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Distinctive Dispatch #2: Better comms for people, places and work
Appreciating comms teams, Distinctive Discussion with Somerset Council's new leader, 15-minute city debates, social listening for placemakers, making your messages count.
Our latest newsletter lands a day early because tomorrow is Good Friday. We’ll return to the first Friday of the month for May’s edition.
Points on comms’ purpose and value
Confusing. Evasive. Flat-footed. Vague! Communicators often come in for criticism during moments of crisis.
Several high-profile examples hit the headlines since our last newsletter. They always stir up debate in our office, and amongst our PR friends.
First up is the BBC’s response to Gary Lineker’s tweet criticising the government’s small boats policy. I’ve included it below, without passing comment on it, to be clear on what was (and wasn’t) said.
The BBC’s late statement, its tone and inconsistent application of its social media policies stoked a culture war and damaged relations with government and staff. Former BBC news editor and Number 10 Director of Comms Craig Oliver (£) sets out a level-headed assessment of the situation which seemed absent at the height of the crisis. His points: make time to prioritise decisions. Move quickly and decisively. Accept there is no perfect solution that will please everyone.
Commentators also mentioned comms’ role – or lack of – in former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s evasive and tetchy performance at the privileges committee of MPs’ investigation into the Partygate scandal. In fairness, and as I’ve mentioned before, we’re well past the stage of blaming a culture of ministerial evasion on comms people. This has happened for years and needs changing.
And this report from the Housing Ombudsman into Catalyst Housing’s complaints handling and aftercare makes important points around poor communication, sharing information, tone and language. It points to a sector under pressure, created steadily in the absence of effective regulation over the last decade. Many comms people have warned of these risks. Sector leaders must own them now.
Perceptions of comms
On one hand, these stories highlight how vital communication is in ensuring that the public understands and trusts organisations. It also shows how multi-faceted and misunderstood the profession is.
The issues I’ve listed are different. They require patience, credibility and a host of skills to manage effectively, and at pace. At different times, we are advisors, negotiators, counsellors, media spokespeople and customer service contacts.
We’re often an ear for the public and a voice for them in conversations with colleagues. Is it any wonder that our role isn’t well understood?
While these high-profile stories about PR disasters will happen, good comms people do great things every day without fanfare. They support organisations during times of change. They are your organisation’s public face, voice and ears. They advocate the right thing, rather than the thing that looks right.
Sometimes mistakes happen, but the many and frequent successes are often unheralded.
So, if you're working with comms teams on a project or campaign, please take a moment to thank them for their efforts.
They are often in the firing line when people aren't happy. This has got worse in recent years.
But they’re also the ones who help to keep things on track. It's important to support them as part of our teams and celebrate their successes when they happen.
Distinctive Discussion series kicks off in May
Somerset Council launched this week as a unitary authority with responsibility for providing hundreds of services to a population of around 570,000 people and 24,000 businesses.
The newly created body combines the former county council with four districts - Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset and Somerset West and Taunton. I’m sure it’s been an emotional time for staff at those authorities as they reflect on their achievements with their former employers. They deserve our thanks for everything they’ve done in testing times, and our support for the future.
With this change in mind, we’re delighted to have an hour with Somerset Council’s leader Bill Revans in our first Distinctive Discussion with… webinar on 18 May.
The webinar will cover the council’s priorities and its role in supporting vibrant places and a sustainable economy. We know there’s lots happening in Somerset; this will be a great opportunity to join an early discussion with the council’s new leader.
You’re very welcome to join us.
Things we’ve seen
Simon Reeve's Return to Cornwall: Cornwall has long faced a housing affordability crisis, caused by high prices and lower than average incomes. Filmed as the cost-of-living crisis started biting, this documentary shines a light on the issue’s impact. The online surprise to the documentary from people who holiday in Cornwall speaks volumes. Levelling up needs to reach beyond to Red Wall to support these areas too.
Things we’ve read
My mother, the troll: ‘I think she lost sight of the McCanns’ humanity’: This interview with the son of a ‘troll’ who harassed Madeleine McCann’s parents highlights challenges of working in and with news media. Madeleine McCann disappeared in the year I first became a dad. It affected me in a way that wouldn't have phased me if I was reporting on it before fatherhood. Simon Hattenstone does a great job setting out this story’s human, legal and ethical considerations.
Things we’ve heard
15-minute Cities and Freedom, AntiSocial with Adam Fleming: I heard this after our recent post on 15-minute cities. For anyone following this debate, the Podcast illustrates how opposing factions have made this concept such a contested topic. One comment from a supporter - "we tried freedom, and it didn't work" – highlights how advocates have stumbled into a culture battle. It’s time to take a breath.
Shared by Ben Stephenson
Things we’ve said
How social listening shapes place and PR campaigns: We’ve invested in sophisticated social listening kit to help clients understand online conversations about their brands, places and important topics. This blog looks at practical uses for place-makers and PR professionals, using the recent debate about 15-minute-cites as an example. Drop us a line if you’d like to test it.
Written by Ben Lowndes
Communication with clarity: We recently ran a poll about comms challenges our contacts face. Finding time to communicate clearly came near the top of people’s list. This blog by our amazing content writer Jasmine Gordon sets out some practical tips to help your messaging to land well.
Written by Jasmine Gordon
See you again on the first Friday in May. If you’d like to share or discuss anything before the next edition, please leave a comment or drop us a line.
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