Nine things we learned at #CommsCamp

We like Commscamp. A couple of hundred interesting public sector comms people in a lovely rambling building by the Birmingham & Fazeley canal, run on traditional unconference principles: no fixed agenda before the day, anyone can pitch a 50-min session, and the “law of two feet” applies (i.e. if a session is boring you, feel free to go to another one).

Commscamp crowd

Kate and Steph were there since Helpful was a sponsor of the event (enjoy the lollies, Commscampers!) and here’s nine things they learned:

1. Easy read (and accessibility) is a thing you do, not a box you tick

I’ve got the principle of accessibility web design OK (semantic structure, resizable text, text alternatives for images) but haven’t delved much into accessibility for users with learning disabilities. It struck me there maybe more kitemarks and standards in the world of accessibility than are strictly helpful, which encourages ticking boxes over thinking sensibly about making content truly usable by lots of different people – subtitling your videos the right way is good for Google juice, people on trains and deaf people.

Likewise, applying the principles of ‘Easy Read’ to content isn’t magic: short sentences, active writing, one idea, bullet points, simple formatting.

2. Email newsletters are Encyclopaedia Britannica in a world of Google queries

In the post-apocalyptic world of GDPR-compliant email lists (as in so much of life) it’s not how big it is, it’s what you do with it that counts.

Dave Worsell of Granicus was telling me how their most successful clients get engagement from keeping emails campaign focussed: one thing, a clear call-to-action, to an engaged list. Rounding up a months’ worth of ‘news’ into an email newsletter is 20th century, print-based thinking. Pixels and emails are cheap, and attention is expensive now. Send more, shorter, better emails.

3. Twitter chats are going strong

In a session on engaging local communities around consultations, Helpful alumnus Al Smith talked about engaging in local community groups and pages online, and various people shared stories of inviting skeptical stakeholders to physically experience changes – the ringside seat approach still wins people over. Twitter chats too are still going strong, and here’s a massive list of regular chats if you’re looking for a community to tap into.

4. Dave Throup of the Environment Agency is still going strong too

We’ve used the example of Dave Throup, Environment Agency manager in Herefordshire and Worcestershire, for some years in our training courses. Highly visible, engaging, professional and human on social media, he’s a trusted voice in good times and bad. 14,000 followers and six years on, he’s still showing that communicating about your job on social media can just be part of doing your job well.

5. Customer service is about courage, co-ordination, channel shift and caring

We pitched a session on customer service, and I really enjoyed the discussion we had, hearing from some of Commscamp’s quieter voices. Some faced huge cuts, political opportunism, regular abuse, and challenges getting customer issues resolved. Doing it well seemed to boil down to:

  • Courage: taking on the keyboard warriors when they overstep the mark, assertively challenging abuse or baseless complaints with patient facts, not just emoliently soaking up the hostility. Be fair, and people will step in to defend you.
  • Co-ordination: clear roles for your channels and relationships between contact centres and comms teams, make for more effective responses. It could be that devolving customer service responsibility carefully to other teams gives them more ownership of the problems.
  • Channel shift: sounding off on Twitter isn’t an efficient way to get things fixed. People are running campaigns to focus customer feedback onto better channels, like website forms or WhatsApp accounts where customer can send pictures of documents rather than having to physically bring them in.
  • Caring: dealing with abuse or even just relentless criticism is tough. Getting the team together to share their worst stories and end with a laugh, or giving them a physical break in a safe space, can help them get through the shift.

6. Defamation and all the legal stuff is important online

Attending this session led by David Banks was like going back to journalism school. The same principles apply: don’t say the wrong things, or risk getting sued. If a post or tweet is wrong, deleted it and apologise quickly. But before you delete it, take a screenshot of the metrics to show the reach up until the post was taken down. If it makes it to court, those metrics will come in handy.

If you, or an organisation retweets something, you are just as liable for publishing the content as the original source. In short, the line of ‘likes and retweets aren’t endorsements’ in a Twitter bio isn’t going to be enough to hold up in court, so be sensible with what you promote.

7. Think: how and who do we trust?

Trust is earned by being authentic and behaving appropriately. As one person in the session said, ‘You can’t communicate yourself out of something you’ve behaved yourself into.’

Survey results by Edelman and Ipsos Mori show professionals such as scientists, nurses and police are seen as some of the most trusted people by the British public. Politicians and journalists are seen as the most untrustworthy.

So, what are you to do when the political figure of the organisation insists on being the spokesperson? Dan Slee suggested a very good answer: do a 30-second Facebook video with the most trusted voice first, followed by the political figure to sign the video off. The optimal Facebook video is 15 seconds long so prioritising the speakers is key.

8. Yes, you can do a podcast

Instead of being the big scary elephant in the room, podcasts were revealed to be a cheap and easy comms piece to create. Yes they take time, but creating podcasts doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment.

Starting out with a six-part series about a particular topic is okay – perfectly normal, if you will. Recording a clip on a smartphone is fine (although the audio quality can be improved by using an inexpensive lapel microphone) and content can be hosted on sites like Soundcloud for free. Adding audio to Apple Podcasts is quite straightforward and is also free.

9. Evaluating is important (and is more than red and green sentiment graphs)

Evaluating projects can be a long and challenging process to undertake. Measuring a change in an audience’s behaviour can take years, and sometimes even that data is hard to trace.

However challenging, it was unanimous in the room that evaluating work is important. We discussed how ‘Vanity metrics’ such as AVE are not the be all and end all, as much as the powers above sometimes feel they are.

We were also in agreement that the success of a campaign shouldn’t be based on the volume of interactions, but on the impact the work had on the audience. Which is why it’s so important to evaluate if the audience understood the campaign and, if not, what needs to be done differently next time round. Finding shortfalls is actually a good thing, because it allows us to be better.

Big thanks to Dan, Emma and the other organisers and volunteers. It was brilliant. See you next year.

Helping Essex Council launch customer service on social

Essex County Council have been early adopters of social media channels for sharing important messages and promoting their services.

In Summer 2016, the Council began to respond to individual comments and questions directed at their two main social media channels on Twitter and Facebook. Taking this step is no mean feat: Essex is one of the largest counties in England by number of residents, with a diverse population, infrastructure and different layers of local and county-wide administration and responsibility.

This is important because it means inbound questions to the Council’s Customer Service Team cover all manner of topics, from weather, schools or roads, to care services and libraries.

The front-line Customer Service Team have accrued a huge bank of corporate knowledge, and when they don’t have a ready answer, they’re quick to find one. This meant they were well placed to take on the role of engaging with residents on social media. The Council took the enlightened step of sharing responsibility for these channels with the Customer Service Team, who embraced the challenge despite having to factor this work into their existing team.

We helped the team to build their confidence and skills online, by running a one day workshop to explore the different situations they may encounter and discuss options for responding.

Using our Crisis90 platform we took the team through a real-time, phased crisis scenario. This gave them the opportunity to rehearse monitoring, planning and live Twitter responses to online characters who were tweeting questions at them, all within a private online environment.

Each member of the team also took away a Digital Action Plan: six goals for each of them to complete online in the two months following the workshop. The aim of this was to consolidate their confidence after the workshop had finished, during the period in which they launched online customer service. Each goal is accompanied by a task to test an individual’s learning and encourage them to get hands-on with a tool or technique.

Confidence and experience among the team were mixed when we first met them. However, it’s clear that with some guidance, support and encouragement (not least of which from the digital team at ECC) they are the best team for the job.

Empowering a team in this way helps them to develop a new set of skills, and reveals an additional level of passion for their work.

heir social media feeds are testament to the pride they take in helping residents. Most days you can see responses to questions or comments that would have gone unanswered, online, a year ago. We’re especially pleased that the team choose to sign-on with their first names at the beginning and end of their Twitter and Facebook shifts.

Mastering the Art of the Possible

Understanding how the web impacts your work isn’t always easy, particularly if most of your work happens offline. Working with people who are sat at desks, with computers and internet connections to hand, all day every day, is one thing. But helping those who are out doors, moving around and operating machinery is quite different.

I think that’s why I enjoy helping at Essex County Council’s Art of the Possible festival. This is a really inspiring, and seeming popular, week-long series of events for council staff. The idea is that staff choose from dozens of events to attend. They range from walks and runs, to pop-up drama, workshops and TED-style talks. Staff go along, meet different colleagues and take part in activities that might help them think differently about their work, and how they all collaborate.

I bet some of the events take people well outside their comfort zone. The other opportunity is to give people the ability to step back from being ‘of the council’, and think about their needs as residents.

These events are open to all staff, which is what makes it interesting for me: librarians, crossing guards (lollypop people in old money), heads of this and administrators of that.

I ran a session this year about how Essex staff could make things better online for customers.

The nice thing with an event like this, is that because digital is not necessarily a part of everyone’s job, attendees usually have a lot to say. I think my approach helped them to maximise this opportunity, and then some.

What annoys us, and what’s the user story?

We started by discussing and theming the things that annoy us most when we go online. This is a great opportunity to think about our personal needs and draw a line between what we experience online, outside and inside work. No surprises that themes included content that is difficult to understand, poor navigation, and something more fundamental about trust: being asked to surrender lots of information, and not knowing if a transaction was complete.

After we’d mapped these out, I split the group into teams and each had to write a user story relating to a common question or query they received. I gave them a template each of the user story guide from

As a… [who is the user?]

I need/want/expect to… [what does the user want to do?]

So that… [why does the user want to do this?]

We also worked through some examples together.

It was amazing to see how difficult it was for people not to put their work hat back on. For example, from the roads team:

‘as a motorist I need to understand the pothole repair process so that I understand why some repairs take much longer than others.’

There were a few like this, which was good. It helped everyone realise just how difficult it can be to approach this as a user, rather than someone trying to explain something on behalf of the council.

We also ran some quick activities to sketch, iterate and present different ways of using web pages and social media to meet those needs identified earlier in the session. I was reminded that people are nervous about sketching on behalf of a team!

If you’re ever trying to land a user- or customer-led approach to digital, including better content and journeys online, then I’d recommend this approach as an ice-breaker. And don’t be put off by a wide variety of job titles in the room – these are often the most interesting and engaged audiences.

Here’s the low-down on what happened at Art of the Possible 2016.



Be sure to verify a comment or question, before you respond

Online customer service is surrounded by common sense advice. Don’t feed the trolls, keep customers informed even if you can’t help them straight away. That sort of thing.

Happily, most teams we meet are increasingly well versed in this advice.

However, there’s one area we don’t hear people mention very often, and it really should be near the top of that list of advice.

That area is verification.

Kate ran two crisis communication training sessions for CIPR Cymru last week (you can see the highlights on the #trustinpr hashtag). The sessions involved one of our world famous* simulations and participants had to deal with a number of different characters live, online, in a private environment.

In among these characters was a bit of a know-it-all. Someone with an axe to grind who would go to some lengths to get their point heard. I bet you’ve seen or heard someone similar online.

Often, we see characters like this who reference information or share images of something unrelated or false. They might say they have inside knowledge of an organisation or process, when in fact they’ve never worked there.

As a civil servant responsible for official social media channels, I was twice faced with an accusatory tweet and a screen grab of data. Supposedly this data was on a page from an official report, which of course, it wasn’t. The report either didn’t exist, or wasn’t official.


In the race to be the best at customer service online, it’s easy to get swept up in responding, dismissing or panicking too quickly. I should know.

Instead we should pause, verify the sender, her connection with the organisation and the authenticity of what she’s saying. It shouldn’t take long to cross reference a profile against a staff directory, or have a colleague thoroughly check over that screen grab.

There are lots of other useful ways to verify online content. This free online book is one of the best resources available.


Why you should always listen carefully on social media

Listen by Ky licensed by CC By 2.0

Listen by Ky licensed by CC By 2.0

One of the key aims of the Digital Action Plan is to broaden participants experience of digital tools, and the many ways they can be used. Social media is so much more than just broadcasting messages. As the name implies social media should be social and involve engaging, debating, and listening.

You can learn a lot from searching for your organisation and keywords for your area of work. Social media can be incredibly useful for finding out how people view a certain topic and what myths are circulating, helping you to shape your content in response.

Listening beyond notifications

Good digital search skills are vital. It isn’t enough to rely on notifications for comments made directly to your social media accounts as you’ll end up missing posts such as this one (mentioning the organisation but not using their Twitter handle), and lose the opportunity to reply, correct, or take conversations offline to be resolved.

West Jet are just one of many companies who search for mentions of their company name, hashtag, and issues affecting their business. They can then use the results as an opportunity to talk directly to their customers:

Listening for impact

Taking social listening a step further, some organisations are using the content people post on their personal social media channels to capture data about the impact their work is having and identify potential problems or concerns early on.

Earlier this year, The Food Standards Agency blogged about their partnership work with NHS Choices to analyse comments made on Twitter to predict norovirus outbreaks.

This example show how effective use of social media can play a central role in achieving the Food Standard’s core objectives on public health.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) are thinking about using social media in a similar way to the Food Standards Agency. Instead of relying on people reporting things to them, the CQC is proposing to actively search for people who are talking about concerns that need monitoring.

The importance of social media listened is underlined by its use in responses to emergencies around the world. For a good round-up of how established this has become, check out this NextGov article on social media listening in emergency responses.

Have you seen any good examples of social media listening?

There is so much content out there, finding ways to search for the content that is useful and can help with your organisation’s goals and priorities is incredibly useful. What could you find out from social listening?
Does your organisation do social media listening well? What other examples of social media listening have caught your eye? Please let us know by tweeting us @helpfuldigital or dropping us a line.