Diplomats have a tradition of the valedictory when they retire. They pass on the learning. Here one local government communicator does just that.
by Adam Ogden
For me, a seven year journey of public sector PR comes to an end next month. Call it what you will - a hiatus, social uncoupling, whatever; I’m off.
What started as a six month PR assistant job in a district council has led to managing the press office for 150 varied and valuable services in the UK’s number one seaside destination. Over the course of seven years, no day has been the same.
What will be similar is some of the key things that I learnt from seven years of media enquiries, press launches and planned activity being thrown out of the window by something completely unexpected.
See if you recognise any of these in your work:
1. Idiots everywhere
An over-reaction to start (always grab the reader’s attention early!) but nothing is more frustrating than the amount of people approaching a comms team with a problem, a pre-designed solution that is normally the wrong one and an unwillingness to listen to advice. Everybody seems to know how to do comms, regardless of experience or qualifications.
We are the experts in our field, you are the experts in yours. Let’s appreciate those different skills and listen to each other. I wouldn’t ever dream of telling a team how to fix a road, decide a planning application or devise a social care package, so what gives people the right to think they are better at deciding on communications strategies than the experts?
2. We are not the messiahs
That said, there are then the other types of people. Not as bigger control freaks, and willing to listen to advice, but over-reliant on communications to solve problems. Did you ever think the reason you’re getting bad media coverage or poor uptake is because of a problem at your end – rather than the way the media is managed. We can help, and our involvement early on can dramatically shift the success of a project, but we aren’t miracle workers.
3. Can we just put the news on for five minutes?
We never finish work. Not really. We might leave the office every day but our ears are still very much to the ground. Whether that is keeping on top of the latest news developments or potential issues for the days and weeks ahead – we have to be tuned in 24/7. Only last week after a meal with friends I stopped to double take because one of the business we were having a corporate dispute with had closed down. My friend, who was at that moment going in to labour, wasn’t best pleased with the delay but I cannot help it. The minute we don’t stop to do a double take is minute we start having to play catch up.
4. It is isn’t all about the Himalayas of social media
Local newspapers are dying. Facebook has reached over 2bn users and other social mediums aren’t far behind. It has led to a fierce conversation over recent years about how messages are sent out and essentially, whether the press release as we know it is dead. I’m firmly in the no camp here. If you look at social media, specifically Facebook, it is true that the viral reach of that is huge, but it isn’t guaranteed. I like to think of Facebook posts a little bit like the Himalayas. For every massive post that reaches hundreds of thousands, there are dozens of smaller posts that go almost unnoticed. Compare that to the local newspaper, which has a daily circulation of a couple of thousand, online readership higher still.
The two work hand in hand, not as an either or. It might be different in a different patch with poorer local newspaper frequencies, and you absolutely have to make a decision based on your purpose and targeted audiences, but don’t start burning your bridges with journalists just yet.
5. Speak English!
“Innovation and collaboration will help our company cohesively address the synergy of our visions and values.”
Speak English. Too many times people think they are being clever by using fancy words, giving off an air of authority and intelligence. It doesn’t work. Why not? Because nobody understands it. Us comms folk are the last protectors of plain English. It is our job to turn that jargon nonsense into something Keith, 50 of Common Man Road can understand as he reads it over his bacon barm.
6. We are all 150 legged octopi
I know, if it had 150 legs it wouldn’t be an octopus but the centi-and-a-half-opus isn’t as catchy.
As promoters of public services, our level of knowledge is phenomenal. Most upper tier councils run around 150 services, some of them very complex, the NHS even more so. It means that we become real masters of all trades.
In seven years I have learnt what bacteria is searched to test the cleanliness of sea water, what steel weathers best in salty air and the science behind analysing school improvement. We need to be the real jack of all trades in order to be successful but never undervalue the breadth of knowledge that you’ve learnt as a comms professional.
7. Everybody is overpaid and underworked.
Without wanting to delve into anything too political, the grief that public sector workers get is completely unwarranted. In seven years I am yet to meet anyone, employed or elected, who didn’t get into their work for the right reasons. We all want to work hard, achieve good results and make things better for the people who live in our area or use our services. Sometimes we will argue and disagree, but that is only because we care so much about doing a good job, no matter how stressful it gets.
Adam Ogden was the Media Manager at Blackpool Council before recently leaving the role to find new employment in Melbourne.
Picture credit: National Library of Australia