Value added facts…

We all love a bit of value, right? At Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council, we love a bit of valuing, too.

The internal challenge was the most significant facing a new-look comms team installed in 2010.

We knew what we needed, that wasn’t rocket science – an army of well-informed and motivated advocates and ambassadors for an authority with plenty on its plate.

If you’ve not heard of us, we’re a borough of extraordinary contrasts up here on the North-East coast. We’re a genuine industrial powerhouse, from Europe’s deepest mine at Cleveland Potash to one of the largest deep sea ports in the UK, handling more than 40 million tonnes of cargo each year.

We’re also home to some of the most disadvantaged wards in the region, with the average life expectancy for men and women 12.5 and 8.5 years respectively less than the borough’s wealthier areas.

And yet just a few miles away you’ll find some jaw-dropping beauty spots within our boundaries. Saltburn boasts a magnificent beach, pier and one of the world’s oldest water-balanced cliff lifts. The resplendent Roseberry Topping was named the sixth most romantic place on the planet for marriage proposals at the World Travel Awards.

And all this in a borough of 135,000 residents, served by our workforce of just over 2,500, excluding schools, and 59 councillors.

Guided tour over, how did we tackle that internal comms challenge?

Valuing our people…

Working with HR colleagues, 2010 saw the start of a ‘Valuing Our People’ (VoP) programme, which aimed simply to improve communications with employees; improve staff health and wellbeing; and recognise and celebrate achievements.

Our most ambitious undertaking was launching a fortnightly, eight-page magazine, available on a revamped, more interactive Intranet, with limited numbers of black-and-white hard copies for staff in remote bases.

Rather brilliantly, such a publication was the chief demand among the findings of a survey one dedicated comms officer carried out by hitting the road and speaking to more than 250 employees face-to-face over the course of a couple of months. One interview was conducted with the brake man on the aforementioned Saltburn Victorian lift as it travelled up and down the cliff face; another with a lollipop lady by the side of the road in between her guiding youngsters safely across.

True, it took some doing, but it proved a huge hit in engaging with those in our more far-flung locations, demonstrating that their views were valued and would make a difference.

Format and frequency agreed, weekly meetings with the Valuing Our People project team helped shape the content, with a mix of corporate messages, consultations and light-hearted features such as charity fund-raisers and unusual hobbies. Staff are encouraged to submit their own stories and images.

Meanwhile, several new initiatives were introduced – changes to the holiday entitlement programme; childcare vouchers; staff discounts with local firms; car lease and bicycle salary sacrifice schemes; cycle storage, lockers and showers for employees. Small things individually, but collectively an impressive package of employee support and all pushed heavily through the magazine.

Better Health at Work 

VoP’s Better Health at Work programme delivers a monthly event available to all employees, from healthy heart and blood pressure checks to mental health and breast cancer awareness sessions. A programme of events to recognise and reward employee achievement was introduced, from monthly ‘Mayor’s Thank You’ events to annual long service awards. Again, the magazine has carried all names and pictures of staff honoured. Simple, yet effective.

The results…

It’s paid major dividends: the latest Valuing Our People survey showed 84 per cent employees regularly read the staff magazine, rating it their favourite method of communication.

Ninety-five per cent said they had taken advantage of at least one of the new VoP initiatives; 86 per cent were aware of the Better Health at Work programme and more than 500 employees took part in its events over a 12-month period.

VoP has since landed us a gold CIPR Award for internal communications, while the council was a finalist in the ‘workforce’ category of the LGC Awards 2012.

There’s more to be done, no question, and that’s a challenge we’re looking forward to.

But right now…value? Added.

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Nice place for an interview…

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Olympic Torch: a flaming great challenge

Until June 18, it’s fair to say I was a little indifferent towards this Olympics malarkey. It’s only for London, I grumbled. It’s costing a bleeding king’s ransom, I muttered. Almost-comical tales from elsewhere in the UK of village butchers getting visits from the 2012 Branding and Protected Marks Police for displaying their pork and apple bangers in an Olympic rings formation weren’t helping to change my view.

Yet grudgingly, as we drew closer to welcoming the torch relay to six communities in Redcar and Cleveland, I don’t mind admitting that I actually started looking forward to it. Post-Jubilee weekend, patriotic fervour had reached fever pitch and, from sitting in preparatory sessions with a top bunch of colleagues, it became clear that real excitement was building for the relay.

Holding a torch…

The comms challenges we faced on the day were many and varied. But essentially we wanted to record the torch’s journey through the borough, engaging with the good people of the towns and villages it graced, encouraging them to share their images and stories with us via Facebook and Twitter. We also had the task of providing logistics updates – road closures, timing changes, etc – and linking regularly with the emergency centre, should disaster strike. By the end of the day we wanted a full set of images on Flickr and a video capturing torch memories on YouTube. And of course we wanted some outstanding shows in traditional media. Not much to ask, I guess, but with a tiny team it required some meticulous planning, top teamwork and more than a splash of good luck.

We had the flame from, to be precise, 6.59am to 8.50am.

An early start

The on-day social media push began at 5am. By now, we’d spent weeks heavily plugging our “Tweet the Torch” drive on Twitter and “Follow the Flame” on Facebook. My day began by the edge of the bracing North Sea, where our prime media opportunity was set up at Redcar’s 80ft Vertical Pier. Armed with an iPhone and updates from Torch HQ I tweeted and retweeted like never before as the flame passed by.

It was ten minutes early, mind, which prompted another frantic spell of Twitter action as the torch headed towards an excited crowd in Marske, just up the coast road. As I legged it back to the emergency centre, our official snapper in Saltburn – the third location on the route – rang ahead to report sizeable crowds building. Cue another Twitter/FB spree praising their support and urging others to join them. By now, the pictures were coming in thick and fast on both platforms. A colleague in Loftus, our final destination, tweeted frequently and provided images from a packed-out Market Place.

Taking a break from the emergency centre, our photographer and I began sifting through some incredible images to get out to the press – making evening titles’ deadlines by a matter of minutes.

By 9.30am – less than three hours after the torch arrived – we were inundated with pictures, stories and memories of a day that had brought 25,000 people onto the streets at ungodly hours of the morning. We thanked everyone for their online contributions. Our digital whizzes swiftly created an outstanding video record of the day, which we pushed extensively through social media, and pulled together a striking collection of Flickr images.

With this Olympic ring…

The relay’s first marriage proposal brought us media coverage from the USA and Peru to Sri Lanka and Ghana. Three UK nationals positively referenced the council’s regeneration programme in Redcar.

Looking back, it wasn’t perfect, it was a tad chaotic and I dare say, with greater resources, there’s a lot more we could’ve done. But as relative social media newbies, we enjoyed the levels of engagement, interaction, information-sharing and a genuine sense of community spirit that make Twitter, Facebook et al such powerful, effective and essential tools for local government.

Heck, I’m even a darn sight more into the Olympic spirit than I was. Bored of the rings? Not any more.

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Speak proper Inger-lish… like wot I do.

The other week I was asked to take part in “an informal verbal engagement session”. I said no, largely because I’d no idea what it meant.

It was only about half an hour later that I deduced someone wanted what you and I would commonly refer to as “a chat”.

And it got me thinking. And it got me, rather sadly, making a note of other utterly non-sensical terms, phrases and names that the public sector often takes great delight in assigning to the simplest of things.

Particular favourites were “the unexpected winterisation of the climate” (it was basically bloody cold when it’s usually bloody hot) and “engaging in meaningful consultation” (is there any point engaging in any other kind?).

I’ve worked in local government long enough to laugh off some of the grandiose titles that get dedicated to stuff, but if I’ve been on Planet Public Sector for a while and still struggle to get my head round co-terminous this, rebaselined that and spatial the other, what chance does Joe Public have?

These are tough times. The toughest for many a moon. Across the land, public services are depleting or disappearing. And whether it’s through direct correspondence, posters in the village hall, residents’ magazines or social media channels, surely those changes have to be communicated in a way that’s easily understandable?

Often, the more important someone thinks a project or document is, the longer and wordier the title they label it with. But when it’s impacting on residents, can’t we please just apply the “how would you tell your mates down the pub about it?” test.

It’s the test my old journalism lecturer applied to the crafting of a decent news story intro and it holds true for the vast majority of what I do now. Residents will thank you for it. Contact centre staff will thank you for the reduction in “I’ve had this letter from you – what does it mean?” calls.

And, to be honest, if I started a sentence in my local with “alright Dave, I can’t believe the council is facilitating meaningful dialogue as part of an over-arching, place-shaping strategy”, it’d probably be the last thing I said for a while anyway.

So let’s keep it simple, eh?