My favourite training days are those where you learn something new, you meet someone new, you get a little bit of reassurance about what you’re already doing and some inspiration to try some new things too. I got all of those things from our second annual Communications Academy and first Excellence in Public Sector Communications Awards on Thursday 21 March.
I hope our delegates did too!
The NIPSCF Steering Group is truly indebted to our wonderful speakers who gave up their time to come and share their expertise. They inspired us with some really interesting and thought-provoking discussion.
We heard first from Alex Aiken, Executive Director of UK Government Communications who reinforced that our Guide to Modern Public Sector Communications in Northern Ireland is for reference, not residence on a shelf. He set out hopes for the day that we would leave braver, bolder, and more confident. He reminded us that Communications is always about the audience and that public service communication should improve, enhance and save lives.
Alex also stressed the value of networking because we will never encounter a problem in Communications that someone else hasn’t already faced.
He then set out the four key things Communicators need to be:
- Ambassadors – because we can truly influence if we fully understand the goals and objectives of the leaders of our organisation;
- Data analysts – because we have never had so much information available so cheaply – we need to use it and bring it into the decision rooms;
- Behavioural scientists – we need to understand how we can influence the audience to take action; and
- Artists – bringing creativity to package things accessibly and attractively, in a timely way and a way that people want to share.
During the energised discussion that followed we also got an update on the wellbeing of several cats who reside at the Cabinet Office and Number 10, much to the delight of our next speaker, Sue Gray, who used to work there with Alex.
Sue, who is now Permanent Secretary at the Department of Finance, then talked to delegates about communicators and policy teams being on the same side and said we need to work together better. We need to support each other, and collaborate more. Sue said: ‘join forces and you can be a huge force’.
Sue remembered the pain Alex and she had gone through in transforming Communications at the Cabinet Office but stressed that it was worth going through that pain to make it so much better.
Sue agreed that Communications shouldn’t be an add-on and said there’s no point coming up with ideas and progressing them if we haven’t worked out how we’re going to communicate them. And she said how much she welcomes her staff challenging her ideas if they think they’re bonkers!
Sue talked about the value of leaders posting their own tweets – although not after a glass of wine! – and how she and the Department are really benefiting from engaging directly with people. They’re endeavouring to get away from their desks, to listen to what’s happening in the community and get that really useful intelligence that comes from consultation.
Keeping on the topic of consultation, Kathy Graham and Quintin Oliver then reminded us that it is a tool that can be used very effectively or it can be abused. They got us thinking with a variety of press clippings and stressed that consultation used well will ask: ‘how would this affect you?’ They said it should be about finding out the implications of a policy that you’re considering implementing, not just asking people if they are for or against something. And they said to make sure to ask the right people. They said consultation needs very careful thought and that Communications teams can have a valuable role from the outset, rather than simply spinning the results.
Then after a quick break for lunch Maeve Kelly loosened us up with a bit of yoga. She demonstrated how easy it can be to snatch a few moments out of our hectic schedules, for something restorative. Maeve stressed that it’s even possible to do stretches and some exercises at our desks or whilst doing household chores. Attempting the tree pose whilst doing the dishes might be a bit beyond my reach, but I think the odd wrist stretch at my desk would definitely be manageable! Maeve made the point very well that looking after our physical and mental health has knock on benefits for our working lives.
In our relaxed but uplifted state we then had a great presentation from Dan Slee about making Facebook work better for us, given that reaching people on that platform is more difficult than ever. He reminded us of that soul-destroying statistic that whatever we’re posting gets shown to 1% of our followers. But Facebook is the second largest social platform with approximately 1.18million Northern Ireland users covering every demographic, so it’s worth trying to find a way to make it work for us.
Dan urged us to share videos, pictures, links and plain text, prioritising them in that order. He suggested having a look at British Museums who do some good videos – the optimum duration for them seems to be 19 minutes, but Dan stressed the importance of pre-promoting those videos. He also talked about the inspired way that the National Trust uses Facebook: they post content about the people who visit their properties and tell their story. Dan reminded us that our most trusted person is ‘someone like myself’ (56% of people according to a 2019 Edelman study) and that the more people you include in your content, the more it will be shared.
Dan offered other tips like inviting journalists to do any live interviews we’re planning, rather than conducting them ourselves, and to remember the importance of Facebook insights to identify the busier times on our pages, so that we can create and post content accordingly. He said it tended to be around 9pm for public sector content and more women than men engaged.
Dan also pointed to Facebook groups as a powerful channel for communication and influence, especially since it’s estimated that only 3% of people like public sector pages. He told us companies like Adidas and Lego were using Facebook groups for market research to test out ideas. He reinforced how prolific local Facebook groups had become, giving the example of Larne currently having 109. Dan pointed out that the greatest success comes when members of those groups are creating and sharing content, rather than it all originating from the page owners or admins. He finished with the tip that as events are the single most popular bit of content on Facebook groups, when we create an event on our own page we should make friends with admins on relevant groups and encourage them to share it.
Next up was Maeve Monaghan, Chief Executive of the NOW Group. Maeve definitely taught me something I didn’t know! – she remarked how many Maeves she encounters these days when it had been a relatively unusual name growing up, and she told us that she’d learnt that the name means ‘she who makes men drunk’ … for me Maeve is only a middle name though so maybe I just make them dizzy or confused? ☺
But onto the serious stuff: Maeve talked about the work of the NOW Group and their JAM initiative and she stressed the importance of always asking: why are we doing this; what difference is it going to make? She said for everything NOW Group does they measure the social value – so they know that every £1 invested last year generated £12 in social value.
Maeve talked about looking at your strategy map and all your different brands with a view to them driving one mission. She mentioned the flip situation they’ve encountered with many people now recognising JAM before they know the NOW Group, and how they’re happy to manage that. The JAM campaign is so shareable which is why Facebook is such an important channel for them. But Maeve said they’re really trying to converse with people at the time of day they’re actually engaged, which reinforced Alex Aiken’s point earlier in the day that perhaps Communications professionals are working the wrong hours.
Maeve highlighted the importance of two-way engagement and she said ‘by listening to our participants anything is possible’ – what a great message. Maeve concluded by encouraging us to involve the people who are facing a problem in creating the solution to that problem, and then telling their story.
Finally we had Fiona Williamson, Corporate Communications Manager for PSNI who talked about their social media journey – in the beginning using it because ‘other people were’, and having good equipment but no Communications staff in their digital hub. She said whilst intentions were great and a lot of hard work went into making a success of their channels, there was no specific policy for social media and governance wasn’t clear.
Fiona stressed the fact that if you’re going to do social media you have to be prepared for people to engage back and that you need to make provisions to keep that engagement going, because social media is no longer an add-on; for many of us it’s now core business. She told us about their success in getting support from above for social media within PSNI and how valuable that has been for them.
Fiona said there are always challenges with security of information, with technology and having enough people managing the channels, so it’s really important to demonstrate the value of social media so that resources are prioritised accordingly.
Fiona left us with the message that whilst there’s no going back now and social media is here to stay, we can’t let it lead us, we need to make it meet our needs. We need to devote enough time, people and equipment to make sure we’re fully exploiting its potential.
And so concluded our second annual NI Public Sector Communications Forum Academy, a day jam-packed with loads of great presentations and questions from the floor. Whilst there was plenty of serious discussion there were also some lighter moments, where we learned not only about the wellbeing of No 10’s feline friends, but also that Chris from the Department of Finance is ‘anything but ordinary’, and that the colloquial phrase ‘to put manners on something’ can tickle our GB colleagues no end!
After the Academy we had a short break before reconvening for our inaugural Excellence in Public Sector Communications Awards, where we acknowledged some outstanding NI campaigns covering three categories: External Communications, Internal Communications and Digital Communications.
The NIPSCF Steering Group was overwhelmed by the number of submissions for our first awards event and we are hugely grateful to the Government Communications Service’s (GCS) London team for judging the entries and determining the winners and highly commended campaigns. Submissions were evaluated against the principles of our Guide to Modern Public Sector Communications in Northern Ireland and ‘OASIS’ – the key formula NIPSCF endorses for executing citizen-focused, impactful and measurable communications campaigns.
It’s fair to say competition was fierce! The Department of Finance picked up the award for best External Communications for its MyNI campaign ‘One Small Thing’, while The Public Prosecution Service’s ‘Prosecuting Sex Offences – Changing the Narrative’, the PSNI’s ‘No Grey Zone’ and Mid Ulster Council’s ‘Recycling’ campaigns were all highly commended in that category.
The Department of Finance also won the award for best Internal Communications, whilst Belfast Health and Social Care Trust was highly commended for its Seasonal Flu Vaccine campaign 2017-18.
And finally the Public Health Agency and the Health and Social Care Board’s joint submission won the Digital Communications category for their #StayWellNI campaign, whilst the Department of Finance’s MyNI team was highly commended once again for its ‘One Small Thing’ campaign.
There was huge applause and cheering for these inspiring campaigns which demonstrated so well what the NI Public Sector Communications Forum and our Guide to Modern Public Sector Communications in Northern Ireland is all about: putting the citizen at the heart of our campaigns, making a measurable difference, learning from each other and collaborating where we have common ground. It was the perfect ending to a great day!
Labour Relations Agency
NI Public Sector Communications Forum Steering Group.