Communications {void}

On Wednesday evening I sent this tweet:

I’m not going to give context, it wouldn’t be fair but there was a conversation that generated this. In fact there were a few.

3 days later and I think we know the answer to that question. I think we know that without a Communications team full of professionals who know exactly what they’re doing, we find ourselves floundering in vast vats of hot water. Let me explain.

There’s this blog, called NeverSeconds run by a 9 year old called Martha aka VEG. Dad helped her set the blog up but it’s all her own idea and her own words too which becomes clear the second you read it. Not for its immaturity, but for its simplicity. Now VEG has been writing this blog for a good old while, and she has been ‘effecting change’ with it, in Council speak. She has been ‘hyperlocal’ in her attitude – the blog is all about her own schools dinners she eats on a daily basis – and it is without a shadow of a doubt accidentally turned into a force for good in that VEG was raising money to build a kitchen for children in Malawi.

So far, so awesome.

Then this appeared:

This morning in maths I got taken out of class by my head teacher and taken to her office. I was told that I could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today. I only write my blog not newspapers and I am sad I am no longer allowed to take photos.

I will miss sharing and rating my school dinners and I’ll miss seeing the dinners you send me too. I don’t think I will be able to finish raising enough money for a kitchen for Mary’s Meals either.


And the world got a bit upset with Argyll and Bute Council. You see in the process of posting her own school dinner meals, VEG had somehow managed to strike a chord with schoolchildren around the world and all of them started sending her pictures of their own school meals – the good, the bad and the horrid ugly.

The day passed. A statement was issued (link goes to a TwitLonger paste of the release as the Council overwrote this one with their succeeding one) which Adrian Short can explain far better than I as to why it was not an exemplary example of press release writing. That is not what this blog is about.

Radio 4 got on the case. Assorted tech journalists got on the case. The Council nearly committed yet another faux pas by sending some random official to talk to Radio 4 but by this point sanity had apparently reared it’s head and they sent their Leader to talk to them. He rescued the cause by being honest, though he wavered slightly by blaming newspapers for causing the furore in the first place. Comments about reactions not being scripted to newspapers misinterpreting of situations aside, another press release then went up on Argyll and Butes website straight from the Leader trying to rectify the situation and all went a little bit quiet until some sock puppets got in on the act.

So what is the point I’m making?

Well, you see, currently Argyll and Bute don’t have a Communications team, I don’t think. They’ve got a Head of Communications suspended and two more Communications Officers suspended as well. Or not suspended but resigned, or not suspended but redeployed – it’s not actually clear and for the purposes of this blog post it doesn’t matter – though I think there is a whole other story to be told there one day.


This is the point. This is the case for the defence of the existence of the Communications team, not only in local authority, but also right across the public sector.

Evidence #1: Look at the statement that is still now sat on the A & B website. At the bottom it says: ‘This statement supersedes all other council statements on the matter already issued
This is really unusual. The normal process for a Comms team in a situation like this is that the person who had asked VEG not to bring her camera in would have know that a blogger with such a high number of comments might publish a post that she was not being permitted to bring her camera in any longer and warned the Comms team. Or the Comms team themselves would have seen the blog post from VEG saying goodbye and prepared some lines, defensive or otherwise, just in case the media came calling the next day. This was clearly not the case here. And this whole paragraph is based on what a proper Comms team would do. I’m not telling you that this is level of awareness of the local blog landscape is normal in any Comms team but it is in the good ones. I don’t believe there was any co-ordinated Comms approach to this situation at all.

We can all see how that went.

Evidence #2: The original statement released, as Adrian Short clearly breaks down (slightly snarkily but he really does make some excellent points) left a lot to be desired. It used emotive language. It stated that it had avoided being personal and yet somehow managed to be personal. It accused, indirectly, a 9 year old of causing stress and upset to a group of dinner ladies. The word ‘misrepresented’ accused, in public, to the entire world, a 9 year old of lying. It says that no one has made a complaint therefore there must be no problem. It states no changes have been made since the beginning of the blog, and while this may be true, it does not acknowledge that VEG made it clear she didn’t know something about the availability of types of food to her which she was supposed to know – yet another breakdown in communication.

Quick clue – don’t accuse a 9 year old of lying. People don’t like it. It makes you look silly. No Comms team I know would ever have worded that statement in that way. The sentiment behind it might have been the same but the delicacy of the wording would not have made it quite so clear where fault was being attributed.

Evidence #3: The overwriting of the original statement with the new one. It makes the Council look like they’re trying to hide their own ineptness, to remove their mistake, the equivalent of deleting the statement from public memory. That doesn’t work these days and most Communications teams know it. They’ve all read the case studies of the companies and organisations who have tried it and they all know the reputation damage which can result from doing so. Now in this whole car crash, it’s a rather minor point but in terms of needing a Communications team? Well you can bet your bottom dollar a new page would have gone up linking to the old one but with the superseding comment still there.

First rule of crisis communications? Be clear what is new and what is not and be clear when new information becomes available and date and timestamp everything.

Evidence #4: By 3pm yesterday, when the new statement had been up for about 60 minutes, the @argyllandbute Twitter account had bunkered. They’d broadcast a link to the initial statement which came from who knows where but by 3pm they’d not even tweeted a link to their new statement. Never mind the utter lack of engagement, discussion or response to any of thousands of tweets which by this point were no doubt being pointed their way – they’d even given up on broadcasting. No Communications team I know would have missed that opportunity either. If you’re getting absolutely completely and utterly hammered on a channel, you send a tweet apologising that you can’t get back to everyone, it’s simply not possible and point them at the new statement. We all know this. This is what we do. No one did.

I don’t think there was a Communications professional behind that account because when I searched yesterday, this tweet came up:

Now, the irony of the content aside (yes, stop laughing at the back), they sent a tweet in capitals. And they didn’t even notice, delete it and re-send it which is what any Communications professional would have known to do. You see, we know when it’s okay to delete a tweet and when it’s not. This was one of those situations. We also tend to check the messages that we’re sending out on channels just in case we’ve missed a cock up. No one checked this. I don’t think the person running the Twitter account is used to running Twitter accounts. Or to checking their outgoing messages.

So in answer to my question of whether a good Communications team is invisible to everyone – I think perhaps now people might understand what I meant. A good Communications team prevents these kind of twitter storms which escalate so quickly to mainstream media knocking on the door and public humiliation swiftly following. No one comes knocking on the Communication teams door asking about the article which didn’t get printed and was negative – they only ever seem to notice the negative stories which do get printed – strange that.

No one notices when a Communications team does their job excellently. No one realises that increased turn out at a consultation is because it was promoted properly and the team bothered to engage with local people in a good way to encourage them to come along. Everyone notices when no one turns up.

No one notices when a message on avoiding a particular road because there’s an accident gets through because no visible problems are caused and there are no tailbacks. When it is not communicated effectively – tailbacks. A visible problem.

So when I say that a good Communications team is the one you don’t know is there, I mean it. A good Communications team manages situations before they become ‘situations’. They communicate and engage effectively, sometimes not even in public but on the back channels, using their networks and contacts to find the root of a problem and address it before it becomes a story. They inject early on in the news cycle a sense of proportion or an explanation to prevent the escalation of a story into a reputation damaging nightmare and they prevent the absence of people or the absence of noise or buzz by being enthusiastic sometimes even genuinely passionate about their area, their jobs, and the people they are paid to communicate with.

So next time you’re in a conversation where eyes turn to the Communications team as a disposable asset, think again. Without one, you’ll be sunk.

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Corey McCarren

It’s not often I get to look at case studies like this. I enjoyed learned from others mistakes through this post, and think it does a great job at showing the importance of a professional communications team.