What Harry Potter teaches us about storytelling

25 Apr

There’s no denying that JK Rowling is one heck of a story teller. But, I must admit the inspiration for this blog post came as somewhat of a surprise to me.

Last week, as a birthday treat for my husband, we visited the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford. He’s a bit of a film geek and absolutely loved the films (and books!) so I thought it would be a fun day out. It was more than that.

Now, I should make clear that I am in no way a Potterphile. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read and enjoyed all of the books but that’s as deep as our relationship goes. It didn’t take long for that to change.

Whilst queuing to enter the tour, soaking up the atmosphere and marvelling at the extensive gift shop already in plain sight, I noticed a quote from JK Rowling that had been blown up and hung on the wall.

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”

You know when you’re talking to someone and they have no idea what you’re talking about? When you spend time and effort explaining something a hundred different ways and they still don’t get it? When you feel like you’re banging your head on a brick wall and then suddenly there’s a breakthrough? This was my breakthrough. The moment when my thoughts and words became clear in one succinct phrase that was easy for everyone to grasp.

In the world of PR and communications, and particularly in local government, we hear a lot about stories. We’re told that we need to “get more stories out there”. It’s often a reaction to negative coverage and is sometimes seen as the solution to kill any flack or criticism that we may be getting. It’s no solution.

Churning out stories is one thing but making people listen is something else, and if nobody is listening it doesn’t matter how many stories you get out there. Now, I’m not suggesting we don’t tell stories. I’m saying we need to do some leg work first.

We need to be the listeners. We need to listen to our audience and find out what they care about, what they are talking about and how we can link into that in a real and relevant way. In doing that we can make a connection with our audience. Without that connection our audience has no reason to care about what we say and they certainly have no reason to listen.

Here are my corporate storytelling tips:

1. Identify your audience – know who you are talking to. It will make it easier to write the story.
2. Be an active listener – before you write a word, listen to your audience. What are they talking about? Learn about them.
3. Ask and answer ‘why would my audience care?’ – the strength of your answer will tell you if your story is worth writing or not.
4. Be real and relevant – your audience will smell a rat if you are not being genuine. Lose their trust and you lose their ears.
5. Mean it – believe in your story. If you don’t no-one else will.

In learning to listen we can figure out what it is that people really care about and we can connect with that. It’s that connection that makes all the difference. The difference between being heard and being white noise.

And, in case there are any Potterphile’s reading this, here are a few photos from the tour:









The real cost of bad communications

30 Jan

The last blog post I wrote focused on the radical change programme that we are working on in Monmouthshire County Council and I promised to feedback on our progress. So here goes.

I’ve been a student in our Intrapreneurship School* for a few weeks now, and today (working with fellow students) it felt like there was a light bulb moment. It wasn’t because our discovery was particularly new or revolutionary, it was because the way we’ve illustrated it gets right to the heart of the matter. And, it’s pretty hard to argue with.

Like many organisations, we sometimes experience inconsistencies internally. Some people know stuff, some don’t. Information is sometimes communicated well and sometimes it isn’t. This leads to inconsistencies. As an employee, if you’re well informed and you know where to find the information you need then the likelihood is that you’ll provide a better service. If you’re uninformed or ‘out of the loop’ the chances are this will impact on the day job. And it’s this ‘day job’ that’s the important bit.

The ‘day job’ is where you meet the customer, where you provide a service, where you do something that matters. In local government, this is what it’s all about so if there’s something that’s stopping you from doing the best job you can do, sort it.

For us, whilst we’re working hard on improving it, we know that in some areas the flow of information isn’t as good as it should be. When we drill down to what that really means we get to customer experiences. If information isn’t being shared internally that means staff aren’t clued-up. If staff aren’t clued-up how can they answer customers questions? And, we all know how frustrating it is when no-one can answer your question.

So, as my colleagues and I discussed this we thought it might be clearer to illustrate our observations:

cost of communication matrix

For those of you who know your PR theory, this model may look familiar. It’s very much like the power/interest matrix and it works in a similar way.

The quicker you can get good information out to your customer, the more satisfied they will be. You have resolved their issue quickly so, in theory, is less resource intensive.

If it takes you a long time to respond to a customer and you get bad/inaccurate information out to them, they will be really dissatisfied. And if they’re dissatisfied, it’s more likely that they will need to come back to you to resolve the issue or complain. That means more resources are needed.

So, if we put it like that it’s hard to argue with. Let’s get information flowing to those who need it, empower them with knowledge and see what that does for an organisation’s reputation. 🙂


*Intrapreneurship School is an internal training scheme that encourages innovation, understanding and shifts our perspective to focus on what really matters. We learn about system redesign and other models to find better ways of delivering/enabling services.

Using internal comms to connect with communities

16 Nov

I was recently given the opportunity to write a guest post for the excellent blog ‘Diary of an internal communicator‘. Rachel Miller, the brains behind the blog kindly agreed for me to reblog my post here. So, here we are. This is how we’re trying to connect with our communities. This is what makes Monmouthshire different.

In Monmouthshire, we are experiencing a lot of the same problems as other organisations. Money is tight, demands for services are increasing and what people think of us can change in an instant. Nothing unusual for a county council. What is unusual is the way we’ve decided to tackle this.

As part of Nesta’s Creative Councils campaign, we devised Your County Your Way. I don’t want to define it as a project because that would suggest that there’s an end date. It’s more than that. It’s about who we are, what we do and why we do it. It’s about proving our worth and relevance to the communities we serve and shaping our services around their needs. We’re transforming our culture so that we start to listen and respond to our communities more effectively. And to do that, we’re working from the inside out.

At the heart of this culture change is the Intrapreneurship School – an internal training scheme open to all staff, that encourages innovation, understanding and shifts our perspective to focus on what really matters, as defined by our communities. The school celebrates individuality, promotes cross-team working and most significantly, puts trust in our colleagues. Trust to make the right decisions without having to feed-up the chain of command. Hierarchy? What’s that?

It’s a pretty radical programme, and some would shy away from it, but we think it’s necessary. We can only be excellent if we foster excellence and that starts with trust. A trusted workforce is a valued workforce; a passionate, dedicated bank of people who are ready to contribute to your organisation’s success. Ready to make a difference.

So, why have we started with internal communications? Well, that’s easy. We can’t tell our story outside if we don’t ‘get it’ inside. And, as I tried to put my thoughts in order, a bit of a chain of events started to emerge. See diagram and explanation below.

Internal comms journey - a diagram

  1. Using internal comms we can promote understanding amongst our colleagues.
  2. Aligning our colleagues expectations with organisational expectations fosters positive behaviour/culture change.
  3. This change has a positive effect on the day job. We do things better.
  4. Providing a better service means that our customers/communities are more satisfied. Brand perception improves.
  5. Both parties start to feel more valued and we begin to listen to each other more effectively.
  6. We are connecting with each other. We are having conversations. Really engaging.
  7. We begin to work together.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

Tips for internal comms professionals implementing massive change:

  1. Be honest: Radical change is scary and that’s ok. We need to acknowledge our fears before we can really move on. And, giving people permission to be scared is usually enough to quell the fear.
  2. Be transparent: Don’t try and avoid the awkward stuff. I’m a firm believer in facing it head-on, answering any questions and if I don’t know the answer then I’m happy to say that too. Dodging issues is a sure-fire way of killing any trust your colleagues had in you.
  3. Believe in the change: This is not always easy. Sometimes we are asked to do things that we don’t wholeheartedly believe in but we have to do it anyway. It’s our job. If you find yourself in this position, take a moment to understand the merits of the scheme. Think about why it’s necessary and use that as your focus. You can’t expect others to jump on the train if you won’t.

Why is it so easy to neglect internal comms?

17 Oct

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is the case for everyone, but I think internal comms gets a bit of a bum deal. It kind of belongs to comms but also has strong and obvious links with HR. And, somewhere amongst the two internal comms gets a little bit lost. Dare I say it? Neglected.

A spotlight in a dark room

I think there are a few reasons why this happens:

1. It’s not going to get us a front page story

If you work in comms, hopefully you know how great it feels to get really positive coverage from the media. It’s visible; it’s credible (for the most part) and is great for the organisation’s reputation. It’s a quick win so we plough our resources into it.

2. It just isn’t sexy enough

I’ve heard internal comms described as a ‘whinge fest’, a chance for the serial complainers to carry on moaning. Well, if you put it like that maybe I’ll give it a wide berth too.

3. Why stir up the hornets’ nest?

Businesses are trying to survive and to do that they have to make a lot of tough decisions. It’s inevitable that whatever decisions they make, they won’t be able to please everyone so why bother aggravating the situation? Let’s just keep our heads down and do what we have to.

4. It’s not my job, is it?

Like I said above, no-one really knows where to put it. It flits between the comms and HR teams without anyone really taking ownership. With no-one driving it forward it just becomes an after-thought: ‘oh, I suppose we’d better send out a staff email or something’.

5. It’s a tough old job

Don’t underestimate internal comms. It’s not all touchy-feely. In fact, it can be quite lonely. You become the ‘face’ of culture change – the person forcing people to do things differently. One minute you’re chatting to employees over a cuppa and the next they see you through suspicious eyes. Now, it’s not always like that but it does happen. Frequently.

There are probably hundreds of other reasons to explain why internal comms hides in the shadows. All of which are important to note but maybe a little irrelevant. We need to concentrate our efforts on making things right.

In an ideal world, maybe your organisation would have a giant PR team with a nice big healthy campaign budget. Maybe. But that’s not the time we live in. We need to look at things differently. If you want to build your reputation you need to do it from the inside out. Focus on your people. Give colleagues the confidence and the skills to tell your story. Make them your brand ambassadors and it will translate across all areas of your business. Create a customer experience that won’t be forgotten. No amount of PR will get you that sort of credibility. Surely that’s reason enough to put internal comms in the spotlight?

Finding my blogging mojo

10 Oct

As you may have noticed, I lost my blogging mojo for a bit there. Well, I didn’t exactly lose it. Life just happened.

I thought I’d take a minute to explain where I went because that big ol’ gap does look a bit odd. Plus, I’m naturally a nosy person and if the shoe was on the other foot I would sit and wonder.

Anyway, life happened, maternity leave happened, and now I’m back to my old tricks. Hope I don’t bore you too much 🙂

Unpaid work experience in PR. Should we just be grateful?

4 Feb

It’s been happening for years but this week a storm has been brewing over the issue of unpaid internships in the PR industry. Following the airing of a BBC2 programme Who Gets the Best Jobs?, people in the industry have declared their disgust at the day-to-day practice of employing hoards of unpaid interns. Though I sigh with relief that people are responding in this way, I am surprised that this has never been an issue before. Or maybe it has?

In 2004 I moved to London to complete a Masters degree in Fashion Journalism. I was desperate to crack into the fashion/PR world and was prepared to do (almost) anything to get my name out there. Coming from a fairly small town in South Wales I had no contacts in the industry and was literally starting from scratch. So, I bombarded numerous PR agencies and fashion magazines with my CV begging them for work experience. And it paid off.

A number of magazines and PR agencies agreed to give me work experience – all unpaid of course. Competition for each placement was incredibly fierce and I got the distinct impression that I should just be ‘grateful’ for the opportunity, and I was. At the majority of my work placements, interns were expected to work full-time (and more) and be available for any other ad hoc requests. Some placements would insist on a minimum time slot of six months – quite a commitment when you’re not getting paid – whereas others were really non-committal and left you wondering what value you were getting.

There’s no denying how valuable work experience can be: you get direct exposure to the industry; real-life-on-the-job training; you make contacts and can decide if it really is what you want. But, an unpaid full-time placement screams exploitation. At one of my placements there was a team of 5-6 interns who literally ran the fashion cupboard. We kept the wheels turning and if you’ve ever worked in fashion you’ll understand what that really means.

According to PR Week, Julian Vogel of Modus Publicity (the man behind the controversy) admitted that by not paying [interns], ‘I do worry sometimes that it does favour the slightly better off’. Well, yes! It absolutely does. I spent about 18 months completing various full-time work experience placements. All of which were unpaid. At the same time I was studying for my Masters degree. I didn’t have the luxury of the ‘bank of mum and dad’ so I worked in shops/cinema so that I could afford to eat. And eventually, it was the money situation that forced me to throw my hands in the air and admit defeat. Just as I felt I was making headway.

It felt like the end of the world at the time but it was a happy ending for me. Though, I do wonder what the ratio of PR success stories to failures is.

So, what does this mean for the PR industry? For the sake of free labour are we exclusive? Maybe. So, what are we going to do about it? 


Do awards really matter?

9 Oct

Over the last few weeks, the communications team that I am a part of have been shortlisted for seven national awards (see below for detail). We have been recognised as a team and also as individuals – exciting times. But, do awards really matter? Or do they just give us an opportunity to turn into big show-offs?

For me it’s simple; awards matter. And here’s why:

  1. We are all busy people and move from task to task in quick succession. Sometimes, it’s nice to stop, take a breath and give ourselves a pat on the back.
  2. It’s great for team morale. A little bit of acknowledgement goes a long way.
  3. In an ideal world communications would sit on the top table in our organisations, but, in reality this is often not the case. An award not only raises your profile externally, it raises your profile internally and sends a message to senior management that you’re doing something right.
  4. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of competition. Being shortlisted but just missing out on an award can give us that extra little push we need to really do something award-winning.
  5. And finally, it gives us an opportunity to turn into a big show-off. Sometimes that’s ok.

And just to demonstrate point five above, the awards we have been shortlisted for are:

CIPR Local Public Service Awards 2010

  • Digital Excellence – Tweeting for Monmouthshire
  • Crisis Communications Excellence – Winter Wonderland
  • Young Communicator of the Year – Jessica Burns (me!)
  • Young Communicator of the Year – Helen Reynolds

Full shortlist

Some Comms Awards 2010

  • Best Use of Twitter – Tweeting for Monmouthshire
  • Public Sector – Engaging Monmouthshire with Tweets
  • Best In-house Team – Monmouthshire County Council

Full shortlist