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.