Category Archives: Government

5 things I’ll miss about local goverment comms

As I come to the last couple of weeks at my role in local goverment I have become, some might say, uncharacteristically reflective. I know it’s the right thing to do for me; now, but there are some things I will really miss. I have many things to take away with me that make me feel as proud as a man who’s grown a giant melon!
Melon

1. It’s fantastically diverse
One can be in a serious case review on Monday, on a boat in the North Sea on Tuesday, having stakeholder relations with protest groups on Facebook on Wednesday, mediating between schools, the media, senior officers and eleceted members on results day on Thursday and running fun competitions and ordering T-shirts for our first free music festival on Friday. Yes, that was my week this week, and delightfully; it is typical.

Boating in Blyth

2. Being forced into creativity by budgets (or lack of)
Most people who come to us come with a solution. We have to get them to rethink this and come with a problem to which we will have a solution. Then you get to the real challenge: ‘so what’s the budget?’ ‘Er, nothing!’

3. Embracing technology (see 2)
I do not mean digital by default to thoughtlessly save money. I mean genuine creative solutions that truly embrace new mediums and new ways of communicating with residnets on their terms in a way that encourages two-way communication and relevant engagement.

4. The scope of personnel
As I touched on in the first point. I cant think of any other job where one deals with elected members, senior officers, managers, front line officers, ordinary people, extraordinary people, animals, royalty, business owners, artists, and more, where you are in control and the voice of authority. It’s a strange situation, speaking knowledge to power, with someone who earns quarter of a million pounds a year, or is the leader of a council, but that’s all part of the job, when it’s done well.

5. The people
Yes I know, its sadly predictable. But it’s true. I’ve had a whale of a time and learned so much from dedicated, passionate, often inspiring people who find creative solutions to problems with moral integrity and enthusiasm in the face of adversity.

And now, the end is near; and so I face the final curtain.

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Teaching new dogs old tricks: my year as an intern

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This blog first appeared on adaywithoutoj.com, and was written as part of a collection of works looking into the benefits of internships in PR. As I am approaching my the one year anniversary since starting at the council, at the end of this month, I thought I would share.

After finishing my Master’s degree in June, the opportunity to do an internship at Northumberland County Council was presented to me by an attentive lecturer. He told me, based on my interest and enthusiasm for democratic PR and my desire to move into Government communications, it was just the thing for me.

The idea of embarking a new job, in the midst of writing my dissertation, needed some careful consideration. I’d worked part-time as an English teacher during the taught part of my degree, and was fully aware of the pressures of time management, but he was right – this was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

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I’d heard a lot about the communications work at the council, and had studied the Northumberland Alerts Twitter feed during a social media assignment. So I started in June with about seven weeks to dissertation hand in.

It turned out to be a masterstroke (even if I do say so myself). While my classmates were amassing hours of time researching, interviewing and collating data, I had it all at my fingertips! As I stated earlier, my passions and interests centre on government communications and the relationship between democracy and social media. Being at the council gave me access to case studies and all the information I could ever want from the website team, who are way ahead of the game when it comes to analytics.

With the help of  the web manager and the rest of the team, my dissertation became a willing bed fellow to my practice. They complimented each other and generally just flirted outrageously.

So, I bid farewell to my dissertation at the end of the summer, by which time I felt settled and at home in the communications office. This was no accident either. The team made sure that I could be myself from day one, and the bespoke nature of the internship ensured that I understood exactly what was expected from me, and what I could get from the experience.

I didn’t really know what to expect, having never been an intern before, but the amount of responsibility and workload depends completely on the individual. In my case, and to my surprise, I found myself loving the press side of things – I’d always fancied myself more on the web and social media side of things.
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I got to lead on a few campaigns, including the successful ‘Don’t Stand for It’ campaign, where we created a genuine dialogue with residents, and got them on our side to tackle a community problem that blights the county. The key aims of the campaign was to change residents’ perceptions of the authority, and get people to use our online reporting system, rather than phone the council, or indeed, simply complain to their friends, or even worse, on our social media channels. The campaign increased online reporting by over 200% putting it in the top five things people do on the website, and a survey showed a change in opinion towards the way the authority dealt with the problem.

The experience overall has been invaluable. Friedrich Nietzsche, a really clever German man, once wrote: the doer alone learneth; and my internship has put that theory to the test. As much as I picked up from my time in academia, being in a supportive, friendly, hard-working (and let’s not forget; award-winning) press office has been worth so much more, and I would encourage any organisation, great or small, to seriously consider it. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship and both parties can really learn a lot from one another.

It’s certainly helped me as I take the next step in my career. Onwards.

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How I was put off PR for years by a PR stunt which discredited PR but turned out to be the best lesson in PR I ever had

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Many years ago, while I was a fresh faced dreamer, taking notes (with a pen and paper!) at the back of a lecture hall, a turn of events occurred, which turned me against public relations and public relations practitioners, and stopped me from finding out any more about what it was all about. But years later, I have seen it in a strangely ironic light (and not in that Alanis Morissette version of irony, which ironically, isn’t ironic).

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Equilibrium
The story begins with a second-year lecture on cultural theory. I had just returned from a year-out travelling round South East Asia and my idealistic view of the world had been solidified by my experiences. Now, the cultural theory modules were not exclusive to any programme. There were media studies students present, film studies, media production, journalism, and more importantly, amongst others; public relations students.

The lecturer was a popular academic with the student body, he was respected for his views of the world and an inspiration to me, as well as someone who influenced me and others to take certain modules, read books, and experience the media world around us. He is a very cool guy. In other words, his opinion mattered to me, at a time when I was destined to put the world to rights.

During this lecture, one rainy Tuesday morn, on discussing slave labour, and the actions of multi-national organisations, and their damaging impact on the world, he got on to talking about how these companies avoid negative press, and how they manage to maintain a positive image in the eyes of customers, despite their terrible practices in poorer portions of the globe.

A disturbance of the equilibrium
“Anyone in here doing PR?” was the call. Hands sheepishly rise. “Come on! Who is doing a PR degree, and wants to go and work for a big company like Coca-Cola?” The hands that remained in the air were joined by a few more confident extensions of the bicep. “Get out!” Laughter – some nervous, fluttered around the theatre. “I mean it, get out of here!” He added something else about morals, or ethics and the PR students that were brave enough to admit it left the room. The remnants of the group then learned how the Coca-Cola company pays people to say, despite the clearly inhumane conditions and painfully low pay of its workers, things like: “If we didn’t have our factory here, people would have no jobs. We are vital to the economy of this community…”

That was it for me. My moral compass firmly directed towards anything but these objectionable publicists who protect the malevolence of the world for a profit, using the dark arts of persuasion and spin.

The twist
Looking back, now I can see that it was he who was partaking in the spin. It was he who, despite his protestations toward the PR students, was performing a huge PR stunt in a public sphere, against PR.

It was successful too, at least on me, because he reinforced an attitude – I had from limited access and knowledge of what PR is (although that is a whole new subject for another day) – and affected my behaviour. The objective was to cause a change in behaviour, and it was achieved, because most people in that room, like me, became very pleased with the idea that they had some kind of moral high ground.

Acting as a third party spokesperson, and using a favourable case study, combined with emotive language, he effectually used PR techniques to dissuade me, and others, from even considering a career in public relations.

The establishment of a new equilibrium

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Now that I understand PR, I can see that he gave me one of the best lesson in PR I’ve ever had.

I haven’t lost much of my idealism. I still endeavour to make my world (it used to be the world) a better place to be, and strive to work in a job that empowers me to feel I have made a positive difference to people’s lives. And this is my PR.

Encouraging democracy and two-way communications, giving people a voice, and using social media to promote the equality of ideas are just some of the things I do every day. Corporate social responsibility, an ethical code, and a code of practice engendered by a chartered institute, are all things that are encouraged and promoted to ensure moral integrity of a profession that has struggled for too long against an unjustified condemnation.

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Can you really afford Sky, cigarettes, bingo, drinks and other non-essentials?

Getting the correct message out is more important than ever in the digital era, where every disgruntled customer or offended passer-by has the potential to publish for a mass audience within seconds.

BBC news, along with several other print and online news sources reported on a story involving Eastland Homes and their attempt to engage with their customers over the subject of financial management.  Residents were quick to vent their anger on social media sites, ensuring their feelings of dissatisfaction became a national news story.

Patronising?

Patronising?

The Good

The company had clearly identified a potential problem for their 8,000 tenants with the introduction of the so-called bedroom tax and sent this out to inform people about the new changes to the welfare system which take effect this April. The advertisement, which appeared in their newsletter Streets Ahead, was intended to highlight their opposition to the tax and inform readers of the help and advise they would provide.

The Bad

But  within minutes a public backlash ensued, followed by an apology on their website which read: ‘We’re sorry if our article offended you.

We’ve lobbied continuously against the government cuts which threaten the quality of life for many of our customers.

We’ve increased the range of support and advice for anyone struggling in the face of these cuts as you will see from our newsletter.

We know there will be stark choices – our message is that we are here to help wherever possible and we’re sorry if we worded that clumsily.’

Surely, their key message was that they were offering an advice service. Good. Caring. Empathetic. However, their actual message, which as we know, is created in the eye of the beholder, was read as stereotyping, patronising, and degrading. Bad. Presumptuous. Detached.

and the Ugly

Unhappy customers are potential publishers with a mass audience

Unhappy customers are potential publishers with a mass audience.

Clumsy is an understatement. The residents took to the social media to announce their negative response at what they alleged as stereotyping, deeply patronising and contemptible.

This alerted journalists who published the story to a wider audience showing the power of online communications.

Companies of all types need to get the PR right in every communication they make. If they don’t there is nothing they can do about the whole world learning how people feel about it.  Of course, the story may have been reported in the local paper then picked up by a national (maybe), but the story would have been unlikely to gain so great a reach in so short time in a pre-digital media landscape.

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