Monday, 2 November 2015

As a parent..... (Lessons from my first week or so of fatherhood)

Because there are nowhere near enough blog posts on the internet about parenting, I thought I'd better shed some light on this seldom-discussed issue, from the perspective of having been a Dad for a total of 12 days.

The first thing to say about being a parent of a newborn son is that, to some extent, much of what I read about before he arrived is absolutely true:

Yes it is life changing. Yes it is tiring. Yes it is stressful. Yes it can be expensive (if you're not careful).

Yes changing nappies is kind of gross. Yes I am learning to get by on far less sleep.

But, also:

Yes it is amazing. Yes it is super cute when he does a little sneeze. Yes I am loving it.

But there's some other things I've learned in the last couple of weeks since the arrival of Master Fox Washington Capper, that are a bit surprising or that have confirmed things I thought I knew.

(The following list is based on my experiences of these last 12 days. Please bear in mind that we have experienced neither colic nor teething at this point, and I'm still currently on paternity leave.)

1. The internet is full of bullshit about parenting

Bar a few very honourable exceptions (Stuart Heritage's Man with a Pram series in the Guardian, and this priceless list from one Mr Dan Slee - seriously this one in particular has been a massive help) there truly is some utter guff online about parenting.

This I believe starts during pregnancy. One of my roles during the 9 months was that of Royal Chef - ensuring nothing untoward passed my wife's lips.

When I googled "can you eat feta cheese in pregnancy" for example, the incredibly helpful responses ranged from "my friend was killed instantly by eating feta cheese" to "eating feta cheese resulted in me giving birth to Superman". 

Now if you're interested, the answer to this question is quite simply and conclusively: "if it's made from pasteurised milk, yes. If not, no."

But we all know the internet isn't that simple. 

This then goes in to the weeks before birth. 

Entire prairies in Kansas seem to be devoted to housing data centres hosting "my pregnancy was worse than yours" blogs, followed up with "having a baby is a life-ending nightmare from which there is no escape - but I wouldn't change it" opinion pieces.  

Once you've realised that actually it isn't quite as terrible as all these blogs say, then you're on to "if you think having a newborn is hard, having a toddler is a total living hell" pieces. 

It's an infinite loop of misinformation, directly conflicting "advice", and pointless scaremongering. Oh and let's not forget the essential air of condescending "as a parent" superiority. 

If you want advice during pregnancy visit the NHS website. Don't bother with any others. 

The rest figure out by speaking to humans you trust and / or by figuring it out yourself. 

2. It's not THAT hard

I'm obviously not referring to childbirth itself here just so you know. 

And that's the end of that sentence. 

But really, looking after our lad is not that complicated. He sleeps a lot. This is punctuated by crying. This crying is solved by either feeding him, changing him, or making him warmer or cooler. Failing all those things, it can be stopped by a good cuddle. 

A brilliant insight into parenting I had a year or two ago before we were pregnant from a very good friend was words to the effect of:

"It sounds like it should be a nightmare, but it's great."

And this is the best description of having a newborn baby I can think of. 

Yes it's more difficult than life before a baby. You get less sleep. But you don't get no sleep. Our little guy works on a 2-3 hour loop of feeding. This basically continues on a 24 hour basis. This obviously includes night time. 

One of us gets up whenever he does THAT cry to let us know he's hungry. Whoever is up (we take it in turns) changes him (we do this first for reasons that I won't bore you with - email me if you really want to know), feeds him, winds him, and cuddles him for 10 minutes, by which time he has a look on his face not unlike that of a student leaning against a kebab shop window after a 2-4-1 on shots night at the local student union. He then goes back to sleep, as does whoever is up. This continues until morning. Then during the day a similar cycle occurs. Though he's a bit more alert in between feeds. 

Is having a red faced baby screaming in your face with a pooey nappy at 2:30am a lot of fun? No clearly not. But making him so he's not crying and going back to sleep with a smile on his face is part of the fun, and leaves you with a warm glow and a sense of achievement as you go back to bed for a couple of hours before doing it again.

You're more tired than usual but you cope and adjust. That's what paternity leave is for. 

It's not rocket science.

3. Our dog has loved it. Our cat has totally freaked out.

Now this is a weird one.

We have a 18-month old Cocker Spaniel and a 9 year old cat.

The dog, who has very much been the baby of the household until recently has adjusted amazing well to him being here. She loves him, she's always looking out for him, gives him the occasional little ear-lick (which I'm sure is absolutely FINE), and has started to perform an essential service in letting us know when his nappy needs changing.

The cat though has not been so keen. She's normally really unflappable, but this has thrown her. On the first night home, when I was awake the entire night (my fault for being over-aware of every minor noise - not remotely necessary), the cat actually demanded at least as much attention as our son.

She was wailing and needing holding - to the extent that at one point, I needed to lie on the bed in the spare room while she walked all over me clawing me for about half an hour. I woke up (well got out of bed, I never slept) covered in scratches.

She's slowly got used to it over the past 12 days, but her general freak-out has been one of the surprises of the week....

I guess cats are very aware of changes in environment. Fascinating creatures.

4. Timing is everything

Those 2-3 hour cycles I mentioned - we're very lucky (I think) that we pretty much can set our watches by them.

What it does mean that if you want to do anything that requires an time commitment over an hour (going out somewhere in the pram, making dinner, having a mid afternoon kip), he needs feeding prior.

Do that and life can resume almost as normal for the next couple of hours.

5. At 12 days old, even CBeebies is way too advanced.

During pregnancy we talked a lot about all the cool stuff we'd do with our son when he got here.

We still have very advanced plans to go to Legoland (the proper one in Denmark mind) when he's about 4, and to Star Wars land at Disney World when it's open in, I don't know, 5 or 6 years?

But even outside of that, I was quite looking forward to playing and doing silly songs off the telly once he got here.

Unfortunately all these things are still a way off while he's in his eat - change - wind - cuddle - sleep cycle.

I tried to watch like 10 minutes of CBeebies the other day with him. I might as well have made him watch Eraserhead.

He had no idea what was going on - and i guess possibly won't for some time to come. Which is fine...

6. All other children look huge.

And related to this, whilst watching CBeebies, I was struck by how grown up all the kids featured in programmes looked.

They were wearing trousers! They were standing up on their own! They seemed to understand a basic narrative arc!

On my second day of paternity leave, I took the dog for a walk and had a chat to a young mum also out with their beagle. She had what looked, in comparison to Fox, like a 10 year old strapped to her front. Turns out he was only 5 months.

I guess babies grow quickly. I didn't realise they were so small to begin with.

7. Paternity leave = amazing

I can't overstate this. It's brilliant, and I've loved every minute. A true gift to men everywhere.

When else are you off work for 2 weeks, being at home, and it being ace? You don't have time or inclination to "do a few jobs in the garden". You just have to be at home getting to know your kid, and spending time with your wife or partner.

It's brilliant.

Thank-you Employment Law.

8. The mother of your child = God

I'm not going into child birth here.

Google it. I'm sure that'll prove very enlightening.

It's obviously different for everyone, but one common denominator that everyone will tell you, and I fully concur, is that your wife or partner will go through the wringer to at least some extent. For this, they deserve your unending respect, support, and treating like a God amongst men.

Seriously, it's an amazing thing they've done for the past 9 months, and went through for 24 hours.

Cherish her and forever be in awe of her. She did an unbelievable job.

9. Changing, feeding, winding = incidental in the grand scheme of of things.

I refer back to point 2. If you take all these things in isolation out of the context of having a baby, they sound awful.

And to some extent they are. I'd never fed or changed a baby before, and totally freaked at the idea of doing so.

But, context is indeed everything.

All of these things are just necessary, and really are not a big deal. They're essential to having a healthy, happy baby, which is obviously what you want.

They don't take long, and are just a natural part of your life now, and here's the thing, THAT'S FINE.

In the grand scheme of things, these are no big deal, and not to be stressed over. Once they're done, they can go back to being asleep or incredibly cute, or both.

10. The one crucial piece of advice. 

I could do a big list of practical things here, that we've found out in the past 12 days (don't bother getting an expensive digital monitor, change first then feed, get a bouncy chair blah blah blah) and if you really want to ask, please do.

I was given some great advice off other dads during the time we were expecting, none of which we found on the internet.

My advice to any prospective parents on the strength of the last 12 days would be simply:

"Keep your baby alive in a manner that you are comfortable with."

Anything to do with having a kid: the pregnancy, the birth, the looking after, the setting up home etc, must be entirely designed to suit you and you alone. Other people will have good nuggets of advice, but really it's totally up to you to ignore or act upon.

Anyone who judges you for your decisions, or insists you follow particular path, does not have opinions worth listening to.

I may well revise this entire list in another 12 days, but this is how I feel right now.

Basically, it's great. All the hard work and tiredness is 100% worth it. It's the best thing we ever did.

If we can do it, so can anyone.

Being the clip art and comic sans police. And why it matters.

This blog post appeared originally here on
comms2point0 is one of my favourite websites.
There are loads of interesting ideas and a great community. There’s stuff on here that helps me to find solutions to issues on a daily basis.
Not very colourful though is it?
Don’t know about you, but sometimes I think it’s crying out for a bright splash of pink, maybe with some orange writing on it.
And that typeface. It’s OK for some people I guess, but surely something friendlier, some more hand-writing-ish would make it look, you know, just a bit nicer.
And why don’t they put some clip art on there? There’s loads on your computer. It’d brighten it all up a bit. It’d make it “stand out”.
Actually, I’ll get my friend’s 10 year old daughter to knock something up. She’s good at drawing…
No I haven’t lost my mind. Yes I am being deliberately facetious.
These are very close to real life comments that I, as the appointed “brand guardian” for our organisation (a large NHS Hospital Trust employing over 5,000 people) have had to field in the not too distant past.
In big organisations, we simply cannot do every piece of communication. People are rightly proud and enthusiastic about their services, and often cannot wait to tell the world about how brilliant they are.
That’s laudable, and pretty much entirely positive. But, good grief, it does lead to some dreadful leaflets, posters and the like being created, that will make you cringe till you can cringe no longer.
And our role in this is to give these departments the tools and framework to do things for themselves, and unfortunately, play “bad cop” when things aren’t up to scratch.
This wonderful site that you’re currently reading (whose branding, just for the record, I actually LOVE), has a truly fantastic post on comms face-palm moments, and a comments thread  that never fails to make me actually LOL in those dark moments where you just need to feel that someone out there feels your pain.
For us communicators, sharing our stories about that department that did “that crap leaflet” that we had to sort out at the last minute before they ran off 6,000 copies is genuinely cathartic. It shows that we all, in large public sector organisations have very similar challenges. And it’s funny, in a kind of gallows-humour kind of way.
But we do need to remind ourselves as communicators that, as much as this stuff drives us mad sometimes, we do play a critical role in safeguarding and promoting our organisations’ reputations through holding firm, and making sure that our various brands retain the equity that we’ve worked so hard to create.
Every element of our organisational brand identity should be poured over. Every shade of colour, every bit of positioning, every relationship between image and text, and of course, every piece of lettering, needs to be guarded and owned meticulously.
Branding isn’t just something for blue-chips, retailers, or high end fashion labels. It’s an essential part of every organisation’s face to the outside world. And in public service, I’d argue, that it’s just as, nay, even more important.
The most precious commodity that we in the public sector have is trust.
It only takes one badly worded tweet (I’m looking at you The FA) or a badly briefed executive on the local news to undo all your good work, and erode the public’s trust in you.
We need to think of branding in this same bracket.
Personally, for my local hospital or local authority, when I visit their premises or get a letter from them, I want reassurance that they’re professional, trustworthy, using my tax dollars properly, and holding themselves to the highest possible standards.
I don’t want to think of them as friendly, well-meaning amateurs.
A badly photocopied leaflet with the logo stretched, and written in Comic Sans, covered in jaunty clip art gives me the latter feeling. It frankly erodes my trust in them to deliver when it really matters.
This shows us that all the details matter and that everything signifies something in branding.
So what to do?
Well, it’s not easy. But there are a few things we all need to effectively safeguard our brand identity and therefore our reputations, especially where, through necessity, we have to hand the reigns to other non-branding expert led departments:
A brand guidelines document.
What looks “good” is a notoriously subjective issue.
It becomes an especially subjective and even emotive issue when you have to tell someone, (usually an admin assistant or a junior member of a team, who are only doing what they’ve been asked to do, and who has “worked really hard on this actually”) that what they’ve spent all afternoon creating isn’t up to scratch.
Having a brand guidelines document takes this subjectivity away. The best ones aren’t just a list of dos and don’ts, they’re manifestos for how the organisation is to be represented. They’re unarguable statements of intent, as well as essential guides for visual communications.
And they give you crucial back-up if you ever get into the horrendous back-and-forth of a manager who believes what you’re telling them is an optional opinion, just casually thrown into the conversation for good measure. They may well “prefer the one we’ve done actually”, but if whatever it is doesn’t do what your guidelines tell them: it ain’t good enough. End of story. 
An iron constitution
As a brand guardian, you will see things that horrify you. This is especially problematic in big organisations with lots of departments that you simply can’t sit with and direct on a daily basis.
It’s important to keep your cool when you see stuff that offends every design sensibility in your body. But it’s also important to stand firm.
You may well have to tell people what they don’t want to hear sometimes, but it’s important you have the confidence, and support within the organisation do to so, when the situation demands it.
Having a clear sense of what is acceptable and what isn’t is really important. Remember, we’re not dealing with subjective opinions here. We’re dealing with what the organisation has decided its face to the world is to be. It’s worth protecting.
Good relationships
Of course, we’re dealing with human beings here.
Hard and fast rules strongly enforced will only get you so far. In fact, I have a theory that for some people, the more you criticise their efforts, the greater chance you have of effectively ghettoising crap design. This stuff happens anyway, but you never get to know about it. And in a big organisation, it’s easier to get away with. And more damaging.
That’s why engaging with people that are being asked to put posters and leaflets and the like together on a human, equal footing is so important.
Go out and see them. Understand what they’re trying to actually achieve. Show them good examples. Explain to themwhy it must be done this way. Show them the high quality results of other work you’ve done, when you’ve worked closely with someone on a piece of work. Give them examples of people within the organisation that are doing things the right way, and explain how they got there.
Help them to understand that this is an important part of your remit.
If it helps, why not run a session to practically show people how to create decent communications on a DIY basis?
Involve, don’t just enforce.
An understanding that nothing happens in isolation
At one of the discussions at the excellent CommsCamp15 around the subject of “DIY Comms”, a provocative but really important question was asked along the lines of:
“If comms people give all other departments the tools and guidance to do comms themselves, what role is left for them?”
And, you know, this is a damn good question.
And for me, there’s a clear answer. Our role is to see the whole organisation the way the public sees us.
This means understanding that nothing ever happens in isolation, and that every activity, whatever it is, reflects on the organisation in some way – good or bad.
We have to remind ourselves and our colleagues that the public don’t see departments. They see one organisation. It’s our role to provide this context to everyone who is doing any communication on behalf of that organisation.
So when your local Library Services want to do a poster – it’s actually the whole Local Authority doing a poster.
When your Maternity Services want to do a hand-made leaflet to give out to new mums – it’s actually the whole hospital doing a leaflet to hand out to new mums.
Departments, rightly, focus their energy on themselves. We must focus our energy on the whole entity of what the organisation represents to its public.
If we adopt this attitude, this makes those difficult conversations with departments a lot easier.
This takes you from being seen as just the uppity branding snob (personal experience leaking into the blog post there), into being the guardian and advisor whose advice and insight is respected and actively sought.
And on a final point, it’s not just the public we guard our identities for. In this blog post I talk about the 4 pillars of internal engagement: a strong “Corporate Narrative” being the first in the list.
This means that consistently applied brand identity is just as important to your staff as it is to your public. For staff to feel engaged, it’s critical for them to have a crystal clear sense of the organisation’s purpose, it’s story, and it’s future. This is what branding is for in its most basic sense.
Inconsistent and poor quality standards in communication normalises inconsistent and poor standards in service delivery. It creates a workforce ill at ease with its identity, and its place within it.
Your identity and your brand is a window on your organisation’s soul, and your face to the world.
It’s important. And the details matter.

Your new 3-person comms team. Who makes the cut?

This blog post originally appeared here on

Let’s just say you were creating a Comms team totally from scratch.
Let’s also say it can only include three people.
Sure, you could always buy in a bit of agency time here and there, but that’s essentially your lot.
Who makes the cut? Who doesn’t? Why so?
Would this be the same as it would have been five years, or even a year ago?
How do we future-proof ourselves? What experience, and what attitudes would you want to see?
OK, so I admit it, there is a selfish point to me asking you, dear comms people, these questions. I’ll be starting a new position, heading up a Comms and Engagement function shortly within a new Health and Social Care Partnership here in Wirral.
It’s an NHS Vanguard thing. So it’s a completely new approach to delivering a healthy local population. And with new ways of working, there comes the demand for a fresh, dare I say it “innovative”, approach to comms and engagement.
So, yes, I am going through this though process myself right now.
However, this really has got me thinking about these questions as a whole? What is the role of a small in-house comms team these days?
And what are the utterly essential roles you can’t do without to get a new one off the ground?
To kick things off, here’s my suggestion for what a small but perfectly formed CommsTeam2.0 should consist of these days:
  1.  A Defined Leader.
This person sets the agenda, the pace, and the culture of the team. They own and are accountable for creating and delivering a strategy.
They basically do everything suggested in this excellent blog post.
They’re the face, the voice, the heart, and the soul of the team.
They live, breathe, eat and sleep the agenda. They may create democratic decision-making in the team, but they ultimately have the guts to say yes or no: and stand up alongside other big-wigs in the organisation.
To start with at least, they’re all over any piece of comms (be it press releases, brand identity, you name it) like a rash.
They’re a flack shield, but also an evangelist for the work that the team is engaged in.
They lead innovation. They create an open, trusting culture within the team where the others are encouraged to push themselves to the limits of their capabilities, and to seek out new challenges.
They create a happy working environment, where everyone feels valued, and free to push the boundaries – safe in the knowledge that you’ve got their back.
The above, I think is the kind of role that every comms team needs, and I guess describes the type of leader I’m hoping to be in my new role.
But in terms of specific functions, I guess, the following two make my final team-sheet:
  1.  Insight Specialist
Especially in the public sector, and places where we’re trying to change behaviours, someone with a real appreciation and expertise in research is essential – and needs to be in place right from the get-go.
Right at the beginning, there may not be all that many press releases to actually write. There might not be a lot you really can video, and it’s the role of the team leader to make sure any “we want a leaflet” requests are handled in the “appropriate” manner, prior to there being any strategy in place.
Day One of any new team in this environment should be all about getting to know your audience. Understanding what makes them tick. Understanding what moves them. Understanding what rational and irrational factors prevent them from making better choices.
For this, you really need a specialist, who lives and breathes this stuff.
They need to be as comfortable with human beings as they are with data. They need to have a real understanding of the whole range of insight-gathering techniques (including those that haven’t been invented yet!)
And this person needs to be able to lead your testing when you’re at a stage when you’re creating comms or any other interventions, and lead your evaluation at the end.
This person’s work will create the evidence for underpinning your entire strategy, and therefore every piece of comms output you create during your tenure.
It’s that important. 
  1. A “Do-er”
You might call this a Comms Officer, Assistant, Senior Comms Delivery Specialist, whatever.
But basically this person is your main “do-er”.  They’re a bit of an all-rounder.
They’re the one that is responsible for doing the stuff like drafting press releases, managing your social channels, updating the website, working with agencies to see campaigns through to fruition.
They’re the ones that have the motivation and the space to innovate – to do cool little videos on their iPhones that get tens of thousands of views.
They’re the ones that set up SnapChat as a comms channel. They deal with the details on the ground.
So, yes, this person might not be all that experienced. They may have had a year somewhere before. They might have had 10 years somewhere before. It may be their first job.
What sets this person apart though is their attitude, their instinct, their willingness to get their hands dirty, and to try new things. They have a constant eye on new techniques, but have the ability to apply them to the team’s overall strategy.
They may not ultimately be accountable for everything they do. But they do feel a very real sense of responsibility for everything they do.
You’ll notice there aren’t lots of senior marketers or comms people in my ideal team-of-3.
Neither are there any in-house graphic designers (though having a basic grasp of Photoshop in the team wouldn’t go amiss of course).
That’s because when we can only afford a small team, I think we need to start putting more of a premium on the “thinking” rather than just the “doing”.
I’m a marketer, a creative comms person. So I love the “doing” bit.
But whatever I do “do”, I want to make sure it suits our audience, and hits the mark. I want to make sure it’s based on insight, and we can measure its impact, and I want to make sure it’s the right thing, at the right time, delivered in the right way.
You can always buy in more “do” from agencies if you really have to. But I don’t believe you can truly ever effectively out source the “thinking” bit.
So that’s my mythical small, but perfectly formed, brand new comms team. Follow me on Twitter and I’ll keep you updated on any actual vacancies that may occur!
But for now, I’m really interesting in finding out what everyone else thinks.
So remember, the rules of the game:
-          You’re only allowed 3 people (one of which is you)
-          You’re starting your team from scratch
-          You do have the option to use agencies should you need from time to time.
So who makes the grade for you?