You want to do WHAT? Here are some tips and strategies to tackle the tricky idea that you know will sink ships.
by Dan Slee
When I was a kid there was three channels and one telly in our house and we’d gather round it because there was not much else to do.
We’d all have a say over what we could watch. Dad would insist on watching ‘Yes, Minister’ a BBC comedy about civil servants guiding a hapless politician away from disaster.
Now I see he loved it because he used to work in local government. Much of his time was spent advising politicians. ‘My job would be really easy,’ he used to say, ‘if it wasn’t for politicians and the public.’
I hope he was joking.
All this was good training for my time in local government communications.
In Yes Prime Minister, Sir Humphrey replying: “Very courageous, Prime Minister,” to a new scheme was code for ‘This will be a disaster.’
“Is that wise, Prime Minister?” is code for ‘Have you thought about this?’
It taught a good lesson. You can give advice but the end decision is down to those in higher pay grades. This week there was a sparky debate in the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group on what the best ways comms people can advise people against something they think is a bad idea. This is an area not taught in PR class. It’s something you pick up along the way.
Ask what the benefit is…
Why here? Why now? What’s the benefit of this? Is there a benefit? It’s funny how asking such basic questions can throw a spotlight. The answer ‘because an important person wants it,’ on its own should start to ring alarm bells tingling.
Point out the pitfalls…
Someone comes to you with a great idea for a balloon release to highlight a green campaign. Take a rain check on that. What’s going to happen to the balloons when the fall from the sky? What is the RSPB going to say? Draw-up a column of pro’s and con’s. Which leads to…
Give real world examples of disaster…
Climbers are a strange bunch. When one of their number dies on a mountain they want to understand exactly what happened. What went wrong? How did they die? The aim is to study it dispassionately so they can make better decisions. Real world examples, like the Walkers Crisps sign snafu or the almost identical National Lottery sign blunder are good examples. There are plenty across the public and private sectors too.
Play devils advocate to show how this is going to play out in the media…
The great idea. That’s great, Prime Minister. But this is how the journalist is likely to tackle this. This is how the internet is likely to react. By being a critical friend you are pointing out what people outside the organisation will make of it. One idea was to
If in doubt leave it out…
This good newsroom maxim has stayed with me for years. Like love, it never fails. If you are not entirely sure about it, err on the side of caution. It won’t come back to bite you.
If all else fails, you’ve flagged it up and your job is done…
Not everyone will listen to all of your arguments. Sometimes you’ll win. Sometimes you won’t. That’s life. But you’ve completed your job by offering professional advice. If others choose not to listen that’s for them. Behind every PR disaster is a comms manager with their head in their hands. As someone pointed out, policy is made by policy makers. Making policy only by headline is a bad idea. Yours is one of several voices the decision makers need to weigh-up.
And never ever…
Make things up, think ‘spin’ is the way to go, lie and dissemble. It’s a bad idea. You will get found out and it will be your fault.
Thanks to those who took part in the Facebook discussion including Sally Dunbar, Gareth Wood, Pamela Yeh, Caroline Taylor, Mark Roberts, Sally-Ann Watts, Paul Compton, Paul Edmonds, Jamie Shoesmith, David Grindlay, Natalie Ruth Corney, Ben Greenwood and Ian Curwen.
Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.
Picture credit: SDASM Archives