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Communications is not a swear word (& neither is PR)

Imagine this.

You work for a Council. You're on the periphery of a few services, have a job which needs you to learn very quickly how a number of sub sets of services work to see if they're using digital in the most appropriate and cost effective way for them and more importantly their residents and you have a few years background in one particular area which you loved and truth be told, still occasionally miss a teeny tiny bit.

You're not part of Communications in the traditional sense in that you're digital. But you sit next to Communications in an open plan office. You hear the ebb and flow and you occasionally join in with interesting conversations because these days you're less about not disturbing Research behind you and more about random 2 minute bouts of silliness to get it all out of your system so you can get your head down and concentrate properly for the next 2 hours.

You learn some things, sat in that position. You hear some things too, but this is not what this post is about and it is not my place to talk about those things. Instead, I'd like to explain some harsh realities to those of you who think that 'traditional' communications, a phrase somehow always read by me with a sneering tone to it, is a thing of the past, irrelevant, of no standing in the conversation.

Last week I sat in a meeting room and listened to some very talented and passionate Officers and Managers discuss their Domestic Violence service. It was humbling. It was phenomenal. It was reassuring and hope inducing. They had, in the process of their service design, thought of absolutely everything. Every scenario, every bit of research, every trick in the book was used to ensure that should a woman or a man need to phone and talk to someone, they could do so, at a time convenient to them, in a way which was safe for them, to someone who understood them.

Without Communications, do you think anyone would know that service existed? Yes, social media can help and it will. Facebook ads, QR codes for quick telephone number scans inserting an innocuously named new contact in their phonebook, perhaps? Okay. But what about the demographic of mum who doesn't have a smartphone, doesn't know what the internet is and anyway the kids are always playing the Sims on the PC and the trouble doesn't start until they've gone to bed? What about how to communicate with those for whom English is a second language? Or no language at all?

Are the domestic violence team experts in domestic violence or in how to best communicate with the targets of that domestic violence? Who on either side of the table is more of a 'professional' and who has the more important knowledge?

Neither. I say neither. I say teamwork rules.

3 years ago I was involved in the biggest logistical nightmare I think a Council could have to deal with outside of emergency planning. Yes, you've guessed it. Bins. We switched from fortnightly bin collections to weekly bin collections (but with a smaller capacity bin, important that bit) and from weekly recycling collections to fortnightly (with the same capacity bin - as an aside this worked, ask if you want to know more). The redesign of the routes for the bin collection vehicles was a nightmare. Getting them into a GIS system to record them was a nightmare. But neither of those nightmares were as monstrous as the Communications nightmare. That was a special nightmare all of its own.

You see refuse collection is, whether you like it or not, the only service which, should it go wrong, will be noticed by all your residents. All of them. I don't know the exact figures but suspect inbound calls to the call centre revolve around bins quite a lot on most days of the week. It's a hot topic and it affects everyone.

Do you think that the Manager of the bin crews was in any way the right person to ensure that 59,000 individual households knew on exactly the right day, with exactly the right amount of notice so they didn't forget but knew in time, taking into account ESOL issues, taking into account fly tipping issues and the associated impact on then NI 196 scores, also bearing in mind delivery schedules and availability, print runs at the local printers and what felt like a zillion other tiny little 'have you thought of' moments - do you think he was the right person to think of all of that? Do you think he should be skilled in all those things?

Or, do you think he had enough on his plate calculating how much the change in refuse collection amount would be, the impact on number of vehicles, the number of trips to the tip to empty, factoring in of course that the nearest local landfill site had just closed and a bit more of a journey was needed, but also taking into consideration carbon emissions, the rising cost of diesel, staff who were still working to task and finish, traffic jam hotspots and avoiding them (schools) at certain times of day and the ability of some crew to drive a 10 tonne truck down a lane as wide as the truck itself. For a start.

Because I think, and I respect the man immensely, that no, He was not the right man for that job. The right woman for the job happened to be a colleague of mine. And because she was good at her job, still is good at her job, 59,000 households were all told, across 5 phases, which took 12 months, exactly which days they were changing to on which bit of the fortnight for refuse and ditto for recycling. And nothing went wrong. Okay, 20 houses went wrong, I'll fess up. But to my knowledge, across a year of phased changes, 20 people got the wrong information and to be honest? It was probably my fault and an error with my polygon.

Communications co-ordinated this. Communications made sure everyone knew what was happening, no one was taken by surprise and more importantly, Communications then made sure everyone knew why we were doing it - to save money, to encourage more recycling, to make us more efficient and to provide a better, more efficient service.

Without Communications the inbound call centre would have quit. The sheer amount of calls coming in from confused residents not knowing when on earth to put their bins out would have crashed the whole telephone system. As it was? Barely a whisper.

And this, this my friends is why your ignorance is understandable but nevertheless irritating. Because you only ever notice Communications are useless when something goes wrong. If they're doing it right, you'll forget they're there.

Have you forgotten they're there?


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