5 crisis communications lessons from Captain Barnacles of the Octonauts


To those of you who don’t regularly wrangle small children on a regular basis: look away now: this won’t make a great deal of sense, I’m afraid.

The rest of you – hopefully, like me, you will have had your knowledge of the marine world vastly expanded by compulsive watching of The Octonauts, a sort of underwater Thunderbirds for the CGI generation. But there’s more to Octonauts than deep sea gigantism, marine symbiosis and the remarkable speed of sailfish: there are some very sound lessons for social media crisis handling too.

Here’s five things Captain Barnacles has taught us about how to snatch triumph from disaster – inside 15 minutes – day in, day out:

1. He’s quick to sound the Octoalert, even for minor emergencies

The best way to prepare for a crisis is to practice your response regularly (yes, I suppose I would say that). But even better than simulation is practising the process of mobilising the team for real, in different situations and at different times. Civil emergencies expert Ben Proctor tells the story of fire fighters, who will put ladders up at the front and rear and run the hose round the back of a house they have been called to, even if it turns out to have been unnecessary. Better to be safe than sorry, and keep the team well-rehearsed.

2. He brings together a multidisciplinary team and tools

Captain Barnacles has a crack team at his disposal, but they’re not all bold rescuers: he has scientists (Dashi and Shellington), an engineer (Tweak) and a medic (Peso) – not counting the vital welfare support offered by the Vegimals. Even better, he’s got a range of vehicles to call on so he can match the team and tools to the task quickly.

Kwazii with screens

3. He has excellent monitoring and analysis data at all times

Whether it’s fish swimming into the Octopod, or a tropical storm on the surface, there’s always an alert, a visualisation or a map just a click away. And when it comes to identifying strange creatures, the combination of Shellington’s wide experience and a sophisticated digital knowledge bank means the whole team is briefed quickly.

4. He operates from a central hub (but can operate without it)

octonautstv4464Sounding the Octoalert brings the team together quickly, usually in one place. The Octopod itself is a fine resource, but even better – Captain Barnacles’ octocompass lets him connect with the rest of the crew if he needs to co-ordinate a mission remotely. Lesson: you need a central hub, and the mobile tools and access to cope if it’s out of action.

5. He switches to manual control when needed

Sometimes, even the Octopod’s sophisticated systems aren’t a match for taking manual control – in Barnacles’ case: activating steering wheel. While tools and systems are great, they’re not infallible – and in managing social media response, human intervention is really important.

So there you go: those Cbeebies hours weren’t wasted after all. Octnoauts: let’s do this!

Good corporate tweeting

Train, credit @transportgovuk

Lots of people have views on the ‘right’ way to use Twitter as an organisation. I’m pretty liberal about it: I think it’s fine to use it to pump out press releases from a corporate account if that’s the expectation you set, or to have a dormant, verified account there ready for a crisis, or to encourage your teams and individual staff members to tweet about their professional work. The latter probably gives the organisation the most benefit longer term, but you need corporate accounts too in the same way that a switchboard is still useful even when everyone has a phone on their desk (or in their pocket).

But I’ve seen some promising signs that central government departments are getting smarter about how, when and what they tweet from their corporate accounts. Take this example, which landed in front of me at 8am this morning, as I chugged slowly through South London on a busy, hot train:

On the face of it, it’s just a tweeted announcement like any other, but it caught my eye for several reasons:

  • it was sent at peak commuting time, when lots of folk like me are likely to receptive to news about better trains coming soon
  • it’s got both a picture (of a cool-looking carriage that bears no resemblance to the one I’m in) and a link to more info
  • it’s shortened using a link tracker that gives some extra analytical info about the engagement it’s had, over time and by location – 250+ clicks in the first half hour isn’t too shabby for a government announcement
  • the further information itself on GOV.UK (nicely responsive on my phone, of course – remember, I’m on a train) starts off like a press release, but actually has some nice material for a wider audience too: it’s really a full-on social media news release with a CGI video (below) that bloggers or media can use, a link to a Flickr gallery of images you could use at hi-res (though a Creative Commons licence would help encourage reuse). There are loads of Top Trumps-style facts, and some neat tables showing changes to journey times thanks to the new trains
  • it looks like the team are preparing for integration with subsequent announcements around the stakeholder-oriented #ieptrains hashtag

I don’t know if the credit for this belongs with DfT’s digital team or their press office, but I suspect it’s a bit of both – well done folks. DfT aren’t alone in starting to do these things better: Defra are doing some really creative, high-impact work with partners online as part of some stunning social media PR campaigns, and there’s some great corporate tweeting going on at DfE, Number 10 and – arguably – the Home Office, who are using Twitter more fiercely than most politicians would dare, and, shall we say, certainly overcoming the ‘meh’ barrier which bedevils many civil service corporate accounts:

Corporate tweeting in Whitehall is getting bolder, smarter and more integrated. And that’s a good thing.



I’m learning a lot about salesmanship these days.

Downstairs at Helpful Towers, where the people who manage our serviced office work, there are posters on the wall celebrating great customer service and setting out the company’s model for managing the customer relationship from first contact, right through to careful ‘off-boarding’, when the client moves out. It’s an attractive and logical concept – treat people well, they’ll be your advocates even when they stop being your clients – which of course bears no relation to reality. When monthly targets and quotas come into it, it’s about protecting revenue over the next few months, as the sales guy had no qualms about saying to me earlier, while forcing me to pay six weeks extra rent for literally nothing. I’m indeed off-boarded, and not a little off-fucked too.

This evening, I dropped in to the summer party of Movement for Change, a great organisation training local people around the country to be community organisers, set up by David Miliband three years ago. I remember sitting down with the first National Director in the draughty Royal Festival Hall cafe at Christmas time 2010 to take the original website brief, registering domains names, and setting up a WordPress site which grew from a holding page, to a blog, to a BuddyPress network, and back to a blog as plans changed. Today, they migrated away to a platform based on NationBuilder, the cool political campaigning software that’s driven hundreds of US political races. I’m genuinely happy for them – it’s a better fit for what they’re doing, it looks nicer than the old site, and it will help them do more as a distributed political campaigning force. We had a nice Skype chat last week to finalise the domain switch, totted up the final hosting bill, I did a quick scrape and archive of their old site in case they need anything from it, and we’ve been chatting about hosting recommendations for their other bits and pieces. They invited me to their party, I had some nice canapés, and bumped into familiar faces. I haven’t always managed the end of client relationships so well, sadly: some have petered out rather in a fug of busyness and mismanaged expectations. If that’s you, I’m mortified about it, and sorry.

I’m going to do everything I can in the coming years to help fellow entrepreneurs avoid the trap of my serviced office company. I hope the Movement for Change guys will remember us as helpful and positive, to the end and beyond.

I think that’s what off-boarding looks like.

Photo credit: FrogStarB

Blogging about blogging

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 19.39.00

Last week, Team Helpful took a day off to focus on kick starting the revamp of our website. The results will hopefully appear soon, but one thing that won’t be appearing on the new site is a blog. Or at least, not in the conventional sense.

As a civil servant working in digital six years ago, I set up helpfultechnology.com as a personal blog about work – driven mostly by a desire to avoid hypocrisy. Three years ago, I left, and the blog became the site for my one-man-band consulting business, with the blog serving as a subset of content in a small corporate website. As Helpful Technology has grown from one man, to one man plus associates, to two, three and maybe more people, it’s clear we need to try a different format.

Personally, I’ve found myself blogging less about day to day work and examples, and tended to write more sporadic posts about deeper strategic issues – it’s more challenging to write engagingly about client work, for sure (even when clients are lovely and projects are interesting).

Convention dictates we’d have a company blog, and all our team would post their bon mots there and we’d collectively build up a following – to use the vile phrase, develop some corporate ‘thought leadership’ – of our own. The thing is, I didn’t hire Luke because I wanted to read less of his ideas on Intranet Diary. Howard has a parallel acting career alongside his work here (and jolly helpful it is too, though I’ve yet to find a corporate application for his stage combat skills). And even for me, there are times where I’d like to write things which don’t fit in Helpful Technology space.

Ultimately, I think blogs work best when they’re personal. But the form and dynamic of blogging has changed in recent years: Blogging happens:

  • in a wider variety of places
  • in looser arrangements and collaborations
  • in many more forms from captioned pictures to code snippets, long-form musing to practical how-tos or bookmarks

So my blog is shipping out here to postbureaucrat.com (well spotted Paul), and the Helpful Technology site will feature a curated collection of stuff from there, from the rest of the team’s blogs, from things we or our clients write elsewhere, and from places we talk about our process, methods and advice. It will  draw on the experience and rather nifty technology we’ve developed to power Demsoc’s Open Policymaking site, and our own Digital Engagement Guide.

Blogging in a purer, personal form again feels exciting and fresh (I’m almost tempted to book myself on Dave’s great-sounding blogging bootcamp). The old RSS feed should still work, or you can get my new posts as an email on a Sunday afternoon if you prefer.

And hopefully the next post here won’t just be about blogging.

How mature is your organisation’s approach to digital?

Nick Halliday is asking another of his interesting questions:

And here’s his Google Doc so far as he starts to answer it. I think the concept of a flexible, down to earth maturity model could be a really useful method for assessing how well an organisation is using digital across the breadth of its work, extending some of the principles GDS has published as part of the Digital by Default Service Standard (which is a bit more focussed on a specific service).

Readers with good memories will remember this was something I wrote about here too, about 18 months ago:

One topic I’d like to think about at this week’s UKGovcamp on Saturday (the ‘doing’ day) is whether we can come up with a way of thinking about public sector digital activity in terms of a maturity or capability model, that could be applied to help teams and individuals set goals and maybe even benchmark their effectiveness. For instance, it might:

  • Help teams to think about how sophisticated the organisation is at adopting and managing social media as part of official Communications and day to day communication

  • Provide some material for people thinking about their CMS features and procurement, to factor in the kinds of activities and processes those tools should be supporting in 2012

  • Offer insights into team size and structure, what the roles are in managing digital projects effectively (I’m deliberately not saying ‘digital communication’, for now)

  • Give everyone some ready-made benchmarks to help evaluate impact, and if not hard numbers, then at least an open-source process for getting to an assessment of digital effectiveness

We had a useful session at UKGovcamp 2012 (see the notes here) and I did a bit of thinking afterwards to try and structure it into a model, but it’s taken Nick’s recent question to get me to actually write it up.

So here’s my contribution to Nick’s call for ideas – a structure for a maturity model based on four areas of digital:

  1. Digital service delivery
  2. Corporate & marketing communiciations
  3. Social media engagement
  4. Internal communications and collaboration

Within each, the assessment (maybe a 1-4 scale?) would look at:

  • Vision
  • Process
  • Tools
  • Skills

And use a number of criteria or question areas to establish maturity:

  • Ownership & leadership
  • Strategy & planning
  • Technology
  • User focus
  • Embedded culture
  • Risk management
  • Community management
  • Openness

If you’ve got any thoughts or queries, do let me (or better still, Nick) have them.

Opening up

Lottery Lolly

Twenty years ago, before regular people had the web, I was a 13 year old discovering a hybrid database/scripting application called HyperCard. One of my early projects was a random number generator for the newly-launched National Lottery, which incredibly, made it onto the cover floppy disk (’3MB of great software!’) one of the early editions of Macformat magazine. I was smart: I didn’t put my home address on it, but I did put my school address in the Read Me. So for several weeks after, they came: little letters in the class register with exotic postmarks, from Scotland, Cyprus, Germany, Australia. They contained patient advice on how to improve my randomisation algorithm (it sometimes generated the same number twice). Versions ported to Pascal, or with a nicer UI, or ideas for new features. Some even included the odd financial donation too. My 13 year old friends were in equal parts bemused and impressed.

I never stopped fiddling with code, though I never properly trained in it either. Fast forward ten years, and I was releasing an open source DIY survey package I’d built because I was annoyed with SurveyMonkey – and the feature requests, support queries and very occasional donations came too, this time by email. Four years ago, I was blogging here, and releasing WordPress themes for consultations, as a salaried civil servant. Still the emails and ideas came: lovely, exotic, motivating, time-consuming, rewarding, emails.

Now I run a micro business and coding is for food as well as for fun. Even more than ten years ago, we depend on open source projects and the altruism of others in forums and blog posts, troubleshooting and extending them for us – making our lives easier and helping us make a profit from their work through the services we offer our clients. So when people have understandably asked if we’ll be releasing the code behind our work for DCMS on the intranet, the memory of twenty years of lovely, exotic, time-consuming emails coming flooding back before I feel ready to say: yes. Yes, of course.

To do otherwise would be hypocritical, and counterproductive. And our strongest ‘competitors’ are well ahead of us on this: the Simons at Code for The People have been contributing their plugins to the WordPress directory and playing an integral part in core releases too for years. Harry at DXW has been submitting patches and worrying about password hashing in WordPress core too. So it’s about time we started sharing more of our code and contributing back a bit more, and building time to handle those lovely emails into our business model. These days, GitHub and other tools make that easy.

I think there’s an important difference between saying ‘you can use our stuff, it’s on GitHub’, and actually helping the writers of those lovely, exotic, time-consuming emails to use the stuff that’s been released in their own work – many of whom aren’t especially expert developers but see the appeal of reusing work from elsewhere. We work mainly in WordPress, a massive community project with a vibrant ecosystem of plugins and themes where people expect to find answers ready-made, reliable, and free (and they’ll complain bitterly, without justification, to altruistic plugin and theme developers when they don’t). So releasing a WordPress thing isn’t just an extra commit, it’s a proper commitment.

Luke’s written more about what we’re doing, but in a nutshell, we’re releasing a tidied up, customisable version of our work for DCMS which anyone can pick up and use on their own intranet-style site. We’re started the process of documenting it better, there’s a demo you can play with, and we’ll do our best to answer questions. Thanks to GitHub, technically minded people can contribute their own improvements, so it hopefully becomes a small community project of its own.

We’ll also be introducing a new section of this site to bring together information about our code releases, where they are, their requirements, current status and more. In some cases, we’ll submit them to the WordPress plugin/theme directory too.

Open sourcing your core outputs feels like a scary thing to do as a micro business when they’re so easily re-usable by others working in the same sectors. But we reckon we’re about more than just code, as Luke’s blogging over the years clearly illustrates.

Make things open: it makes things better, as some wise folk once said.

After the earthquake

The changes going on right now in central government digital communications are pretty seismic. Not least because thanks in large part to GDS, digital teams no longer view ‘communications’ as the limit of their ambition these days, as they mainly still did when I was part of one.

So what’s the role for a company like mine in a GOV.UK world? It’s just over three years since I incorporated this blog into Helpful Technology Ltd, and the world around us has changed quite a bit. So we’re making some changes too.

Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore

For a start, we’re properly plural now – Luke Oatham has flourished in his six months on board, delivering some awesome work for Wilton Park, CLG and DCMS amongst others. And from next month, there will be three of us, when my former BIS colleague Howard Gossington joins the team. Howard’s an actor as well as a solid gold webby, and I’m excited about what he’ll bring to the team.

We’re two separate companies now, too: the work we’ve been doing with social media crisis simulation is a global enterprise now, with export clients in the US, Singapore and Europe and hopefully more to come. It’s a very different kind of business too, from simulating tram crashes with Manchester Fire & Rescue Service, to throwing petitions-gone-wrong at the team at Change.org (and they’re just some of the ones we can talk about).

We’ve also been working closely for a couple of years now, particularly on social media training, with our good friends at Claremont Communications, and we’re hoping to start sharing office space this summer, with a view to blending more of their social PR nous with our nuts and bolts digital skills.

But over the last three years, our bread and butter has been central government work, and as Inside Government gets smarter, there’s likely to be less of that around. That’s a good sign.

Like many small firms, at times over the last six months, we’ve found ourselves stretched in lots of different directions. So in 2013-14, we’re going to be trying to focus our work in four main areas:

  1. Digital engagement: effective digital engagement lives or dies by the strategy, skills and connections which underpin it and we’ve too often found ourselves at the end of a food chain, supplying a platform without the involvement to help make it effective. A year ago today, I launched the Digital Engagement Guide; now, I’m hunting for more opportunities to help organisations consult better and discuss policy online, and be a less peripheral part of the teams doing it.
  2. 21st century intranets: Luke’s work for the terrific team at DCMS has rightly been celebrated by GDS. What they’ve achieved with content, and how Luke has shaped a platform for it, is really impressive. There’s much talk (but few examples) of ‘social intranets’ and led by Luke, I’d like us to help more people turn their intranet from a waste ground of corporate guff, into something people use to solve their problems. Maybe it’s time for Intranet Club II.
  3. Power to the elbow of the little guys: a client once described themselves as ‘puffer fishes’ – able to do what appeared to be a big team’s work with a small team’s resources, thanks to the magic of WordPress and friendly, can-do support. Working for one- or two-person teams at Involve, Wilton Park, LGIU, University Alliance, and the Committee on Climate Change amongst others has been really rewarding, and they’re the clients for whom we add the most value.
  4. Social media in a crisis: around the globe, organisations large and small are realising that bad news travels differently now, and we’re refining a platform and consulting service that rivals anything in the world. We’ve established partnerships with around half a dozen agencies so far to offer social media crisis simulation services to their clients, and we’re developing intermediate products focusing on practical writing skills and Twitter in particular.

So while it’s sad to see old friends like the Department of Health’s innovative WordPress site fade into the archives, even I can wish it a fond farewell. The good stuff is around the corner.

The Wheel of Misfortune

I had a great time at CommsCamp in Birmingham last week. Ann, Dan, Darren, Lloyd and helpers did a fantastic job, putting on an event which worked for old hands and those new to unconferences. Every time you think there’s nothing more to talk about, you realise there is (and as always, many of the best bits are the casual chats in hallways and foyers).

commscamp session

Photo credit: Simon Booth-Lucking (I promise, the body language belies a lively discussion…)

I ran a little session with a pretty self-serving goal: to pilot brainstorming a generic ‘Wheel of Misfortune’, or a set of communications risks, that I (or anyone else) might be able to use to help prepare an organisation for hostility in social media.

To me, the purpose of the Wheel of Misfortune is really threefold:

  1. To make risk assessment for communications something a bit more engaging the normal dreaded grids, and provide the thinking behind formal documents that can demonstrate to bosses and others that you’ve thought through what might go wrong
  2. Issues Management: to identify some of the potential problem areas or vulnerabilities which, if you handle them well, can help you avert a crisis
  3. Crisis Management: to identify some of the constraints or dependencies which might cause you problems when you find yourself needing to communicate in a crisis

The basic plan was to divide a circle into about 20 segments, and brainstorm the ‘misfortunes’ recording one in each segment. Then we went round and tried to find some mitigations or solutions to each misfortune (though in the time, we only got about half way round):


About 20 CommsCampers helped me out, and we ended up with the following list of misfortunes:

  • Confidential policy info or personal data is leaked
  • Something embarrassing is posted from wrong account/inadvertently made public
  • Message timing is bad, clashes with news agenda or makes organisation look insensitive/out of touch
  • Hashtag or discussion gets hijacked
  • People from across the organisation give out inconsistent messages
  • Communications get watered down and become ineffective
  • Excessive process delays speed of response in a crisis
  • Short social updates/messages get taken out of context
  • Ongoing customer service issue: sustained customer complaint doesn’t get handled properly
  • Organisation faces an exposé/investigative report due to FOI/transparency
  • Personal abuse is directed at staff/leaders
  • Messages are deliberately misinterpreted to suit someone’s agenda
  • Get drawn into heated online discussion
  • Audience/internal colleagues have over-inflated expectations
  • Nobody cares
  • Internal politics and egos overrule communications strategy
  • Key platforms or data are lost/shut down
  • Organisation or key individuals are spoofed/parodied
  • Organisation is accused of abusing platforms/breaking rules
  • Someone posts something with an embarrassing typos or makes a miscellaneous cockup

(I particularly enjoyed ‘Nobody cares’, the perennial fear but all-to-frequent reality of public sector communications…)

The mitigations had some sound threads in common (but as I say, we only got half way):

  • Have the clarity of process and skills in place to act quickly
  • Monitor actively
  • Develop strong internal/stakeholder relationships and contacts, in order to co-ordinate activity
  • Defend sensible strategic communications, and don’t be swept along by ego or events
  • Seek second opinions
  • Be prepared to ignore or block abuse

I took the thoughts into a session Ben Proctor and I ran on Friday for the Government Communications Network on Digital Communications for Crises and Emergencies, which was a fascinating day in its own right, highlighting the breadth of crises that public sector communicators deal with, often day-in-day-out.

So many thanks to the CommsCampers who brainstormed, and may the Wheel of Misfortune spin kindly for you all…