Going live: streaming local democracy


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:

Who cares?

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’.

I hope we do it. And I hope it’s worth it.


On reflection

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.

Future Shock: How does communications adapt to survive?

Picture via Wikimedia CommonsThe 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 GCS has just published a new document, The Future of Public Sector Communications, a project which shaped the thinking behind the new Government Communications Plan.

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?

How did I get here? (or ‘Blogging and me – introspective retrospection’)


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.

Forwards >>>>>>>>>

Eleven things I think about public relations

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.

It’s an argument Bruce nails (with a headline I wish I had nabbed before he did) in his blog review of Robert Phillips’ much-discussed Trust Me, PR is Dead:

“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.”

This notion of ‘real PR’ rather than ‘false PR’ evokes, in faithful style, the CIPR definition of public relations as:

“…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.

Getting the measure

Picture: Shakerman / Creative Commons
Picture: Shakerman / Creative Commons

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.

YouGov Profiles
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.

Closing the gap

One thing is worrying me. There is too big a gap between what I think and tell others that comms should be and what I actually do in practice.

I like to think I’m pretty good at thinking innovatively, seeking out best practice and sharing new ideas when I discover them. But the examples of where I have taken a risky, innovative idea and implemented it in my work are few and far between.

Why? My excuse would be because I am just so damn busy ‘doing stuff’. This largely means spending too much time being reactive to issues and ‘fire-fighting’ rather than being proactive and agile, having a strategy and delivering it.

So my new mantra will be #JFDI.

If I’m being self-critical, I’d say I talk a good talk, but I don’t always walk the walk. I’ll say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we…’ or ‘We need to be doing…’. But how many times have I then gone and done it? Even less so, done it, measured it and gone and told people about how it went. Good or bad. Success or failure. What did I learn and what will I do differently next time?

Comms people across the world are talking up a revolution. They say the game is changing and if you don’t get with the new way of things, you’ll get left behind. I’ve been one of them – but I need to match the talking with the doing.

It’s time get out of the commentary box and get my studs muddy. It’s time to close the gap. It’s time to #JFDI.

Get Charter

(This post originally appeared on my other blog, Don’t Believe the Hyphen)

I’ve taken the plunge. After six years as a comms professional, I’ve gone and got Chartered. I’ve joined the CIPR.

It wasn’t an easy decision. To start with, it’s expensive. The investment has to at least feel like it’s going to be worth it – and I wasn’t previously convinced that it would be.

For some PR people, having the letters MCIPR (Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations) after their name is a big deal.

For me, that kind of ‘look at me’ vanity is a turn off. If you catch me tagging the initials on the end of my email signature, I permit you to cuff me about the ear.

The fact the credibility that comes with the badge is bought always struck me as a little shallow and even fake.

So what changed my mind?

In essence, I suppose, it has been a kind of coming of age as a comms professional, with that second word taking on a weightier meaning, loaded with responsibility. I have felt increasingly strongly that what have been called public relations practitioners truly are ‘professionals’, the same as accountants, legal advisors and engineers.

As a comms person, especially one within an organisation, you are often confronted by someone, often senior to you, who thinks they can ‘do’ comms. Or worse, thinks anyone can do comms. That it’s ‘just PR’.

Of course, we know it’s not just PR. Communications is much more than that. It’s both art and science. To do it well, add value and get real results you need wordcraft, empathy, strategic thinking and a well-attuned gut. These skills and even the instinct are learned over time and through experience, hard work and dedicated development.

This is why the idea of credibility is important. I know that doesn’t come from five letters after your name purchased by annual subscription.

For me, it’s more about signing up to a code of conduct for what it means to be a professional in your field of expertise.

It’s about learning from others and sharing ideas and best practice. It’s about earning the right to be trusted as someone whose advice and contributions will make that vital difference that only a professional can.

I don’t yet know what I am going to get out of being ‘Chartered’. What I do know is that it will only ever be relative to what I put into it.

Digital learning

(This post originally appeared on my other blog, Don’t Believe the Hyphen)

Image: Mathplourde on Flickr - http://www.flickr.com/photos/mathplourde/8620174342/sizes/l/in/photostream/
Image: Mathplourde on Flickr

As part of my ongoing journey of discovery as an always-learning commsbod, I’ve started a MOOC. If you don’t know what a MOOC is (and I don’t expect you should), it’s not a gangland cuss but a course. A Massive Open Online Course, no less.

It’s massive because it’s taken by thousands of people across the world.

It’s open because it’s free and anyone can join it, regardless of their qualifications, experience or means. You just need to be able to get online.

The MOOC I’m doing is Digital Marketing from the University of Southampton.

It’s is my third MOOC, all via the rather ace Future Learn platform. I’d encourage you to dive in. The courses are many and varied. You can take something close to your line of professional or personal interest or something wildly left of your particular field.

The first two MOOCs (on branding and psychology) I didn’t really get started with, so don’t really count. This one, though, I’m sticking with. I’ve completed the first week and am into the second.

You do need to give them a little time – though not much. Three hours a week is suggested, though you could do more, could do less. I’m probably at the ‘less’ end of that scale but for a dip-in, dip-out learning experience, it’s pretty interesting, thought-provoking and even inspiring.

My early impressions of the MOOC experience are mixed. These courses could only exist in the digital world and in some ways are a microcosm of it, with a global reach and short attention spans but potentially big appetites. The learning ‘content’ is largely video-based. If you want to delve further, you can post comments and engage in discussions. The interactive, social element is key and makes up a proportion of the ‘work’ required, as well as the watching and (fairly light) reading.

This is also where it can fall short and feel a tad shallow. The discussions I’ve evesdropped on and occasionally commented in lack a sense of meaningful conversation. Unless I’ve missed something by not being in the right place at the right time, they feel like a sequence of standalone statements, only occasionally connecting.

This can partly be explained by the sheer size of the ‘class’, spread across every continent of the globe. (When you sign up they plot your location on this map). Thousands of people trying to talk at once makes an intimate and involved exchange of ideas difficult. And what most of the comments seem to offer, at least early on, is clichés and platitudes. To be honest, I need to persevere with it.

But, at the end of the day, a MOOC is essentially a taster. I’ve not investigated their origin much but the cynic in me assumes they are partly a big marketing exercise in themselves – and academic institutions seem to be investing a lot in them, judging by the quality of the presentation and the time lent to them by the course tutors. Of course, they are seeking to attract students, worldwide, to their fully fledged courses. But they also feel generous, like the best of the web. Giving something for free that is genuine, fulfilling and real.

One of the other avenues I’ve been exploring in my journey is in pursuit of the definition of content marketing. I am sure just it has already been observed elsewhere that MOOCs are just another, albeit clever and sophisticated, bit of content marketing – drawing you in for the hidden, but nevertheless lurking, sale.

But is that such a bad thing? I certainly feel I’m getting something out of it. Maybe in my next post I’ll talk a bit about what I’ve learned.

I’ve you want to earwig on the conversation around the Digital Marketing MOOC, look up #FLdigital.

The Why: Part 1

(This post originally appeared on my other blog, Don’t Believe the Hyphen)

I am accustomed to being behind the curve. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to blog – to urge myself to catch up and try out some thoughts in the process.

It’s one big learning curve. Ouch!

This week I discovered someone I am behind the curve on. It’s a guy who talks about circles.

The Golden Circle, no less.

I was in a meeting – not at work but for a voluntary role I have, helping organise a local event. I was talking to the manager of a local pub/restaurant, broadly on the topic of marketing.

“Have you heard of Simon Sinek?” he asked me.

“No,” I said.

“He’s this guy who says successful organisations like Apple start with why they do something, not what they do. He’s on TED Talks. Check him out.”

OK, I thought. I’ll look him up. So I did.

Sinek’s 2009 TED talk ‘How great leaders inspire action’ has had 18.8 million views. It’s the third most popular TED talk ever. Sinek’s book Start with the Why is also pretty high up on management ‘thought leadership’ reading lists.

I’m behind the curve on Simon Sinek. I’m also behind the curve on TED. I’ve meant to get ‘into it’ for ages. My wife is a teacher and has banged on about Sir Ken Robinson‘s education talks for years.

I’ve got some catching up to do. Starting with Simon Sinek.

Now I’ve read Sinek’s Wikipedia entry and his TED biog and I’m still not entirely clear on what he does.

He’s been ‘in business’. He’s a trained ethnographer. He lectures on post-grad strategic communications at Columbia University.  He’s got a clipped hybrid accent (a nomadic upbringing) and exudes a magnetic hyper-confidence bordering on Tom Cruise in Magnolia, only without the rabid misogyny.

He might be what you call a motivational speaker.

But what he says is pretty relevant for marketing and communications professionals. It’s about communications, essentially.

To Sinek’s idea, then: the Goldern Circle.

Like me, you’re probably weary and cynical of golden shapes and objects. Threads, for example. And you may also be quick to note that his circle is actually three concentric circles, likes the Royal Air Force/mod bullseye emblem. It looks like this:


Most companies – most people – Sinek argues, work outside-in. They start with the ‘What’. The product they produce; the service they provide.

But as Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

He gives some examples: Apple, Dr Martin Luther King, the Wright brothers.

These are the people and organisations that start with the Why. Central to their success is that they communicate – are driven by – a purpose, a reason, a belief. Others relate to and are inspired by that purpose; that ‘why’. Success then follows.

And all this, so says Sinek, is grounded in human biology. I won’t get into the How. Watch it yourself – it’s only 18 minutes long.

For Apple, their Why is thinking differently and challenging the status quo in everything they do.

For MLK, he told people ‘I believe’. People who believed what he believed were inspired to act. As Sinek says, “He gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech, not the ‘I have a plan’ speech.”

The relevance to communications is pretty straightforward. It sounds to me like your corporate vision, mission statement and narrative from which your key messages and campaigns stem. Isn’t this your ‘Why’?

Then again, if I look to my own experience, those messages are very often shaped around ‘what’ we do and ‘where’ we want to be. Wouldn’t it be better to start with why? The ‘reason you get out of bed in the morning’?

This got me to thinking about local government. When we do our corporate plan, do we start with the Why? And if not, why not?

What is our Why?

This is a question I plan to return to – when I’ve figured out the answers.