One team, one dream: better ways of learning

When skills development is mandated by senior management, or rolled out to large groups of staff, you can almost feel people withdraw.

“The day job doesn’t allow time for corporate initiatives.” “It’ll be replaced by something else next month.” “So-and-so in the other office is way ahead on this, we’ll never catch up.”

We love a challenge, but the opening days of a skills development project can feel almost like an unwelcome sales pitch. We’re there to convince people that this thing they’ve been told to do is really useful and beneficial to them – understanding GDPR, improving their digital comms or managing emergencies.

In an ideal world, people would learn organically, from each other, their network, peers and so on. We all know that geography, different objectives or general lack of communication means this rarely happens.

Learning should be something that people own and run with, rather than have done to them. We’ve developed a few different ways to create ‘communities of practice’ – people with similar needs and challenges in the same organisation, learning together.

Hands-on projects

Regularly practicing realistic crisis simulation in teams, or asking channel owners to pilot a different type of content and share the results.

Working out loud

We’ve asked people to blog about their challenges, in order to complete sections of their (mandated) Digital Action Plan. Not a comfortable experience for the blogger, but a really valuable way to share and draw on experience from colleagues.

Chat groups

We can’t pretend to know everything that’s going on in large teams. But, we can help stimulate conversations among teams who don’t often get to talk.

Informal Whatsapp groups have proven to be busy places where colleagues can get in contact with each other, promote their work and get feedback. There’s no logging in to special forums or intranets and very few rules. Just a simple conversation space for colleagues, with a little careful facilitation.

It’s been amazing to see the opportunities that have surfaced in these posts.

Next time you are planning skills development, talk to your colleagues about simple ways you can learn together using upcoming projects and simple tools like Whatsapp.

Find out more about our digital capability offer:

People gathered around laptops

Supporting our clients through Brexit uncertainty

With just a few weeks to go before the UK is due to leave the European Union, the future situation is still unclear.

As a company, we are doing what we can to ensure we continue to operate smoothly and in compliance with local laws in the UK, Europe and around the world.

For our UK clients to whom we provide managed hosting services, we’ve already ensured all of your primary website data is held within UK datacentres, including all backups. For virtually all of our UK clients, that means we are confident that the processing of personal data relating to your website is happening within the UK. You may want to assure yourself that any third party tools used on your site meet your organisation’s requirements for data processing if these change.

To avoid disruption for our EU clients, earlier this year we incorporated our business within the EU. Helpful Digital S.A.R.L. is part of the Helpful Digital group with independent website hosting infrastructure and banking facilities based in France. In the event that the UK leaves the EU without clear arrangements for trade in services, we will be happy to work with you via our EU company. Please contact us if this is something you would like to explore.

Clients in the USA and the Americas can trade as normal with our US-registered company, The Social Simulator, Inc.

As a company, we will support our UK and EU staff to ensure they can travel, live and work as freely as possible under potential new arrangements.

Personally, and as the founder of the company, I think leaving the EU is a historic mistake for the UK and is likely to have a detrimental impact on our business and our team. For now, we will simply do what we can to help our team and our clients through the current uncertainty.


5 quick tips for better crisis comms

1) Be prepared

Now is the time to prepare. Start by mapping out the greatest risks that your organisation faces. Which ones could be the most damaging? Do you have pre-prepared messages for those risks? Do you have pre-prepared graphics stored in an accessible location? Perhaps most importantly: could you respond at 11pm on a Friday in mid-August?

2) Be timely

Online crises move quickly and so should you. It is important that you assert yourself as the point of authority. However don’t hurry into publishing a statement without verifying information. Not sure that you know your misinformation from your disinformation? Have a look at our handy guide to spotting different types of fake news.

3) Be consistent

Your response should be consistent and in line with your values. If your tone of voice can’t get away with a response like KFC’s then don’t do it. Your audience engage with you because of who you are – a crisis is not the time to abandon that. Similarly, don’t abandon any audiences and channels. Don’t post a statement on your website but provide nothing for your Facebook audience.

4) Be audience-focused

Crisis communications is like any other form of communication. Know your stakeholders and where they engage with your organisation. Don’t fall into the same trap as Boeing – you might normally be a B2B company but you still need to know how to communicate with potential customers. Don’t use complicated corporate speak but use the same language as your audience. Their questions and language should be informing your statement.

5) Be reflective

When the dust has settled you should try and recover and learn from a crisis. It is mentally and physically exhausting to be at the frontline. Take the time to recuperate and then adapt your crisis plan in line with what went right and what went wrong.

Find out more about our crisis and customer care training and simulations.


Helping Croydon Council build a digital strategy in a digital way

What you need to know about the September 2019 accessibility requirements

From 23rd September 2019 public sector websites will be required to meet new accessibility guidelines. Here is what that actually means.

What is accessibility?

Accessibility (or ‘a11y’) doesn’t just refer to people with disabilities but is about ensuring everyone is able to use every site on the web. Accessibility can affect anyone; users could be in a loud place, have had eye surgery or have a broken arm which affects how they browse.  

These are the most common needs for accessibility that will need to be addressed within the new requirements:

Screen readers

A screen reader is software that enables users with visual impairments to use a computer. The screen reader reads out the content of the page and users can carry out tasks using keyboard commands.

Screen reader users are able to navigate web pages by heading structure and links. Here’s how a screen reader reads links and the importance of keeping them accessible:

Video: screen-reading software reading out link text as user tabs from link to link

Colour contrast

Colour contrast between text and the background can severely affect users ability to read content on a page. For text to be readable, it needs to have sufficient contrast with the background.

Colour contrast example From the accessibility blog

Alternative ways to view media

Using alt text on all your images ensures screen readers can provide a text equivalent. Videos should have options for subtitles and audio description for those who can’t view them.

Causing distress to users

Could your content cause anguish to users? Although it may look nice, continuous movement or autoplay audio can be very distressing. They could even cause seizures or other physical reactions.


If you haven’t actively made your PDF accessible, chances are it isn’t. Wherever possible documents should be published as HTML, like the online version of a UK Statistics Authority strategy document.

Do these regulations apply to me?

Every new public sector website and app will need to meet the new guidelines.

There are also different deadlines depending on when your website launched:

What’s covered

Deadline to comply with the regulations

New public sector websites (published after 22 September 2018)22 September 2019
All other public sector websites22 September 2020
Public sector mobile applications22 June 2021

Deadline table from GDS accessibility blog

Read about exceptions to the new regulations on the blog.

What do I have to do?

From September 2019 your website must:

The Government Digital Service (GDS) has a handy sample accessibility statement you can use.

Thankfully, if you don’t have the resources available you may be able to show that you’re taking steps towards meeting the requirements rather than have everything completed for September.

What next?

We can help get your website ready for the new accessibility requirements. Get in touch to find out more about the services we offer:

  • manual and automated accessibility testing
  • user experience testing
  • writing for the web training, including how to write accessible content
  • content design and editing
  • creating accessible PDFs
  • accessible PDF training
  • HTML templates for online documents
  • help writing accessibility statements

IndieWebCamp Berlin 2019

Whatever your role in media, show your support for a free press

Independent news and information has always been important to me. In 1991 my cousin was serving among the first regiments sent to liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion. Behind all the excitement and pride at home, reading newspapers at the time gave me a sense of the scale of what was happening.

Reading the facts about the consequences of the Iraq war; the danger, loss of life and threat of chemical weapons, was shocking. But the reporting also provided an honesty and helped me understand what was going on.

It was a formative experience. I went into journalism 9 years later, inspired by the story of Don Hale’s campaign to free Stephen Downing. This is local journalism at its finest.

My modest career in local news never reached the dizzy heights of holding Governments to account, or fighting miscarriages of justice. However, I was able to raise the profile of some smaller battles: funding and support for Romanian immigrants escaping prostitution, and violent clashes between the Animal Liberation Front and local hunts.

My time in local news also facilitated a brief introduction to the venerable Sir Harry Evans.

He is probably most famous for his ground breaking investigation into Thalidomide, which killed or maimed 100,000 people between 1958 and 1962. Harry Evans, like journalists before him and ever more, fought for the freedom of the press, in order to fight for justice.

A free press is even more essential in an online world

It’s easy to forget that even as recently as the early 2000s, victims, activists, volunteers and campaigners all relied on the press to make themselves heard. Now that a petition, Facebook group or hashtag can give us almost instant access to a community of like minded people, and a place to make our case, the idea of co-opting a journalist seems almost quaint.

The traditional models of journalism: researching, verifying, crafting and delivering news, are changing all the time. Today we consume news and information in a totally different way to how we might have done just 10 years ago.

It’s because of these changes in our behaviours and the platforms that govern them, that we need a free press. We need a free press to analyse and distil eyewitness testimonies, corporate reporting and institutional data. And to pierce the online bubbles we occupy.

From super injunctions to state ownership

Depending on where you live in the world, a free press could mean fighting against super injunctions, or monopolies in platform and press ownership. For many countries, the goal is simply having any form or reporting that is not state-owned.

My work has taken me to the offices of Weibo and the People’s Daily. I’ve also met bloggers in China and Cameroon and talked to them about the threats they face on a weekly basis.

Press freedom is not something anyone should take for granted. Wherever you see media like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, show them your support.

They’re more important than ever.

Top tips for job applicants

Recently we went through the process of hiring new staff and, excitingly, we’re due to do some more soon. I did not want to have to fork out huge amounts of money to a recruitment agency, which we have used in the past. So after lots of research on the best (and most cost-effective) ways of recruiting, I decided to go it alone using free or cheap online tools.

We received huge numbers of applications, which was fantastic, but there were a few recurring issues. Here we share some top tips for applying for jobs which can hopefully be applied to most industries:

Send a personalised cover letter

While reading through the huge numbers of job applications I was very surprised to only receive cover letters in about 5% of applications; and <5 addressing Helpful personally. Personalising a cover letter shows that you care about the job, have done a little research about the company (even if it is just including the name) and that you’ve properly read the advert when they have requested one.

Don’t include irrelevant information on your CV

This is partly about ensuring your cover letter is customised for the job you are applying for but also simply not including information that isn’t of importance. Although you can be keen to show that you started working at 18 (I definitely used to be guilty of this), if it isn’t relevant then don’t put it in.

Don’t send Word docs – PDFs only

Maybe this is just a pet-peeve of mine, but Word docs are slow, show spelling mistakes in huge red marker, have poor formatting and just don’t look pretty. PDFs look far more professional and are nicer to read (especially on a phone) and share. Also, not everyone has Microsoft Word and you may be excluding your potential next employer!

Read the advert and send what they ask for

This drove me barmy. In big, bold writing we’d ask to send a cover letter and CV but I think we had around 30% of responses include a cover letter. Those who didn’t were immediately discounted in my mind for not reading the advert properly before responding. A colleague did point out that some people use their CV introduction as a cover letter instead, which is fair, but if the recruiter has asked for something specifically it’s best to just spend the 5 minutes tweaking it before you send it.

Don’t call yourself an expert when you’re not – just be honest

I think there’s a desire to call yourself ‘experienced’ or ‘an expert’ or you think you will be ignored. I’ve certainly done that in the past. Instead, people referring to themselves in this way was a red flag for me. Your experience should speak for itself and if you don’t have any, just be honest and instead focus on what you can offer.

Turn up on time

Turning up late is a huge bugbear for me (just ask the rest of the Helpful team) and would be very hard to come back from. However, turning up early is sometimes just as bad. If we had back-to-back interviews, or an adjacent meeting, it is frustrating when people turn up early and someone in the team has to welcome them. Find a cafe and wait. I’d personally recommend turning up no earlier or later than 5 minutes away from your interview time. As someone who tries to turn up everywhere early, this has been a big lesson learned for me!

What I’d do differently next time as a recruiter

  • Time is valuable, especially with job seekers. As soon as we reduced the job description down to the key facts we received a much higher calibre of application
  • Speak to as many people as possible on the phone. I had some serious surprises over the phone and you can tell a lot in a couple of minutes. I’d speak to more people but keep it concise – around 10/15 minutes – so it doesn’t take up too much time
  • I’m not sure I’d use generic free services like Indeed again. I spent a lot of time going through huge numbers applications which weren’t relevant. Our hires came through LinkedIn or Twitter and I’d like to try more dev focussed channels, like Github

5 ways to show some digital love in the workplace

Digital tools help to make us all more productive and empower us to work from anywhere. Well, mostly, but not always.

Digital tools also enable us to show our appreciation for each other – the people we manage, the people we work for or with – in lots of different ways.

Not everyone is motivated by a pat on the back and I’m sure most of us would love to receive a personal email. But that isn’t always possible or appropriate.

Here are 6 ways you can use digital tools to show appreciation at work:

1. Thank your colleagues in a post on LinkedIn

A post puts their work in context, tags their profile, and it promotes them in to your network. More personal and special than an endorsement or recommendation.

Example of someone writing praise for a colleague on LinkedIn

Praise (Yammer) or tag (Workplace, Slack) colleagues in posts on other channels. Remember that a little goes a long way, especially if that person is otherwise having a bad week.

2. Profile people and their work on your official social media channels

I’d bet any money that when you profile staff and their work, these posts are some of your most engaging. A win-win for your colleagues and your customers.

3. Checkout on Amazon

To reward a colleague for a job well done or hitting a difficult deadline, check out their public wishlist on Amazon and buy them a gift they really want. Search Amazon wishlists.

4. Go almost analogue

If your colleague works remotely and you don’t fancy rummaging around their wishlist why not send them a simple postcard instead? Touchnote means you can design and send a postcard anywhere in the world for less than £3.

5. Capture the good work

It’s nice to build a record of great teamwork over time. For this nothing beats Trello. You can build cards for projects, add photos from events or workshops, link to examples and share comments and memories, as well as valuable feedback. Trello boards can be public for all the world to see, or just for select colleagues. See creative examples of Trello boards


Featured photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Storytelling on social media

We’ve been working with organisations such as the Royal Air Force to help them introduce storytelling, using the very best storytellers they have: their own people.

The best storytelling in communications becomes, in our opinion, quickly diluted if the telling isn’t done by real people, in a style that suits them. If people really want to know what it’s like to;

…they need to hear about it first hand. That’s what makes well-told stories so special.

Social media gives big organisations the opportunity for staff to tell a story about their work over weeks, months and years. To build audiences who can follow the highs and sometimes the lows of their working life. The normalities and the exceptions. This is going to be really important in helping people form a considered view of the organisations they’re interested in, and perhaps, make decisions about their future careers.

Raw storytelling won’t always be comfortable for managers and senior folk, but hopefully it stays true to the basic expectations of any employee conduct. Less-than-perfect footage, occasional typos and an imperfect blend of personal and work are the stock-in-trade of a really great storyteller on Instagram or Twitter.

I’m really excited by the potential of real, credible storytellers to represent their work online. You should be too.