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?

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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.

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.

#RCXmas

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.

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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.