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.