Ever been vilified online? For the job that you do? For the hard work you put in? Just so someone can score a cheap point? People in local government are all the time. Probably in other parts of the public sector too. It has an impact and it's got to stop.
by a local government communications officer
I’m writing this, my first communique to comms2point0 readers, because I think it’s a painful subject of which a lot of you will have experience, and about which I don’t read enough.
Being a comm’s person can be hard, as we all know. I don’t want to get into a passive-aggressive rant about the ‘why’, focusing on the perceived disrespect we all suffer on occasion (which I tend to think emerges a little because of our own insecurities).
We work with words, and sometimes we question if what we do with them is worthwhile. Well it is worthwhile. If it wasn’t, Chief Executives, Secretaries of State and Council Leaders wouldn’t employ us. We have a role to play, and on the whole we do it well. So let your mind rest on that one.
In the course of our jobs, we all have to deal with the media. For some like us press officers, this is pretty much the be all and end all of our jobs, although social media is undoubtedly and irreversibly changing this. So we can’t exactly complain when we get annoyed with them from time to time. We know why they’re there, what makes a good story, and how desperate they are for content. Any content. All of the time.
Which leads me to my next point. I’ve asked not to be named in this article. In the years since I began my comms career, the Google search for someone’s name has become as natural as making a brew.
When we get a ‘freelance journalist’ asking an awkward question, the first impulse is to pop them into the great electronic phone book in the aether and see what kind of sway they carry. Some people might call this underhand. I like to think of it as a sensible first step. Like a journalist checking your sources.
And I know that despite my relative anonymity, someone out there almost certainly has my name on a list of Google Alerts. Just to see if I’m doing anything I shouldn’t. I’ve had colleagues ridiculed and abused on faceless, unaccountable online blogs (you know, the same ones that describe civil servants as ‘faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats’) and I have no wish to become part of the ‘Hate In’. I work and live in the same area. My kids probably go to school with kids whose parents read these blogs.
What I really want to talk about is the demonisation of job roles within our sector.
Our local paper recently ran a big story about a new job we’re advertising for. It’s a pretty common role within the public sector, doing an important thing that carries a relatively high salary, compared to our local area’s average salary. It’s the sort of job that carries a slightly vague title, but which, when explained, does the kind of things that residents always want councils to do. Stand up for them with central government. Tell ‘em what we think. Get us a better deal. That sort of thing.
A local politician decided to take this job advert and make some hay. Again, not surprising. Politicians have been lambasting ‘non-jobs’ and ‘cronyism’ since the dawn of time, and we generally don’t bother looking too much into the detail as we lap it up. We all, in the back of our minds somewhere between the pub quiz trivia and the Sky TV pin number, assume that politicians are bent, and that governments are corrupt, so of course any job they create that sounds intangible must be a bit, you know, funny.
The result was a story in one of our local media which essentially undermined the right of any public sector organisation to employ such a role. Of course, we were approached for comment, and we gave our perfectly reasonable, strongly-worded response.
But we all know the subtext to such a discussion. The headline writes the article. And when we eventually appoint someone to that role, there’s 50,000 locals all thinking that this person does a non-job, serving no-one, and implicitly taking backhanders from a corrupt ruling group that they are now inexorably tied to.
It’s a full time position. They could be here for ten years. And that story will sit online, occasionally to be dug up and paraded before the bloggites, just to prove a point. You don’t deserve your job. You’re being paid for doing nothing. Just another non-person in a non-role.
I’m not naïve enough not to see all the perfectly natural impulses that lead to this story. The politician wants to score some points. The journalist gets a press release. They’re perfectly entitled to print it. As I said, we all tend towards distrust of politicians and bureaucrats because of the things we’ve seen some of them do. We all justify our salaries every day, without an attendant level of respect. We don’t all walk around high-fiving residents when we score a big piece on the national news. Look what I did! I made us all look good!
But at some point along the line, there are lines that are being crossed. The politician doesn’thave to write that release. The journalist doesn’t have to print it. Such decisions have impacts, on real people who probably don’t deserve it. The internet has made everybody a target. And a web page, like true love, never really dies.
The writer works for a communications unit in local gov ernment.