15 July 2022

Getting both sides of the story

(Published on the website of the Municipal Journal – 15 June 2022)

There can be many disparities in local government between what we think of services we deliver and how the public rates them. That can be a park loved by children but seen by a few parents as a place that needs updating. There might be the adult services user who focuses on the one thing that we do not provide whilst missing the several that only we deliver. Yet I doubt there are many areas of our work where there is such a disparity between what we tell ourselves we do and what users -  journalists - say we do.

One of the things I ask my service users in my roles heading communications for councils is, ‘how are we doing?’ So how have journalists replied to me? Not with as harsh responses I have received when I have undertaken the same roles in the NHS, but sometimes only with just a lesser degree of criticism.

The journalists will often note that they have never been asked this before by us and then they can list issues they have had with my and other local authorities. It can be a long list. It is also a constant list and is reflected in what I have heard recently from Local Democracy Reporting Service reporters and other journalists.

They can say they wonder if we think we are being accountable to the public through them. Do we either not know what we do can be poor or are we deceiving ourselves? Maybe we know we are misleading those managers to whom we report.

They ask why despite our fine words about accountability, do we spin, dismiss or just plain ignore some media queries? Why do we see our job as just being to protect the local authority from reputational damage rather than telling the truth and not being disingenuous in pursuit of defending the council? They also can mention ignored deadlines, delayed acknowledgements of media queries and unmet, yet promised, responses - and all this to journalists working against the clock. They will also praise individuals or give thanks for good ideas that worked as great stories.

The media can also complain about how simple media enquiries can be turned into FOIs with consequent accompanying delay. I have not yet told them how I know of councils where the Head of FOIs is also the Head of Communications – an unhappy clash of interests.

Yes, journalists may not understand why we do not release some reports or part of the same, or be cynical - without merit - about our reasons for not doing so. Some have even expressed disquiet with me when being told they need to speak to another local authority or public body because the matter unquestionably is the responsibility of others.

Are these valid criticisms from journalists? I think they can be.

I am thinking of the emails I have seen go around between local authorities about how we should agree on a joint response to a journalist’s enquiry on a matter despite there being different policies amongst us. I am also recalling completed responses that are not sent until after the deadline for the article but that have been ready to go for hours.

Journalists have a high attrition rate on local papers and so local authority Communications teams can hone in on those inexperienced : ‘You are forbidden to ask any other council officer about this’ (journalists can ask who they like). ‘Make sure you send that back to me to see before you publish’ - agreed. Worst, ‘if you want more from me, I need your source’ and that was divulged.

How can things improve? There might be few council services that can attract the undivided attention of a Chief Executive or a Council Leader as what is being asked by the media. The pressure that arises from that would sometimes not make any Code of Conduct a tough enough control. I also think looking at this service as one on the list when councils are peer-reviewed is of limited use - you need to dig deep-ish. So I am not convinced of the benefits of self-regulation.

I think independent audit of how local authorities (and other public sector bodies) interact with the media is the way. A full-access random check by an outside organisation of how so many queries over a month were handled. Then the awarding of a Level 1, 2 and so on and which have consequences. Yes, a bit like how I understand an Ofsted inspection works.

May 2022

10 March 2020

Rebecca Long-Bailey - sinking slowly in Stratford


There's a plaque by the chandelier in the former West Ham Town Hall, in Stratford, London that marks the re-opening of this grand building. The Queen and Prince Philip came after a refurbishment that followed a fire. There was never any possibility of the monarch being asked to repeat this service because of any fire-raising, or even pulses being raised, at the event held there last night. This was held to support Rebecca Long-Bailey (RLB) in her campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party. RLB was not there - and then she was - with not that much difference being apparent between these two states. 
 
RLB underwhelmed yesterday in Stratford, in the London Borough of Newham and where everyone elected is Labour - MPs, councillors and more. Stratford is in the constituency of Lyn Brown MP and who received over seventy per-cent of the vote at the General Election. Keir Hardie became the MP here in 1892. 
How would RLB fare tomorrow in tougher Newark or Newquay? Is personality or passion a necessity to get votes, or can being at Buggins-turn get you to power (John Major did lead the Conservatives to a general election victory)? The night indicated how matters could play-out with the want-to-be Leader.

Supporters

Waiting for her to make her pitch to be Labour  Leader was an audience of about two hundred. That was a lot smaller than at similar events for Corbyn held locally just a couple of years ago, such as at the Royal Regency in Manor Park. Last night those attending were overwhelmingly young - perhaps four-fifths were under thirty. Many had the look of students. About a third of the audience was female and more than four-fifths of the audience was white in a borough where that is true of about a quarter of its population.


Several MPs warmed-up the crowd. Sam Tarry, the new MP for Ilford South, was the sparkiest voice of the evening. His view was that Labour ''said too much” at the general election and his party should be clearer about “what's the offer.”  Tarry took an idiosyncratic view of where Britain might be heading and mused on the possibility of the far-right rising through what he was sure would be the general failure of the present government. This would make the country “more susceptible to the silent call of more dangerous and dark politics” he argued. He also thought the Conservatives will be taking an 'anti-democratic turn' and will further attack both the judiciary as well as the BBC - 'they want a Fox News, instead'.


Warmly received by the audience was Diane Abbott MP. She was “one-hundred-and-one per-cent for RLB” although I wondered if her identification of Hackney as part of the 'Labour heartlands that should not be forgotten', as well as Hartlepool, was either a plea for more thought or even an admonishment about this topic that is part of the platform of RLB.

Apsana Begum, the new MP for Poplar and Limehouse, spoke. She would have some way to go to become the dullest MP but she might get there, especially if she usually does things like the recitation of various truisms that we heard from her last night. Begum also has a perception, common to many in Parliament, that audiences think them delivering a maiden-speech a worthy achievement and of interest to all.  

Passion in politics 


The event had started with the most left-wing speech of the night. The recently-elected MP for Coventry South, Zarah Sultana, spoke about a party of capital versus a party of labour. She noted a wider preponderance now of food banks than McDonalds in the UK. Yet if her prose was fiercer than other MPs, such could not be said about her pedestrian delivery; she could have been a Deputy Head reading out announcements at school assembly.

But is there a need, or even a place, for passion in politics? I think few Prime Ministers (Margaret Thatcher was an exception), or party leaders (Neil Kinnock broke the rule here) have had this. I don't know if this inability to stir up an audience - whether in an assembly hall or in a living-room - makes a difference. 
And do developments in communications change what works if politicians can adapt? David Lloyd-George couldn't change - in a speech of his that I saw, he dramatically flailed his arms around to emphasise points in the way that was performed at outdoor meetings where many could not hear the speaker well, yet his audience then was just a camera crew in a studio.

It's a long-standing stream of thought that elections can be bought by emotional manipulation - from the admiration of rhetorical skills in ancient Greece to the themes of several Hollywood films in its Seventies politics phase being that 'they' were using sophisticated psychological techniques to deceive the public to get votes. If this is true, then the lackadaisical style of the current Premier, the apparent (not just a media invention) robotic stance of Theresa May and to what struck me as the earnest, yet often insincere demeanour of Tony Blair, were surely not the optimum ways to present to the public. 


Yet is it not the case that random factors - such as the luck of selection processes, or those supporting a candidate just to stop an opponent - decide streams of history more than a Leader who happens to have an excellent ability to communicate, or even to tub-thump? If so, such relative unimportance of not being able to attract a personal following helps explain why RLB didn't fall long ago at the first jump but that's not to say she's not disadvantaged by her inability to inspire.

The next Leader? 


RLB opened with the apparently obligatory lines about the ordinariness of her young life although it is true that such is very much in contrast with the Oxbridge background of most party leaders.

She told us that Labour's Brexit statements at the election were “a mistake” and that “the compromise position was a disaster and broke trust.” She identified a need to rebut more and, under her, 'the next leadership would set up a unit do such'. Any acknowledgement that such provision was there under Peter Mandelson was not made nor that, of course, this is what any party's communications team always delivers, as they have under Corbyn. 


The devolution of more powers to local authorities was supported by RLB as well as a written constitution - all part of a “democratic revolution.”
An elected senate would replace the House of Lords and this would be assessed against how legislation from there meets various targets, such as green objectives - she committed to a Labour Britain being 'Net Zero by 2030' - in what sounded like a case of management consultancy meets law-makers. If the senate failed to meet its KPIs, what then?

RLB was very clear on support for Open Selection of its candidates by Labour. Looking on the bright side, as RLB tends to do, she also said this process would be a benefit through stopping campaigning against sitting MPs as happens with trigger reselections. Yet the obvious rejoinder to her promotion of Open Selection now is why, with the shortly to be renamed Corbyn-wing of Labour all finally agreeing to this policy, did they not introduce this when the departing Leader still had strong support? 
Green Industrial Revolution

She majored on the Green Industrial Revolution. But what is it, exactly? Well, it would be the “biggest economic advance we have ever had in the UK” she said. That's a bold idea for somewhere that was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution but she seemed to see this plan on that scale. I just wondered whether its projected industries - like those producing green energy - could ever be as large as the mass-product industries, e.g. cars or electronic device manufacture and which will normally move to low labour-cost countries. Could any Green Industrial Revolution lead to even approaching the size once staple enterprises here, such as making cotton garments or ships, had in the world market?


I also think that whatever advantages early C19 Britain enjoyed that enabled it to lead industrialisation are less likely to have present-day equivalents with the subsequent relative homogenisation of conditions in many states. Accessible (although variable) power supply from (then) coal and conditions that allowed innovation, followed then by rail (now road) and later by compulsory education, democratic government as well as connectivity (then shipping, now including digital, more open borders, etc.) were the history of the UK and also roughly the process undertaken throughout the majority of the developed world. There were also the benefits - to Britain - of empire. If there are any natural resources (like coal was) that would be a game-changer for these islands, they are not being widely touted. The waves are higher elsewhere.


And what boost did government give back then? It's not as though the Duke of Wellington, as Prime Minister, had a plan to roll-out the mills; they came regardless of government (although certainly with its help). I would be surprised if even today's far more interventionist governments could have the magnitude of impact that she appears to seek with her planned Green Industrial Revolution.
United is best?

One of the things RLB said that got enthusiastic audience support - as it would about any party, anywhere in the land - was her claim that Labour lost, in part, through not being unified. 
I have always wondered about this common claim. Our bigger political parties are permanent coalitions themselves that, often successfully, incorporate opposing views. Support for the Conservatives includes most of the right-wing and some centre-voters who both supported Brexit but also a significant minority who wanted Remain and with the latter even voting for the Tory party who campaigned to 'Get Brexit Done' at the general election.

I think this divergence of views below the surface actually widens, not diminishes, a party's support. If there was just one issue to vote on, choices would be clearer but the necessary pick'n'mix approach of a party to develop its wide platform ensured, for example, support for Labour from 32.2% of voters in December. Those supporters included those from the clear Left to many centrist voters. Some of those Labour voters were for Remain and some were for Brexit.


Roberta Long Chance

After a compulsory "we are a broad church" comment about Labour, RLB then turned the thermostat up (or down?) by saying that whilst discussions will be ever-ongoing, when Labour does disagree, 'we should "have these discussions behind closed doors."' She said this in a chiding manner, but with a slightly friendly 'isn't this obvious?' undertone. Does she not know that the same media coverage about disagreements would continue, just with more sources being anonymous?

It's her generally 'looking on the best side' approach, with what appeared to be not much in the way of battle-hardness, that did make me think the recent comparison of her with Mrs Merton (but without the sauce) was not as unfair as was claimed. RLB did remind me of my relatives and my parents' friends from around where she grew up and I did partially (and which was just a few miles away from where also did Angela Rayner and Owen Jones) in the south of Greater Manchester - Mrs Merton territory.

That was not just the surface recognition - the familiar phrases, such as “sitting at the top of our stairs” or her pronunciation of 'luck' and 'us', but the, dare I say boring, presence that she has and which reminded me of some from my childhood. A lack of memorable personality is not a problem when you are a shopworker or a classroom assistant, like my relatives, but might be so for a potential Prime Minister. 

My memory of those aunts and the rest is of them being well-meaning but also merging into their flock wallpaper. That lack of presence, along with their playing Fivepenny Piece songs too many times and repeatedly offering unwanted parkin, prompted me and my siblings to get permission from our parents to slip away. Walking around the shut shops on a wet Sunday in Stockport was less dull. RLB had not long started speaking when I was already thinking about when I should leave to trudge through the rain to Lidl. 



Clive Power

















All photos - Clive Power

23 February 2020

Public-sector communications is the poor relation of company comms: how to get more pzazz & lose the pfft. Pt 1




Why can you instantly distinguish between comms or campaigns from companies and those from the public-sector? What makes corporate messaging usually so much better?

I have headed communications for both local authorities and in the NHS. I have also worked in comms elsewhere in the public-sector. I often look enviously at the messaging that private-sector communicators distribute. I have sometimes cringed when I have seen both content and its implementation from councils, the NHS & in government communications.

How do companies attract attention, divert to a video and prompt other engagement - reposts, retweets, likes - and so deliver the intended actions, whilst fewer messages from government, the NHS and councils manage to prompt thought or action from the audience?

Corporate communications laps public-sector communications on near every circuit. Compare what is issued by the fast-food giants, the betting companies, ‘media’ companies - from Virgin Media to LADbible - to what you are told in campaigns and communications from government, such as about coping with Coronavirus or dealing with Brexit.

It’s not just budgets. Even in next-to-no cost tweets (when the video or image is borrowed from elsewhere), the attitude, immediacy, trend-piggybacking and viral-ready approach used more often in private-sector comms means that local news websites are far more likely to retweet a Greggs ‘story’ about a new bun than an announcement from Anytown Council that it’s going carbon-neutral.

How big is the divide?

Let's look at some example videos and images (although a fair few public-sector organisations appear not to have yet obtained a video-camera and so miss the most powerful channel.)

 

This current NHS video ‘Catch It. Bin It. Kill It.’ reminds of a WW2 newsreel. It would never be mistaken for private-sector marketing. I think it’s a lesson, yet all already know germs are bad and spread.

The intention is to change behaviour - get people to use tissues, bin them and wash their hands. But the video takes no notice of whom it's targeting. I think it will appeal most to worthies who already do these things.

I think the style of this video means it isn't effectively promoting these changes in behaviour as modish to its target cohort. It needs to push change amongst those who sneeze over others and maybe wipe their nose on their sleeve.


Moving onwards in years is this UK government & NHS Coronavirus video. That’s forward to the style of a cheap, animated children’s cartoon from the 70s. Flair, sass & style are all missing.

It might be countered that it's easy to criticise, how else should it be done? In short: copy the private-sector. Emulate KFC - they get it right, time after time:


and produce instantly viral (1.8M views on YouTube in 9 days) content:



This KFC video is not really selling a product - they won’t be making many of those shoes. It’s promoting the brand. Yes, this production costs money - the set and more, the star (a rapper) but it's the ideas and the story that drives this so successfully.

It might be argued, 'is not really communicating anything, I need to increase the people changing to this process, or increase visitor flow to that or change minds about the other'.

But the overall brief from KFC will have been very clear: increase sales! They work to deliver this in a much more comprehensive and so better way. And with boundless creativity.

A public-sector communicator tasked with the same brief might produce a video of an average family eating KFC whilst reciting a long check-list of what's good about the food, or posters crammed full of facts such as how much is the carbon footprint of KFC chicken or how the buckets are now made from greener methods. They would find it hard to use the intangibles that have put this KFC video in front of so many potential customers.

Why can't the Government Communications Service or Public Heath England use a similarly deft touch in addition to necessary officialese? Deploy content made for viral, as well as for formal messaging, on Coronavirus and more?

Such can be undertaken cheaply - and with that sass and style - like by this US doctor in this 15-seconds video on TikTok:



https://www.tiktok.com/@drnicolebaldwin/video/6780375204574055685

In the style of KFC, how about the following for a video to message actions to diminish the spread of germs: stylised, muted-palette set, with nods to fixtures for daily activities (e.g. commuter strap, fast-food table). From each fixture, contemporary, young female and male blow noses into a succession of different, single-colour disposable tissues which they then throw into a sunken bin at the centre of the set. Final shot: in the bin, showing a wild pattern of swirling colours.

Local government celebrates its work with an annual #OurDay on Twitter. For this the council where I live published a 15-second low-res video travelling along a path in a dull and deserted park, passing by a few out-of-focus bushes. That was it. The text referred to gardening work the local authority has undertaken. This zero-level creativity is not unusual in the public-sector.

I can’t see any commercial body - from a local dry-cleaners to a minicab firm - not doing better than that in promoting what they do. But councils and others can communicate well and usually have a much better story to tell.


This joyful 44-seconds video from the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham effectively celebrates and takes credit for universal free school lunches at two schools.

Why does public-sector communications lag so much? In Part 2, I look at the organisation of comms in government, councils, the NHS and elsewhere and reasons for its lack of creativity.

Clive Power