Light fantastic

The big Christmas lights switch-on – late-November staple diet stuff for council comms and events teams across the land.

In previous festive seasons, we pretty much could’ve done it in our sleep. Press release – check; posters and leaflets – check; special guests – check…

And don’t get me wrong, we did all of the above for the illuminating of the seaside town of Redcar again this time round.

But this year was the first in which we really wanted to harness the power of social media to create an online buzz around our Chrimbo events, bringing a boost to businesses and giving the council a bit of a reputational shot in the arm at the same time.

We’d had some recent flak for trimming £40k from the festive lights budget this year, arguing that in turbulent economic times there was a delicate balance to strike between maintaining frontline services and not being seen as Scrooge-esque.


Facebook and Twitter were the focus of our efforts.

We set up the #RCXmas hashtag to push last Friday night’s Redcar main event with its fairground, log cabins, local performers and the switch-on with X Factor boyband The Risk.

We also used #RCXmas as a space where residents, schools, community and voluntary groups could share details of their own Christmas fairs, plays, carol concerts and other events – all of which we retweeted. Even The Risk themselves got in on the act.

Daily FB updates counted down to the switch-on, urging people to share their pictures and signposting to a dedicated web page outlining all of our communities’ festive activities.

Keen to get involved with the social drive, our portfolio holder for leisure and tourism did us a couple of Audioboo clips encouraging folk to turn out in force and we had listings on n0tice.

Glad tidings 

Did it all work? Well, I’ve no footfall figures yet, but I’ve never seen the town so busy.

According to Tweetreach, over the five days leading up to the event the #RCXmas hashtag reached 205,791 accounts, generating 240,107 impressions.

By 9pm on the night itself, we had a gallery of more than 50 superb images from the event up on our Facebook page, as well as on a Pinterest board. The likes and positive comments are still coming in.

Most importantly of all, we’ve had some really encouraging levels of engagement – and hopefully spread some social festive cheer into the bargain.

Photo – Dave Charnley Photography


A matter of PRide

Okay, so a blog penned whilst bleary-eyed after only a few hours’ kip probably isn’t going to make for great reading.

But what the heck, here goes. 

For last night, little old Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council’s communications unit won the ‘Outstanding In-House PR Team of the Year’ title at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ PRide North-East Awards. 

For the team it was the culmination of about two-and-a-half years’ worth of hard graft to establish a first-rate comms set-up within the organisation.

Three new comms folks – myself included – were recruited in March 2010, not long after the Government’s now-defunct Place Survey had shown our residents’ overall satisfaction levels to be pretty low. Improving reputation was high on the agenda. 

Getting to work

Did we do anything flash or innovative to achieve that? Not particularly, to be honest.

But a huge amount of time and effort was ploughed into getting the fundamental basics of local government comms right.

Media relations, the trusty old residents’ magazine, consultation, crisis management, getting a handle on all print and design activity across the authority, tackling a massive internal comms challenge (we picked up the Best Internal Publication gold award last night too) – they all required major surgery. 

This work began as the council embarked on the biggest regeneration programme in its history, having secured tens of millions in external grants in the nick of time before various funding doors were slammed shut. In the coastal town of Redcar alone, £75m was being invested. The renaissance of Greater Eston was bringing eco-homes, a health centre, supermarket and jobs. All of this required comms support.

By the end of 2010 we were also facing up to the challenges around making £34m worth of cuts in the wake of the Comprehensive Spending Review. 

Cultural barriers

In December 2011, the comms office was home to eight of us. Today, there’s just the four.

Truth be told, we now cast envious glances in the direction of our local government counterparts making giant strides forward in the worlds of social and digital engagement.

Building a decent basic comms operation from scratch has left us a little behind the rest of the field.

The task ahead is now all about breaking down some of the sizeable cultural barriers we face in that regard.

To be fair, there have been encouraging signs in recent weeks and as a team we’re wholeheartedly committed to banging on about the benefits until we’re blue in the face. 

We’ll get there eventually – and hopefully our new trophy haul will give our voice a bit of added clout.

The #OurDay challenge

The success of the LGA’s rather brilliant #OurDay initiative last week has been well-documented, so I’ll not harp on about its wider benefits and implications for social media use in local government.

But suffice to say it was the best thing we’ve done in a long time at Redcar & Cleveland Council, leading to some terrific results and, more importantly, us hearing the collective sound of eyes being prised open and pennies dropping across the organisation.

In no particular order, here’s a few things I learned from our bid to record a full 24 hours in the life of the authority:

* Caffeine is good – I took the midnight to 10.30am shift and then 9pm to 11.59pm, covering everything from school cooks firing up the kitchens early doors to community protection officers patrolling the streets by moonlight;

* Normal stuff is just as important as extraordinary stuff – the internal reaction to our appeal for help in planning ’24 Hours in R&C’ was overwhelming. I genuinely expected at least a few “stop arsing about on Twitter and get a proper job” responses, but got nothing of the kind. Colleagues, particularly those in far-flung locations or doing things you’d probably never associate with ‘The Council’, inundated us with details of their basic, day-to-day routines in serving local communities. “Helping stallholders set up on the market at 6am”; “checking the first ships coming into Teesport”; “removing a mattress and wonky old table from resident’s home” – we really did capture it all.

* Our contact centre is brilliant – dealing with about 2,000 calls a day from people angry at their parking fines, concerned about their missing dog, curious about the roadworks at the bottom of their street, annoyed at their noisy neighbours and so much more is not easy. The comms team tipping up, wreaking havoc and wrecking headsets probably didn’t help, but their call-handling success rate remained extremely high and they were delighted to see their work showcased on Twitter;

* Telling people that they’re doing good things is great. People were chuffed to bits when we fed back the #OurDay results and many teams want to work with us in a similar fashion on individual projects from their own service areas.

#OurDay also marked my 34th birthday, which I largely managed to forget about for most of the day, but then used as a fine excuse to sink a couple of bottles of Peroni at the end of the shift.

24 Hours in R&C

For the past few weeks, I’ve been helping to co-ordinate the enormous logistical challenge of a 24-hour tweet-fest of the myriad services provided every day by Redcar & Cleveland Council.

Now, let’s be honest, when it comes to a Twitter day in the life of a local authority we’re not so much late to the party as stood outside at 4am banging on the door while everyone inside has collapsed on the sofa after the booze ran out.

But it is something new to us and we’re just a bit excited about it. It’s taken a splash of educating, a spot of encouraging and a sprinkling of cajoling to get the green light for us to join the LGA’s #OurDay initiative on September 27th.

It’s designed to showcase the hundreds and thousands of little things councils and councillors do every day in serving their communities.

We’ve been fortunate to be able to research the wonderful groundbreaking stuff from the likes of Walsall Council in staging this kind of experiment.

And as I’ve discovered over the past few days, council life is about infinitely more than collecting the bins and filling in holes in the road.

Shining a light

By 6am, for example, 338 litres of milk have hit the roads, ready for delivery to under-5s at our nurseries. Our environmental health and safety folks are responsible for 41 private water supplies – homes which receive their water from streams or boreholes. We have port health officers, inspecting the hundreds of ships coming into the industrial behemoth that is Teesport every year.

I know all this – and so, so much more – for the simple reason that teams and departments across the council have been brilliantly forthcoming in telling us about all they do.

We’d not asked for details of award-winning projects, of multi-million pound schemes or tales of heroism.

We’d asked for the basics. The routine stuff that they do each and every day, probably without even thinking, which when all brought together will create a detailed picture of public service over a 24-hour period.

And everyone has responded superbly. Because who doesn’t want a little bit of recognition for the effort they put in day in, day out?

We really have been rummaging about in some dark and dusty corners, shining a light and finding people carrying out exemplary and important duties in the name of serving our diverse communities. They’ll be getting their time in the Twitter spotlight on OurDay.

In fact, I’ve not had one “Twitter? I haven’t got time for this” e-mail. Some positive responses have run into seven or eight Word pages.

So barring technological meltdown, @RedcarCleveland will be recording ’24 Hours in R&C’ from midnight onwards on September 27th.

Better late than never. Oh, and I’m on the midnight to midday shift, so all Red Bull donations gratefully received.

Staff magazzzzzine or a right riveting read?

The council staff magazine: let’s be honest, the very sight of such a thing can make the heart sink.

Done badly, they can be turgid affairs. You know the kind – a few thousand words on the implementation of a new governance framework here, a grainy picture of Marion from Accounts abseiling down the local library there.

Fortunately, in Redcar & Cleveland, we reckon we’ve hit upon a winning formula that’s made the staff magazine something which is appreciated, valued and engaged with.

And the very first question to ask was whether or not anyone actually wanted such a publication in the first place. Would we just be doing it for the hell of it because, y’know, the comms team always has to produce a staff mag, doesn’t it?

Never mind that it’s often an epic struggle to craft Pulitzer Prize-worthy copy around the new fire evacuation procedures; never mind that quality images and design are in short supply with budgets slashed to the bone; never mind that it’s been donkey’s years since you investigated whether a single soul was reading it and taking its messages on board, or just using it to prop up a wonky canteen table.

Hitting the road

For us, luckily, the appetite was very much there. Back in May 2010, we hit the road to ask more than 250 staff face-to-face whether they wanted a good ol’ staff mag at all and, if so, what they wanted from it.

They did want it and they knew what they wanted from it. And we set out to provide that. Eight pages, fortnightly, a mix of corporate messages and light-hearted content. An e-version for PC users and hard copies for those in remote locations. No hiding stuff from anyone; telling it as it is in dire economic straits.

Very simply, we told people what they wanted and needed to know. No bullshit.

Addressing the cuts

As the council grappled with setting its toughest-ever budget in the wake of the Government’s comprehensive spending review, for example, we spelled the situation out, warts ‘n’ all.

We had to find millions. Tens of millions, even. Times would be hard. Jobs may go. Teams would be affected, services hit. But we also outlined the wealth of support that would be available to those facing redundancy. They wouldn’t just be abandoned. Help in moving on to new roles or re-training would be available.

It wasn’t a barrel of laughs by any means, but the openness and frequency of the message was appreciated. Seventy-eight per cent of staff attended the budget briefing sessions pushed through the magazine.

Achieving corporate goals

We also work closely with HR to ensure the publication is aligned to the goals of our hugely successful Valuing Our People programme, plugging a wealth of initiatives to boost staff health and well-being.

Eighty-four per cent of staff, in a recent survey, said they regularly read the magazine. They ranked it their favourite method of communication, appreciating that it was done entirely in-house and on a shoestring.

We’ve picked up a clutch of awards along the way and are generally pretty proud of it. And long may it continue.

That’s got a ring to it…

At some point in the near future, I will actually get off my sofa.

I reckon I’ve been here since July 27th, when Danny Boyle’s £27m spell-binding, eye-popping, musical, theatrical masterpiece of all things jolly well British sent us all into a sporting frenzy.

Okay, my Olympic obsession hasn’t been quite that extreme. But it’s true to say there have been times when London 2012 has been so compelling it has left me rooted to the spot, gazing on in awe.

Here’s a few things, in no particular order, the 30th Olympiad has taught me:

1. Pass some coins over the counter at your local newsagents and you’ll still get a quality product in exchange. Reporters, photographers and subs on regional and national papers have excelled themselves with the depth and quality of their coverage and design. The Times takes the gold medal for its magnificent wraps, especially the ‘Mod Rule’ special for Bradley Wiggins’ time trial success.

2. The BBC’s coverage has been a joy. Rightly panned for its Jubilee flotilla disaster, no such criticism can be levelled this time round. Pundits such as Ian Thorpe, Michael Johnson and Mark Cavendish have been superb; Clare Balding on sparkling presenting form. The very swanky BBC Olympics app is a must-have; the red button interactive guide a triumph. I’ll let them off for Trevor Nelson commentating on the opening ceremony. Just.

3. If we really must have an Olympic football tournament and a Team GB in it, we should’ve picked Beckham. We just should have.

4. Social media has seen its fair share of winners and losers too. Racist tweets have seen athletes expelled. Those silly spectators trying to capture, share and discuss their Olympic memories were entirely to blame for the communications breakdown in the cycling road races, preventing organisers receiving crucial timing and positional updates (according to the IOC anyway). Fortunately the good has outweighed the bad – personal bests have come from @TeamGB @RoyalMailStamps @ryanlochte and many more.

5. ‘Super Saturday’ made me wish I’d
not “forgotten” my PE kit so often at school. It was the single greatest sporting day ever on these isles, bar none (well, since Darlington won the 1989-90 GM Vauxhall Conference title at least).

6. Legacy. Okay, I thought it was nonsense and only used for comedic effect on TwentyTwelve, but there’s already encouraging signs. The Local Government Association says councils across the land are reporting surges in use of leisure facilities. My eldest has even spent a week at a trampolining club after watching Kat Driscoll perform for GB. Legacy? Like, totally.

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.

Nice place for an interview…