A crowd-sourced approach to enforcing the rules of good comms.
by Ben Capper
Almost three years ago to the day, I wrote a piece for this website called “Being the Clip Art and Comic Sans Police and why it matters.”
It seemed to strike a chord back then.
And it really does seem that Clip Art, at least, has been killed off. Comic Sans, whilst still “a thing”, seems to have taken on pariah status; relegated to usage in the very specific instances of Day Nursery signage, and Jumble Sale flyers.
Crap comms is a multi-headed hydra. Just as you chop one horror off – another one grows, and attempts to strangle your time and creativity; and taking your focus away from what really matters.
So what are the horrors of 2018?
We still see rubbish flyers, posters, and temporary notices written in biro on kitchen roll – though this is mercifully rare these days.
But given that we’re now officially in the digital era, we’re now treated to such joys as:
- Live-tweeting the Director of Finance’s talk on Corporate Governance (complete with live pictures from the back of a dimly lit room with a massive screen with an incomprehensible PowerPoint slide in the distance; and an event hashtag – probably #corporategovernancetalkbythedirectoroffinancejuly2018);
- When “Updating the Website” has the following instructions:
1. Open 20 page Word doc
2. Press CTRL A + CTRL C
3. Open website CMS
4. Press CTRL V
5. Click Save and Publish
- PowerPoint presentations describing “end-of-life pathways”, “financial transformation recovery programmes” and “New procurement system training” sessions with lots of very jaunty transitions, bouncing writing, and those weird bubble people
- Un-moderated, empty, invite-only Facebook groups
And it doesn’t stop there. I asked the good people of the UK comms community to let me know the horrors that emanate from their organisations, despite their best, most noble efforts:
- “Bespoke Apps developed at great expense that do nothing beyond provide info; which a decent mobile website should have been used for” @T0mStevenson
- “Any photo featuring ‘Ariane - The Over Exposed Stock Image Model’ - you’ll know her when you see her” @MafJohnson
- “Photos of people handing over cheques!” @MsCharlotteAJ
There were more. But let’s not torture ourselves more than strictly necessary.
It still lives among us. It still drives us mad.
Group therapy; sharing the pain with like-minded Comms folk, is an essential part of staying sane in our world.
We can’t control the (well meaning) creative impulses of colleagues in our organisations – especially when their numbers are in the thousands.
But, as communicators, the buck does stop with us, when it comes to how our patients, students, residents, users (however we define our audiences) experience how we communicate with them.
So what to do?
As with all communications it’s essential that we firstly understand the lives of the people we’re seeking to influence.
Though the precise peculiarities are changeable from organisation to organisation, there are some common factors that will be influencing your non-comms colleagues:
- Being under pressure from managers
- Not being able to call on your expertise because you’re pulled in a million directions already
- Having team members with admirable enthusiasm (but not necessarily the skills to match)
- Feeling unloved or de-prioritised
- Just not knowing that support is out there.
No-one out there is intentionally trying to make your life harder. No-one is consciously trying to wreck the organisation’s visual image and reputation that you’ve tried very hard to meticulously build.
I understand the old phrase of good intentions, and the road to hell, and all that. But in most cases, there are things you can do to help your colleagues to do their bit for the bigger picture of your organisational rep.
Given that the demands on our time as communicators aren’t getting any fewer, it really is down to us to come up with some proper solutions for this problem, that just isn’t going away,
At Comms Camp in July 2018 in Birmingham, I led a session about “Analogue Comms” – which asked fellow comms to contribute their thoughts on how we can help our non-comms colleagues to do their communicating in more reputation-friendly ways.
Here’s the main list we came up with:
As with everything in comms, and indeed life, this has to be the starting point.
Not everyone instinctively understands why managing brand identity is so important. But, to be fair, we shouldn’t expect them too. That’s our job.
It’s on us to set out the case, in a way that takes our colleagues with us.
When I was in house in an Acute NHS Trust, I led a range of sessions with internal colleagues where I went through the various elements of the organisational brand, where the logo should go, what fonts to use, where the photo library was located and all that stuff.
But importantly, I firstly started with a round-the-room exercise on understanding what our patients wanted from us.
“A sense that we all work together”
These were the phrases that kept cropping up. And they really helped to frame and refocus the thinking around what we say and how we say it.
It showed colleagues, in their own words, why it’s important that:
- messages go out in a coordinated manner
- the language we use is easy to understand
- the look and feel of visual communications is consistent
And, by the way, this is especially important to remember when training and guiding colleagues who put themselves forward as CMS editors , and social media account admins.
That’s why you don’t just copy and paste said 20-page Word document into your website, or upload a word document press release to Facebook and walk away humming a merry tune…
Remind your colleagues that the most important people in your lives are not their managers, they’re your audience, and your users. Start here, and it reframes the whole conversation.
This is something that many a large organisation has tried over the years – sometimes with mixed results.
But the central premise of having people around the organisation who take responsibility for communicating publicly for their departments is a fundamentally sound one. You can’t do everything. And there probably actually are some good stories and developments out there that would ordinarily fall under your radar.
The key thing to remember is that, as much as you’re busy; so are they. And they need the support and recognition for what they’re doing.
We’ve probably all seen the first flush of enthusiasm from volunteers, only for this to dissipate as their day jobs take over.
It’s time to think differently about these vital colleagues. It’s time to really invest thinking into what’s in it for them.
How do we incentivise them? Career development? CPD points? Employee Award schemes? A thank you and a friendly handshake?
Whatever it is, we need to invest in rewarding these colleagues for the enthusiasm. Just providing them a PowerPoint template and forgetting about them isn’t going to be enough.
They need training, guidance, and recognition for their efforts.
When you think about it; isn’t that the very basics of good employee engagement?
Usable branded resources remain as crucial as ever. The problem organisations have faced in the past has tended to be when they’ve just issued resources without the human engagement.
Also, these resources have tended to include really unwieldy Word templates (with resultant huge file sizes), and loads of file types that most non-comms nerds have no idea how to distinguish between.
So the resources and templates are essential – but they have to be easy to access and use.
One cool way of doing this, mentioned in the Comms Camp session was to have a PowerPoint template with png icons on, that colleagues can literally copy and paste into their word documents or PowerPoint slides, making it as simple as possible to make something look decent, and reducing the margin for human error significantly.
However we choose to share this stuff:
- make it simple
- make it fool-proof
- make it easily accessible.
Set the tone from the top
This is critical, and something that we as communicators can absolutely influence.
Tell your organisational story in every bit of communication. Set the tone, literally for how you speak and relate to your audience.
If you have key messages and a strapline; use them. Be disciplined with them, and stick to them – whatever the channel, print or digital.
This is essential for your audience to understand what you’re all about, but just as importantly for buy-in across your colleagues. This will translate into how they talk too.
So here we are. The challenges don’t get any less. But they do change.
But the good news is, the fundamentals of good engagement with your colleagues don’t.
Let’s take the lead, show the way, and help each other to communicate better.
And I look forward to writing another follow up in 2021, where I bemoan colleagues’ inappropriate use of VR headsets…
Blog post compiled with the help and expertise of:
Hanna Lewis -HMPPS
Helena Hornby – Transport for Greater Manchester
Emma-Jane Daly – Ofwat
Ali Marsland – The Effective English Company
Lisa Armstrong – 2Gether NHS
image via Dave Conner