Sunday, 10 November 2013

Remembering To Be Proud

When was the last time you sung the National Anthem? Or waved a Union Flag? Remembrance Day reminded me they were questions I asked myself a fortnight ago. I felt a little sad about it. People from other countries just seem to be prouder of their history and heritage than we are.

Is it because we Brits have phased out expressions of our national identity over the years? Is it partly to do with the far right having appeared to colonise national symbolism, making the rest of us ashamed to associate ourselves with flags, songs and colours?

Thinking back to my childhood, I remember standing and singing the National Anthem fairly regularly. Even though my dad is an immigrant, I was a cub scout brought up on Wimbledon, the Boat Race, the Royal Wedding, and supporting any England team in action. If I'd have taken Norman Tebbit's "cricket test" I'd have been top of the class.

But 30 years on, sitting in the stands at Wembley, anticipating the American Football match last month, I felt a faint wave of embarrassment at the opening bars of the Star Spangled Banner. "These Yanks give it the big one at anything," I thought. Less than a minute later, I was reluctantly admitting it felt rather good. And, instinctively joining in with the ensuing National Anthem, probably for the first time in 10 years, I wondered why we Brits don't do this more often?

I don't know the answer and I don't know what we can do about it. But Remembrance Day should be a reminder that we can be proud of our history when we let ourselves. We should be. We've got a lot to be proud about. So why should we let our national introversion or a few EDL meatheads put us off from celebrating our heritage more often?

Friday, 17 May 2013

Is it worth it? Measuring and evaluating FRS communication

For years I’ve been trying to find an easily understandable way to demonstrate the value of my Fire Authority’s spending on corporate communication. As I said in my last blog, in South Yorkshire, we’ve always evaluated the impact of our community fire safety (CFS) campaigns, and have constantly refined this to a good level now. We believe we can make a case for the impact our work with our colleagues in CFS has on reducing emergency incidents, some of which we showcased in our “Community Safety In Numbers” publication.
What has proven elusive is a way to measure the impact of the rest of our work, from media relations to our website; from social media to internal communication. We’re not there yet but, heavily influenced by Westminster Council’s excellent publication: “Evaluating Your Communication Tools”, we’ve made a start.
For the last two years in South Yorkshire, our main media relations performance target has revolved around “the percentage of media stories which include a community safety message.” In that time, our research tells us that the percentage of our population who can recall seeing a media story about us has significantly increased. I hope and believe this is linked. The performance measure has certainly provided focus to what our media relations work is there to achieve.
Our surveys over the past two years also tell us that whilst satisfaction with our emergency response service has slightly declined, the overall reputation of our organisation has improved. It’s far too early to tell whether there is any significance in these trends, or whether communicating effectively has helped our reputation score to hold up, but it’s something we’ll keep an eye on.
Westminster’s document has also helped us to start to evaluate our website, e-newsletter, social media and internal newsletter – these are all vital as we move towards more direct communication with the public, and put more emphasis on internal communication through the cuts. We’ve pulled our 2012/13 evaluation together in one short report. It’s interesting to us, gives us a clear picture of what is working and what isn’t, and goes some way towards showing the outcomes of our day-to-day work. It’s more tangible and scientific performance measurement for communication, which we haven’t been good at as a profession.
It’s something that we need to do better throughout the Fire Service, to provide clear evidence of what we’re achieving, and what may be lost in austerity cuts. I heard that one FRS boasts of cutting communications spending to just £12,000 by outsourcing it to an agency. But without a clear understanding of the role of communication in the FRS, and a way to evaluate its achievements, who knows whether £12,000 is too much to pay, or £500,000 not enough? We believe we can show the savings to society from our CFS campaigns in South Yorkshire alone run into the millions.
I’m convinced that driving ourselves to improve the proportion of media stories with a community safety message is improving public safety; now we’re turning our attention to researching the specific issue of smoke alarm testing because, more than smoke alarm ownership, this is a pure communication measure that will save lives. I’d love to be able to benchmark measures like this against other Fire Services; I’d be prepared to bet that the better-measured and more outcome-focused an FRS communications effort, the better it achieves desired behaviour change. I’d also be interested to know of any other ways Fire Services measure their communications work for its impact on community safety.
Finally on this topic, it’s worth considering the impact of the national Government Fire Kills campaign which, as with all Government campaigns now, is under constant review. The Fire Kills team regularly evaluate the impact of their key campaign periods, and the results are usually favourable – but it’s only carried out on a national basis. What I’d really like to see for 2013/14 is some evaluation which compares the impact in different FRS areas. Are smoke alarm testing rates pretty consistent nationwide? Or does local FRS support for the national message improve these figures during the campaign period? Is smoke alarm testing lower outside of the national campaign period, or does the message stick? And does a testing message put out only by a local FRS at a different time of the year work as well, and as cost effectively, as the national campaign? I’d love to find out.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Beyond Reputation: The Communicators’ Role In The FRS

Communication professionals in public services are basically spin doctors, employed primarily to manage their organisation’s reputation – right? Wrong.
In 2005 the Local Government Association and LGcomms published the Reputation guide, a checklist of things Councils could do to improve their reputation. The New Reputation guide followed in 2010. They clearly articulated a purpose for communicators in local government – to improve public satisfaction with Council services. I was never convinced that approach entirely fitted the Fire Service. In an era of austerity, I know it doesn’t. I don’t believe that public service communicators can justify their role solely on the grounds of reputation. We know that the public would rather see their money go on nurses, teachers and firefighters.
So what is a communicator’s role in the Fire Service? Could any of us articulate it in one sentence? Recently in the fire trade press, a private contractor seemed to suggest that communications functions could be outsourced to a call centre-type outfit, answering journalists’ calls. Suggestions like that fundamentally misunderstand what I believe our clear role in the Fire Service is.
It is beyond reputation. Communicators in today’s public services must show how they directly contribute to achieving overall organisational aims, whether by making services better, reducing demand, or changing public behaviour. In today’s Fire Service, that means proving our direct impact on reducing emergency incidents, improving prevention and protection, or helping to achieve change.
In South Yorkshire, I’d say 75-80% of our team’s role is community fire safety. Most of the rest is change management, or internal communication. At the same time, we maximise our reputation wherever possible, systematically measuring and evaluating our effectiveness along the way; but I can’t justify a penny of my Authority’s spending on communication for reputation alone. Firefighters drive a fire service’s reputation. Our role must be about community safety.
My South Yorkshire colleague, Alex Mills, has worked closely with our Community Fire Safety team to develop a range of successful and innovative campaigns which are proven to reduce emergency incidents, and have paid for themselves many times over in savings to society. We’ve published our ‘greatest hits’, which outlines some of this work. It’s called “Community Safety In Numbers”, because we’ve rigorously evaluated the impact of our work.
The Fire Service and the public have an inherent goodwill towards “traditional” community safety, such as school visits, youth engagement courses, and fitting smoke alarms – going out and doing stuff. Millions of pounds are spent on these activities every year nationwide, and some of them are clearly working in reducing emergency incidents. But which ones work? Which are the millions well spent, and which don't actually reduce risk? Whether these initiatives are properly evaluated or not, they’re “Community Safety” and people have an instinctive emotional support for them.
Far from the millions spent on “traditional” community safety, I agonise over spending £5,000 on a safety campaign that I know I will evaluate as to its effectiveness. I wonder if Fire Service communicators would be viewed differently by the public if we were instead called “Community Safety Mass Education Officers”, or something similar?
As it is, we will never have the luxury of inherent goodwill. If we can’t win hearts, we must win minds. We must clearly identify our role in contributing intelligently and cost-effectively to FRS’ overall community safety effort, and show how our work can be clearly measured. Aside from the campaign evaluation that we practise in South Yorkshire, in my next blog, I’ll outline how we can measure our day-to-day effectiveness to illustrate the value of communication.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

We Need To Lead Change

Today I’m publishing a discussion paper on the future of corporate communications in the English Fire and Rescue Service (FRS). I’m saying we need to achieve more with less. I’m saying that we need to find a more efficient model than the historic structure of over 40 press offices at individual FRS level. I’m saying that, as communicators, we need to prove our worth to the FRS beyond doubt. I’m saying that we, and the Service need to clearly set out what we should be aiming to achieve, and how that should be evaluated.

This is a discussion paper I couldn't publish when I was FirePRO chair, when I spoke for us all. Today, I make it clear I’m speaking for myself. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. But I hope to provoke a debate in which we can all have our say, because I passionately believe that effective communication is needed more than ever by a changing fire service. The FRS needs to fully engage with its staff and the public about why change is needed, and how it will affect them. Without that two-way dialogue, the change that has to happen will be more costly, and take longer to achieve. And, as money gets tighter, the need for smarter, much more cost-effective community safety will grow. We need to show that the way to reduce demand in that elusive hardest to reach audience, at minimal cost, is through highly-targeted marketing and communication.

As well as saying what is wrong, my discussion paper also suggests a new communication structure for the Service. One that costs less but achieves more. It would reduce the duplication of technical aspects of communication, which are currently replicated 40 times over in the English FRS. It opens the door to new, strategic communication specialisms which are largely lacking in our Service, but so desperately needed, now more than ever. It requires us to be brave, to recognise that we need to get serious about shared services. We need a clear vision about what communication in the FRS is here to achieve. And we need to champion clear performance measures which demonstrate to Authority members and senior officers exactly what they get for every pound spent on communication.

We can do it; we must do it. Send me your feedback. Talk about the issues with your counterparts in FRS comms, and with your senior officers. Disagree with me if you like – and if you can put an alternative vision forward. But I don’t believe that in five years’ time we will still have over 40 in-house corporate communication teams in the English FRS. So let’s now lead the debate about what we should have instead.

Over the coming week, I’ll be publishing a few more “Thought Leader” articles. I’ll set out my thoughts on:

· The role of communication in the Fire and Rescue Service

· How it should be measured and evaluated, and

· Innovations in cost-effective community safety

Let’s not sit back and wait to see what post-austerity FRS communication looks like. Let’s use the challenge of declining resources as a catalyst to lead the debate about what we’re here for, and how we’re going to achieve it.

We’re communicators – let’s get talking.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Thatcher's Election Lesson

Much has been made this week of how Margaret Thatcher polarised opinion. There is no doubt about that.

Much has also been said about how she was only for the southern, middle and upper classes, and against everyone else. I believe that is wrong. And the reason it's wrong holds a valuable lesson for Ed Miliband and David Cameron as they try to plot a path to election victory in 2015.

For the last 15 years, I've lived and worked in Labour's union heartland, some of their safest seats in the country. But I was born and brought up for my first 18 years in one of the Tories' safest seats. I've experienced first-hand the way people viewed her from both ends of the telescope. But the electorate in these areas don't win or lose elections. Paradoxically, for someone seen to be so divisive, the reason Thatcher was so successful electorally was in the centre ground - the swing voters who hold the keys to 10 Downing Street voted for her in their millions.

To understand why, I'll give an example from my family - although I stress I am not passing my own judgements on the rights and wrongs of Thatcherism and I don't know how any of my family has ever voted. But this example is useful to understand the point I am making.

My parents were both NHS nurses throughout Thatcher's premiership, and for most of their working lives. In 1979 they were clearly working class. In 1991 they were landlords and shareholders, a status achieved only by their hard work as nurses and the opportunities they took advantage of in the 1980s. The concept of the Yuppie wasn't about rich people getting richer; it was about 'new money' earned by people from all sorts of backgrounds.

The lesson here is one that Cameron and Miliband would do well to remember. It is that Margaret Thatcher wasn't for any one class or region. Labour cannot win an election with only northern, working class votes, just as the Conservatives can't win one with only southern, middle class votes. She won three in a row, the latter two with large majorities - and, by the way, just like Tony Blair (and Cameron last time) people voted for the leader more than the party.

Far from being a leader for the few, Thatcher simply gave ordinary people of many backgrounds hope that they could make a better life for themselves and their families. That's what the current generation of political leaders need to do if they want to win in 2015.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Talking and Listening - The Sound of Music

The near ubiquitous presence of Peppa Pig, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and Dora the Explorer in my house made me sceptical about introducing my kids to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Why would they be interested in two near 50-year-old films with no cartoon graphics or special effects to speak of? I was amazed during half-term when they chose to watch one or the other every day, with modern-day DVDs being left untouched.

It led me to think about all the smart new tools we use as public sector communication professionals nowadays. Which of them will stand the test of time to become classics? And which will go as quickly as they came? It's hard to believe that VHS tapes and music CDs have been and practically gone within my lifetime. I've only owned a smartphone for two years but can now barely begin to think about life without Twitter. I know many others feel the same about Facebook. I think we'll still be using these resources, or their offspring, for many moons to come.

On the "disappearing" list, I'm putting dozens of social media apps which will come and go. And some of the very foundations of PR and marketing - press releases, local newspapers, and traditional paid-for advertising. It has long been the case that we need to target our campaigns better. Now, thanks to new media, we have the technical resources to do that. I future, I think we'll be doing better at targeting our messages at specific communities. Let's face it, we've never really known how many people have seen our piece in the paper, or heard our radio ad.

Finally, I think new media will eventually bring us back to some sadly forgotten arts that would save us a lot of bother - actually talking and listening to people. It's a theme of the Francis report in the NHS. If we listen more, to our customers and our staff, we will reduce failure and provide better services. Social media can provide us with new and effective ways of having those conversations, but they can only supplement the best way to find out what someone really thinks - a cup of tea and a chat. Now that's what I call the Sound of Music.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Conspiring against a generation

Less than six months after those amazing Olympics ended, the reputation of top level sport is at its lowest ebb. Sport collectively is in desperate need of a sustained PR plan to restore our faith in what used to be a noble cause.
There is no greater advocate of sport than myself. I’ve played, coached, refereed and volunteered for over 30 years. I’ve spent literally hours daydreaming about one of my kids scoring in the World Cup final, or winning at Wimbledon. Yet, after the drug revelations of recent months, twinned with Europol’s latest pronouncements about match-fixing in football, even I’m questioning whether it’s something I want my girls involved in.
For me, sport has always been about the glory. I remember those triumphant moments when Brian Kilcline and Dave Beasant lifted the FA Cup above their heads every bit as fondly as Keith Houchen’s diving header and Lawrie Sanchez’s flicked winner*. Can I really advocate my youngsters pursuing a path where their dreams could be dashed by a bookies’ bung, or because (I hope) they say ‘No’ to a doctor’s needle.
Sport needs a credible plan to show us that what we are watching, cheering, living, is the real deal. Governing bodies needs to work collectively to address the sins they are all suffering. They need to demonstrably throw serious resources at rooting out these evils, show us their efforts are working, and let us believe again that our heroes are genuine.
Coming from Sheffield, I spent much of last summer thinking how great it would be if one of my daughters could follow in Jessica Ennis’ footsteps. Sadly, I don’t want them to now. I’ve still got enough belief in me (maybe misplaced) that, in a skill sport, ability and endless practice can overcome the medicine bottle. But pure speed or power sports like athletics, cycling and swimming? I’m just not sure what I believe any more.
*Youngsters among you should consult the stories of the 1987 and 1988 FA Cup finals.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Horsemeat - it's our own fault

I only need to go to the bottom of my road for a reminder that the blame for this horsemeat scandal is ours. Sure, there is some industrial scale malpractice going on. But it's only possible because of our collective laziness and misplaced priorities.

At the bottom of my road is a parade of around 20 shops. Three of them are Chinese takeaways; three pizza takeaways; two Indian takeaways; a fish, chip and kebab shop; a fast food diner; a jacket potato takeaway; and a clothes shop and art gallery.

Our nation's inability and unwillingness to cook for itself, our dependence on microwave and takeaway dinners is coming home to roost. I don't accept the 'busy lifestyle' argument. My parents both worked full-time and had three kids in six years but I can barely recall eating a takeaway, except fish and chips maybe once a year, until I left home. They always found time to cook for us.

There are those who argue that microwave dinners and junk food are cheaper than fruit and veg. I have a little sympathy for this view. Except that I, like most of us, have some warped priorities here. When I was a student, I gave myself a weekly budget of £30 for food shopping but would think nothing of spending the same amount on alcohol on a night out, two or three times a week. While we're happy to pay £3 for a pint at the pub, or £7 for a pack of fags, but balk at paying more than pence for our frozen burgers and sausages, we're all to blame.

The answers, of course, are to cook our own dinners from fresh, and be prepared to prioritise buying decent ingredients over less vital spending, as nutritionists have pointed out for years. But those things aren't in the British culture any more, are they? If we can't think of ourselves, then maybe the focus should be on our offspring. My kids are all vegetarian, so I haven't had the moral dilemma about whether 'value' or 'economy' burgers are good enough for them, even if I'd take my own chances with them.

The problem is, horsemeat is probably only the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what else is in our processed food? To be honest, I inkling I'd rather not.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Why Tweetfests Could Harm Our Profession

The first time I saw a public sector Twitterthon I was quite impressed. It was probably done by Walsall or Coventry Council, who seem to lead the way on social media, and it added some colour to the traditionally dour or closed world of local government work. Then Greater Manchester Police took the innovative step of tweeting all their incidents in a 24-hour period*. I seem to remember being told it aimed to highlight the full breadth of Police work, as part of a wider strategy to try to minimise Government funding cuts.
Now, though, these Tweetfests seem to be twoapenny and, frankly, are becoming a little boring. Far, far worse, however, is that they could begin to undermine our profession by reinforcing senior managers’ long-term prioritisation of technical aspects of communication over the strategic.
An over-reaction? Well, to explain my thinking, one only has to consider the proportion of times an organisation’s communicator is summoned to deal with a problem, or promote some good news, with the cry: “We need a press release”; when actually, what was needed was a wider approach to consider the implications of that decision, and a strategy to manage its consequences. Or a discussion about whether a press release is actually the best medium by which to put that good news across.
It is many years since professional communicators stopped measuring their success in terms of press releases distributed or newspaper column inches. How many people actually read those articles? And what tiny proportion of that small number actually changed their behaviour as a result of that article? In my Fire Service, our comms team’s role is aligned with the Service aim of making people safer. There’s a bit of reputation management in there, but we measure our success in terms of our contribution to reducing emergency incidents. Sending out a press release often isn’t the best way to do that, but all too often a manager’s comms instinct is still to call for a press release instead of a strategy.
Twitterthons are now in danger of perpetuating the perception that the technical communicator’s role of writing stuff and send it out is more important than planning and managing a strategy to achieve a business objective. They have their place as one element of a wider plan to achieve a specific goal. But we should resist at all costs the morphing of the “write us a press release” request into “do us a Tweetfest”.
The Japanese inventor and industrialist Sakichi Toyoda pioneered the “5 Whys” concept – basically whatever your idea or problem is, constantly ask “Why” to boil the issue down to the key issue. As a communicator, our first question when asked to do a Tweetfest should be “Why?” If the answer is for a bit of good publicity, or to do something of interest to people, it’s probably, at best, a waste of valuable time. And if, by the time we’ve asked “Why?” for the fifth time, and we still haven’t reached a core organisational objective or work priority, then we need to be brave enough to say “No.”

UPDATE (24/1): I am informed that GMP's came first, but Council Twitterthons followed soon afterwards

Monday, 21 January 2013

No Winners, All Fees

Have you heard the one about the "No Winners, All Fees" lawyers? They've been particularly busy over the past couple of years and they're coming to a town near you.

The latest example was brought to my attention by a local journalist who tweeted about a Sheffield law centre looking to pursue action against the Council for an alleged lack of consultation over "a decision" to change early years provision. The minor flaws in their case being that the Council aren't due to make any decisions until next month at the earliest and the consultation is still ongoing. In fact, I'd attended a consultation event that very day.

I'm as concerned as anyone about these proposals. They directly affect the nursery attended by one of my children, and the actual provision I'm hoping my baby will receive in time to come. I've even signed a petition to register that concern. But, I am totally against any threat of legal action. Because the wider issue we should all be bothered about is "To what extent will it benefit us?"

Apart those who have lived in a cave for the past five years, we all know that the money has run out and cuts have to be made. Let's just say a legal challenge - to this, or any other Council decision - is successful. Will it end the world recession? Will it solve the funding gap in public services? No.

Actually, the outcome will be that the Council runs up bills to defend itself, has to spend more money repeating the consultation, and still has to end up making at least the same level of cuts, and possibly in an even less palatable way. There are no winners, except the lawyers who are eyeing up a quick buck at taxpayers' expense.

The Sheffield Law Centre isn't the first, and it won't be the last. They should take the time to actually take part in the consultation, which is still ongoing. I asked difficult questions and am not exactly pleased at the outcome. But I am satisfied at least that due process has been followed. Legal action should be a last resort. We are all losers when it becomes the first one.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Leadership and Terry Butcher

I believe a large part of my role at work is working with managers to help them communicate effectively. I strongly believe that, as a leader, getting your vision, values, and messages across are a vital, and often-neglected, skill. And, with my interest in sport, I’m always interested in the leadership communication strategies adopted by successful coaches.
The news today that Barnsley Football Club are to speak with Terry Butcher about their managerial vacancy reminded me again the importance of communication in leadership – it’s all about getting your message across.
In his playing days, Terry was a fearless defender who led by example. He famously saw England through a vital World Cup qualifying tie in Sweden despite having his shirt drenched with blood from a gashed head early in the match. But the most notable aspects of his early football management career were two fairly quick sackings, from Coventry and Sunderland. For all his ability to lead by example on the pitch, like many top class players, he couldn’t get his message across as a manager.
After leaving Sunderland in 1993, it was nine years until his next managerial appointment. In that time he did his coaching badges – I know, because I was on one of those courses1. It wasn’t always the done thing of elite players aspiring to become managers. One former England international told me he kept getting turned down for jobs because he hadn’t got his badges – but added that there was nothing a badge could give him that he hadn’t got from playing at the highest level, so why should he?
Well, here’s why. You may have all the ability in the world in your chosen profession. But, as a leader, you can’t do it all - you only succeed through the work of others, and one of the most important but elusive leadership qualities is being able to bring out the best in them. It's really hard, and I'm still learning how to be better at this.
Coaching badges aren’t the be-all-and-end-all. And Butcher had a forgettable spell at Brentford five years ago. But having built gradually towards a sustained period of relative success at Inverness Caledonian Thistle, I’m willing to bet that that experience (or other courses) have helped Terry to do better at getting his message across as a leader.
1 A funny aside from that course. In one session, Terry took a shot that went miles over the bar (those who saw him play will be smiling wryly now). Well, the ‘coach’ of this session stopped the game and told this former England captain and top flight manager to do it again, and this time keep his head over the ball - with exactly the same result. Over and over again. I still can’t work out who I was more embarrassed for. I wouldn’t have had the courage to tell him to do it again. But I’m pleased to say Terry took it in good grace and, from the short chats I had with him, seemed to be a lovely guy. If he goes to Barnsley, I hope he does well there.