From autism awareness to the need for understanding

I’ve a son called Joshua.

Joshua is 4 years old and diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. He has precious little in the way of language. He struggles to make sense of the world around him. The sights, sounds,  smells, tastes, touches, colours – he has no way of filtering it all.

He has difficulty with social communication and interaction. He can’t decipher facial expressions, tone of voice, body language. If he spills a drop of juice on his clothing, he’ll strip naked, regardless of where he is. Sometimes, the sensory overload is so unbearable that it causes him real anxiety and distress.

When it all gets too much, the shit doesn’t half hit the fan. The other night, I spent an hour laid on cold laminate flooring in the hallway with him, trying to restore calm after a meltdown that saw him trash the living room in seconds and land a couple of impressive right hooks on me.

“Your child is a fucking brat” 

We’re used to it by now. We understand it. But when it happens in public, that’s when the size of the shift needed to ensure autistic people are accepted, respected, included and supported  really hits home. Put simply, leaving the house can be a hell of an ordeal.

It’s the kind of behaviour that leads to disapproving scowls in the swimming pool; tutting and raised eyebrows in restaurants; sniggering at the school gate.

My wife’s been told to her face that “your child is a fucking brat” while he was mid-meltdown over the colour of a balloon in a shop that had thrown his world out of kilter. A woman in the supermarket has helpfully told me: “You can get grants for kids like him.” 

Even some family members want nothing to do with him.

His first nursery effectively told us they didn’t want him there. He doesn’t get invited to birthday parties. He can often be found playing alone with a tin opener.

From awareness to understanding

I mention all this as today, April 2nd, is World Autism Awareness Day and because there’s a brilliant new awareness-raising campaign under way to help people better understand those on the spectrum.

There’s a real need for it, too. According to the National Autistic Society, 28% of autistic people have been asked to leave a public space because of behaviour associated with their autism. Nearly 80% of autistic people and 70% of parents feel socially isolated. 50% of autistic people and their families sometimes don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react to them. 

In a 2015 survey, 99.5% of people said they had heard of autism. So awareness has arrived – what’s needed now is understanding.

Understanding that, in Joshua’s individual case, he’s a beautiful child with a beautifully different mind. He can have us in fits of laughter. His meticulous attention to detail will, I’ve no doubt, serve him well in the world of work one day (seek out BBC2’s inspirational Employable Me to discover how those with neurological conditions can bring immense value to employers prepared to not judge a book solely by its cover).

Understanding that it’s a spectrum. An invisible and lifelong disability. Not everyone with autism is Rain Man. The way it manifests itself varies dramatically. If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.

So the next time you see a child seemingly going crackers in the supermarket, do us a favour. Stop and think for a second before judging. Maybe they’re not a brat. Maybe it’s not a standard tantrum over a chocolate bar. Maybe there’s just too much going on for them to process all at once.

And maybe they and their parents are in a daily battle that, with some understanding from the world, it’ll be that bit easier to fight.

“You are soooo embarrassing…”

I’ve been a dad for more than seven years now.

Prior to that, I’ve a hazy recollection of having an assortment of things I now seem to have mislaid, chiefly: a social life, hair, lie-ins and patches of carpet in the house that didn’t have a discarded Hot Wheels vehicle ready to draw blood from my unsuspecting foot.

One of my biggest fears prior to son number one arriving was that the ‘Kevin The Teenager’ phase would come around in no time, with “I haaaaate you – you are soooo embarrassing” being routinely bellowed in my face.

What I didn’t realise was that, from birth to teenagedom, the tables were actually turned in that regard. That however horrific my dad dancing gets, or however cringeworthy it may be to be seen in my battered Ford Fiesta, nothing will ever top the humiliation that little ones are capable of heaping upon their beleaguered parents.

In the Mackintosh family, the embarrassment takes many forms, but if I had to pick a top three…

  • Out and about: it almost goes without saying that this is your biggest danger, with immense potential for public outbursts that will turn you a deep shade of crimson whilst trying in vain to convince bystanders that these aren’t really your kids. Top of the tree in our case was an incident at a family-friendly restaurant when, upon being told he had to leave the ball pool to come and eat, our then three-year-old went into a meltdown that culminated in a poor waitress drenched in Coke, me sporting a sizeable dollop of coleslaw in an unfortunate area and the family at the next table taking cover to avoid the threat of flying spiced chicken wings.
    Embarrassment rating: 10/10 (you will want to die right there, right then).
  • Swearing: I must stress that this isn’t done intentionally. I’ve not been putting my offspring through any kind of Gordon Ramsay etiquette school. No, it’s the perfectly innocent words that just don’t come out right and end up sounding like something else entirely. Pronunciation of “egg hunt” has been known to turn the Easter air blue, whilst “Daddy, look at that massive clock” once caused a town centre stir when the key word was slightly distorted. Embarrassment rating: 7/10 (swiftly move the conversation on and pray nobody heard).
  • Greeting house visitors: four-year-olds should not be the first point of contact for visitors to your household. Ever. Tesco drivers delivering the weekly big shop are known to have been hit with tirades ranging from “is this your real job? Putting food on people’s doorsteps?” to “you’ve forgotten the Kinder eggs – go back for the Kinder eggs”. Embarrassment rating: 5/10 (just close the door. Close it now).

On the plus side, of course, you’ll always look back and laugh, whilst remembering that being a dad is actually brilliant. Once you’ve done the dry-cleaning, apologised to strangers within earshot of profanities and switched supermarkets, that is…

Farewell then, local government…

When I was a kid playing Sunday league junior football, our team had a madcap coach who genuinely believed he was Shankly, Ferguson and Clough all rolled into one.

He’d work us to the point of exhaustion during Saturday morning training sessions, whilst gleefully recounting the three famous occasions on which he allegedly turned out for Partick Thistle.

On match days, he’d bark orders so ferociously from the sidelines that most of us learned to tune him out and focus instead on getting through to half-time for the sweet relief of a mud-splattered orange segment.

His interval pep talk invariably carried the same message: “You’re not challenging enough”.

Not challenging the 3ft 6in goalkeeper at corners; not challenging for headers when the ball’s hoofed six miles into the air; not challenging the weak right-back who’s clearly only in the opposition side ‘cos his dad’s their coach, and so on.

He loved a challenge. And (seamless ‘junior sport to local government comms’ transition coming up…) if he’d been working next to me over the past few years, he’d have been in his element.

For there’s been no end of challenges – and, amid troubled economic times, these are only likely to increase for comms teams across the land.

I’ll not be at the coalface to see how it all unfolds, mind you. I’m leaving local government in a few weeks for pastures new, but will keep a keen eye on how its challenges are addressed.

The importance of staying relevant

For a start, there’s the challenge of extra responsibility. It’s been loaded onto local government of late – as comms folk will already be fully aware. By now, I imagine the terms “welfare reform” and “public health transition” will either bring a smile to the face or induce mild hysteria.

Ideally, it’ll be the former as there are many inter-dependencies between health and local government, creating tremendous opportunities for comms professionals to demonstrate their value, showcase their creativity and make a genuine difference.

This leads nicely onto the challenge of remaining valued. It’s easy enough for the bean counters to think ‘well, the PR folks are a luxury’ in difficult financial times. But effective strategic comms is more important than it’s ever been.

The stories needing to be told – and the conversations needing to be had – over the coming years won’t be pretty. Services will be vanishing or dramatically reduced. There’s no point pretending otherwise. Those parting with their council tax need to know, in plain English, what they’re getting in return and, if it’s less than it used to be, why that’s the case.

Sounds simple, but anyone who’s seen an accountant have a stab at a double-page budget spread in the residents’ magazine will know that comms professionals are very much needed. And if this focus on the bigger picture stuff means your comms people are no longer knocking out press releases on the local school’s bulb planting events, well, that’s no bad thing.

There’s the challenge of the brave new comms world, too. The enlightened are already thriving.

The not-so-enlightened are still aimlessly punting out sermons-from-the-mount press releases in the hope that they’ll make a few pars on page 15 of the local paper, with its limited shelf life and ABC figures clearly illustrating it’s not the be-all-and-end-all it once was. That’s as mad as it sounds. There’s plenty of smart, social, direct and cost-effective tools at our disposal to make the most of now.

There’s some good ‘uns out there 

The great thing for local government comms, of course, is that there’s some outstanding people operating in the field.

You’ve only to look at the community forged by comms2point0 to see that there are not only top people doing top work, but also being kind enough to share the benefit of their wisdom with fellow practitioners.

It’s pleasing to see a lot of this work being done oop north. The Northumberland County Council team led by Ross Wigham is blazing a social trail nationally.

And in Leeds, Phil Jewitt’s endeavours to bring about a truly social organisation are required reading.

In such capable hands, the future’s bright.

In the meantime, I’m off to clear my desk. Anyone need a broken stapler or six-month-old satsuma?

“Was it not just an aeroplane?”

One of the beauties of Twitter is finding and connecting with people with whom you’re often in the same boat.

Slumped on the sofa at 5.30am of a Saturday, with all hope of a lie-in after a hard week’s graft cruelly dashed, it’s always comforting to scan through the 140-character missives of fellow bleary-eyed parents hooking themselves up to caffeine drips in readiness for the day ahead.

But as the kids have got older, I’ve noticed that they’re not merely content with masterminding severe sleep deprivation – they’re also now doing a nice line in unwitting self-esteem bashing and generally confusing the life out of me.

In fact, some of it has been so withering and baffling as to be worthy of trophies. So, from the past few months alone, here are my particular favourites from the Mackintosh household:

The ‘Werthers Original’ Award: “Daddy, did you have Christmas when you were little… in Victorian times?”

The ‘I Wish…’ Award: “Daddy, you know your office? Does it have a big curly slide and a ball pool?”

The ‘Erm, Ask Your Mother That One, Son’ Award: “Daddy, I know you’ve said I came from Mummy’s tummy… but how did I get there?”

The ‘Pass My Pipe and Slippers’ Award: “Daddy, you do know you’ll never, ever, ever be young again, don’t you?”

The ‘Done Up Like A Kipper’ Award: “Daddy, I’ve got a deal for you – if I do a really big wee, you can take me to the toy shop and buy me a fire engine… okay?”

The ‘Could Do With Wayne Rooney’s Money’ Award: “Daddy, where has your hair gone? Did you leave it at work?”

The ‘Don’t Bother With The X Factor’ Award: “Daddy, you are the worst singer in the world. Please stop, it’s hurting my head.”

The ‘Hive Of Industry’ Award: “Daddy, I’m going to move out and get a job… when I’m 34.”

The ‘Get Yourself Out Of This One, Dad’ Award: “Daddy, you know on Christmas Eve you said that red light in the sky was Santa coming and we had to get to bed? Was it not just an aeroplane?”

Do not be fooled by their cuteness…

Press release rules: a prestigious post…

Ah, the humble press release.

From nine years as a journo receiving them to another seven as a comms officer writing them, I’ve rarely been far from those carefully-crafted, re-crafted, re-re-crafted and tortuously-approved bits of purple prose.

In my newspaper days, I’ll admit, they could occasionally be a god-send when a space needed filling at 7pm on a Sunday.

But a significant majority were annoying, many did the senders’ clients more harm than good and I reckon a good 83% included pointless statistics from a survey that never really took place.

And that was before the “Hi, it’s Crystal from Poncey PR – just checking you got our release about the unique new radiator launch” follow-up call.

Nowadays, of course, I’m doing less and less (I don’t think I’ve broken my press release duck for 2013) – a trend that will continue as the year progresses.

But as we move away from the time-honoured tradition of shovelling stuff out to influential hacks and hoping for the best, it’s worth recalling a few, tongue-firmly-in-cheek, golden press release rules*:

• All awards ceremonies are to be described as “the Oscars of the (insert relevant industry) world”. They should also be referred to as “prestigious” at least once.

• All new products/projects/schemes are “unique”. Nothing like it has ever been seen or done before, d’you hear me?

• Notes to Editors should always be longer than the release itself and are an ideal dumping ground for the mind-numbing crap that has to be mentioned, but you can’t bring yourself to include in the main body of the release.

• When being quoted, everyone – and I mean everyone – must be said to be “absolutely delighted”. Particularly when announcing a prestigious award win or unique product launch.

• If pushing the boat out and attaching a picture, a line-up of suits is preferable – ideally clutching a big cheque.

There are many more press release sins, I’m sure. And yes, *I have been guilty of every single one…

The challenges of 2013

Amid warnings of financial meltdown, deep civil unrest and essential services going by the wayside, 2013 should be an interesting year for local government, to say the least.

For those of us whose role it is to communicate during these turbulent times of change, the challenges will be many and varied.

From my point of view, here’s a few things that will be required in 2013:

Efficiency: The workload’s going to be enormous, no point pretending otherwise, but you are still entitled to swing for anyone who utters the phrase “do more with less”. It can’t be done. Sorry. What we can do is work smartly and efficiently with less, ensuring that work is carefully focused and aligned to corporate priorities.

Resilience: When the budget axe is being swung, comms is in the firing line at the best of times. Proving our worth as corporate storytellers, listeners, creatives and innovators will be a daily challenge, but the smart powers-that-be should realise how essential good comms is to issues such as welfare reform and the public health transition.

Carpe Diem: Ah, the public health transfer. So on top of everything else, we’re now helping people quit smoking, boozing and drugs, upping breastfeeding rates and the rest? Yup – and unless you’re extremely lucky, there’ll be no extra resource to do it. But it must be seen as an opportunity to make a positive impact in an area where effective comms will be of paramount importance in bringing about behavioural change. It’s a big chance to get to the heart of the conversation and make a genuine difference to people’s lives.

Time to think: Inevitable reductions in comms teams may, in turn, see innovation diminish. But keeping tabs on an ever-changing social/digital landscape, spotting fresh opportunities and emerging platforms to engage with a demanding and constantly-connected audience will be vital. Take time out from the daily grind for a spot of creativity, planning and the eating of cake.

And to everyone – have a happy and peaceful New Year.

Media matters

In an age where we’re all demanding, creating, sharing and consuming content at such a frenetic rate, are relations with the so-called traditional media as important as they were back in the day?

Well, yes, if an excellent ‘meet the media’ breakfast event organised by CIPR North-East is anything to go by.

A thought-provoking session, it covered an array of subjects, from how PR could better work with both print and broadcast journalists to how the fourth estate is dealing with the unstoppable rise of social media.

In no particular order, here’s a few things I picked up once the caffeine had kicked in…

In general…

  • When pitching/sending stuff to the media, apply a bit of common sense. Would you want to sit through a ten-minute video of a managing director at his desk, talking monotonously to camera about how brilliant his company is? No. Nor does anybody else. A minute’s worth of the cleaner who’s worked there for 40 years waxing lyrical about the business, on the other hand…
  • Keep it simple. Don’t waste your time knocking out 1,500-word news releases which get through your tortuous internal approval processes, only to be instantly spiked by news/business/features desks when sent out. A straight-to-the-point intro, a few useful bullet points and a contact number for the best person to speak to will often suffice.
  • TV ain’t as precious as it used to be about “user-generated content” (UGC) – and the recent flooding crisis proved this when a few seconds of submitted iPhone footage of a swamped village led regional bulletins. It doesn’t have to be polished content. The golden rule is ‘best shot first’ and if that’s UGC, so be it – packages can be written around it.
  • Don’t send out press releases and then be unavailable to help. If you’re issuing something and hoping for coverage, make sure you have someone ready to answer follow-up questions or be available for interview that day, at the drop of a hat.

The future…

  • Will we still be dealing with journalists in five years’ time? Yes. Will there still be a regional press in five years’ time? Yes. Will it look like it does today? Not a chance. There’s a lot of trust invested in local and regional media. It is seen, rightly, as critical in holding authorities to account. Many regional titles are decades-old, with strong and trusted brands that will stand the test of time, whatever the platform. But for print, there’ll come a point when vans full of papers traipsing out to newsagents in far-flung communities just isn’t sustainable. Things will be much more digitally-focused.
  • Demand for hyperlocal will be even greater and telly news may reflect this. The 14 nightly BBC regional news shows already have a far greater combined audience than the main national bulletins.