My #commscampnorth experience

I was excited about going to #commscampnorth and it didn’t let me down. It’s a valuable (and free!) opportunity to share ideas with public sector communications people from central and local government, government agencies and public services like the NHS and the police.

I had a hidden agenda too. My team is responsible for organising events and we’re running an unconference soon, so I wanted to learn how to do it well.

Pitching was well out of my comfort zone

When Dan Slee opened the day by saying ‘An unconference is about getting someone out of their comfort zone and putting them somewhere even more uncomfortable’, I was hooked and genuinely inspired.

The unconference pitches were really varied — a huge range of interesting topics. But it did strike me that there wasn’t a lot about digital. Some fab social media pitches were made but nothing on digital and digital transformation in government.

I hadn’t intended to pitch an unconference session but, with Dan’s words ringing in my ears, I lined up to do my 20-second pitch.

Heart pounding, voice squeaking, I garbled something about what can government communicators learn from agile and digital ways of working. Government Digital Services (GDS) have revolutionised how government designs services based on user needs, with a shift in mindset and behaviours. What can we take from showing the thing, failing fast, testing and learning, collaboration and multidisciplinary empowered teams?

I hadn’t expected to feel so nervous. My hands were shaking so much I could barely write my pitch on a post-it note. I got lucky — my slot was scheduled for the afternoon so I had time to work out what I hoped to talk about. I also had time to join a few other unconference slots to get some ideas.

The unconference topics

Using video

The video pitch was popular with people sharing their experience of video, ranging from ‘hoping to do it, trying it out, doing it a lot but want to learn more’. Film Cafe had really helpful advice on all things video and kept the conversation moving round all the different strands.

I picked up ideas such as get a different perspective by inviting media students to interview your executive team or design a video campaign, 360 degree filming for conferences, and using live streaming. The chat was a mixture of practical stuff about creating and sharing videos, but it kept coming back to understanding the purpose of the story, what it’s aiming to achieve in terms of outcomes, and how to integrate video into the engagement strategy.

Media law and online content

Next up, when David Banks started his session by saying that Facebook is the biggest nation on earth, everyone paid attention. A scamper through libel law for online content, the Defamation Act 2013 and potential issues around Alexa home hubs recording conversations made by home-workers taught me that there’s a lot to understanding media law.

I also got the sense from other people in the session that it’s the communications team who are often expected to advise on this — a new string to our bow?

Social media in a crisis

This session brought to life the role of communications teams in dealing with crises such as handling negative reactions to an organisation’s decisions, how and when an organisation apologises, dealing with employees who create negative or inappropriate content on social media.

I took away messages about the need for proactive monitoring across a range of channels, the need to get a fast message out there in response to an issue (within 15 minutes) and have a plan to update it, using Twitter to release info to the media as well as the public and the role of fake or insider accounts.

Do networked, collaborative public sector organisations need a Communications function?

This was a really interesting discussion that touched on the role of democracy and the public sector in society, how organisations get and sustain a shared purpose that encourages employees to deliver the right outcomes, and the role for communications in this.

My pitch: what can government communicators take from agile and digital working?

I was chuffed that about 10 hardy souls stuck around for my unconference session. I started by talking about how digital in government is transforming how we design and deliver services round user needs, and I think there are things government communicators can learn from this.

There are a lot of parallels with communications. Service design is based on user research and user needs. Communications is based on insight and evidence.

Digital transformation isn’t just about tech and websites. It’s a culture shift in how people in government work and behave. It’s about empowered multidisciplinary teams, a flat hierarchy, sharing openly, and building collaboration. I think there’s a lot that communicators can take from some of the language introduced to government by GDS: test and learn, fail fast, show the thing. But I know that these can be seen as buzzwords and turn people off too.

We talked about the GCS Modern Communications Operating Model, and whether it reflects digital transformation in government. We reflected on the GCS Competency Framework and whether it does enough to encourage government communicators to be hands on practitioners at all levels, or if it encourages less hands-on work in the more senior roles.

It was great to hear about multidisciplinary communications teams, especially in local government, where everyone is hands-on, builds knowledge across comms disciplines and gets first-hand experience of digital communications.

We talked about whether government communicators can benefit from an agile digital mindset — would it encourage teams to experiment, test new things quickly, learn and move on, try new ways to engage.

We speculated whether being more empowered would give teams more ‘clout’, citing user needs as the way to get better crafted comms messages and content. And whether comms teams would be more empowered to tell the story and if this would help to build confidence and trust in our work.

It led onto an interesting chat about whether government communicators should be credible professional users of social media themselves. Opinions ranging from ‘I’d be worried and want to have it cleared first’, to ‘I wouldn’t know what I could say’, to ‘If we’re expecting our senior figures to be on social media as advocates of our organisation, maybe we should be too?’. All good stuff to think about.

We ended with a discussion on recruitment into the Civil Service and whether having more credible voices from the organisation on social media is useful in attracting people to join the public sector.

I was really pleased when Kat Cox joined the group, sharing her experience of working in communications in a digital transformation team in HMRC. It sounded like a similar experience to my own and it made me feel better about pitching the idea at the unconference.

Summary of my #commscampnorth experience

I had a fantastic day — the unconference topics were varied and interesting. When I thought about them on the way home I realised I’d picked up more ideas and information than I’d thought.

The comms camp vibe is so positive that it draws everyone in. From the cake, to the tat raffle to raising money for charity, to the excellent social media flow of useful and fun content — that was brilliant.

I connected with people I knew and enjoyed sharing ideas with new people. Meeting Joanna Sawyer in the walking train from the station to the venue (a great idea BTW) was such a bonus as we kept catching up throughout the day and sharing what we’d heard.

The Social Media on the day was ace. @CommsCamp were brilliant on twitter — a fab mix of entertainment and information. All the content was in real time so posts were made during sessions, content mentioned in a session was instantly shared on twitter, there was a fun mix of GIFs, graphics and photos. It was the best conference social media account I’ve ever seen.

The filming and photography was great too — capturing the action but not intrusive. I had a good chat with Nigel Bishop about his approach for event photography and filming. In return, he stuck me in front of the camera for a quick interview, which was fun as that’s what I get other people to do at events. I’m secretly hoping I’m on the cutting room floor though.

The venue was spot on. Ziferblat in Manchester was a really welcoming, collaborative space. I’d like to use it again.

My only regret is I didn’t make time to chat to the sponsors who are so important to the day and to making this a free event. I’ll make amends by finding out more about what they do.

Thank you

The organisers were superb — totally commited to making it a great experience for everyone, and a brilliant team. Thank you, Dan Slee, Emma Rodgers, Bridget Aherne, Kate Norman and Kate Bentham for a brilliant #commscampnorth.