Future-proofing your communications team


Yesterday I was lucky enough to lead a workshop at #CommsAcad in Coventry, where local government and other public sector communicators had just finished the second of their three-day academy, sharing learning and ideas.

The workshop on future-proofing was one of five that formed part of a session on ‘Communicating in a digital world’, led by @darrencaveney and @danslee from @comms2point0.

The idea of the workshop was to look at how communications teams and communicators need to change over the next few years to adapt to the ever-changing world.

In the current climate communications teams are likely to get smaller, so what do they need to do to survive and thrive?

Forty people squashed into a small room to share issues and ideas on a topic that will probably be a source of debate for years to come. The short session did not come up with all the solutions, in fact there were more questions than answers, but here’s a flavour of some of the points discussed in the group and sub-groups.

Generalists v Specialists – will communicators all have to be generalists, or is there still room for specialists? Reduced funding and a greater range of tools at our disposal may necessitate this change, but could this mean communicators risk becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none?

Interestingly, 37 people regarded themselves as generalists, with only three describing themselves as specialists, all of whom worked in media relations.

Politicians v Residents – how do we reconcile what some politicians and senior officers want to communicate with what residents and communications teams want? These are often different things, but one group has the power of veto. Although it seems logical to concentrate on the channels most popular with residents, this isn’t always possible.

Traditional media isn’t dead – in spite of what some people might think, traditional channels are still alive. For example, readership of newspapers is going down but they still play a significant role.

Digital is important, but is there is a risk that an ’emperor’s new clothes’ factor is overplaying its importance? At the same time, there are still some people, including elected members, who are not engaging with digital channels.

In theory it should be easy to convince them of the merits of digital, but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what makes ‘good digital’.

How do we prove our worth? – this is a tricky one, and yet this will become more important as times goes on. Do we measure impact, outputs, or outcomes, and which of these matter most?

Should communications teams have measures purely of their own work, or how their work contributes to wider council priorities and resident needs?

This is only a short summary of some of the issues raised, and I hope those who were there, others attending #CommsAcad, and anyone else interested will offer your views too, so over to you.

For my part, the big issues for me are Generalists v Specialists and how teams and individuals prove their worth.

Communications teams continually need to adapt to thrive, and this is more acute than ever. I think time is running out for people to have highly specialised roles, and that we’re moving toward more generic roles with communicators carrying out a wider range of functions.

I think person specifications and the type of people who make up teams will become more important than job descriptions. I blogged about this a few weeks ago so I won’t go over old ground, but the next inevitable restructure will be more important than ever.

In terms of proving our worth, I think there is still a long way to go, which concerns me. There has been a great deal of good work on evaluation, but the picture across the country still seems blurred.

There stills seems to be a stubborn refusal in some parts to let go of measuring local outputs by communications teams. Why do we still count news releases, and why in a multi-channel world do some teams still devote resources to media monitoring but don’t give the same attention to other channels?

And do these measures mean anything? Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on council and community outcomes that communications activities contribute to eg the number of new foster parents recruited and allocated?

This seems both more meaningful and also shows how the communications team contributes to the council and community as a whole. Teams should not present themselves in isolation, they should be an integral part of the organisation.

The debate on future-proofing is in its infancy, and there are no easy answers. But we need to find them, so watch this space.



From Zero To Hero


As the dust settles on elections results and their aftermath, what is the future for local government communicators and their teams?

Further cuts are on the way, so at some point the question of the size and worth of a communications function will be debated in nearly every council. And rightly so. So what are you going to do about it?

You are repeatedly told that things will never be the same again, that you’re entering a brave new world etc, but if that’s the case are you responding in the right way? Is a new approach required?

Many communications teams have already been restructured, resulting in smaller teams. Those that haven’t yet gone through this will do so. But this is unlikely to be the last time this happens, so it’s more important than ever to prove your worth, so you can both survive and thrive.

But rather than just look at your world through your existing activities, why not step back, be bold, and try a zero based approach? In other words, if your communications team was being created today what would, and should, it do? Start with a clean slate.

Every one of you will be carrying some form of baggage, doing things because they’ve always been done, even though you doubt their worth. But why?

The perceived wisdom among many is that councils are very traditional organisations, lacking innovation and creativity, where time served often trumps ability in terms of career progression. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now is as good a time as any for you and your teams to shine.

Using a zero based approach, here are ten starters for ten for some ‘do’s and don’ts’ for communications teams. These suggestions use the criteria of making a difference to the lives of residents and/or having an impact on a significant number of colleagues in your council. If your work doesn’t meet one or both of these criteria then why are you doing it?


..things that make a difference to residents’ lives. Communications and marketing can play a key role in rolling out new or redesigned services that make people’s lives better and easier. If your work isn’t contributing to your community, stop doing it.

..be part of change, not just a communicator of change. Internal communications and employee engagement will be more important than ever as budgets and staffing levels shrink, but make sure you’re at the heart of the message itself. Be more than the messenger.

..evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. You need to prove that what you do works, and change tack or stop doing it if it doesn’t. And evaluate properly, measuring the wider outcomes and not some meaningless outputs.

..co-produce whenever you can. Join forces with neighbouring councils or partner organisations whenever it makes sense to do so, always working alone doesn’t. All councils run campaigns to recruit foster carers or discourage litter, but why do you all need bespoke artwork and locally purchased advertising space? Unite behind one image and message and buy on a regional basis. It’s better and cheaper.

..make social media work for you and your residents, and show how it does. It’s no longer the future, it’s the present, but only use what works. And use it as part of an integrated approach, it’s a means to an end, not an end itself.


..play safe with recruitment. Creativity and potential are just as important as knowledge and reliability, and you can have both. The former will take you to where you need to go, there’s already too much of the latter.

..waste disproportionate time on the unimportant. For example don’t enter any awards for a few years. If your criteria for entering were whether or not winning such awards had any benefit for residents or an impact on a significant number of staff, you would never submit a bid again.

..obsess about media coverage, chasing headlines for headlines sake, traditional media is not what it was. This is easier said than done, especially with the near obsession of some elected members and senior officers with local media coverage. But other channels can be much better.

..do social media purely for the sake of it. It is not the answer to everything, and when misused can be a big waste of time.

..take no for an answer. New ideas can take time to be accepted, so persevere. To a point. If your organisation isn’t going to change quickly enough then move on to somewhere that will. Don’t waste your talents.

These are my ten starters for ten, there are many more. What are yours?




Reputation: A School of Thought


Good communication, customer service, and reputation management can not be achieved in isolation. Every link in the chain has to work. Here’s why.

There has been a lot of snow today. Councils throughout the country have worked tirelessly through the night and the day to keep cities, towns, and villages moving, so that we can all get on with our daily lives. They’ve done a fantastic job.

Communications, Highways, and other teams have also worked constantly to communicate what is happening, using Twitter, Facebook, websites, and other channels to keep residents up-to-date with the latest developments. What they’ve done has been mostly great.

So this should be a good news story for councils, and their residents. Except in many cases it isn’t, because of one issue – school closures.

Much of the kudos earned will have instantly disappeared when the announcements began flooding in of school closures, delayed openings, and early finishes. Parents can then not get to work, employers are frustrated, and so who carries the can? You guess right. Councils.

And yet it is not councils who decide to close schools, it is the schools themselves. I accept that it is a tricky decision to make but today, as on previous occasions as both a resident and a local government communicator, I have seen for myself a number of schools that are closed in areas where the traffic is flowing freely on roads that are clear of snow.

After a great deal of hard work to allow schools to remain open, many of them still decide to close.

So why is this?  I’m aware that the decision is often based on how easily teachers can get to the school, and that they may live in less accessible areas, but can they really not get in? The answer may be yes, but if that’s the case the school needs to explain that.

Some pupils might not be able to make it in for the same reason, but I suspect the majority can. So why do so many schools still close when the rest of the population (well, most of them, but that’s a story for another day) make so much effort to get to work?

My local council has put out some excellent information today about road and weather conditions, including links to schools closure notifications.

And this is where the schools can help themselves and their local authority colleagues a lot more. The email alerts posted by schools need, in most cases, to say a lot more than they do. Just saying a school will be closed because of the bad weather isn’t enough, especially when it is obvious to the naked eye that the route to and from many schools is clear or at least passable.

So I would ask schools to do two things: first, to close only if you really have to; and second, to communicate properly the reasons behind your decision to close if that is what you decide you must do.

Local government and the public sector in general have a difficult enough job to persuade the public that they both do a good job and provide value for money.

Parents, employers, and other tax paying residents rightly expect all of their public services to work together during times of bad weather to keep services operational. This will only work if every link in the chain functions properly. And if every link does this, then everyone will be happier.


Stream of Consciousness


Live streaming of council meetings is not new, it has been tried by many local authorities over the years with varying degrees of success. The debates of transparency versus cost and cost versus viewing figures were prominent, but now the landscape has changed.

Although Eric Pickles has made access to council meetings one of his personal crusades, for most authorities this hasn’t been the driving force behind more of them live streaming these events. There is a wish to make local government more transparent, much of it driven by the phenomenal growth in social media technology, we don’t need telling we have to do it.

So now that more councils are allowing residents to tune in to council meetings, what difference has it made? If viewing figures alone are the yardstick, it could be argued that we still have a long way to go.

In Wakefield we have live streamed our last two council meetings. The first attracted more than a thousand views (both live and afterwards), some of these may be owing to curiosity, and the second has so far seen over 300 viewers. These figures are not huge, but we only get a handful of people in the public gallery so it’s a big improvement.

The tricky question of whether or not viewers find these meetings interesting and/or informative is one we haven’t yet answered. I suspect that will depend on what is on the agenda. The next two meetings include a debate on HS2 and then the budget, both of which will have a direct impact on the district’s residents.

If councils are to succeed in persuading their residents to tune in to the live stream then the agenda topics will play a major role. Political knockabout is unlikely to do the trick if opinion polls are anything to go by.

The major change for me has been the technology that is now available, and the unwillingness of some councils to embrace it. In Wakefield we are using Bambuser, one of the live streaming apps that is readily available, something we chose as a result of working initially with @johnpopham who was incredibly helpful.

Having bought a camera (one is enough) and accompanying equipment (microphone, tripod etc) for around £600, we pay just over £30 a month for a certain number of viewing hours, so it is very cost-effective. A colleague in the Communications Team is now running the show, with support from IT who have strengthened the WiFi capability in the Council Chamber.

What has surprised me is that there still seems to be a lot of councils paying through the nose for external companies to webcast multi-camera council meetings on their behalf. It’s as if the advances in cheaper easy-to-use social media technology haven’t happened.

You can see that the option we have chosen http://www.wakefield.gov.uk/livestream allows viewers to both see and hear what is happening perfectly well. We also intend to live stream other meetings and some events too.

If public engagement is as important as we say it is, and budget challenges are as tough as we know they are, this is one area where technology is definitely the answer. So why aren’t more people doing it?

Why I Use Twitter


Not a week goes by without someone asking me why I have a Twitter account, why I tweet, why I read other people’s tweets, and so on. And the question is usually asked with an air of disdain. So here are ten reasons why I think Twitter is a good idea.

1 My job is enhanced by using networks on Twitter to get key links, blogs, recommendations, reviews – if I wasn’t on Twitter I’d be less effective at my job.

2 Once I’ve worked out who to follow, I get to read a huge amount of positive things.

3 I now know just how much expertise there is out there, and how happy people are to share it.

4 It’s fun.

5 It can be a real force for good. The Arab Spring is just one of many examples.

6 It doesn’t respect hierarchies – a good idea is a good idea, the job title is irrelevant.

7 Used properly, it mixes the personal and the professional without worrying too much about it.

8 Having worked out who to follow, I get to see and hear a lot of news before many of the newspapers and TV channels report it.

9 I can just read other people’s tweets without tweeting myself if I don’t feel like it, the online equivalent of listening rather than talking for the sake of it.

10 Twitter and other social networks are a must for anyone who has communications as part of their job. And they soon will be, if not already, for everyone else too.

Food for Thought – CommsCamp13


It’s almost two weeks since I attended my second and brilliantly organised unconference, CommsCamp13 in Birmingham. Here are ten things I learned and reflected on.

1 The unconference is still a great format. It’s not perfect, some sessions are better than others, some are brilliant and some are a bit like Groundhog Day, but there’s always a dynamic atmosphere. And you always learn something.

2 If you want to get the most benefit from an unconference, listening is often better than talking. Except during the breaks, where you should talk as much as you can between mouthfuls of cake.

3 Many people still feel there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’, with ‘us’ being those who consider themselves the new breed of innovators and ‘them’ being ‘the management’ who are perceived as barriers to things such as the use of social media. I don’t believe this. Every organisation has a number of influential people who will help to take things forward, it’s up to those who see themselves as ‘us’ to find them. So less moaning, and more persuading. After all, persuading and influencing is what most of us are employed to do.

4 There are still a number of angry people who attend unconferences. And I don’t think the anger is doing them any good. They see managers as just one entity, who aren’t to be trusted. It’s time they stopped trying to kick in what they see as locked doors and simply push open the many that are already unlocked.

5 Digital and traditional communications are not mutually exclusive. They are natural bedfellows, we shouldn’t try to split them up, communication is communication. They are just different ways of getting to where we want to go.

6 All communications and engagement should be properly evaluated, but using operational outcomes instead of the fluffy, outdated, and often meaningless methods associated with communications and marketing.

7 No communications team will survive if all its members don’t have digital communications skills. There is no place in communications for those who refuse to or are too slow to learn the world of digital, and self motivation is key. Especially as teams continue to get smaller, which they will.

8 Each communications team will increasingly need a digital specialist, both to lead and inspire their communications colleagues and to drive engagement across the whole organisation. And as teams get smaller, this role must survive.

9 Cake is good. Always.

10 I should attend at least one unconference a year, they always make me think differently. And my colleagues should do too.

Yammer – don’t worry about it, just do it


About three months ago we took the decision to introduce Yammer across Wakefield Council. A few of us had tried it out for a while, and once we’d convinced colleagues that there were genuine benefits and that using it wouldn’t lead to widespread negativity it was launched to the rest of the staff with online access.

For those who haven’t used it, Yammer is a free to use internal social network, that in our case only those whose email address ends in @wakefield.gov.uk can use. If you research it you’ll be told of numerous professional benefits, including sharing links, requesting answers to work issues, and bringing people together who don’t normally get to see each other.

These are all true, but so far it is probably the latter that has been most prominent on a professional level, with almost 800 people signing up and joining numerous groups on the network set up by colleagues. The groups have included communications, leisure, public health, and libraries, in other words mostly following service area lines, as you might expect at first.

Whilst an impressive number have joined, I think many have subscribed out of curiosity and are still waiting to see how it might benefit them. We have deliberately offered limited guidance on how to use Yammer, just enough to get people started, as we wanted to see what people would do themselves once they’d signed up.

The results have been fascinating, and with each passing week more varied posts are appearing. But although there have been many topics and events discussed in impressive depth, including public health, car parking, Christmas lights, joining the new library and much more, it is the social element that has most caught my eye.

In the short time that we’ve had Yammer, the most used discussion group has been around cycling, both cycling to work and in people’s own time, and a work based running club has also emerged. Born from Yammer, runners who are mostly based in our new building Wakefield One, now meet once a week after work to go for a run, which is just fantastic.

Bringing 1,100 staff into a new building where previously they had been in different buildings has helped, but the fact that Yammer is bringing people together both virtually and in person is a real benefit.

We’re still new to Yammer so no doubt there’s much more we will learn from each other, but I think we’ve made a good start. Hopefully people will continue to join and find what they are looking for, and hopefully they’ll be even more interaction.

If you haven’t yet tried Yammer because you’re worried it might lead to one big online argument or a barrage of critical comments, give it a go. It doesn’t work out like that at all. It is a simple yet effective way of bringing people together to help each other out through an online conversation, and in some cases bringing them together face to face to socialise. You can’t argue with either of those.