook groups will be useful as the web develops.

Facebook groups have evolved as more private spaces as users have grown tired of public social media and the noise and lack of privacy that this brings.

Online communities like Facebook groups are places communicators need to know about and invest time in.

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr

A YEAR? How public sector comms people look back at 12-months of COVID-19

‘This is my truth,’ NHS founder Aneurin Bevan’s widow recalled him saying to people, ‘tell me yours.

Truth is, there is no universal truth of the first 12-months of the pandemic. Our experience differs. For some, a welcome break working from home. For others, grief or a fight for health.

It got me thinking. How have public sector comms people fared? I asked members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group for their thoughts.

On March 23 2020, the UK Prime Minister announced the widest set of restrictions on personal freedom in living memory. It’s hard to recreate the shock of it and since then things changed.

Can you sum-up the last 12-months in four words?

“You are on mute.” – Mark Chapman.

“Relentless change and challenges.” – Suzie Evans

“What a fucking rollercoaster,” – Sarah Tidy.

“I am not thriving,” – Kelly Harrison.

“Hardest of my life.” – Lucy Salvage.

“Frustration, exhaustion, revelation, gratitude.” Lucy Hartley

“Legacy hand?” – Jon Phillips

“Emotional, frustrating, proud, enlightening.” – Laura Broster

“Bleak, tiring, uphill, love.” – Angela Maher.

“I’m ok with change.” – Joy Hale.

“Keep swimming through currents.” – Kirstin Catriona Thomson

“Relentless. Exhausting. Camaraderie and Gratitude (and quizzes!)” – Emma Russell.

What was a personal positive moment of the last 12-months?

“Having a warm, loving household.” – Suzie Evans

“No commute, absolutely brilliant.” – Stephen Wilkinson.

“I absolutely love homeworking.” – Clare Parker.

“Incredible commitment, resilience and talent of countywide partners working together to do great things in comms and elsewhere.” – Thom Burn.

“Volunteering at the Vacc Centre seeing happy, dancing Octogenarians.” – Marie Lewis.

“Learning to sew and play piano.” – Carolyne Mitchell

“Getting much closer with my partner, being home together more could have been rocky, and I know others haven’t been so lucky, but I’m so thankful we had each other through the highs and lows.” – Jennifer Ann Bracegirdle.

“Getting to spend time at home with my teenage daughter and the birth of my niece.” – Ghazala Begum.

“Seeing my dad get a vaccine.” – David Grindlay.

“Joining my family for the first time in months for a BBQ on the beach. Feeling the warmth on our faces and remembering what it felt like to be in their company and how much we had missed. And now I remember that, and that it will happen again.” – Emma Russell.

“Getting a promotion and having that first hug off my niece when we were allowed.” – Ceri Doyle.

“How much I’ve valued and love my partner and my two girls.” – Nicola Fulton.

“Hugging my Dad for the first time when we were finally allowed to form bubbles. And getting our puppy.” – Jennifer Kightley

What was a personal bleak moment of the last 12-months?

“Grandmother’s funeral.” – Andrew Clayton.

“Not seeing my dad for a year and him missing kids birthdays and Xmas.” – Leanne Hughes.

“My grandad passing away at what felt like the most stressful point in my memory, end of March 2020, however it did make me stop for a weekend and step back to process everything around me.” – Jennifer Ann Bracegirdle.

“Watching my child break down because everything is ‘weird and feels bad,'” – Kelly Harrison

“Not seeing a single person I knew face to face for 6 weeks something others won’t even be able to imagine but reality for those of us wfh who live alone.” – Ceri Doyle

“Losing one of this group to COVID. It really affected my patience – for a few days there I lost any ability to tolerate deniers/rule breakers and the ‘but they were old/already sick’ brigade, grrrrr…..” – Beck McAuliffe

“Worry about the long term impact on my daughters mental health, wellbeing and education.” – Ghazala Begum.

“My cousin hung himself in April 2020.” – Anonymous.

“Missing the birth of my second son when there was a flight ban at the start of the pandemic and not seeing my mum for a year now.” – Mark Templeton.

“Losing my voice through stress for four months.” – Joanne Cooke.

“Personal tragedy aside, having to concede defeat and take time off from work for my mental health.” – Lucy Salvage

“Realising that although day-by-day, hour-by-hour I feel absolutely fine, just below the surface the isolation, the pressure, the long hours, the dark nights, the missing family and friends, the worry, the constant covid- anxiety, the funerals we couldn’t attend, the weddings cancelled, the hospital appointments done alone, the elderly relatives giving up because their life has stopped… well it really does take its toll, that and the daily annoyance that still my job is referred to as ‘making pretty things and jazzing stuff up’.” – Emma Russell.

“My husband’s friend died of Covid leaving a widow and young child.” – Angela Maher.

“My Mum’s tears at not seeing her grandchildren for months.” – Marie Lewis.

Homeworking? Back to the office? Or a mix?

“Discovered working from home suits me, but I need to go to the office too ~ 70:30?” – Lucy Hartley.

“Both – and the trust to be able to chose which works best for me, my job and my team at that given time. But I really do miss seeing my wonderful colleagues.” – Emma Russell.

“Homeworking, with some friends house working and the odd office touch-down.” – Carolyne Mitchell.

“Keep me home working. Love it.” – Clare Parker.

“Definitely a mix, I miss homeworking days when I needed time out from meets to focus and I miss office times with colleagues to be creative and group think through the troublesome, sticky issues properly.” – Laura Broster.

“Mix but more at home to hang out with bandit-dawg.” – Leanne Hughes.

“Working from a very quiet office is better for me than being at home.” Nicola Fulton

“Homeworking is finally acceptable.” – Brioney Hirst.

Thank you to contributors Andrew Clayton, Mark Chapman, Suzie Evans, Thom Burn, Sarah Tidy, Kelly Harrison, Ghazala Begum, Lucy Salvage, Jon Phillips, Stephen Wilkinson, Emma Russell, Marie Lewis, Carolyne Mitchell, David Grindlay, Laura Broster, Angela Maher, Leanne Hughes, Jennifer Ann Bracegirdle, Beck McAuliffe, Clare Parker, Joanne Cooke, Ceri Doyle, Nicola Fulton, Brioney Hirst, Jenny Kightley, Kirstin Catriona Thomson, Amanda Rose, Charlotte Parker, Mark Templeton and Joy Hale.

This is their truth, tell me yours.

30 days of human comms #75: The human Facebook page that tells the NHS story

You may have seen the excellent Humans of New York Facebook page and its mix of story telling and pictures.

The man behind it takes pictures of people with their permission but he then sits with them and asks a series of questions.

All of the captions are in the words of the subject. There is no journalese. It’s just you and the subject.

It’s a technique I’ve seen used in a few places but nothing so effective as in the Humans of COVID-19 Facebook page which uses the technique to allow NHS staff to tell their story.

Here are three examples.

Pick one in one sitting then maybe comeback to the others. When you read them you’ll see why.

I’ll give you a trigger warning, too. It’s a tough read.

Here Leigh talks about sitting with a patient in an ambulance as she dies so she is not alone.

In this post Alfred talks about the stress of being an ICU nurse who has been forced to take time off for his mental health.

Stephen talks about being a physiotherapist redeployed to end of life care.

I don’t know what to say about the content other than it’s important we read it.

The page is run by unnamed people in the NHS in London. The subjects only have a first name. Their stories, I suspect, are universal but their relative anonymity gives a licence they may not otherwise have.

There is no personal data given and there’s no clue as to where these stories happened.

This may be too strong for a corporate Facebook page, I don’t know. But there is something disarming and powerful in reading something in someone’s voice and seeing their picture.

There may be other stories that you can tell.

If you allow people to tell them in their own voice and their own picture you will cut through to people in a way that you may struggle to through a poster or a tweet.

GUEST POST: Abi and the viral video about the viral test

Making content that works is hard but sometimes you don’t have to go far to look for it, writes Cumbria County Council communications business partner Kate Stark.

I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all spent hours on a piece of work or commissioned a videographer to do something and then it doesn’t take off as much as you’d hoped and then the return on investment is all a bit meh.

Whilst there is of course merit from using professional pieces on many occasions, this recent example of quite literally no cost home-made content has been a huge success for Cumbria County Council and beyond, so why was this?

I guess it was one of those moments where the thing that was playing on my mind as a parent was actually the same as what was on the minds of many of our residents. And that’s what made 12 year old Abi’s video of her demonstrating a lateral flow test such a hit. One of those perfect storm moments if you like, where we were able to take a real issue and address it at exactly the right time for our audiences.

It’s not very often these come up but when they do it’s a nice feeling of actually being in touch with our communities and the reason we’re in the jobs we’re in.

I’m lucky that my daughter was a (fairly) willing participant to do this, even though she was really quite apprehensive herself about the back to school testing regime so this made executing this quite simple, but we didn’t anticipate the response being quite as huge as it has been. Just goes to show that kids will win the internet every time! Not only that, this video was entirely relatable to thousands of people in the same boat as us. That’s why I was very happy to share the video for other public sector organisations to use too. We’re all short of time and I’m a fan of not having to reinvent the wheel and reproduce something if there is an option to simply re-use and re-cycle.

Success: what the numbers said

To show the success of this two minute video clip in numbers, Cumbria County Council has 25,840 page likes on Facebook and to date (Monday) the video has reached 55,000 people, had 436 shares and almost 10,000 engagements. It has also had around 34,000 views on YouTube (when we usually average around 50!) The success of the YouTube hits is partly due to it being shared in back to school e-bulletins for schools, but it had already amassed over 25k views by that point. The video was also picked up by BBC North East and Cumbria online and ITV Border who edited it along with interview pieces with Abi which reached tens of thousands of people too. Not sure I could say it went viral but probably as viral as we might get for some time.

You can see the video here:

All in all, a good thing to do. Made Abi feel ace about going back to school and far less nervous about sticking a swab up her nose and tickling her tonsils with it and judging by the comments and reactions it’s helped lots of other kids too.

ONLINE NOISE: How to deal with comment, criticism and abuse on social media

Back in the early days of social media evangelists like Clay Shirky would say how transformational it would all be.

The emphasis was on the positive and it was a compelling picture. Of course, then came people like Donald Trump came along who turned rage into a money and power machine.

To quote Shirky, we are not good at thinking fast but we are good at feeling fast.

A proud boast, I created one of the first 100 government Twitter accounts anywhere in the world in 2008. When I first posted it the first replies were how cool it was that the council was on Twitter.

For three years I was the council online and was so wrapped up in making it a success I once insisted we paused serving the family Christmas dinner so I could tell people we were out gritting. I can still remember their shiny faces of disbelief.

Press fast forward, and the landscape is different. There is a lot of anger. We are frustrated, stressed, angry and frightened about the pandemic but we can’t control it. What we can control is telling the council how fucking angry we are about their fucking potholes.

When I was drawing up the Essential Comms Skills Booster programme (advertisement: they’re here and very good) I was clear in my mind that one of the five sessions needed to be about dealing with the incoming messages. For me, they divide into comment, criticism and abuse. There’s a big difference between all three.


Comment is when people do exactly that, they comment. ‘Good job,’ ‘the trees in the Arboretum are great,’ ‘does anyone know when the recycling centre is open?’ or ‘can I recycle pizza boxes?’

That’s fine.

Well-run accounts reply because they know that the algorithm in places like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter rewards them for doing so. They also know its polite and good customer service.


Here’s a thing if you’re in the public sector, criticism is fine. The world doesn’t smell of fresh paint and this, basically, is what you signed up for.

Not every decision is the right one. Not every right decision is well communicated.

It’s the job of the public sector social media admin to reflect back the feedback from people to the decision makers.

‘So, the new traffic lights on the roundabout don’t work,’ is fine. Flag it up with someone.

How about this?

‘The new traffic lights on the roundabout don’t work because the people in charge of the council make bad policy decisions.’

That’s fine too. It’s someone objecting to a policy decision.

I’ve sometime heard of pressure to remove comment critical of the policy or the party that made it.

I’m deeply uneasy about that.

In answer to that, I’m going to point you to the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Government Publicity issued by UK Government. This is the Pole Star when it comes to navigating tricky decisions. It covers England. There is a very similar publicity code one for Wales and also for Scotland.

What does that say?

Publicity by local authorities should:-
• be lawful
• be cost effective
• be objective
• be even-handed
• be appropriate
• have regard to equality and diversity
• be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity

I’m going to say that the guidelines say its not objective, even-handed or appropriate to delete comments critical of a policy decision or even the party that made them and keep the ones that praise them.

In addition, the code adds:

19. Where local authority publicity addresses matters of political controversy it should seek to present the different positions in relation to the issue in question in a fair manner.

Now, in matters of law its always useful to get the formal views of a legal expert in your organisation if you need to. But for me, the position is pretty clear.

There’s a whole process about dealing with snark and sarcasm that I won’t go into here.


Woah, Neddy!

The line gets drawn when its abuse.

So, when someone posts: “The new traffic lights on the roundabout don’t work because the council’s highways department are all fucking idiots,” that’s not cool.

Imagine what happens when you ring up or go into your bank and start swearing. If you think the fast-track VIP lane will open up you are very much mistaken. Quite right, too.

I have spoken to far too many public sector people ground down by the abuse they suffer without protection.

Social media house rules

So, how can you make a decision on what action to take?

It all points once again to having an effective set of social media house rules to help the account admins know when and how to respond. It also helps elected members, officers and the public know, too.

My new favourite set are Glasgow City Council’s set which you can find here.

They’re as good as any I’ve seen in the past decade.

Comment? Reply.

Criticism? Listen, moniotor and reply if you can.

Abuse? Don’t tolerate it.

You can find out more about the ESSENTIAL COMMS SKILLS BOOSTER programme here.

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr

COVID COMMS #39: The man who walks his dogs who is nailing Facebook Live

In years to come, our children will look back and be amazed that we weren’t talking about the pandemic morning, noon and night.

Harold Nicolson’s diary of the Second World War is powerful because the backbench MP would note the day and think through what could come next.

Samuel Pepys is more like it. There’s a few plague references but one day he’s down and the next its all about beating the Dutch off Lowestoft or trying to shag women behind his wife’s back.

Which leads me to a Facebook page Max Out in the Lakes about a bloke who walks his dog that has been my saviour in lockdown.

I don’t really want to watch the news, what I want is to see dogs walking and a bloke called Kerry walk on deserted paths around Keswick in the Lake District.

My late Dad was from Keswick and I still miss him. The running commentary Kerry gives of which hills you can see was the commentary Dad would have given.

Here’s an example with a walk on the side of a picturesque mountain on the side of Derwentwater called Cat Bells.

Why does this work?

It’s around 20-minuites long, just short of the optimum 21-minute length.

It does that Facebook Live thing of providing value by being in that particular spot at that particular time. Keswick in the pandemic is off-limits to people who want to go so it becomes more valuable seeing it live.

Dogs always work because they’re dogs and if you grow tired of the scenery one of the three dogs drifts into view.

Jonah Berger in his book ‘Contagion’ wrote of the six reasons why people share. Firstly, because you’ll look good, he wrote. Because its everyday, because its emotional, because its helpful, because its public and therefore sharable but also because its a piece of story telling.

Kerry’s story is both emotional and a piece of story telling. A man who suffered from depression coaxed out of his house by a dog a few doors away called Max who he then took for a walk and then became owner of.

He ignores the comments as they come in but the low level story telling works brilliantly in his daily live streams. Max has hurt his foot, Paddy has had an operation, the rain is about to fall or they’re exploring a path to see how the trees are. There’s a reason to keep watching.

Yet, Kerry has monetised what he does. He sells Max Out in the Lake District books, souvenirs and coffee from an online store but he ‘sells’ directly to his audience rarely. What he does falls into the 80/20 split with 20 being the call-to-action.

He sells escapism. If we are interested in how to get people to do stuff in the pandemic we need to understand that we want to be distracted from the pandemic. Those times we turn our heads to a selling message, be very careful what you say. Be boring and repetitive and those messages won’t land.

As Max the dog shows, we don’t want rolling news we just want a break from it all.

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