Do you have a template or shall I create something?

I can’t be the only one to have noticed that this is a question that comes up a lot, in communications – and I’m torn on the right answer.

Should I feel bad that I’ve made everyone think I’m too busy to do my job and advise them, or should I feel bad that I haven’t provided them with a template already?

I see the my role, and that of all in house communications ‘people’, as being an advisor – but, of course, many of our colleagues in other departments see only the tweets, the website updates and comments in the media when something goes particularly well or badly.

So from that perspective it stands to reason that when someone wants a communications plan, or a press release or whatever else, they should be able to pick up a template and write it.

And yes, they should – and it’s part of our role to make sure that the templates we do have are put together in such a way that they also can, but we also, surely, have a role in arguing that good communications isn’t ‘template’ communications.

It’s not only that every problem is unique, but also a matter of perspective in a profession which is highly context-dependent.

Would a template with the headings ‘Objectives,’ ‘Strategy’ and ‘Tactics’ and ‘Outcomes’ really be all that much use anyway?

A communications plan written from a single perspective, whether from a template or not, will never be quite as good as one written with input from someone whose job it is to know about things happening across the organisation, knowing the political context and – probably – having ‘been here before’.

The value of a communications professional should not be tied up in producing templates for colleagues, but instead in helping our colleagues – with real problems, needing high quality and effective communications strategies – solve their problems.

Or at least that’s why I go to work each day, anyway. Tweet me @picnarkes and tell me whether you agree – and how you address the ‘Do you have a comms plan template?’ question.

Facebook is a small threat for now, but what about next time?

We know that Facebook had a big impact during the election, with left-wing news websites managing to play the Facebook algorithm far better than the right wing ones did, but something I saw during the last week of the campaign worried me more than all that.

I know, of course, that both left and right are happy to make things up (or, perhaps, over-simplify things) about their opposition in order to be more convincing, particularly during an election and it’s more common (for me at least) to see the left doing this.

It might be because there are more of ‘them’ online, because Tories generally aren’t as loud about being Tories, or because of the people I follow and see, but I pretty much expect that the Internet will tell me the Tories have done bad things with power and the ‘left’ have a dodgy past, are hypocrites and so on.

What I didn’t expect to see was something like the Conservative Voters for Teresa May pages.

There’s the twitter accounts dedicated to memes and ‘well-sourced’ graphics proving that the Tories are the cause of all evil and there was the ‘fake’ Conservative website, pitched as a ‘joke’ but most certainly counting as serious campaigning in my book, saying it was uncovering “Tory Lies” by mocking their manifesto.

But these are both obvious that their true aim is to get you to vote for someone else, even if how exactly they’re funded might be a bit more hidden for me.

Conservative Voters for Teresa May on Facebook and Twitter isn’t anything like that. The pages use Tory-style graphics and messaging to convey negative messages about the party, pitched as campaigning for them.

Only… with a few seconds of scrutiny, the whole thing feels a bit like the projection of what an ardent Corbynista thinks happens inside the head of a Conservative voter rather than something serious.

The posts focus on many of Labour’s key attack messages: the Tories will prioritise good education for the rich and cut other school’s budgets, privatise the NHS because it worked well for the railways, raise taxes for everyone (because the rich already pay enough) and so on.

It could be a joke site, of course, but if it is then it’s doing a pretty terrible job, and the descriptions make clear it’s supposed to be a group of Conservative supporters running it. And it could well be, but for how I came across it at all.

About 4 days before the election, my feed repeatedly showed me sponsored posts from the page. Yes, someone had paid for me to see the posts.

Now, as many comms professionals will know from their own experience, my Facebook profile isn’t really representative of me at all. I follow pages I wouldn’t aside from for work, visit posts that criticise the people I work for and generally cause Facebook a great deal of confusion in working out what I like and who I am.

So while I do know that someone had paid to show me an ad for the page, what I don’t know is whether I was being targeted as a potential Tory or as an on-side Corbynista. Either way the opaque nature of what was being posted worries me.

This actual page is not a big thing at all: it’s gathered a relativley insignificant 1,400 Facebook followers, and a rather lacklustre 23 on Twitter – but it’s a proof of concept which could be easily be something bigger next time round.

What I’ve been wondering is whether this was an exercise in mockery or was it intended as a final shove over the line for people who might’ve been teetering on the edge of supporting Labour?

The comments on the pages, mocking the Tory lines, suggest it’s the latter – but then so do most of the comments on official Conservative social media properties, so it’s really hard to tell.

Facebook sharing of shaky partisan stories might be hard for the right-wing media to compete against, mock sites might be confusing a very small number of voters and enforcing the spirit of local spending rules on local campaigning a big challenge for the Electoral Comisssion, but what if pages like this were set up on a bigger scale next time?

Could this influence a big number of people? This style of messaging is probably never going to convert a Tory to vote Labour (it’s too obvious), but having both sides of the argument could very well help keep those who aren’t sure – but might have previously voted not-Tory – on side.

It’s almost like a virtual reality echo chamber, affirming what people think – even when it’s not actually been said – and I think it’s quite worrying.

Of course it also could be real…

The images throughout this post are taken from the page I’ve written about, and so are of course owned by whoever the authors are.

The people’s railway

I’m a bit late to this one, as seems my theme this year, but I couldn’t let ‘The Passengers That Took On The Train Line pass without comment.

There’s still 10 days at the time of writing for you to go over and watch the showand then work out whether you agree with me or not. If it’s sometime after 13 July then I’ll just assume you agree with me anyway.

The premise of the programme itself, that passengers can do a better job of running a train company than a train company can, is a simple winner. It’s logical: if you ride the train every day then you know what the problems are to fix and, by being a real person, you’re a real person.

So despite knowing the problems already by virtue of being real people, the ‘passengers’ did some market research: standing outside train stations asking people what they wanted.

Because they were real people too, they had the same thoughts and desires as the other real people: an end to delays, a seat for everyone and cheaper tickets.

Those are the things that real people want, and who are we in this Brexit induced haze to argue that having more of something and less of money is in no way contradictory and entirely achievable.

No more delays means no more delays. And of course that’s what everyone wants.

The programme went on to discover that in order to run a train franchise you need to have the money to run a train franchise.

The real people also made such revolutionary other discoveries as tracks being owned by the Government, trains being quite expensive and the Government not really liking the idea of a random group of passengers and a TV guy running a safety critical, highly regulated company which millions of people rely on every day for travel and thousands rely on for their livelihoods.

And while the real people got on with being astounded at that, the TV documentary maker went off to some foreign place in Europe (we don’t like those, do we?) where trains ran on time. He found that they do things such as ‘maintenance’ and have trains designed to scan the tracks for problems which we absolutely don’t also have. Who’d have thought.

In conclusion, the programme said, the system is skewed against the little guy and that is unfair.

Well, yes I suppose it is unfair that we were all deprived of the opportunity for the government to bend procurement rules to allow real people, who had no money or experience, to win a franchise they had no idea or competence to run in order to deliver a spate of improvements which would cost money, while charging less money.

Perhaps lacking in good business sense, but the real people have spoken, so give it 6 months and Brenda from Bristol will probably be running Great Western Railway.

I despair.

#Election 2017: The same, but shitter

It’s had some time to sink in now but like an over-zealous application of cheap moisturiser, it’s still refusing to budge and smearing greasy stains on pretty much everything it touches.

A strong and stable PM whose election campaign has resulted in her being too weak to rearrange her cabinet and pick her own advisors and left her forced to arrange a coalition with people who sound an awful lot like what she said Jeremy Corbyn was.

A Europe united further against us through collective laughter is willing to start talks with know-it-all England ‘whenever we’re ready’.

And Jeremy Corbyn. He was never going anywhere anyway whatever happened on 8 June, but losing the election has proved his critics, who said he’d lose the election, wrong and now he’s here forever. Vindicated by an absolutely huge vote for socialism or a vote against whatever the other chaps wanted, at least. Either way, a victory which will no doubt strengthen his and his supporter’s hand – and, I guess, mean more protests and demos about stuff too.

Teresa May activated the Queen yesterday, but this whole process may just have activated the young people finally and it turns out it’s social media wot won it.

And while you can criticise The Daily Mail and the others, whose power it seems has been proven massively diminished, the power of the alternative one-sided story on the Internet (see this for a summary) is probably not much better.

True balance is an aim that, like perfection, is never actually achieved but the excitable headlines that spread on social media are no better than the right-wing traditional media’s stories.

But to all of this there is a communications angle: a Tory campaign which poorly communicated bad plans, and a Labour campaign that sought to interest people with a list of (perhaps) unattainable nice stuff, framed as “it doesn’t have to be like that.”

PR is not only about ‘doing comms’ as it so often seems to be seen, not only about digging an organisation out of the shitbucket, but also about advising how decisions might be seen.

Effective communications is in effect a negotiation and the tight-nit Team May top-down approach seems to have proved the consultative, research-based approach of the Crobyn team right for our times.

Labour’s policies may have been grounded in populist opinion rather than attainability – such as profit being an evil that harms us, corporation tax being a progressive way of taxing and improved public services paid for by someone else – but an effective dose of that is what’s needed in any political campaign.

Letting candidates go out and pitch local campaigns, on local issues, while basking in the relevant bits of the manifesto as showing a commitment to improving things for everyone, has been proven more effective than the ‘standing with Teresa May’ strict ‘lines to take’ approach of the Tories.

I read my local Tory’s campaign promises and I’m not sure what, other than Teresa May, he was promising to do for us locally. On the other hand, Labour and the Lib Dems both told me they’d save the local tip and fight against parking charge increases. Both things that matter.

There are lessons to be learnt here for future campaigns – positivity, hope and all that are essential ingredients of any campaign but keeping people involved, on board and feeling they have some power and will ‘get something’ for their vote is also a big part of framing yourself as the one people want to pick.

That and many other things, including the now-certainty that certainty in any public vote is nothing of the sort.

But this result has produced some questions: is, as some have suggested, a hung parliament the electorate saying ‘none of the above’, or is it more like ‘all of the above’.

What comes next is going to need to be very different indeed to the campaign and what went before if it is to have any sort of legitimacy and risk causing anger against the Tories which won’t subside even if – as seems improbable – the next election isn’t until 2022.

May cannot do what she appeared to be doing yesterday: pursuing ‘business as usual’ on Brexit and her stability.

Even without details of what Brexit with May was, the electorate has not given her a mandate for her interpretation of “yes, we would like to leave the European Union” and that means BAU isn’t an option.

She must now consider her next move, and – as well as becoming more open about her leadership – become more open with us too. Mirroring the EU’s approach wouldn’t hurt her reputation, nor her hand – as she is so adamant it would but doing the opposite absolutely will.

This election was all about May’s strong and stable leadership, strengthening her hand for her negotiations and – although we did enough that she could remain Prime Minister, we haven’t given her free-reign.

When we were shafted by the EU 27 before, the foundations of the narrative for it being Remain and Johnny Foreigner’s fault were there to be built up into a skyscraper slowly and steadily over the course of two years.

Now, the narrative for it being May’s fault has not only got foundations but – in Grand Designs style – has arrived as a pre-built wooden structure which could be put up in just a couple of weeks, even by Jeremy Corbyn.

So everything is pretty much as it was before, but a bit shitter.

#Election2017: If the chat hasn’t moved on…

As the General Election trundles on, my fear is only increasing that once again I’m going to have to watch an all-night programme which would make great drama, but makes me fear for the future of the planet.

I can recall knowing that from the moment I heard David Cameron would be holding an in-out referendum on the European Union that we’d end up voting out (I can recall the exact conversation where I said it, months before, and considered whether I wanted to do something about it) just the same as I didn’t bother staying up for the US election coverage because I was resigned to a Trump victory.

This time it’s different of course: both of those victories, as someone I was expressing my fears to noted, because the ‘oh god no’ results were both right wing and the result I fear this time is staunchly not.

But without wanting to sound like a column from immediately post-Brexit, I’m still not entirely confident we’re working in a left-right world at the moment. Brexit and Trump were both tails of the unattainable, but nice, outcomes.

A vote for Brexit was a vote to have our cake and eat it (according to the polls) and would be simple to do, the reality perhaps not so much. A vote for Trump was a vote to Make America Great Again – and I’d recommend a listen to the Pessimist’s Archive podcast on exactly when the ‘great’ times were for a precis of how realistic that might be.

This time we’ve got two dreamy stories set against one another: a magic money tree of nationalisation and a free owl for everyone, or a dull, strong and stable Brexit which will somehow deliver us into the Utopia Brexiteers imagined when bus liveries were but a twinkle.

What this election should have been about was honest conversations, but it hasn’t been. We’ve continued the great traditions of kicking difficult conversations and decisions down the road while the media have reported more on the management of the election and the polls than on what each of the parties promises to do (or what they’ve done before).

With a conversation that’s not moved on much since 2015, should we be surprised if the result hasn’t either?