Monday, 29 December 2014

House and Home

Today I left my childhood home for the last time. We moved there when I was 10 and now, 29 years on, my dad has sold it to downsize. Next time I go to visit him I won't be going home any more.

It's the little things that remind you. I hadn't given it a second thought until last night, when we got back there late and tried to get our sleeping kids up to bed without them waking up. As I ran up and down the stairs in the pitch black it struck me that, even blindfolded, I would be able to sense exactly where I was in that house. I haven't lived there for over 20 years but I knew every inch of it just from sound and touch.

We don't often think about the things that provide us with our identity, values, and feeling of belonging. I hadn't realised until today that that house was a part of what makes me "me". The five of us who moved there in 1986 - my mum, dad, two sisters and me - now live in four different towns. That house is probably the only thing left that all five of us had in common.

I learnt at university that Kenya's Dinka tribe believe that people leave their memories at the place where they've experienced them. I've left a lot of happy memories there today.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Decision Time

My 10-point guide to re-hiring a former employee with minimal reputational damage after they have served time for a serious crime:

  1. If you have time (say, around 2.5 years) to plan for making a decision, use the time well so your future decision is made and presented as slickly as possible
  2. Be clear whether your decision is to be based on their work performance or personal conduct, and then make that decision quickly
  3. Try to convince yourself it's the right decision. If you can't, don't do it. If you can, show yourself as being decisive and stick to it
  4. Decide who is the right member of your management team to communicate the reasons for your decision (ie. chairman, director, Chief Exec, or operational manager) and make sure they proactively communicate their decision, any conditions, and the reasons behind it. Don't give the impression everyone is passing the buck, or that nobody wants to take responsibility for the decision
  5. Ensure the member of staff leaves prison (at least giving the impression of being) genuinely contrite, as a condition for their re-employment
  6. Ensure said person follows that through with actions to show they have changed, for example by donating money or giving voluntary time to relevant charities or support groups
  7. Ensure all the above is completed before attempting reintegration. Then, if possible, start that reintegration before anyone else finds out
  8. Have a media statement ready in the event of the reintegration being leaked. You've had over two years to write it. Don't take eight hours to issue a statement after the story has leaked
  9. Ensure all your statements on the issue calmly and rationally put your point of view. Don't use emotive terms such as "mob justice"
  10. Above all, get the difficult decision made, acted on and communicated as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Don't cause prolonged speculation and ongoing damage to your reputation by stringing it out for months

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Saving lives with a "Please" and a "Thank You"

Saying "please" and "thank you" on a fire safety text message was 11 times more effective than a control text - that was one of the outcomes of a recent study we carried out in my work at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue.

The studies, we believe, were the first wide-scale behavioural insight pilot studies in the UK Fire Service. We experimented by using direct mail letters to 4,000 addresses in Doncaster, and SMS messages to 15,000 mobile phone numbers across our county.

Much more work needs to be done on this, both by us and the FRS as a whole, but the initial results from these studies indicate that cost-effective behavioural insight work can have a useful place in the fire sector’s community safety toolbox.

 The three key findings from these initial studies are:

·      Direct marketing can be a very cost-effective way of filling gaps in community safety provision left as traditional prevention teams focus on higher risk groups – response rates to our letter were up to 34%, more than eight times the industry average.
·      If adequate contact details are collected at the time of the initial Home Safety Check (HSC), direct marketing can be a central plank of an HSC “revisit” strategy. If the results of our study with “very low” risk households were replicated, we could provide assurance equivalent to an HSC for just £2.89 per household.

·      Good manners save lives – adding the words “please” and “thank you” to a text message increased response rates by 11 times, compared to the lowest response rate.

Click here to read the full report.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Tour de Force

It brings a tear to my eye every time I see the footage of the amazing crowds on the Cote du Buttertubs on Stage One of this year's Tour de France. Bringing the world's largest annual sporting event to Yorkshire was a master stroke by the UK sports community, wasn't it?

Well actually, no. Because Le Tour wasn't brought here by any sports body. It was won, and run, by a tourism agency, and it was a classic demonstration of how an event should be used. Because events should rarely be run for their own sakes. Like all tools in the communicator's box, they should be an used as an appropriate way of achieving a wider objective.

Welcome To Yorkshire clearly identified the county's scenery, historic houses, countryside and outdoor pursuits as central to attracting tourists. What better way to showcase that than bringing a world-renowned event to the county for two whole days?

Chief Executive Gary Verity deserves a knighthood for what he achieved in organising the grandest of all Grands Depart. He also deserves a place in future communicators' text books on how to use an event to achieve a wider goal.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Losing Weight, Gaining Perspective

I'm sitting here, minutes after completing a two-week detox diet, large glass of wine and Green and Blacks chocolate in hand. The headlines from the past fortnight are that I lost eight pounds in weight but gained valuable new perspectives, both on my life and my job as a behaviour change manager.

I've never dieted before. In fact losing weight wasn't the motivation for trying this. I just wanted to do it for two weeks and see what I learnt from it. It was hard going at times, especially in the first few days. Basically, plain chicken or fish and salad or veg for almost every meal. No sauces, no carbs to speak of, and no snacking in between, except a small amount of fruit "if you're hungry"!

But, through the hunger, it was only a couple of days before I realised the main lesson for me, and most of the Western world. That is, because we have food at our fingertips, we have slowly trained our bodies to reach for it at the first sign of hunger. What I've learnt in the past fortnight is that we don't need to. It's purely a psychological crutch, and it doesn't take long to retrain our minds to eat only what we need to, not what we'd always like to, as humans have done for most of history. In that sense, it has changed my life. I'm going to carry on applying these principles to my diet from Mondays to Thursdays, and will reward myself at the weekend.

This brings me on to the second lesson, for communications professionals - long-term behaviour change. As I said, weight loss wasn't my reason for doing this. It was a happy byproduct of my main motivation, which was to see if I would benefit from a body detox. Which led me to reflect on my job, which is basically to try to change people's behaviour to reduce their risk of being killed or injured in a fire.

In a similar way to many other public policy professionals, I've been guilty of signing off on "Do this" or "Don't do this" campaigns without considering what will really motivate people to do it (or not). "Don't smoke", "Don't speed", "Don't be a petty criminal", "Don't forget to test your smoke alarm".

Deep down, I know that most people have a shield against fire safety messages because they don't believe that catastrophic event will ever happen to them, just like they think they won't be caught by the cops, the speed camera or lung cancer.

The past fortnight has reinforced to me the importance of getting past the message our organisations want to put out and tuning in to the messages which will drive genuine behaviour change. Everyone has their own priority, whether that's being there for their family, having a good quality of life, or saving up for and enjoying that ultimate holiday.

We must ensure our public policy campaigns tap into peoples' hopes and aspirations. In doing so, we increase our chances of success through acceptance and understanding that our own work goals of fewer fires, less crime and a healthier society might be a happy byproduct of a different primary motivation.

Monday, 19 May 2014

Can "Outstanding" Comms Be Bad PR?

This month, my fire service had its external peer review. One of the recommendations for improvement was that we should "celebrate success" more. It was felt people across our organisation do a lot of great work that the sector, and even our own colleagues, don't know about.

It was an interesting observation that led me to reflect on our organisation, culture, and how success is viewed, particularly away from the "front line". It took me back to last year, when my comms team won an LGcomms Reputation award and was named our regional CIPR's Outstanding In-House Team.

We were amazed, delighted, and...weren't really sure how the awards would be received in our organisation. On one level, there is always that faint embarrassment about PRing your own achievements. But my thoughts were on a different level.

We'd had a bit of stick when we were lucky enough to win a previous award, along the lines: "I don't care what the comms team does, they're not going to keep people safe."

Now, at a time of support staff cuts, I was wondering if it was wise even to let people know we are "outstanding" - maybe, I thought, in these austere times, our organisation would be content with "good enough" and view our award as proof we are over-performing.

More generally, whilst our awards have shown beyond doubt that we are frontline, in that we directly contribute to the core business of reducing fire deaths and injuries, that's still harder for people to understand than burly men in a red fire engine. Would people accept an organisation winning a PR award whilst cutting services more widely understood as "frontline"?

I'm lucky in that the people I work for clearly understand the value of our contribution. But, even in light of external feedback that we should celebrate success more, I'm still uneasy about making more of my comms team's achievements.

It just feels like promoting "outstanding"comms could be bad PR.