11 June 2015

Why they're both right.... And why they're both wrong... Maybe.

Confused of Yorkshire writes...

I'm not really sure this adds very much. I guess I'm just thinking out loud.

A wee debate has broken out between (and I choose that word very carefully) some people I know, about Open Data and how incomprehensible OD practitioners can be. 

Over in the 'Comms corner' is @DanSlee, who says Open Data people are naughty for (although I'm not entirely clear) what seems to be not making easier to understand their technical expertise in his post here: 

By way of a response @blangry (less angry than his Twitter name makes him look) makes the equally compelling case that we've all had long enough in and around local and national government to have ruddy well learned it by now, in his post here: 

And while I share Alex's caveat (in that I'm not entirely sure I agree with my own post, and want to try to add to the debate because it is worth having), reading both made me think about something irrepressibly clever (although it turns out it wasn't) I'd read about Open Data and the practitioners and the inaccessibility of it all some time ago. 

Then I remembered. It was me. My post after UKGovCamp in 2012:

Unusually, I'm not entirely sure Dan is right. I've sat through those conversations and they can be almost wilfully exclusive. I have asked team members to support Open Data, partnering clever, charismatic, genuine people, and they have come back simply not able to 'get it'. But... The language of our clients is one of the reasons we comms people exist. We translate the complex, the technical, the statutory, the governmental and we get it to the right audience through the right channel in the right (comprehensible) way at the right time. We should and DO have a responsibility to learn to speak at least a little geek. In the same way we learned to speak a little lawyer, or planner or child protection officer or - dare I say it - Chief Executive or politician. 

We all know those people who speak fluent Chief Executive. And how well they get on. 

So I think maybe Alex is right - it is available to us all to batter our way through the walls of techno-babble that surrounds OD. It is. But Alex doesn't quite convince me either, because I stand by what I said in the 2012 post. Open Data cannot be an end in itself. It needs to introduce somebody much more important to the debate than the geeks or the commsies. And at the minute it feels like a debate only between geeks and commsies; glaring at each other down the pub like they really fancy each other but aren't sure they're all that compatible. 

I wrote then, and stand by it, that, "We perhaps need to think that we could have been asking for/seeking/aiming for the same behaviours a hundred years ago. Greater access to information; openness about our decision-making and performance; reuse of information; better inclusion of communities in democracy; more responsive services; better relationships with customers;  creating opportunities for growth for individuals and communities; working in partnership, and adding value are not really about 'e-anything'. They'd be as valid a set of concerns if we were still using scrolls... As @curiousc says, it's about social change."

And I think I'd argue three years on, that in terms of integrity, I'm not all that sure that it is all that convincing to bang on about 'Open' in a way that is knowingly Closed. 

It has to be about the customer. For both Dan and Alex; Comms and geeks. But at the minute it looks like an internal debate. I think (and I think Alex and I both agree with Dan here) that we need to be able to see what we want Open Data FOR; what difference it will make. We need avoid buiilding systems that suit *us* instead of the customer. I don't need to know how to build a telly to know what it is for and to want one, or to be able to explain it to others and have them want one. I would not expect the telly builders to insist I knew how to build a receivery tube thing before I could tell people how great it is to be able to watch the Coronation in the front room. 

So maybe a bit of both. But I am reminded of what Esko Reinikainen said at the GovCamp three years ago, "User focus is paramount. User focus is paramount. User focus is paramount. User focus is paramount."

19 November 2014

It only FEELS like a lifetime... :)

Oh, this is going to sound so ungrateful. So ungrateful. But it really isn't. 

I don't know who nominated me for the @Comms2Point0 Lifetime Achievement unaward (though I have my suspicions) but I genuinely thank whomever it was. It's massively flattering that anyone might consider me worth nominating.

And it's such a massive honour, especially to be alongside Fran and David. But I don't deserve it. Honestly. I have been in Comms, albeit with two astonishingly bloody marvellous teams for less than four years now. I came in from customer services, with a background in the voluntary sector, and I love Comms to death. Utterly love it. Love it. And I hope I occasionally make a contribution, with my team, my council and with people who work in the same sort of stuff. I hope I sometimes have a daft enough opinion that I provoke. But it's four years, and I don't honestly feel like I have achieved enough to justify an award nomination with the word 'achievement' in the title.

I'd be ecstatic to win the award for Blog Post of the Year. I loved the reaction to the nominated post. 

But I'm actually proper ember arsed to be nominated against actual brilliant Comms people like Fran Collingham and David Holdstock. I know who I nominated for the same category, and I know I'm not fit to be on the list when they ain't. 

So I am grateful. Really grateful. Don't think I won't put it on my CV because I damned well will. I'm just unconvinced :)

So here's an UNcampaign to match the unawards.

Don't vote for me. When the rationales for nominations are published, have a look and choose which of the other two deserves your support and vote for them.

But please do please vote for my blog post please (if you like it).

19 August 2014

Radio silence

I just spent four days at the 2014 Green Man festival, deliberately unconnected to the rest of the world. Here are ten of the things I learnt while I had no twitter...

1) Neutral Milk Hotel not only made the single greatest album in world history, but they are also the greatest band in the world. You will all disagree with that and you're all wrong.

2) I can drink a pleasing amount of rum daiquiri and wake up without a headache. Although I recognise that this finding - based as it is on only one serious experiment - needs further research to be properly confirmed.

3) Anna Calvi is a god; a total rock star god.

4) Not knowing the football scores until Sunday morning when you find them out by reading somebody else's paper (upside-down while they don't seem to be looking) is actually very pleasant.

5) People seem to have stopped going to live music events to see bands; they seem to have gone only so they can say they were there at all, and because they think the rest of us paid to hear them talking. Loudly. During the quietest parts of Daughter's set, FFS. Oh, and shouting "Freebird" at a band because some have long hair is not even funny the first time...

6) I Break Horses, Poliça, Other Lives, Angel Olsen, Eaves are all artists I will buy stuff from soon. You probably should too. And I need more Unknown Mortal Orchestra.

7) My daughter is right, and fairies don't have arms and legs. At least not Ffolky Ffelt fairies. 

8) First Aid Kit are going to own the world. Brilliant, clever, attractive, soulless, corporate pop tunes that we will all have to own by law by Christmas 2016. The new Mumfords. 

9) It isn't always going to hurl it down with rain, even when I am utterly convinced it will. Although that doesn't mean leaving my wellies behind is a sensible option. They may have to be worn on the train just to sit in the tent, but they come along with good reason. 

10) I can do a Stroop test in under twelve seconds when sober and I could have done it faster if I'd realised it was so frigging competitive. 

I'll be back next year, Green Man. And I'd like early consideration given to booking The Decemberists. 


19 July 2014

Vivid and in your prime...

I missed the apparently now annual @commscamp dust up over the Press Release this year. I may have inadvertently started it (and run away) last year, and I think I was supposed to kick off a brawl about it at an LGComms fringe event last year too, but sort of declined. Sort of. 

But there it was, in all its #commscamp14 glory. The 'new guard / old guard' row. Like Labour in the 80s; a bit of insular, self-serving policy debate as the rest of the world looks away, faintly embarrassed, shuffles along and gets on with modern life. 

"The press release is dead, because... social media"

"No it ain't, because... what I do."

I have sometimes expressed a belief that newspapers are probably finished, but don't think I have ever made an argument that traditional media brands are dead. Far from it. I think more people carry more news brands and look to more sources and individual articles, images and writers than ever before. It's easier to pick the little bits you want on a phone than to wearily wade through the whole local rag, a daily, good-for-you-and-now-without-extra-hacking national, and 'the Sunday that lasts a month' every week. We'll soon reach a point where even TV and radio news broadcasts are available as story by story nuggets online, rather than as a whole show (yes, I mean *you*, the BBC).

Thing is - in terms of the Press Release debate - that we may have forgotten, not for the first time, to ask *cough*... the customer.

I've been in a new job for just a few weeks, and the editor of the local news brand (plural actually; he manages what I think a journalist would feel obliged to call a 'stable of titles') was good enough to meet me. He asked me not to be precise about his physical, hard copy circulation figures, so I won't, but they were a bit lower than I would have guessed and I'm the prophet of doom when it comes to newsprint. However - and this is massively important - his daily readership figure is the highest it has been for a hundred years. 

Check that. The highest readership figure that that local news brand has had for a century. 

With your twitter, and your telly, and your crystal set (digital with a global reach, natch), and your rolling, twenty-four-hours-whether-you-like-it-or-not news channels, he has more pairs of eyes on his content than for a hundred bloody years. Wow.

Why? How is he doing that?

Because - drumroll - his readers are online. And he is segmenting his audience, understanding that some parts of his readership have no interest in brand a, but will read brand b and c. And he's driving an integrated digital content strategy, through twitter, and Facebook and Instagram and apps, and driving people back to the brand's (plural) online services.

I think he's doing what we should be doing. Building trust, moving away from one-size-fits-all, understanding audiences and their preferences and delivering high-quality digital content to his customers, to inform and engage. He doesn't believe for a moment that the paper is the only channel he should create content for. Not for a minute. 

He's a dangerous radical. ;0)

And when I asked him for his view of us (I meant the council, but he took it I meant the comms team) his answer was short and telling; "Frankly, it feels like we've left you behind".

He doesn't really want press releases. He wants us to publish video, audio, digital images, interviews, information... digital content designed to build trust, to move away from the one-size-fits-all, and to inform and engage our customers. He wants to be able to use our content; says he WILL use our content; and that means it reaching the same audiences we want to reach (as part of our full understanding of ALL the channels we have to hand). I suspect that means we need to find a way to manage a broad partnership and a critical friendship, with a changed outlook and a new set of behaviours.

So why do some insist that the Press Release is still key tool number one? (Worse  there may be some who think it the only tool worth picking up). I'm not sure. I suppose 'we've always done it that way'. But increasingly, it seems, the industry we think it helps sees it as a sign that we have been left behind. 

30 June 2014

"They called me Mister Glass"...

So, I'm occasionally given to incoherent, controversial outbursts. Here's another. Possibly unfair. But it's been bothering me.

A few days ago, I decided to unfollow Comms Hero on twitter. I did so publicly, partly through my usual egomania, and partly because I actually wanted to let them know why I had. 

It's not personal. I don't really know who is behind Comms Hero. I know people who appear to be associated with it and they all either seem to be, or are, lovely. It's about the behaviours.

I told @CommsHero that (and I know I am far from alone in feeling this - people have told me they agree via twitter and in person) the whole #CommsHero campaign had begun to seem spammy at the very least. 

I said: "Am going to unfollow @commshero Sorry. Lovely idea, but an incessant bandwagon-jumping, credit-taking sales attack is simply becoming spam."

Actually it had seemed to me for a while that at worst it can a bit of a manipulative power play. But it had, frankly, also just been getting on my nerves.

The final straws that night were tweets aimed at, around and through the Digital Leaders awards and Helen Reynolds. Helen had won one. Much deserved and wholly under her own steam. To me, the Comms Hero account seemed to bombard it all with their own branding; claiming a winner (Helen) as one of their very own. I have not discussed this at all with Helen, who may feel very differently, but it offended me a bit that they pitched in to her success. 

Success by association. Brand enforcement. Sales. It felt like a kind of hijacking. A kind of tweet-bombing.

And there's just a bit of that. Lots of busy-bee bombardment of tweeps, hashtags, events with the Comms Hero 'brand'. This weekend it happened again with the lunch provision at The Big Yak, for Heaven's sake.

"@theICcrowd: Lunch is served at #thebigyak pic.twitter.com/o56h7M8rKy" ++ a meal fit for #CommsHero types. Hope it's a good day so far

That's nice. A lovely sentiment. 

Was the branding REALLY necessary?

I expect CommsCamp to be similarly 'associated'. It's a big sales opportunity.

I need to be clearer. I first expressed my concerns at Comms Hero before their first event. It felt, just, y'know, wrong. Couldn't put my finger on it. But wrong somehow.

I was a bit gobsmacked at how quickly they announced their second.

Here's my latest feel for that wrong:

I don't want to be a hero. I never have. I hope to lead and manage a team of communications people who feel safe in their jobs, confident in their creativity, properly supported in their work and skills and satisfied in making a difference. 

don't think we're heroes at all, even if we do all that. Look, I know that many, and probably most, of us have been through some really tough times, and Comms Hero is designed to make us feel good about ourselves again, and maybe this all makes me a miserable old sod. I am a miserable old sod. But what we do isn't actually about us at all. It's about the people whose lives we're seeking to improve. The people we serve. The people we need to find relevant, resonant, persuasive messages for. The people we need to engage and inform.

I don't know how capes, and school hymns and a load of lovely, but pricey-looking, branded business cards (for people whom I assume already either have business cards or have chosen not to have business cards) helps us with that. I don't know how we justify branded donuts, while we cut the money we spend on comms: while we cut jobs. The core message of Comms Hero, deliberate or not, conscious or not, seems to me to be that product is lovely. I don't think what we do ishould be much about product. 

Sometimes, possibly, maybe I could be persuaded. Maybe. When product is appropriate and effective and needed and affordable. But not to make us feel good about ourselves, surely?

For me the heroic posture is all wrong. The outcomes, insofar as I can see them, are badly aimed. The messages are skewed. It makes it all about us. And all about product. For money

These are good people and the learning opportunity is undoubtedly important. But CommsCamp doesn't seem to need paid for capes and branded donuts and individually prepared and printed superhero cards, and theme tunes. Perhaps we could go there instead.

So here's a question or two: I don't know this, but who is getting paid for all that product anyway? Who is getting paid for the (quite pleasing) individualised design work? How can we justify the costs of that to a family living on ten quid a day?

Ach. Enough. I'm ranting again.

Probably not the most popular position I've ever taken. 

Tin hat on.

9 January 2014

Voyage of the "Damned if you do..."

“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy”.


Sometimes it just seems to be the role of the comms and marketing team to try to make the best of somebody else’s bad job.


I suspect that anyone who has ever worked in a local authority comms team has, at least once, found themselves looking at a 'client' who has just announced the launch of something, almost certainly in the next few days, and is now demanding a ‘marketing plan’.

“You know… a logo, a catchy name, a few key messages, some posters and a press release. Oh and if you can get us some pull-ups for the launch that would be great.”


What happens then is that you say things like,


Okay. Who is your target audience”?

Okay. What are your key outcomes?”

Okay. How will you measure that it’s worked”?

This is the point at which it becomes fairly clear that none of the above can be answeredNone of the above has even been thought about. Theyre here because “something must be done”.

“Yeah, well the target audience is really sort of everyone who lives here, you know, and the outcomes are that we really want a kind of brand, to get people to sign up to stuff”…

It’s an approach to comms and marketing which means the collateral is an end in itself.


‘What did you do in the war on ignorance and disease, Daddy?’

‘I got some people to design some posters’.

‘How did those help?’

“Well, I think some people saw them”.


Baselines? Outcomes? Pah. Who needs them? We put some posters up. And did a twitter thing which is ace. We were seen to be doing something and something needed to be done. What more could there be?


It’s comms without product and comms without purpose. Comms as an end in itself. We already know the effectiveness of comms can be hard to measure in the first place, but it gets so much harder when the client has nothing particularly effective to communicate; no real product; no idea of what they are trying to achieve or for whom.


When confronted with such a ‘campaign or ‘product’; or worse still, an idea that “we need an umbrella brand for the whole range of stuff we’re going to do”


(“Oh. And what is that?”

We haven’t actually decided yet. We kind of want a brand, and we want peoplto sign up and then we’ll send them things when we’ve worked them out.”)


… you have that moment where you really should take the Dragons’ Den approach, put down your pen, look them square in the eyes and say, we’re out.


But it isn’t like that, is it? Because all they’re really doing is trying to deliver some cockamamie idea that probably started life somewhere else, with somebody else, designed as someone's pet project, without reference to evidence or audience, customer need or channel. It’s not thought through, and you know it’s doomed to failure.


But something must be done.


So there’s an assessment to be made, isn’t there? You have that terrible comms team choice to make - do we stay or do we go’? Do we involve ourselves in this?


If we don’t they’ll only go and do it themselves; badly.  But if we do it… Shudder.

Confronted with th
is very dilemma recently, a colleague and I worked out the answer.


It’s the local government communications team Credit Matrix. Or the "Damned if you do; Damned if you don’t” theorem. 

t looks like this:

23 September 2013

Wake up and Sheikh up

“It’s been too long since you blogged, man”, read the accusatory DM from that @danslee.

Foolishly I replied, ‘Give me a topic’.

Almost as if he’d already thought of it (*suspicious face*) Dan replied, “Some say digital will take five years to be properly embraced in local government. I say that's too late.”

I say that’s too late.

I recently spoke at a ‘summit’ on social media use by government. I said things like,

“We have not been listening to customers”.

“We’ve been ignoring private sector best practice, where business understands audiences are made up of individual customers and different groups with different needs” and

“Social media lets us reach a range of audiences across services, and - with a good ‘web site’ and a range of online customer tools -  is massively important in how we meet customer demands”

The usual stuff.

It’s almost incidental – but it is Dan’s fault - that the summit was in Dubai, and while I was there I got into a few conversations about the UAE’s new drive to online service. Put simply, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, has announced a new "government vision of the future". Its aim is to provide information to people any time and anywhere.

That he did so on twitter, after meeting a thousand government officials, tells its own story, but it’s a story for another day. Today’s tale is this:

Sheikh Mohammed tweeted "The Government of the future works 24/7 and 365 days a year. It is as hospitable as hotels, fast in delivering and strong in its procedures".

Who doesn’t want that?

While we are asking if the NHS ‘will become paperless by 2018’, his aim is for government to reach people.

"Through their smartphones we can make their lives easier. The Government of the future is innovative and adaptive. It improves the quality of life and helps people achieve their happiness. Today we want to move government information and service centres to every phone and every mobile device in the hands of users, which will allow them to place their government request from their phone wherever they are and without waiting," he said.

Tellingly he has given officials two years to get it sorted. Failure will not be tolerated. Officials have been told that if they fail to deliver mobile services, they will be given a "farewell ceremony".

Two years or fired.

The crisis of finance facing local authorities in the UK, in my view, means that we don’t have the luxury of five years.

We may not have three.

As I was drafting this post, Dominic Campbell appeared in the Guardian (like he does) saying ‘councils will collapse unless they embrace tech’. 

That may not be true everywhere, but for those, like mine, which face another 40+ million pounds cut in the next two years, his warning that “most councils can see the next couple of years ahead financially, but there is a gulf appearing after which – if they do not act now with very different thinking – they are going to have to stop services rather than reinvent them”, seems terrifyingly real.

We all know the change is needed. So what holds us back? What? Really?

Our customers are not ours alone. They already use online tools; payment stuff and booking stuff, self service and information gathering stuff in every other sphere of their lives.

We are not asking for the radical any more. We’re asking for what is now ordinary for most customers.

And delivering it won’t stop us providing services to those for whom digital exclusion is an issue. We may need to invest for them, to provide training and assistance. Or we may need to put some of the savings driven by the ‘new model’ into the remnants of the old model to ensure we support the most vulnerable.

But we just don’t seem to be doing it. I have seen first-hand that Dom’s right when he says, “there is a lot of flirting with something which is a good idea but then (they) do not actually go ahead with”.

And this is not the starting line. We're well past that. This isn’t new this week. It’s been there for years. We’ve mostly been not doing digital for years.

I think that giving ourselves another five years is to avoid the issue.

More ‘flirting’.

Parkinson’s Law repeated first as tragedy then as farce.

If we really think we have five years, I’d say that’s because we have not been listening to customers and we’ve been ignoring private sector best practice. Social media, a good ‘web site’ and a range of online customer tools is massively important in how we meet customer demands today. 

And that's before anybody even thinks about changes in the technology that will occur in those five years. Are we actually planning to be out of date?

The Sheikh has it. "A successful government is one that goes to the people and does not wait for them to come to it."