20 things I learned at #CommsCamp15

CommsCamp15 cakes

I’ve spent a really lovely day at CommsCamp in Birmingham, recharging my batteries after a busy few weeks. Spending time listening to (mainly) public sector comms people doing interesting things in their organisations has taught me loads about what’s happening at the cutting edge. It’s also reminded me just how powerful the unconference format is with the right mix of people. I went to five sessions, all interesting, all different, none of which would have worked without the infrastructure the organisers Dan, Darren, Emma and Kate brought to the event, and all of which would have failed if they’d tried to structure it more. It’s really a magical format for professional development, and the comms2point0 team deserves a medal.

Someone once invented a useful ’20 things I learned at…’ format for post-event blogging, so here goes:

  1. I can vouch for the fact that Manzil’s is very nice
  2. The Radisson Blu, Birmingham is one of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in, and good value
  3. The Defamation Act 2013 is worth knowing about: amongst other things, it defines that publishers online can’t be sued for libel more than 12 months after a piece of content is first uploaded (h/t @DBanksy)
  4. There’s no legal precedent yet for whether organisations are liable for libellous comments left on their Facebook page. That’s an interesting one.
  5. Don’t wait: if you get your correction/apology in early, you’ll save big time on libel action costs, apparently, in terms of correcting any harm considered to be done
  6. There’s no-win-no-fee style changes coming in November as part of the reforms to press regulation: 2 or more people publishing news content online are considered publishers, and if they aren’t in a Royal Charter-endorsed regulated body, they’re liable for costs of legal actions against them. Time to check that group blog over just in case.
  7. The Privilege defence in libel actions gives public sector organisations justification to talk about their work if they can defend it as fair, accurate, relevant and without malicious intent (that last one matters)
  8. You can use WhatsApp on the web (and @colebagski did, at Birmingham City Council during the last election period)
  9. On WhatsApp, you can share video and infographics to a Broadcast List of up to 256 recipients – and the resulting comments are surprisingly civilised
  10. Intranets stir up strong feelings, and we need to show & tell more to share the cultural lessons learned or there’s a risk of getting stuck in religious wars between platforms
  11. Uploading a video directly on Facebook is much better for engagement and functionality than sharing a YouTube link (it autoplays, and shows closed captions amongst other useful tips, from @AlbFreeman. More about video beyond YouTube here.)
  12. Iconosquare lets you access more analytics for your Instagram account, and search tags neatly (h/t @DaveMusson)
  13. …and Instagram hashtags do matter to build audience since that’s how a lot of people find stuff. You can add up to 30 per post.
  14. ‘IGers’ are local groups of Instagram users who you could give exclusive, behind the scenes access to your organisation to engage a whole new audience
  15. You can regram
  16. Orcid identifiers help you identify as an author online (h/t Andy Mabbett)
  17. Christine Townsend used to police my old hometown of Hastings
  18. The Children’s Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD-ROM runs to 7 discs
  19. You can have three different kinds of lemon drizzle cake, all of which are lovely
  20. The chaps of Govdelivery make a fine Victoria sponge and coffee & walnut cake (and have 5m UK subscribers to boot)

If there’s a common theme running through the (non food-related) points above, it’s that we’re at at interesting and confusing inflection point in corporate social media use. Newer channels like WhatsApp, Instagram and Periscope are challenging comms people, IT managers, news organisations and lawyers to confront questions about public vs private spaces, niche vs numbers, and publishers vs participants. Mistakes will and need to be made as we discover where those lines are drawn, and intelligent people like the CommsCampers need the space and opportunity to make them.

I’ve not enjoyed myself or learned so much in ages.

The digital comms planner

whiteboard flow

At Helpful HQ we’re a big fan of tools like the Lean Canvas or our friends Comms2Point0’s Comms Planning tool (PDF). A simple plan on a page or two that sets out what you’re trying to achieve, how you’ll know if you’ll achieve it, and what you’ll do to get there is more useful than a fistful of social media policies and gives senior colleagues the confidence that Things Have Been Thought Through.

So Al and I have been developing a little canvas-style planning tool which we’re using now as part of our training and coaching. Here it is (and as a downloadable PDF):

digital comms planner

We reckon you can boil a project down to three main elements:

1. What:

  • The ultimate goal of the project, normally an offline thing you want to change or create
  • How communication can help as part of this, towards the ultimate goal
  • What the specific steps are that you’d like people to take online, and therefore what your digital calls to action should be
  • How you’ll know if you’ve achieved these goals

2. Who:

  • The audience you’d like to reach. Nul points for ‘the general public’
  • Who can help you to find and talk to those people
  • How you’ll get things done, and who’ll do the work (or where you’ll commission it from)
  • What the reaction will be from those people if things go as you intend

3. How:

  • Which channels and tools you’ll use in combination to achieve the goal, including how digital will work with offline methods
  • What you’ll use those tools and channels for in order to get the response you’re looking for: stories, examples, funnies, pictures, answers?
  • What specific constraints you need to work around, what risks need managing, and what opportunities you want to seize
  • What successfully reaching your audiences will look like and what kind of things you’ll track to measure that

Importantly, there’s a start and end timescale box too, as finite plans normally make for happier teams.

What do you think, is there anything you’d add into the mix?

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!

Dealing with social media mishaps

chrysler tweet

When you tweet something about work that you shouldn’t have, or from the wrong account and it gets picked up, you want the ground to swallow you up. It’s awful, and the chronicles of social media crises are full of heads on pikestaffs.

But what feels like a full-on social media crisis at the time, often turns out to be a storm in a teacup a few days later, with only a few red faces to show for it. It’s one of the ‘mishap’ scenarios described in a great piece of guidance from New Zealand (hat tip: Craig Thomler) which they deem the more easily fixable.

In a training course on Monday, we gave participants three ‘crisis’ scenarios, and got them to share what their handling strategy would be for each. The one that sparked the most debate was a version of this one:

A junior communications officer has been tweeting live coverage of a ceremony taking place, at which national VIPs are present, including a Cabinet Minister and senior managers. During the sombre event, thinking they are tweeting from a personal account, the officer accidentally tweets a picture along with the comment “stick a bomb under the lot of them and there’ll be #nomorecuts”, which is widely retweeted.

Assuming you’re responsible for the channel, let me know in the comments or by Twitter (checking you’re logged into the right account first) what you would do:

  1. immediately?
  2. in the following few days?

For extra credit, how would your response differ if the account in question was the individual’s own work-related account (where they say in their bio or username where they work), rather than the organisation’s corporate channel?

Not sure there’s a right answer, but I’ll post an update with my thoughts tomorrow.


Thanks for the comments and responses on Twitter – all pretty sound thinking, I’d say. Here’s what my answer would be:

We can conclude a few things here:

  • The perpetrator of the offence will have learned a salutory lesson, and will be a wiser and smarter tweeter as a consequence who double checks before posting a controversial opinion (a valuable learning experience)
  • This isn’t the right place for humour: this was a sombre ceremony, and a fairly serious mis-tweet
  • We need to be transparent about what happened and how we’ll learn from the experience
  • We need to respond quickly, ideally within a few minutes but certainly within a couple of hours
  • Longer term, we need to avoid similar mis-tweets, which in this case means ensuring people don’t mix accounts in apps like TweetDeck

So, assuming this happened on a corporate account, I’d suggest the team:

  • apologise
  • set record straight (including deleting the tweet)
  • take some action to reduce the risk of it happening again (not necessarily preventing the original tweeter from ever tweeting again)

“Sorry, a member of our team inappropriately tweeted an offensive personal opinion through this account”

“We’ve removed it, as it’s not the <org>’s view, and we’ll take steps to prevent that kind of mistake happening again”

“Today is really about <sombre ceremony>: [link to coverage/round-up of event]”

If it happened on an individual’s own professional account, the approach would be the same, with a couple of differences:

  • distance the professional persona from offensive remark
  • promise to learn, making sure you come across as an individual and show a bit of remorse
  • be clear this is about foolishness, not self-flagellation

“Sorry, I foolishly tweeted an offensive comment through this account in the heat of the moment. I’ve since removed it.”

“It didn’t reflect my professional view or the view of my employer. I’ve learned a tough lesson and will apply better judgment in future.”

Any views?

Infographic: Should I Post This Update?

The Teacampers were on good form (and vast numbers) yesterday, to discuss the vexed question of social media guidance for civil servants which the GDS Digital Engagement team are currently drafting. It’s to their great credit that Emer, Lou, Jane and colleagues are developing the guidance in the open, in consultation with those inside and outside government who have an interest or experience. It’s a tough challenge too – my contribution was to suggest that maybe we need several different things, rather than a single one (which others have struggled to compile before – it quickly becomes a social media training manual or digital engagement strategy when you put finger to keyboard…):

  1. An overarching vision for how government or a particular organisation intends to use social media to advance its aims, with a sort of set of ‘design principles’ to guide how it will be practiced.
  2. Some descriptions of how an organisation will manage its different social channels, why it has them, who controls how they’re used, and how their value will be measured. It helps people inside and outside be clear on what to expect, and is a source of answers when someone asks, which they invariably will.
  3. Some examples of how to use social media effectively as a team, and as an individual whether that’s the Head of the Civil Service or a countryside ranger.
  4. A minimal set of rules for an individual to follow, by their very existence providing some reassurance that it’s OK to engage online while also clarifying which rules apply. I don’t underestimate how tough these are to get right – as a Teacamper joked, people who use social media don’t read social media guidelines, and people who read social media guidelines don’t use social media. The existing bullet points aren’t enough, and it’s hard to know just which existing staff policies apply to social media. Without this, it’s easy to slip into paranoia and feel the world is out to get you. Sure, some folk are and the Daily Mail always has pikestaffs needing heads. With some sensible rules, it’s more likely a press officer or line manager will defend a colleague under attack, as defend they should. As a taxpayer, I want to deal with a civil service of interesting, helpful human beings, not a humourless bureaucracy.

Still, my contribution to #4 is Helpful Technology’s first venture into infographics (not a proper one, I know but in the same visual style), in the form of this eight question flowchart to help you work out whether the pearl of wisdom you’re about to tweet or post is le mot juste or beyond the pale. It’s a minimum set, and would allow people to tweet about bad days or things that they’re struggling with, while avoiding the things that harm the ability of government to work. See what you think.

I’m a Civil Servant: Should I Post This Update?

How would you deal with a social media crisis?

We’ve heard the story of the Motrin Moms. Nestle on Facebook. Or YouTube-if-you-want-to. But how can Press Officers and marketers get to practice using social media and getting the tone right so that they can avoid disasters and deal with storms if they hit?

For quite a long time, I’ve daydreamed about a social media simulator, a training package incorporating:

  1. a tough but realistic public sector scenario with credible content
  2. an automated software platform that simulates the user experience of Twitter, blogs and forums, able to unleash angry blog posts or a hashtag campaign at the click of a button
  3. a facilitated training environment, with the opportunity to compare notes and approaches, and draw practical conclusions about what works in social media

Last week Tiffany and I delivered our first batch of courses for the Government Communications Network, the internal professional body for central government communications staff. Over two days, we delivered sessions on In-house PR using social media, Working with Online Communities and Digital Press Office skills.

As part of the latter, I attempted the first outing of The Social Simulator, which is my prototype of the vision above. Here’s the 60 second version:

As first outings of prototypes go, it was OK. We were short on time, big on numbers and a bit light on briefing, so the teams battled manfully to hang onto the fast moving scenario – ably assisted by my helpers Dan Slee, Jenny Brown, Alistair Reid and Tiffany. But I took away from the experiment a real appetite for this kind of practical session, and some encouragement to keep trying.

SocialSimulator.com- Mission ControlFor a start, the technology behaved beautifully, using PHP as a true scripting language, triggering blog posts and status updates using the WordPress and Status.Net APIs, and manipulating the database under a Vanillla Forum. Teams even had a Netvibes-like but entirely client-side dashboard to track feeds across the scenario. Even on a ropey internet connection, it all worked OK.

But more importantly, public sector teams are at the stage now of wanting to make their social media activities well-planned, engaging and effective – and to do that, you need to put the theory and case studies into practice. Learning on the job is a vital part of that, but it’s better to be able to take your first steps somewhere the tabloid press isn’t looking.

If you’d like to talk more about how the Social Simulator might help your team or your clients, please drop me a line.

Come and Meet The Communities

Back in July, I mentioned an event I was planning to organise to help bring big online communities together with government and the marketing agencies who work for it, to help stimulate creative thinking about new ways to work together.

Thanks to the great team at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, we now have a date and venue: Friday 1st October at DECC’s HQ just off Trafalgar Square.

Meet The Communities is a free, one-off networking and discovery event where we’ll hear from some of the big online communities about the partnerships they’ve developed with public sector organisations and commercial brands.

Now Government has less money to spend on traditional marketing, it’s a great time to explore how sustained, two-way partnerships with online communities can help government and citizens communicate better, more openly, and more cheaply.

But it can be hard for government clients and agencies to know how to work with online communities and what they can offer, beyond media space or one-off events like webchats. But the fact is, communities are a rich source of ideas and expertise, and the places where they come together online can be exciting space for discussion and problem-solving, as well as a source of peer support, market research feedback and mentoring.

So if you work in government communications, or in a marketing agency that handles public sector briefs, we’d love you to come along. And if you run a large online community (particularly non-geographic ones around an audience or issue – think students, motorists, firefighters, mums, consumer rights etc) then we’d love you to come and tell your story to an audience who would love to meet you. Bring lots of business cards!

You can book a ticket online, right now. Be quick, they’re already going fast! And spread the word – ideally using the tag #govmtc on Twitter to help us track it!

Reloading commentable documents: introducing Read+Comment

At TeaCamp today, I’m taking the Campers through one of my new projects, Read+Comment, designed to offer hassle-free publishing of commentable documents online.

It’s based on some work I’ve done recently for BIS, updating the Commentariat WordPress theme so that the team can roll out more flexible sites around their strategies and consultations, and do it without needing technical support hence saving money and time.

From an outsider’s perspective, it looks like digital engagement in the UK in this specific area are going in three directions:

  1. Collaborative drafting and detailed commenting on a document, using platforms like WriteToReply
  2. Crowdsourcing, reviewing and prioritising ideas, using platforms like Delib’s OpinionSuite DialogueApp
  3. Ongoing engagement around a strategy, where the document or questions are the stimulus for a wider discussion, using blog-based platforms and social media channels, like Commentariat

Personally, I’ve always been interested in refining and perfecting number 3 – it’s where there’s the greatest potential in the short and medium term to engage stakeholders beyond those with a strong professional interest, in meaningful discussion about what government should do.

So I see Read+Comment as the next phase – a platform that makes it possible to publish a document online, and build an engagement platform around it, in hours rather than days, for hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, while staying within government rules on websites.

The Directgov Review is a nice example of the platform in action, garnering over 100 considered views in a couple of weeks, from a wide range of informed stakeholders. The cloud-based platform coped fine with the spike in traffic when the site was launched, and the team moderating the comments went from a standing start on a Friday, to a live site on a Tuesday, with virtually no training or support.

Looking forward, there are two big milestones on the roadmap over the next few months: one, to build a bigger support infrastructure around the site as the volume of hosted documents grows; and second, to build in a monitoring and tracking dashboard into the WordPress backend, so it’s easy to see how your project is going and report on the results.

If you’d like to test out Read+Comment on one of your projects, please drop me a line or give me a call on 020 3012 1024.

Don’t be down with the kids

I started my career in market research, where soliciting the views of under 16s is frowned upon without rather a lot of faffing around getting hold of parental consent. Online, surveys tend to ask if you’re older than 16, and if not, chuck you out.

On balance, it’s probably a good thing that dubious marketers and market researchers aren’t able to ask intimate questions of youngsters unregulated, but the problem is that similar approaches have tended to be adopted by organisations looking for public comment on policy. Tim Davies, who is basically best described as the all-round guru on strategies for youth engagement through social media, highlighted this problem recently.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I had rather more strongly-held and frankly interesting views on politics and public policy when I was 15 than I do now. To be told to go away isn’t really good enough, if as Tim says, there really isn’t any legal basis for doing so.

So in developing my new platform for online commentable documents, I’m keen to ensure the default moderation policies take a more thoughtful approach to enabling young people to take part, without putting themselves at risk. Thanks to help in the comments of Tim’s post, I’ve come up with this, which I’m hoping to link to from the comments form itself as well as within the standard moderation policy:

If you are aged 16 or under, you may want to talk to your parent/guardian about the ideas on this website and the opinions that you want to express. Please don’t leave any personal details that might identify you (apart from in the email address box, which won’t be published anyway), and you may want to use your first or last name only, rather than your full name.

It’s just a start, and I’d welcome suggestions on how it might be improved.

Photo credit: Morguefile