Commscamp 2015 round-up

A plate of cupcakes decorated with piped icing and fruit

Commscamp – the annual unconference for communications-types in and around the public sector. I went, I found it hard to choose between the sessions on offer, I listened to interesting people talk about a host of communications topics, I ate cake.

What did I learn?

  • the organising team make running an unconference look easy, which takes huge skill considering the amount of time and effort they must have put in to pull everything together – huge round of applause to them all, especially for the work that means tickets are free
  • the more you pitch sessions, the less nerve-wracking it gets – feel the fear and do it anyway
  • it is impossible to get to all of the sessions you’d like to at an unconference
  • I love that nobody is ‘just’ anything, you are you and know your stuff whatever your job title may be
  • there are plenty of people out there giving things a try and they’re happy to share their learning
  • you will never have time to speak to all of the people that you’d like to, and it’s hard to use real names if you know someone by their twitter handle
  • that I can’t condense what I heard in the sessions I attended into one post, so have captured bulletpoints from:
  • the unconference format is one I enjoy, and I’m going to find it increasingly difficult to go to traditional conferences and just sit and listen
  • I wish there was something similar in East Anglia, and I’m working up the courage to sound people out about viability – starting small 
  • Pimms cupcakes are pretty easy to make and very tasty indeed

Photo: Commscamp15-033 by W N Bishop via Flickr


The art of promotion

I’ve seen a few good examples of social media-related promotion lately. They’re all pretty meat and potatoes ideas, but they get the job done. It’s also interesting to see how social media has become mainstream in so many settings.

The play’s the thing

This was a great basic example of back-of-the-toilet-door advertising at The Vaudeville Theatre in London. Always a winner as you have a captive audience.

Poster for theatre production of Handbagged listing social media sites and hashtag

The Twitter account had someone monitoring it, replying to and retweeting messages. A good addition to the night. It’s an excellent play by the way.

Keep on running

On a very chilly February morning at the Silverstone half marathon – I was a spectator, not a runner – Adidas were doing a roaring trade giving away free shoelaces promoting their Boost trainers.

Adidas branded laces and marathon runner number

It was a practical giveaway that promoted their product, their hashtag  and could well see runners wearing Adidas laces in other brand trainers. Promotion staff cheerfully asked runners to tweet the hashtag, it was also emblazoned on every runners’ race number and along the course. There was no chance you were going to miss it.

Advertising hoardings showing the Adidas #Boost hashtag and other brand logos


Please take photos

At Spitalfields Market one Sunday afternoon, I was surprised at the number of “No photos please” signs at stalls, presumably to protect creative ideas. Then one stall fabulously bucked the trend.

Sign asking people to take photos and publish them on social media sites

Well played The Last Stop For The Curious for making people smile and involving people in actively promoting you. Great hats too.

Last Stop For the Curious hat stall with stall-owner


Stall sign for hat sellers Last Stop For the Curious









One that got away

As well as all the good examples, I came across a missed opportunity from Transport for London. Having grown up in London I have a huge affection for the Tube and often think their posters are excellent.

London Underground poster promoting their new travel alert Twitter account

The design is clever, I love the Twitter bird in the roundel, but it’s lacking a vital element – the handle for the Twitter account it’s promoting. According to the Huffington Post the posters have been the same since January this year. One of those good reminders of what not to do.

Does local government PR need some PR?

Three sewing dummiesA few years ago I went to a PR student speed dating event. I was one of about 20 practitioners speaking to undergraduates about the sectors we worked in and what our working days were like.

Students from two colleges spoke to each of us in turn for five minutes. The group was mainly women – two thirds of practitioners are according to the CIPR’s State of the PR profession survey –  and, when I asked which sector they were thinking of going into, a high proportion said: “fashion PR”. As far as I can remember, not one mentioned any kind of public sector PR.

I’ve pondered for a long time about why this might be.  When you’re in local government, you realise just how fast-paced and varied public relations is. No day is the same as the next. The media want to and will engage with you. You’re dealing with a range of services, specialists and communities. Politics – local and national – is fascinating. You can help make a real difference to people’s lives. There are some remarkable things going on, especially with digital, and it’s a sector where people want to share and do.

I know that local government PR isn’t all rosy, that the nature of some of our services mean that when things go wrong they go seriously and life-threateningly wrong. That you generally have a budget of nil to work with and need to counter general negativity towards councils; but I do believe that the pros outweigh the cons.

If I know this, and others in similar jobs know it too, why didn’t these students know? Why hadn’t we told them? Why did their eyes invariably glaze over when I told them where I worked?

I can take a stab that plenty of 18-21 year olds probably aren’t that engaged with councils and neither know nor care what we do – I know I didn’t . Perhaps we’re guilty of not offering enough entry-level positions like Solihull Council’s graduate internship. If we gave more people their first break, we might be more visible on career radar.

And while I understand that fashion PR probably sounds a lot more glamorous than working at a town hall – where it’s more brew than Bolly – it seemed a crying shame that these students as a whole were missing the vast potential of exciting jobs they could be taking on. Perhaps our branch of PR needs some PR.

Photo: SewingMachine-0281 by University of Derby Teaching & Learning via Flickr

Astroturfing – keep off the fake grass

Astroturfing has hit the headlines recently. It’s where people claim to be giving genuine grassroots opinion or support when they are actually fake.

It’s a shoddy practice, and while not a purely online phenomenon, is no doubt compounded by the explosion in user generated content and the option to remain anonymous or hide behind a pseudonym afforded to online commentary.

For some people and organisations, the temptation to use social media to pose as independent commentators to post positive opinions about themselves or their products (known as sockpuppetry)  – or post negative comments about competitors – appears to have proved too strong to resist.

Alex Wade wrote about astroturfing last month in The Guardian, citing an eminent history professor caught out posting critical reviews on Amazon about rival historian’s work. Wade also states that: “In the travel sector especially, the problem has grown to epidemic proportions. Allegations of dirty tricks abound on quality review websites as hotel and restaurants use the sites to attack rivals or boost their own ratings by posting fake reviews.”

Wade statement was prescient. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adjudicated yesterday that the website TripAdvisor’s claims that it carried “Reviews you can trust” and “Reviews from real travellers” are misleading. The ASA has told TripAdvisor not to claim or imply that all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted.

Addressing astroturfing in Public Relations and the Social Web, Rob Brown states: “Apart from being unethical … it is likely that you will be found out. This will create significant damage for your brand or organisation.”

And if that wasn’t enough, exposed astroturfers may also find themselves prosecuted under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

The message is clear: keep off the fake grass.

Photo: Day 100, 365, KEEP OFF THE GRASSby Andreas-Photography via Flickr

Who are your publics?

A crowd of people listening to a woman talkingYes. Publics. Sometimes the terms stakeholders or customers just don’t fit the bill. Also, I’ve recently been hiking through communications theory for the CIPR diploma, and those theorists do like a public.

The theory of publics caught my eye in relation to social media. In 1983, public relations academic James Grunig identified four basic publics*:

  • All-issue publics – active on all issues and often focused on injustices carried out by or through organisations
  • Apathetic publics – inattentive on all issues. Not aware of, or concerned by, events. Self-focused and unlikely to take part in action to make their views heard
  • Single-issue publics – active on one specific issue/area. Put all their energies into one cause and are very active
  • Hotissue publics – active on one issue with high profile and broad application often seize on issue currently in the media, but for a short time

Working with Todd Hunt, Grunig further refined the theory, moving to:

  • latent publics – who face a similar problem but do not recognise it
  • aware publics – who recognise a common issue
  • active publics – who recognise the problem and organise to do something about it.

A fourth public – non-public with no interest in the issue – was added later. In his book Online Public Relations, David Phillips states that, in web terms, this public can be identified ‘as those who do not have ready access to the Internet.’ As said in a recent We Love Local Gov blog post, we mustn’t forget this public in the general move to embrace social media.

A wind turbine with the sky behind itIn another well-worth-a-read blog post , Grunig points out that social media gives publics the freedom to identify themselves, rather than wait to be defined by an organisation’s self-interest. He suggests that organisations should engage all publics to the extent of available resources. If this ideal situation is not possible, publics should be prioritised “according to the impact the organisation has on them or the impact they have on the organisation  … [which] requires judgement both about social responsibility and about the strategic interests of the organisation.”

It’s all too easy for organisations to focus on the benefits of social media for them, forgetting that it gives anyone the same opportunity to get their voice heard and find like-minded people. Organisations overlook the ability for publics to identify and arrange themselves using social media at their peril. Clay Shirky cites numerous examples in his book Here Comes Everybody. In Online Public Relations, Anne Gregory summarises that, “The ability of groups to form quickly and mobilise action provides a great opportunity as well as being a potential threat for PR professionals who are the guardians of organisational reputation.”

A few basic points this all throws up for me – nothing new but always important – are:

  • Who are your publics, active or otherwise and where are they on social media?
  • How and what are you monitoring?
  • How are you reacting and engaging to issues being brought up online? Social media triage is handy here
  • What issues could cause latent publics to move to aware and then active and how can/will you engage (wind farm application anyone?)
  • Which of your publics aren’t online, where are they instead and how are you going to reach them/they reach you?

*Adapted from Edwards, L. ( 2009), Public Relations Theories: An Overview, Chapter 8 in Tench.R and Yeomans, L, Exploring Public Relations, Second Edition, Harlow, Pearson Education Limited

Images: Crowd by Wayne Large  and Wind Turbine by Ben Harrington both via Flickr

Keeping up with our customers

Two telephone operators wearing headsets

Changing to meet customer needs?

Thanks to a great lunchtime seminar programme at my Council, I get the chance to listen to some fascinating speakers. This week may have been the most interesting yet.

Dr Nicola Millard, Customer Experience Futurologist from BT isn’t someone you want to listen to you if you’re complacent about how you deal with your customers. These are my notes from her presentation “Clouds, Crowds and Autonomous Communities”:

Changing customers

– organisations are built to last rather than change – but our customers and employees are changing faster than those organisations.

– what’s holding us back is culture rather than technology – we need to embrace new technology because an increasing number of our customers have and will.

– customers are now using multiple channels to contact us – often at the same time. They are also talking to each other, not us. They don’t necessarily trust us

Your website

– we’ve reached a critical mass of internet users – they have access to more information than ever before but they have no more time or energy to process it

– people don’t go direct to council websites to look for information, they go to search engines which can pull up a lot of content, much of which is useless to them

– don’t direct customers to your website if the information they want isn’t on it – is your site truly built around your customers?

– customers want organisations – private and public sector – to make it easier for them to do business with us

– Councils are being compared with commercial businesses – not other councils. Our customers expect the same levels of service from us as they get from Amazon and John Lewis

– webchat can be much cheaper, instant and better tailored than email

phone shop advertising smartphonesThe impact of smartphones

– according to OFCOM, 52% of UK have smartphone access

– smartphones are turning the internet local – 52% of Google searches are now hyperlocal

– customers with the internet in the palm of their hand will self-serve to a certain extent, but are actually more likely to call a contact centre, and will have more complex queries

Looking wider than office-hours

– employ flexible and home-working practices. Office-hours-only isn’t what customers expect or want anymore

– workers in the cloud can help to address call spikes, cover antisocial hours and still get to work even when snow is drifting over their front door

Multichannel contact

– contact centre teams – and all council officers – have an increasingly complex job to do, with more channels to monitor and use than ever before. Customers have changed and the traditional contact model is no longer applicable

– staff need to embrace the need for different ‘voices’ across  channels and should identify which staff are better deployed on which channels

– need to have a networked team of experts across the organisation who can respond to queries – the ‘one council’ approach

YouTube Logo on a computer screenSocial media

– the majority of customers still use traditional methods to contact us, but social media is now a permanent part of the mix

– young people don’t use email to communicate – they use email accounts to sign up for FaceBook and other social media, that’s where you’ll find them

– you need to monitor online forums to hear what people are saying about you

– you cannot control the SM dancefloor, but you can go and dance

– who are your customers, where are they dancing and when is it appropriate to dance with them, rather than sway to the music on the sidelines?

– Youtube – what are your most frequent requests for information? Make it into a movie and it will come up in search listings, also reaches younger customers

– social media is very much a conversation, not a broadcast – forget this at your peril

– people are entitled to an opinion, but if they have a problem that you can help with, make that offer

– never forget that social media is totally transparent – never say anything that you wouldn’t be happy to see reproduced elsewhere

– social media channels need to be part of Business As Usual – no need to panic!

Dr Nicola J Millard blogs at and is on Twitter as @DocNicola

 Creative commons: Telephone exchange by Elgin County Archives; Android Smartphone Sale by ianfogg42 and YouTube logo by codenamecueball all on Flickr

Crisis comms in a digital age

LIttle boy standing by computerWith the Fox News Twitter account hacked earlier this month, and the compromising of The Sun’s website last night, have you updated your crisis comms planning for the digital age?


The Fox News Twitter account was hacked over the 4th July holiday weekend. Tweets sent by hackers claimed that President Obama had been assasinated. Here’s the New York Times coverage

Much of the criticism of Fox News focused on the slowness of their response – the tweets were up for 10 hours – and the lack of explanation on their website about what was happening and why.

David Meerman Scott sums up lessons to learn here

Twitter also has clear advice on what steps to take if your account has been compromised if you can still log in and if you can’t

What plans do you have in place if your corporate Twitter account/s are compromised? And have you asked your Councillors and staff who tweet to consider the same thing?


The Guardian reports that last night saw “apparently the first hack of a major UK newspaper’s website.” with a group called LulzSec claiming to have infiltrated The Sun’s website and email system. 

The same group also claim to have hacked into a US Police website last month.

While you’d hope that the hacking of a Council or related website wouldn’t be on the agenda , it’s not unheard of.

Wesminster City Council’s transactional website was targeted in 2010, apparently to prove a point about safety of information.

While the Visit Cambridge website was hacked in 2009 and its homepage changed, as picked up by Dave Briggs

Have you sat down with your ICT team and discussed what you would do if your Council’s website were hacked? What are the potential implications and who and what services would be affected?

While ICT deal with the techological side of things, what actions, messages and channels do you have ready to deploy?

If you haven’t already done it, you need to discuss all of the ‘what ifs’ and get a plan down. You never know if and when you might need it.

Creative Commons: 3 year old hacker by Neoliminal on Flickr