After 11 years in public relations and having just turned 40, I have finally taken my first steps towards gaining a professional qualification by enrolling on the CIPR Professional PR Diploma.
I am fortunate that my employer has agreed to invest in my development. That was never a possibility during my nine years in the public sector, nor could I have afforded to fund myself. I am grateful for the opportunity and plan to seize it with both hands.
I am studying by distance learning with Cambridge Marketing College, which means I could make an immediate start. The whole thing should take around 12 months. A hefty chunk of the next year’s ‘spare’ time will be devoted to reading, thinking, watching, listening and writing.
The CIPR Professional PR Diploma is a relatively new qualification, replacing the previous PR Diploma. It has more of a practical focus than its more academic predecessor, which will help me apply the learning directly to my own practice to benefit my team and organisation.
After yet another hiatus in blogging, despite my best intentions, I plan to be able to use this platform to document my studies and work out the various ideas, theories and arguments that come up over the next year. Among the areas I am keen to explore are the value of public relations to organisations, professional ethics, content strategy, the role of artificial intelligence in PR, and meaningful measurement.
Given the contextual and historical content of the start of the course (fascinating to a comms geek like me), I might start by tackling the questions: What even is public relations, anyway? Who cares? And why should they?
You might have heard of the book, particularly if you work in PR in the UK or you know David and his Glasgow-based company Zude PR.
David hasn’t been shy in promoting Reset and rightly so, as he’s self-published it. Numerous PR luminaries have already blogged, tweeted or podcasted about it.
My copy of Reset is a pre-publication PDF – my first e-book, in fact – that David kindly sent me. I then proceeded to sit on it for a few months before finally diving in.
This isn’t a book review. Not in the conventional sense, anyway. It’s more a reflection on myself and where I feel I am as the kind of ‘middle-class midlifer’ it addresses. Typically self-regarding.
If you haven’t heard about Reset, it goes like this…
David is a PR guy. He hails from the north-west of England and lives with his wife and two kids in Glasgow. For several years he headed up big-time PR agency Weber Shandwick’s offices in the city.
Then, six years ago, David left his job and went solo as Zude PR. He also embarked on a deep dive into learning digital communications and marketing, conscious that his traditional media-focused skill-set was out of step, threatening to render him obsolete. He read everything he could and mastered disciplines such as search engine optimisation (SEO) to become a top-class digital practitioner.
The thing about David is he doesn’t keep all this knowledge to himself. He likes to share. His Zude’s Top 4 emails link to the best of the reams of blog posts he’s devoured that week. His recommended reading lists have helped stock my bookshelves and shape my thinking on comms, branding and productivity over the past few years.
Approaching 40, David also took up running. He soon found he was good at it and began racing competitively. Last year he completed the Berlin Marathon in a scary-impressive time of two hours 40 minutes.
Running is as much a part of David’s story as PR. But although both figure and the foreword is written by former Olympian Charlie Spedding, Reset isn’t about PR, or running. It’s about life, and how to live it well.
As you may have guessed, I kind of know David. We haven’t met in person but we’ve exchanged emails and tweets. A couple of years ago he asked me, flatteringly, to contribute to a blog post about the thing he called ‘enlightened self-interest’ in communications; why it pays to be nice. Because of this professional generosity and his snappy, self-effacing writing style, I like David. Yet I set out not to like Reset.
Why? Perhaps it was the subtitle, ‘How to Restart Your Life and get F.U. Money‘.
I wasn’t familiar with the term and, to my soft-left sensibilities, the idea of getting ‘fuck you’ money sounded a bit like greed. Chasing wealth at the expense of all else.
An Amazon search turned up Dan ‘The Man’ Lok’s F.U. Money (subtitle: Make as Much Money as You Damn Well Want and Live Your Life as You Damn Well Please!) Was Reset like that? Was this book for me?
It turns out I was wrong. And that this book is almost precisely for me.
David’s book is nothing like as aggressive, condescending or materialistically shallow as Lok’s shouty title sounds.
He begins with ‘I’m writing this book for me six years ago’. David is 45. I’m 39 1/2. That’s the age David was when he started running. I took up running seriously two years ago. You could say I have a head start, though the prospect of a 2:40 marathon feels beyond me, having completed my first marathon last November in just over four hours. That said, I didn’t expect to run a 1:31 half marathon PB a month ago.
What else? I’m also married with two primary age kids. I like soul music. And I’ve worked in PR for over a decade, having started out as a journalist.
But there the similarities end. I am not heading up a branch of a major PR firm, or even managing a team. Until reassessing recently, I considered myself an under-achiever. I compared myself unfavourably to others the same age or younger who’d become more senior, with impressive job titles and salaries.
I love what I do, feel I’m still learning and am yet to reach my peak. Reset‘s sub-sub-title is The Unconventional Early Retirement Plan for Midlife Careerists Who Want to be Happy. Sure, I pay into my pension but I wasn’t thinking about planning for retirement yet.
Reset is a self-help book. But it’s an unconventional one. Its range is ambitiously diverse. Finding your purpose. Overcoming fears to future-proof your career (in Dave’s case, mastering digital). Decluttering mentally, digitally and physically. And, finally, gaining financial independence through frugality and sensible investment to amass a stash to live on and retire early.
It sounds like a grab-bag of current self-help trends. And yet, somehow, David pulls all the strands together to map out a cohesive, step-by-step plan to sort your shit out and get a better life for you and your family. What’s not to like?
And it’s an appealingly common-sense and easy-to-follow plan. The thought of putting some of the recommended steps into place and waiting for the ‘click’ as the fug clears and you gain a little headspace is attractive, even liberating. Take physical decluttering, AKA tidying up.
Last week I caught myself and laughed inwardly. On a return train journey to London for an industry event, I had just read cover-to-cover a second-hand copy of Japanese organising guru Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying. A book about tidying – by an eccentric Japanese woman who talks to inanimate household items and insists you fold your socks. Purely on David’s glowing recommendation in Reset. The 22-year-old music journalist me would have been appalled. The 39-year-old me loved it. (My wife, meanwhile, thinks I’m insane and isn’t letting me anywhere near her sock drawer…)
I admit that I skimmed over the lengthy financial independence section. I have an aversion to the language of money and finance paired with an undiagnosed numeracy issue. Numbers on a page cause my brain to scramble and shut down. I’m a words and pictures man. I did take some sound principles that I’ve started to implement – not least budgeting and frugality, something I’ve failed at my entire adult life.
What of the rest of it? Reset may be written for someone like me, at my age, life- and career-stage, but do I really want or need to reboot my life?
On reflection, I realise it’s something I started doing a couple of years ago and have been taking incremental steps towards ever since.
There was a time not too long ago when I felt I was in a career dead-end, stagnating, questioning if that was what I wanted to do with my life.
Then a few things changed. Or, rather, I changed them, consciously but in steps, not big-bang. I formed new habits and routines that, with time and repetition, have stuck. I have reflected and re-evaluated where I am and where I want to be; how I want to define myself as a professional and as a human. And I think I’m getting to be in a good place.
Here are some examples:
Exercise: Running three to four times a week, joining the local athletics club and completing one marathon and two half-marathons since last October. Adopting a 5:45am 15-minute exercise routine to kickstart every work day.
Changing job and sector: Leaving local government after nine years to join a national charity in a less senior but more fulfilling role, focused on campaign delivery with opportunities to broaden my skills and be creative. And a shorter commute to boot. David doesn’t like commuting.
Continuous professional development: Joining the CIPR in 2014, becoming an Accredited Practitioner and maintaining that status through the annual CPD programme and recently becoming a member of my regional CIPR committee.
Managing my time: Using free online tool Asana as my to do list to manage my priorities and deadlines. Quitting worthy but time-consuming and stress-making community volunteering commitments to free up my spare time and get more sleep rather than burning the candle.
Digitally declutter: Switching off my app notifications. Muting WhatsApp groups. Putting my social apps in a single folder on the second page of my phone. Partially withdrawing from Facebook. (I’m still struggling with this one. I still need to find an accommodation in my love-hate relationship with my iPhone and social media.)
I may not have consciously decided to reset my life with a systematic plan like David sets out, but over the last couple of years I have made changes – some big, some small – that have, if I’m honest, made me more professionally fulfilled, fitter and happier than I’ve ever been.
I’ve got a way to go. There are still things I want to change. But, like David, I know there’s no perfect, no nirvana. We’ll always be striving and struggling. And that’s life.
I was a bit bemused a year or so ago when I heard that podcasts were all the rage.
I’d frankly forgotten about them, thinking them a thing of the 2000s, back when we all had iPods.
(God, I miss my iPod. The black one with the clicky wheel. And all the music I’d painstakingly ripped from my CD collection. Someone nicked it from my coat pocket in a pub off Baker Street circa 2007.)
Anyway, like everyone else I recently got back into podcasts. As I run pretty regularly, and nearly always with earphones in, I’d started switching my somewhat erratic playlists for music podcasts. Mainly repetitive dance music mixes conducive with pavement-pounding.
But then I tried mixing in speech podcasts during my longer runs. And they work a treat. As long as I keep an eye out for lampposts.
And while in the car I’m usually alternating Radio 4/6 Music (in-car DAB, innit), I’ve started introducing podcasts during commutes, too. Especially since Eddie Mair’s jettisoned PM, Today started getting on my wick and on days when the studied shambling of Shaun Keaveney wears thin.
So, what am I listening to? A lot of worky-type PR/comms ‘casts. There’s some good stuff out there. There’s music. A bit of politics and news. Media. Interviews. And a spot of history – of the hardcore variety.
Here’s what’s bunging up space on my phone’s podcast app (note: I get my pod on with iTunes but you can get these wherever you get yours):
Sarah Hall and Stephen Waddington are absolute titans of UK public relations, being present and past presidents of the CIPR and all-round good people. They’re also proudly repping my native North-East. Named after Hall’s series of crowdsourced books (which I’ve dipped into digitally but need to buy), the podcast cracks along at a pace through the latest developments in social media, PR and marketing, and their straight-talking takes on the big talking points in comms and business (example episode title: ‘Stop posting shit on the internet’). Check out their NHS at 70 special.
I’m delighted to say I’ve listened to every one of Adrian Stirrup and Darren Caveney‘s ace and bostin Talking Comms podcast. Focused on public sector PR, marketing, digital and internal comms, it’s sincere, encouraging and unpretentious. Adrian and Darren are also stand-up guys whose repartee can make a 20-minute real-time journey in a VW camper van riveting entertainment. Check out their episode from the fantastic Comms Unplugged. (Full disclosure: I was there, I know Darren a bit, and he hasn’t paid me).
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (of which I am a member) has produced three brilliant episodes to mark the publication of a new book, Platinum, celebrating its 70th anniversary. Hosted by Russell Goldsmith of the csuite podcast, they focus on, in order: technology, including AI, and the future of PR (with the aforementioned Wadds); PR as a strategic management function; and public sector comms, particularly the NHS in its own 70th year. I listened to them all on flights to and from Edinburgh and they’re required listening for comms practitioners, whether you’re a CIPR member or not. (If you are, you get five CPD points for each, so log ’em!)
A new podcast on me, though its presenter is not. I’ve been picking up Paul Sutton‘s pearls of wisdom on digital comms and marketing for a while. I’ve only listened to one episode, but it’s a goodie. Indeed, while listening to it on a long Sunday morning run I was busily taking mental notes. The 19 September episode is a fascinating conversation with branding expert Stephen Houghrahan of Sydney-based agency Iconic Fox, about brand archetypes. Irishman Stephen draws a line between Plato, Carl Jung and Margaret Mark’s book The Hero and the Outlaw, sketching out 12 classic archetypes that brands adhere to (example: Harley Davidson is an outlaw brand). I found Stephen’s psychological perspective to the way humans identify and engage with brands eye-opening and exciting, making me want to read more. His take on the Colin Kaepernick/Nike kerfuffle, the topical hook on which the episode hangs, is also spot-on.
OK, this one’s a radio show but the podcast’s an extended version, so it counts. OK? I started listening to Radio 4’s Media Show when I started leaving work early on a Thursday to pick my daughter up from nursery. As a former journalist, I loved following host Steve Hewlett’s probing of watershed surname-based media issues like Savile and Leveson. Then, horribly, I followed Steve’s battle with and ultimately death from esophageal cancer. Steve’s were big shoes to fill but what I like about successor Amol Rajan’s approach is that he’s lost none of the seriousness of Hewlett’s journalism while shifting the show’s preoccupation with Fleet Street and traditional broadcasting to the latest movements in digital and social media, with relevance to comms as much as journalism. While I no longer do the Thursday nursery run, the podcast is a great way to keep on top of discussions across our shifting mediascape.
It’s not all work, you know. Here’s a couple of the other bits and bobs in the queue…
I became aware of Essex spoken word artist, musician and actor Scroobius Pip through his caustically satirical 2008 single with Dan Le Sac, ‘Thou Shalt Always Kill’. I came late to his brilliant interviews podcast, Distraction Pieces, which has amassed a loyal following. Based around often intimate and meandering conversations with people Scroob has time for from music, art and film – usually the cult or low-budget end, with Shane Meadows alumnus featuring heavily, but recently including the likes of Spike Lee, Simon Pegg and Martin Freeman. The interviews differ from the journalistic norm thanks to Scroob’s self-effacing humility and sincere interest in his subjects. Oh yeah, and he does the occasional inebriated ‘Drunkcast’ with his mates and obsesses about wrestling. But he’s a sensitive soul with a big heart. His recent conversation with poet/musician Kate Tempest is a must.
You wanna get deep into history? Feel the snorting breath of Barbarian hordes in your face? Contextualise the chaos of the First World War as the starting gun for every catastrophic global event since? That sort of thing? Then immerse yourself in Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series. With his self-professed non-historian’s take on the BIG happenings from the ancient world to the last century, former US radio jock and political commentator Carlin’s intensely researched, spasmodically released episodes zero in on the human detail of times past and put you slap-bang in the centre of the action. Carlin doesn’t shy away from horror (hence the ‘hardcore’) but he has compassion, and that counts for a lot.
Between Thursday 13 and Saturday 15 September 2018, I was at the second-ever Comms Unplugged on a campsite on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. I’d like to write some more about the content and my own learnings but these are my first, somewhat misty-eyed thoughts. Indulge me.
This morning I was walking barefoot on a pristine Dorset beach, learning the names of tiny seashells.
Last night, I was stood in a dark field gazing up at the Milky Way as it gradually revealed itself to my adjusting eyes.
Yesterday, I was walking through woodland doing nothing but listening to the sound of the birds and the leaves beneath my feet. I followed this with my first ever proper yoga session.
The last three days and two nights have also involved alpacas, charcoal drawing, gin, campfires, a raffle, dog-walking, live music, pizza, listening and laughter. A lot of laughter.
You might, like my wife, think this sounds like some kind of a retreat. And it kind of was.
But this was Comms Unplugged: a professional development event like no other I know of, at least for communications professionals.
It might be better called a professional and personal development event. And that’s why it’s so important, so necessary and why, if you work in communications, you should go next year.
I certainly feel enriched, both professionally and personally.
I’ve made new friends, not just contacts. I’ve not only put faces to the names and handles I’ve known only from social media, I’ve learned about them as people.
I’ve listened to and taken insights on career and creativity from inspiring people at the top of their game. I’ve also gotten a bit worked up and debated the need for mutual respect between public sector PR officers and journalists with the editor of a local newspaper.
I feel proud that Comms Unplugged was brought to life in my home county of Dorset, by local senior comms managers Sally Northeast and Georgia Turner alongside comms2point0‘s Darren Caveney.
I am proud, too, that it was created by, supports and is largely attended by people from a public services communications background. I don’t think I could imagine a similar happening for agency or private sector PRs. But I’d challenge them to prove me wrong.
Public, and increasingly third, sector communicators are in need of looking after their wellbeing. Working to influence, engage and inform communities in the midst of austerity, the collapse of trust in institutions, 24/7 social media fury and post-truth news confusion, they are hurting. Pressured to be ‘always on’, with ever-higher demands and expectations, they don’t always see it themselves.
What the people at Comms Unplugged confirmed for me was that good comms professionals, whatever sector, are standard bearers for honesty, transparency, clarity and meaningful engagement.
They are good people doing good work. Essential work. They are passionate about the value of their profession, about learning and about the services they support.
They also know how to have a good time.
And you know what? They deserve an event like Comms Unplugged. We deserve it.
If I have taken one thing from Comms Unplugged 2018, it’s this:
Allow yourself the time.
Time to switch off the noise. To listen. To talk. To reflect. To breathe. To drop your guard. To try something different. To look up at the stars.
Give yourself that time. And if you have one, give your team that time.
Live-streaming council meetings: is it worth it? And, if so, how best to do it?
A number of local authorities in the UK and elsewhere have been live-streaming their meetings for some time. I’m a big advocate for opening up local democracy.
At my council, we’ve talked about it, looked into expensive-sounding AV solutions and discounted them.
But with the rise of live-streaming on social media and smartphone video, it’s now so much easier and accessible. You’ve got a council Twitter account. So just open a Periscope account and go – right?
But just because you can, does it mean you should?
Recently, my team has been asked to see if we can stream an important full council meeting.
If resources were no object, then I’d do it in a split-second. I believe as many people as possible should have access to the workings of local democracy. I believe in transparency and throwing open the shutters on the good, the bad and the ugly of local government.
So why am I hestitating?
A few questions arise when I think about live-streaming meetings:
OK, this is the cynic’s question, and I’m not known for my cynicism. But here’s the thing. Is there an audience? Public attendance at council meetings is generally poor.
But just because most people don’t physically go to council meetings, does that mean they don’t care about what’s been discussed and decided at them? And if they do, would they watch them online? But let’s be realistic – how many people will watch? Which leads on to my next question…
Do we have resource?
Someone in our team is always at cabinet and full council meetings. When I go, I write a lot of notes. It’s an old habit. I’ll draft a news release to send out pending the big decisions. Often, once it’s done the rounds for amends and approval, it won’t go out until the end of the day. Sometimes the next day. Nowadays, I take an iPad and try to live tweet the discussion and decisions, with a few pictures if I can. I haven’t yet achieved a huge amount of engagement.
Like most comms teams, ours has reduced in size. Can we afford to have a member of the team manning a live-stream? In the case of Periscope, unless they use a tripod, that might mean holding their phone, unable to tweet or take notes.
So, do we need two team members there: one to film, another to interact? It’s starting to sound very resource intensive. If the answer to the first question is ‘not many’, is it worth it?
What are the options?
I realise I sound like I’m looking for excuses not to live-stream. I’m not – I really want to do it and feel it’s important as many people as possibly have the opportunity to see this stuff and respond to it, live.
So, if we do go for it, how do we do it? There are numerous considerations here, many of them practical. How much time, money and ability do we have? The options as I see them are:
Get someone who knows what they’re doing. Ask a professional. This is very budget-dependent, so unlikely, but might achieve the best-looking results.
One or more fixed cameras and an online streaming service (Bambuser is one I’ve heard of). Though I’m not sure where to start.
A smartphone and Periscope. We’d need someone to point and shoot – probably me. But for the whole thing – maybe two hours or more – or selected snippets?
Other options? I’d really love to hear from people who’ve done it. What works ? And how do you use it to genuinely engage, rather than just ticking the box marked ‘Transparent, open democracy’.
The last year for me was one of change. I started it by reducing my hours to four days a week to balance my work and family life. This technically means I’m part-time, although it doesn’t feel like it.
The year ended with a new job. Inevitably, my local authority comms team was restructured and in December I started a new role. Same job description but a broader remit and more responsibility, effectively leading on external PR and marketing for the council and managing four people.
The step up to management was something I’d been seeking for a while (I’ve also completed hugely helpful in-house leadership and team coaching courses), so it was great to finish 2015 as leader of a small team with a fresh set of challenges ahead of us. It’s also a bit scary.
Reflecting on the year just gone, there are also regrets. I spent too much of the earlier part of the year navel-gazing about what communications is and how it needed to change, particularly in the public sector and my own organisation. I wasn’t alone. It was something of an epidemic and my last post sounded off about comms’ problem being one of thinking too much about what it should be doing and not enough just f***ing doing it.
As well as being someone who harbours regrets, I am also one who makes new year’s resolutions and – predictably – fails to keep them. In 2015, it was to read more fiction. I read one novel, one book of short stories and three comms/business-related books.
My new mission for 2016, then, is to turn talk into action. And to bloody well do it. The thing is, this time I have to.
My biggest frustration about comms, PR and marketing bloggers and commentators – with some notable exceptions – is that they say too much about what’s wrong or what, in general, we should be doing but don’t set out practical, replicable examples of how.
What I aim to crack and, if I’m successful or not, write about here is the perennial nut of managing our communications workflow. By this I mean how we work on a campaign, project or activity end-to-end. For my own team, that means shifting our way of operating from single, loosely connected and poorly evaluated activities to a properly insight-led, outcome-based model of communcations.
This means finally achieving the long-talked-about, only partially-realised shift of our day-to-day way of working from reactive, media-led SOS (sending out stuff) to ROSIE, OASIS or whatever is the acronym du jour.
One of the big things in this for me is managing demand with a reduced resource. We must be better at saying ‘no’, pushing back and giving colleagues the permission, skills and tools to communicate better for themselves. The latter is going to need some time and effort spent on it but needs to be done.
I am also determined that we remodel our way of thinking and doing to be better project managers and properly agile in the way that digital teams and Japanese companies have been doing for years. It’s clear to me we’re behind on this – there’s still too much churning out of unevidenced, unmeasured ‘stuff’ and not enough focus on the essential end outcome.
In our team, we are trying out different web-based tools, including Trello and, moreso, Asana. The latter I feel could help us unlock something vital to help us take a clear and focussed view of what we need to achieve and how we are doing it. I plan to share my experiences with Asana and other tools out there, such as those catalogued in the brilliant PRstack website and e-books.
It’s time to do it. In a year’s time, if I haven’t, you have my permission to slap me.
The communications profession is locked in an existential crisis of what it calls itself, what it’s for and what it needs to be.
Comms soothsayers are asking whether PR is dead, or if traditional disciplines of public relations, marketing and advertising are converging (together with digital, customer services, data, insight and research, engagement and consultation, you name it).
This is driven by technology – web, smartphones, data and social media – but other factors, too – social, political, economical and cultural. The old certainties have evaporated and we exist in a new chaos that can feel both terrifying and thrilling at the same time.
All this PR philosophising can feel pretty self-absorbed and navel-gazing. Who really cares anyway? But for the inquisitive communicator it’s also hard to resist. I’m finding myself consumed by Big Questions about why we as comms professionals are here.
Of course, the scary elephant in the room question is would we be missed if we weren’t? This hit me like a brick when I heard Dave Briggs say it at last year’s Commscamp unconference for public sector PR and digital people.
I remember it seeming to stun the room into a momentary realisation of their own professional mortality. People were dumbstruck. ‘What if he’s right?’
Are we really necessary? It’s a question we need to ask ourselves – and those we’re here to serve. PR people have a tendency to be convinced of their own indispensibility but complain that bosses don’t always share their view or ‘get’ what they do.
But rather than from a starting point of self-preservation (‘how does comms change so that it is still relevant and needed?’) we should start with asking ‘what do our customers need?’ and then ‘How can communications help?’.
The challenge for comms is to properly measure and then show how it provides good and added value by achieving real outcomes. In other words, how it changes things and gets things done – not just how it makes you look, gets you in or keeps you out of the media.
I don’t for a second believe that organisations no longer need comms specialists. Neither do I agree with Robert Phillips‘ attention-grabbing assertion that PR is Dead – and am not 100% convinced he does. Rather, I agree with his proposed cure but not his diagnosis. Or make that patient.
It’s not public relations as a profession (and I’d dispute his view that it is not one) that is dead. It’s that the old ‘PR’ (pee-arr) of spin, bullshit, obfuscation, message management and media relations is dead. Public relations has already moved on. It’s just not moving fast enough – at least not in all places at the same pace.
What we need now is what Phillips calls progressive communications.
This is one area where I feel the UK public sector is ahead of the corporate private sector. It’s central government that’s leading the way through the drive for perpetual improvement, transformation and measurement of the Government Commuications Service (GCS).
The executive summary includes some pretty stark headlines that public sector communicators should sit up and take note of – or at least engage with and debate:
The pace of technological change will only quicken
Public service communications must adapt or become obsolete
Future communications will be about science, not art
It would be Luddite or deluded to contest the first two. But I disagree with the third – we can and should have both. At least in terms of the content we create and share we need beauty as well as information; emotions as well as pure usefulness.
The paper echoes some of Phillips’ thinking around a new model of Public Leadership (‘activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first’), such as that ‘communication must be built around the citizen’ and ‘build a network of third party groups to amplify messages.’
Local public service communicators need to follow this lead and set their own, if they are not already. Sadly, I fear we lag behind. But we shouldn’t. What local government does and the role it plays in people’s everyday lives – from housing to road safety, social care to waste management, child safeguarding to environmental protection – is too important for that.
I would dearly love to see a ‘Local’ Government Communications Service, with a shared set of performance standards, evaluation frameworks and a programme for continuous professional development, challenge and innovation.
There are pockets of great work but our communities deserve the best to be spread around and shared. While areas differ geographically and demographically, councils up and down the land largely do the same things and run the same kinds of campaigns to achieve the same broad objectives. We’re not in competition, so let’s encourage each other and share the best of what we do.
I plan to come back to how I think local government communications, specifically, needs to radically change to adapt to this new chaos.
Self-enquiry and criticism is right and necessary for innovation and change. But, sometimes I also wish we’d just get over ourselves, shut up and get on with doing it. Don’t you?
A couple of months back I was feeling pretty good about things.
Then I had what you might call a wobble, which let the old self-doubt creep back in by the side door.
Working in the public sector, ‘change’ is a constant, the future always uncertain except for one thing – there will be less and less money.
But change can also have a tendency to focus the mind.
And, together with a newfound commitment to better physical health and management of my cluttered headspace, I’m feeling the ideas begin to flow and the mojo coming back.
I was going to blog about something completely different. But then, on a whim, I went looking for a vestige of myself from the dim and distant past. Another me – the music writer me.
And I found it, there in the overgrown digital backwoods.
I started a music blog back in 2003. It was a place to write about the records I was being sent and sometimes bought in London’s vinyl emporiums.
It was kind of anonymous, but with 11 years having passed since I shelved both it and my music writing career, I can tell you it was called Tufluv (or – to be typographically precise, ‘tufluv///’ – a moniker I self-importantly felt embodied my brutal-yet-from-the-heart journalistic ethos and the robust underground club music I thrived on).
Looking back, it seems faintly ridiculous. But then, I was in my early 20s. I was allowed to be ridiculous.
I had been made redundant from my first ever proper job, as reviews editor of the dance music weekly, 7 Magazine.
It had been a great job – a dream – which I only held for around eight months before the publishers (DMC, founders of the world DJ championships and ‘club bible’ Mixmag) shut it.
That hurt. And for a while I was a little lost.
But I was in London with a bunch of PR companies and record labels still sending me promo 12″s and CDs daily. I had to do something with them.
And I had to, just had to, write.
I guess these were the early days for blogs, when the phrase ‘blogosphere’ was coined and people started talking about the media landscape shifting forever.
It was before social media, too. Lone, isolated blogs coalesced into communities which then grew and nourished one another.
I felt part of a vital, digitally connected network of nameless, faceless yet brilliant online voices and revered, near-shamanic writers like Simon Reynolds, who amazingly linked to my posts and said nice things about what I wrote.
There were inspiring bloggers like the now-lost Heronbone, an angsty twentysomething Londoner who wrote equally passionately about grime music and the birdlife of the canals and wetlands of the east-end hinterlands.
Looking back at tufluv///, it looks pretty terrible.
I mean, how small is the type?! And what did I have against paragraph breaks? I’ve leant more about structuring readable copy in my PR life.
But some of it is, well, pretty good.
I was free, mischievous and ballsy. That was part persona – not the ‘real’ me. Some of it is pure stream-of-consciousness indulgence. Some of it is painful to read (not just from squinting at the blocks of tiny type). I don’t write like that any more. Could I write like that again?
The blog petered out barely more than a year after I started it. I had secured a senior editorial job on a film magazine back on the south coast and my connection with the music and the ‘scene’ had been growing more and more tenuous.
I was out of the loop – losing my edge, in the words of LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, “to the kids coming up from behind”. Though I was still only 24. I changed my strapline to ‘Irrelevance’ and bowed out.
I thought by now it would have been hijacked by spambots or digitally decayed, but there it is. A digital relic. A past life. Still inhabiting a dusty, unvisited corner of the internet.
And here I am, blogging again.
To quote another musical hero, David Byrne, how did I get here? A local government communicator pondering the future of public services and public relations.
I’m not a boy in a bedroom writing about obscure electronica records made by boys in bedrooms anymore.
What can I learn from that former me?
A legible font size, shorter sentences and line breaks, sure. But the nervy audacity to put my ideas and, yes, opinions out there to be shot down or shared, too.
Don’t look back? It’s fine for a bit – but don’t spend too long there.
I don’t claim to know all there is to know about public relations – or even a fraction of it.
Seven years into doing it as a job, I feel I’m only beginning to discover what it’s really about – or has come to be about – as I feel my way in the dark.
Some kind of enlightenment feels within reach and it’s getting lighter, yet darker, all the time. The more you learn, the less you know.
One thing I do know is that public relations is not what it was. It has changed and it is continuing to change.
Or perhaps it’s getting back to what it once was – that is, not media relations, not ‘pee-arr’, but the business of creating, developing, managing and nurturing relations (or relationships) with people.
Over the past year I have been grappling with the philosophical question of what public relations is for. It probably doesn’t bear deep, introspective thinking. That’s just naval-gazing. It’s pretty simple, after all. It’s just communication. But indulge me. This is my blog.
From vague and airy notions, some essence of a definition has begun to crystalise in my mind. Better and more experienced practitioners than me have helped give it substance and validation along the way.
Last week, during a two-day CIPR course on measuring and evaluating PR, trainer Stuart Bruce dispensed some nuggets as asides and during coffee breaks.
On the question of what we call this thing we do, Stuart argued that we need to hold on to the name ‘public relations’ (not the tarnished and stigmatised ‘PR’) as the oldest and best definition of the craft.
“Real public relations is more important than ever. But we have a problem. Has the reputation of PR already sunk so low that it can’t be improved? If you answer yes the problem is what do you replace it with? Corporate communications doesn’t work as it makes communications the primary arbiter of reputation, when as Robert makes clear, it isn’t what you say or how you say it, but what you do that is the real arbiter of reputation.”
“…about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.”
As Stuart told us, the ‘what you do’ bit is the part that all too often gets forgotten. This is one of the things I think about public relations – it’s about what you do, not just what you or others say.
Here are ten other things. It’s not a complete list, just ‘top of the head’ stuff. Some of these will be painfully obvious for hardened pros, most will sound naive, others wrong. But it’s my list, and I’m sticking to it. At least until it changes again.
2. Public relations and customer services are the same thing. We need to think about the ‘customer experience’ (*digital jargon alarm*) in every interaction people have with our organisation/brand/campaign/idea.
3. Social media isn’t everything. But we need to get good (really good) at doing it – or die.
4. We need to think video first. We all need to do make more videos. Many will be bad. Some will cost money. They can take lots of time – but they don’t have to.
5. There is no excuse for not evaluating what you do.
6. Communication is everyone’s job – but organisations need comms professionals more than ever to help everyone in them communicate better.
7. We need to fight to be at the top table to advise before it’s too late to make a difference. But we also need to listen to our bosses, clients, customers and colleagues and learn.
8. Doing the right thing is the right thing to do. PR professionals need to discover their moral compass. Ethics are not something you pay lip service to – you need to mean it.
9. Don’t rely on the media – be the media. Understand content marketing. Have a rolling newsroom. Publish. Curate. Tell your story – and be as honest as you are engaging. Spin and lies get found out.
10. Sometimes, traditional is best. It might be boring to do a leaflet but sometimes a leaflet, not a schedule of tweets, is what you need.
11. The media still matter. We need the media to hold us to account. Do number 8 properly and you don’t need to fear the media – you respect them.
I’ve spent the last two days in London at CIPR HQ learning about measuring and evaluating public relations. This is a pretty big deal for me and my colleagues. Evaluation isn’t something we’ve done a lot of as part of our day-to-day jobs. In fact, to be brutally honest, we’ve barely done any meaningful measurement of the impact we make and the value we provide since I joined the team in 2008. This is not an uncommon story, particularly in the public (and especially local government) sector.
But that’s all changing. We’ve woken up to the cold, stark fact that we need to be measuring, understanding and showing – clearly and in an evidenced way – the value we provide in supporting and achieving real outcomes. There is simply no excuse not to do it anymore and those comms professionals, like me, who haven’t previously known or been confident in how to measure and evaluate their activity need to learn, fast. And so I am tasked with bringing the spoils of my learning back to my eager workmates and sharing the wealth, via a ‘how to’ guide I’ve already drafted (but will no doubt now considerably tweak) and a couple of team workshops.
It turned out to be an apt couple of days to be at the CIPR in Russell Square soaking up some good learning on measurement. Today saw the launch of the really quite marvellous and possibly game-changing My #PRStack e-book put together by 2014 CIPR president Stephen Waddington and a group of like-minded communications and digital luminaries. It gathers a set of tools, compiled on the equally spiffing PRstack website (built using the ace PR platform, Prezly) to aid PR pros through the complete workflow of the new world of post-spin PR, social story-telling and content marketing.
I was fortunate to be in CIPR towers with two of the authors of chapters in the e-book: Stuart Bruce, leading the course; and Adam Parker, founder of Readwire and Lissted (a genuinely exciting influencer insight tool I’m keen to blog about soon), who just happened to be visiting and dropped by to give us a run-through of his app and overall philosophy, which was pretty compelling stuff. (He’s also Newcastle United supporter, which means that he’s both OK in my book and has my sympathy).
My #PRstack feels game-changing because of the spirit of collaboration and generosity in which it has been done, something I feel has become an essential characteristic of the new PR. No longer are slick PR gurus able to hide their ‘dark arts’ behind smoke and mirrors lest the competition (or worse, their clients) find out the workings or suss them for charlatans. Transparency is vital.
In the public sector, sharing knowledge and best practice in communications is well-established, best embodied by Dan Slee and Darren Caveney’s go-to Comms2Point0 blog. Communities of professionals brought together by social media are making sharing the norm across all sectors of comms and marketing practice. As Stuart Bruce remarked at the start of the course one of the reasons why we measure is we do it to help us do our job better. So things like PRstack see comms pros helping one another to do their jobs better. This can only be a good thing for the health of public relations as it undergoes its necessary reinvention. I for one, am all for it.
Back with a head full of learning, it now remains for me to sort, process and comprehend the real-world application of the multitude of shiny tools I’ve been awakened to. There are some standouts I’m keen to start playing with – and the good news is many of them are either free or pretty cheap. Here are a few, some of which you can also find over on PRstack:
Currently in beta and free to use for those admitted to a list – so put your name down before you need to pay for it. As Adam Parker described it, this is a human-powered alternative to the plethora of social media listening tools out there in that it cuts through the noise to deliver real insight. Good evaluation and monitoring should tell you the quality as well as quantity of your interactions and engagement. So, Lissted enables you to see whether the people who really matter on any topic or in a target community are talking about the right things to the right people. (Adam also had an interesting insight into how the Conservatives won the UK general election by using social media to gather insight about their critical audiences and then target them with traditional offline tactics like door-knocking… but that’s for another post.)
Also very new, this was the one that was met with gasps by the course attendees when Stuart Bruce gave us a glimpse. Partly because it feels a bit like snooping, although it is generated by social data that is freely (if not necessarily consciously) shared by users. It’s a location-based social monitoring tool that lets you see on a map within any given area the number and nature of posts to social platforms like Twitter and Flickr. On paper, that may not sound revolutionary. But for me, the possibilities of being able to listen to and interpret what people are talking about and interested in to a hyperlocal level, right down to a single block, are quite exciting while also a little unsettling.
If you live in the UK, you’ve probably heard of YouGov. They’re the market research people also responsible for some of those exceedingly mixed election opinion polls. Well, this is a free app via their website that you may not have heard of – and it’s ace. A little like established research tools such as Mosaic but with a dab more personality, it allows you to search for (almost) any brand, personality or thing and pools the results of its vast research together to come up with fascinating pen portraits of typical customers. The results should probably be taken with a sizeable shovel of salt, especially where brands’ results are drawn from a small sample of data. Certainly, for my highly localised and public sector areas of interest it didn’t unearth many jewels of insight. But it is fun to play with.
This is just a tiny sample of the overflowing toy box of data-crunching, social media scouring products vying for your attention. As with monitoring itself, it’s hard to discern the true, clear voices from all the noise. It feels daunting and not a little confusing. But I finally feel like I’ve at least now got a rough sketch map and a blunt machete to start to navigating and hacking my way through the evaluation jungle. I’ll let you know where I end up.