Friday, 28 August 2015

In addendum - Leaflet-gate.

So, it seems my post on the DWP leafletgate fiasco may have struck a chord with other comms people across the land.

I'm struck by how many of us have been in a similar situation - feeling like we're being dragged along by poor decision making out of our control. Leading often to poorly conceived communications that, at best don't hit the mark and are a waste of time and effort; and at worst can do real reputational and brand damage to an organisation.

So how might these situations come about? Well, one very nearly did for me this week.

I was in a meeting with a group or consultants and other senior clinical staff, discussing how we can increase awareness internally, and externally, about the work we're doing to combat a particularly nasty (and fatal) illness.

Basically, the hospital has put into place a new IT-based system  that flags every time a patient may be suspected of having said nasty illness - and provides a step-by-step guide to treating the patient.

The system has had a real impact on survival rates in the time it's been in action - but some staff aren't using the system as they should do.

We did a big internal campaign about the issue about a year ago, which seemed to have a good impact. So we met again to think about doing something again to re-energise it, and to focus more on staff behaviour around using the IT system.

So I suggested that rather than re-heat last year's campaign, let's make it a bit more human this time.

Let's look at those figures that show much improved survival rates, and compare them with a previous period last year. We can say that "x people are alive this year that wouldn't have been last year...." etc.

Or we could actually tell proper human stories.

The conversation then proceeded as follows (I'm paraphrasing)...

Person 1: "Yeah I like that idea. But we could actually use real examples of people that we've had in."

Person 2: "Yeah sounds good. Only problem is patient confidentiality. We wouldn't want to identify individuals"

Person 1: "True. But I'm sure there's a way round that. I suppose we could use real examples but sort of make-up the people so we don't reveal any confidential details though couldn't we?"

Me: "Everyone, please stop."

Anyway, the point of sharing this (simplified for the purposes of this blog) exchange is to show how, with the best of intentions of all concerned, an incident like DWP leaflet-gate can so very easily come about.

I'm lucky that the individuals in the room know me and trust me, and my judgement - having delivered a successful campaign for them in the past.

I, to some extent, have been there and done it, and have the (mostly mental) scars to prove it. So I have no problem sticking my oar in and saying "hang on a minute - let's not do this." I say it from a point of view of experience, and on the whole, people tend to listen to what I have to say.

For this I'm really grateful. It shows that we have a culture where expertise is recognised and respected.

But I do worry for others in this situation: our younger colleagues, or those that are new in post, understandably desperate to make the right impression, and show that "can-do" attitude that we're told is so important.

Had I been either of the above, can I honestly say I'd step in the way I did in this encounter?

The people involved in the discussion are highly respected, highly educated people, doing an incredible job saving lives every day. I cannot even fathom their level of intellect or expertise in what they do.

I guess I may have felt a bit intimidated by that. And on that basis I can't guarantee that I wouldn't have ended up putting a campaign together featuring fake real people to tell a sort-of true story - just to show that I can deliver to brief, and to show that I'm cooperative and good to work with.

I've had some great discussions on Twitter this last two weeks about my last post. One discussion in particular was discussing about the idea of "faux outrage" around the DWP fiasco.  Some suggesting that whatever the situation that led to it, we as citizens and tax payers have every right to be angry about a government department fabricating information to intentionally give a misleading impression.

Good point that.

But, still, I just can't get past the human element of this. People in high places make poorly judged comms decisions that they're not qualified to make, and often with the best of intentions. If the culture is such, very often comms people, out of a fear of having to justify their positions jump to ill-judged non-negotiable directives to demonstrate their worth to the organisation.

This is sad. But it maybe is a reflection of such places that comms people feel timid about their expertise, and their role in the bigger picture. (This feels like another blog in the making right here...)

But what can we do in the meantime?

Well certainly for those aforementioned younger, somewhat greener colleagues that can find themselves in an intimidating position, we as leaders or more experienced pros have a vital role to help them see their worth, and to give them the confidence to stride into such situations armed with the vital knowledge that their expertise is worth something.

It is.

So it's up to us comms people to get in there, roll our sleeves up and not be shy about our expertise and ability.

We're there for a reason. The organisations we work for chose us to be there for that reason. So let's sharpen our elbows and make our voices heard.

And please, for the love of God, let's avoid another leaflet-gate.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

“Leaflet-gate” – what comms people can learn from the DWP-made-up-benefit-claimants fiasco

Picture the scene if you will.

You’re a middle ranking comms officer somewhere in public sector land.

Your boss has just come rushing back from a board meeting (or a “Leadership Team Transformational Enablement Workshop”– call it what you will) in a mild panic.

“[Insert name of non-comms expert head of department] is putting pressure on us to do a campaign to really sell [insert name of so-far unsuccessful initiative]. It just hasn’t had the take up they hoped. I know we argued they were rushing it out without thinking about it properly, but they just didn’t listen, so we are where we are” he / she says.

“So they need to see something close of play. They want posters, they want leaflets, and they want them now. We need a comms plan!”

So you have a quick 10 minute brainstorm / thought shower / ideation workshop / burning-bridge-navigation scenario.

Given that you’re a good comms person, you suggest, “let’s focus on what this initiative means to our audience. After all, it’s them we need to reach and convince.”

You then convince your boss that the only way to do this is to go out and actually talk to some service users to get their views on said initiative. You could even then feature the individuals in some campaign materials if they’re agreeable.

Yes this will take a bit of time (a couple of days to arrange the people to talk to in a focus group) to get some insight, and then a few more days to arrange a photoshoot with some key people with good stories to tell, and to make a note of their experiences to use for the copy in the campaign.

But you manage to convince your boss that, if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. And in any case, you’re not reinventing the wheel. With a bit of buy-in from the top, this is pretty straightforward and ideal for a quick, yet meaningful campaign.

So you dutifully put a timeline together for your boss to take back to the Head of Department in question, and get on the phone and start arranging to meet with some service users.

All before lunchtime too. Pretty impressive.

Bad news. The Head of Dept is not impressed. He / she wants something quicker.

“We simply cannot wait that long. Anyway, we know what people will say, as some of us have some very vague anecdotal feedback.  You ‘comms people’ will just have to ‘commsify’ it.”

“And we don’t have time for a proper photographer and all that lot. Just make it happen.”

Wow. Ok. So what do you do?

So you get said vague anecdotal feedback, and you dutifully “commsify” it.

But what about actual people? If we don’t have time or resource to find actual live humans that this initiative in any way affects, where do you turn for imagery?

Once you’ve waded through several hundred pages of “women laughing at salad”, you find some images of “real people”. You give them names that “real people” are called. Names like “Sarah” and for our male, something more out there. Something like “Zac”.

The next step is to put nice, short, pithy quotes next to Sarah and Zac about how this under-subscribed initiative has helped them.

A day or so later (as you’ve begged your agency or design team that this is super urgent and has to go out straight away), you’ll get some creative back. It’ll be designs for posters and leaflets probably. 

The Head of Dept wants a promotional pen as well, but that will be dealt with at the end.

There’ll be plenty wrong with it. You know it’s not real people or real quotes but for a rushed job, and “for illustrative purposes” it’s fine. It’ll do the job. You send it to your boss, who then sends it on the Head of Dept in question.

“Yes I quite like this,” comes the reply. “But there’s nowhere near enough text about [insert irrelevant pet-project example] or the fact that [insert totally unimpressive statistic], I want to see these in before this goes out.”

“And I’m picking the kids up at 4 today so I need to see it back straight away.”

A couple of iterations later, and you’re left with a hotch-potch of an overly-wordy piece of fluff, the content of which is full of vague platitudes, ascribed to non-existent people.

You hate it. But the Head of Dept is happy. And he / she is off your boss’s back.

What could possibly go wrong?

Politicians and commentators are calling it “outrageous”, “disgraceful” and “shocking” (SHOCKING!)

Even worse than that, it's become a meme.

And the next thing you know you’re scrambling round trying to recall them all.

You’re left with your head in your hands. You saw all this coming.

- -


I feel it's important to point out at this stage that, genuinely and in all seriousness, this entirely fictitious scenario does not relate to anything I've experienced where I work currently. 

We have a really good and collaborative relationship with the top of our organisation. We have actual direct conversations when seeking to resolve a comms challenge, which leads to the right solutions and the right (shared and agreed) outcome. In that sense we're very lucky. 

But others aren't. In other places I've worked or observed, this kind of panicked thinking is commonplace. And often takes comms folk down a road of no return of which they have no control. This is a problem. But a totally avoidable one. 

And this is the reason, try as I might, I can’t join in the Twitter-rage on DWP-leaflet-gate.

I have no evidence that this is what happened here. But having observed stuff like this and heard others experiences, I’m willing to punt that there is something similar in the DWP situation to the entirely made-up scenario I’ve just described here.

My over-riding emotions are, obviously faint amusement, but also proxy-annoyance with the higher echelons of the organisation that (probably / possibly / theoretically for the purposes of this argument) forced their comms team into the series of rushed compromises that led them into this position.

And finally and overwhelmingly: sympathy with the comms team itself.

I could be wrong, but I cannot imagine for one minute that any comms people in the public sector who had free reign to produce a campaign on something as important as national benefit reform would’ve come out with this.

It reeks of compromise, of a comms team forced into rushing something out to please the hierarchy rather than focusing on a shared outcome.

So the lesson? Be brave. Hold your ground. Remember that comms is YOUR speciality – and that’s why the people that are now telling you that “they need a leaflet NOW” have made the decision to employ you.

And for the rest of us. Don’t join in the faux outrage. We’ve probably all been there in our own ways.

We’re just lucky that we’re able to put those much compromised and unsuccessful campaigns in a locked draw somewhere – without them appearing on the 10 o clock news.