Why you should sense check your communications before unleashing on your audience

You will probably have seen the news this week that Kleenex has decided to drop Mansize tissues from it’s range. I can hear some of you at the back shouting ‘about time too’, and I agree.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that you’re going to exclude 50% of the population from using larger tissues by saying they’re only for men.


I’m being flippant of course, and not everyone will be offended, think the branding is sexist, or choose not to buy Kleenex based on a product name, but it certainly isn’t appropriate in this day and age.

Kleenex for men tissues were launched in 1956, a whole world away from the time we live in now, and I do wonder why it’s taken so long for them to make this decision.

But it’s not just Kleenex. Brands and businesses are still making mistakes time and time again on what they call their products or services and how they launch them, and these could often be avoided in just ten minutes.

Some of my “favourites” over the years include:

Bic pens for women, brilliantly taken apart by Ellen on her US TV show.


Leeds United u-turn on a new club badge

Leeds United football club decided a rebrand in time for their 100 year anniversary was needed, and released this new club badge earlier this year, to the amusement of football fans from every other club. It made them a laughing stock and it didn’t take long for the club to abort the idea, following much negative coverage and a petition from the fans.

H&M condemned for casual racism in their advertising

H&M really didn’t think through their advertising when their coolest monkey in the jungle’ hoodie for kids was worn by a young black model on their website, quite rightly leading to widespread condemnation and a brand boycott by many people.

Easter is all about the Eggs

And finally, last year Cadbury got into hot water with the British public, including Theresa May, for rebranding their annual event with the National Trust the “Cadbury’s Great British Egg Hunt.” I really felt for the press teams at the National Trust and Cadbury that week, as they had to field accusation after accusation from the press that they’d ‘banned Easter’, given I was part of the Lambeth Council comms team accused of banning Christmas back in 2005.


Many of these issues could have been solved with a bit of user testing beforehand - otherwise known as a common sense check - and I would advocate this for any communications you’re doing. This doesn’t have to mean large user groups with your target audience, complex surveys, or weeks of analysis. Simply asking colleagues what they think is a quick and cheap way of seeing if you’ve missed anything obvious.

In the past I’ve sent team members out to local cafes with a handful of £10 vouchers, to do quick sense checks on work that they’d been doing with the public. Would you give up 10 minutes of your time for £10? Most people said yes to that question, and the team always came back with useful feedback.

I’d also suggest you test before you’ve finished your work, whether that’s a campaign, website or a simple printed product. You don’t need the finished article for people to get a sense of what you’re trying to achieve, and it’s far more cost effective than having to start from scratch.

So find an extra ten minutes in your time to check your communications. You won’t regret it, but you may do if you don’t.

Why the gov.uk guidance on accessible websites is relevant to the private sector

I’ve written recently about the digital divide, and the importance of taking responsibility for ensuring that when we build something, it’s accessible to all.

One element of this is exactly that, accessibility.

Those of you working in public sector digital will already be aware of the fact that gov.uk published guidance earlier this year on how to make a public sector website or app more accessible. This guidance was updated again in the past few weeks, and whilst it refers to public sector websites, it flags up three core things that all web developers would do well to be aware of.



  1. In the UK, 1 in 5 people have a disability. So it isn’t something to be ignored. And it isn’t just visual impairments, but also deafness, cognitive impairments and motor difficulties. I run digi-buddies sessions at my local library, and once helped an older man with Parkinsons, which caused him no end of problems in navigating his way round a device, and a phone was a complete impossibility.

  2. There are online tools and resources to help you do accessibility checks. It’s a good starting point, particularly if you’re short of budget. I’ve also worked with The Shaw Trust in the past, getting some of their team to test websites I’d built. It’s a real eye-opener watching people use a screen-reader reading at 4x normal reading speed (no pun intended!).

  3. If you’re short on budget, don’t build an app, focus on making your website responsive, it’s much easier to keep up to date. And if you are in the public sector and you decide that a native app is the only way forward, consider opening up your data and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and see if you can partner with another business. Transport for London (TfL) opened up its APIs, which allowed some private sector businesses to build popular transport apps like Citymapper.

Read more at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/accessibility-requirements-for-public-sector-websites-and-apps

"I'm a very simple man. You've got to have a computer nowadays to turn the TV on and off. And the nightmare continues" - Ozzy Osborne

How are we tackling the divide that still exists for so many people, in an age when everything is going digital?

I first used a computer in 1982. My dad had retired and bought a BBC B for the house, choosing a computer that had programming capability so 9 year old me and my younger brother could get some educational benefit, as well as play endless games of Paper Boy and Chuckie Egg. So I'm an early adopter of all things digital, as are many of my generation.

 Chuckie Egg on the BBC B

Chuckie Egg on the BBC B

But I was lucky, and not everyone is. When you're born, where you live, what you do for a living (indeed, if you even have a job), whether you have a disability and what level of education you have will all have a massive impact on whether or not you use technology or go online.

Only 59% of households with one person 65 or over have internet access - and it's similarly low if you're disabled or live in a lower-income household

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have recently published their latest report into internet access and usage (which supplements their Internet use in the UK research from May 2018), which showed 89% of the population accessed the internet at least weekly in 2018, and 90% of households in the UK have internet access.

But for older people, there's a different story. In 2018, households with one adult aged 65 years and over had the lowest proportion of internet access, at 59%. Only 44% of those aged 75 or over were recent internet users. And 4.2 million people across the UK over the age of 55 have never been online.

And if you're disabled, it's just as bad. 20% of all disabled adults have never used the internet.

If you look at employment and income statistics, the figures are similarly stark. The latest OFCOM Communications Market report published this month reported that people in lower-income households are less likely to use the internet. Across the UK, two in ten unemployed people do not have access to the internet, and non-use is higher among adults in C2DE households (17%) than those in ABC1 households (4%).

We know there is a clear connection between digital exclusion and social exclusion. Those who have the most to gain from using technology and the internet are the least likely to be using them, creating a vicious circle. 

 credit BFI

credit BFI

Reasons for the digital divide

There are many reasons why people don't use technology or go online, regardless of age or income. Availability of broadband or a means to connect, education and skills, confidence, time, motivation or concerns about security all have an impact. Understanding these reasons, and why they exist, is one small step towards tackling the digital divide.

Having read the ONS report, I wanted to write a brief blog post about the efforts made by organisations, businesses and communities to respond to the challenge of the digital divide. This brief post, however, turned into a very long list of great examples and opinions (thanks to everyone on social media who sent me suggestions) and far too long to include them all. The digital divide is real, but so are the many attempts to tackle it. This post will highlight just a few examples that were successful, made a difference or projects that I simply found interesting.

I've put to one side the view that we should be giving people a choice as to whether or not they go digital. The arguments are complex and, for me, the genie is out of the bottle anyway. Whether or not the benefits (like tackling loneliness or saving money through channel shift) outweigh the risks (like the impact on mental health in young people or the reduction in human contact) is not something I am going to debate in this post.

Using data to target those in most need

Include-IT Mersey is a scheme in Merseyside that provides targeted, personalised digital skills development and employment support to digitally excluded or unemployed/economically inactive residents. What I like about this project is the fact that it works hard to specifically target those in most need, using Housing Association and Indices of Multiple Deprivation data.

Using data well was also highlighted as critical to success in a fascinating conversation I had with Annemarie Naylor, Director of Policy from Future Care Capital. As she told me, organisations often have the data about the groups that need support from existing datasets they own or have access to, but what we are often lacking is information about what people want and need

Include-IT Mersey - like many others - make use of the free online digital skills training, Learn My Way, provided by the Good Things Foundation (formerly the Tinder Foundation), a social change charity who help people improve their lives through digital. 82% of the people they support are socially excluded, and their focus is on digital as an enabler, recognising the difference it can make to not only employability and skills, but also health and wellbeing and financial literacy. I really like their latest blog post on learning theories and how they apply these on their digital skills training, like Linking; teaching new ideas by linking to what people already know, for example comparing using a password online to locking your door at home.

Digital exclusion is not the same as not being online

The Centre for Ageing Better published their excellent report "The digital age: new approaches to supporting people in later life get online" in May this year. They make a very valid point about what digital exclusion is and that we should target those in greatest need for the internet who are missing out by not being online. Some non-users have made an informed and reasoned choice to be offline and many also access online services through family and friends. In contrast, digitally excluded people have no means of accessing the benefits of the digital world – they often have the greatest need to access digital services, but they are the least able to do so.

Their advice is clear, detailed and based on an eight month research project, and should be required reading for anyone working on delivering digital services, because by not even considering older people, you are effectively excluding them and contributing to the digital divide. Particularly useful are their eight key good-practice principles for delivering digital support to people in later life, including co-designing all services, creating space for repetition and reflection and using the right language.

Digital skills are critical for future employment - but which skills?

It is predicted that within 20 years, 90% of all jobs will require some element of digital skills. Yet another reason why the digital divide needs tackling. Earlier this year, the Government announced plans for a £20 million investment into an Institute for Coding as part of the Industrial Strategy, identifying this as a core area to boost future digital skills, working in partnership with universities and large tech companies. Part of this is addressing the need to widen participation and boost equality and diversity in tech education and careers; much needed not least because in 2017 only 3.9% of programmers and software developers were women.

NESTA have recently looked at what kind of digital skills will be needed for future employment, or as they put it, those skills needed for a future-proof job. What sets ‘future-proof’ digital skills apart is their use for non-routine tasks, problem solving and creation of digital content. In short, if you are just inputting data it may not be long before a robot can take your place. But if you are creating something with that data, your job is not only less likely to disappear but they predict that it will become more important. Their analysis on future employment and digital skills looked at 41 million job adverts to identify the digital skills currently needed in those jobs most likely to grow by 2030 and those in the jobs most likely to disappear. While this doesn't seem, at first glance, to be tackling the digital divide, what NESTA are doing is advocating the use of labour market data to help job seekers and careers advisors make better informed decisions, enable better matching of skill supply and demand and support higher resilience for those at risk of unemployment and underemployment. Tackling the digital divide is all well and good but 'digital' is such a broad term they're right in the need to assess what this practically means, particularly in terms of employment prospects.

NESTA are prototyping a concept called Open Jobs; creating a family of tools that make use of the full range of data sources - public, commercial, web-scraping - to empower job seekers, employers, local government alike. Still in the early stages, they're looking for partners to design the first prototypes, and I'm going to keep an eye on how this develops.

The Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index is the largest measure of financial and digital capability of people in the UK, and their latest report was published in May this year. Like much of what else I've read, it doesn't make for wholly positive reading: there are 11.3m people in the UK who do not have basic digital skills and will not be able to do things such as fill out forms online, write a CV in a Word document or upload a photo. So while we can talk about employability and job requirements, there are many people in the UK who are already so far behind it will take a massive effort to get them up to speed to even consider jobs with a digital element, let alone be part of a future workforce.

Government support is critical for success

Back to NESTA, and I really like their study of highly-innovative 'smaller' countries: When small is beautiful In particular, the story of the meteoric rise of Estonia from a country where only half the population had a phone line in 1991, to now one of the most tech–savvy nations in the world is great. This came about because of a conscious decision by a new and young generation of politicians, who came to power after the breakup of the former Soviet Union, who could see how rapid expansion in new technologies could support the growth of a 'new' nation. In 2000, the Estonian Parliament declared basic internet access as a human right, and embarked on an ambitious programme to give its population widespread and free access to wifi. Estonia now has over 2,440 free certified Wi-Fi areas meant for public use, including at cafes, hotels, hospitals, schools, and petrol stations.

 The old UK passport website. Those were the days.

The old UK passport website. Those were the days.

The role of libraries in the UK ... if we have enough of them

In the UK, we're not quite as quick or as coordinated as Estonia, and as early adopters we grew in an uncoordinated and haphazard way that wasn't great for UK residents. I am old enough to remember the days before Gov.uk and 100s of departmental government websites, not many of them very good.

Now we have a UK Digital Strategy, published in 2017, covering connectivity, economy and business, data, safety, digital government and digital skills and inclusion. The work on digital inclusion highlights the budget spent on skills and training, as well as the provision of free wifi in all libraries across England and states that libraries will become "the ‘go-to’ provider of digital access, training and support for local communities". I can't help but be a little bit cynical about the role of libraries being fundamental to future plans for digital inclusion, when the buildings themselves are closing down across the country; 449 libraries closed between 2012 and 2017 as a result of funding cuts across England, Scotland and Wales. Infrastructure, connectivity and support needs to be delivered through more locations than public sector buildings that may not be around in six months, let alone six years.

But of course those who work in libraries understand the role they have in supporting economic growth and helping individuals back into work. Libraries across the UK run CV clinics, digi-buddies sessions, job fairs, Google digital garage events, and facilitated sessions with partner agencies such as Adult Learning and Skills and Jobcentre Plus. There were some nice examples from Staffordshire libraries and Warwickshire Libraries amongst others discussed at #LibrariesWeek in 2017.

Developing a self-build telecomms network for residents in Wales

Digital Merthyr, launched in 2014, was the first project of its kind in the UK, and was about working with the community - many of whom are affected by welfare reforms - to build affordable internet access in Gellideg (a small town in South Wales). This project was set up for many reasons, not least because in 2011, broadband services offered in the area were amongst the worst in the UK, and take-up was around 55%. Although it was recognised that many in the community were accessing the internet via their smartphones, there was a definite need to improve access and opportunity, but also make it affordable. This project was very much community led, developing Digital Champions to help implement the project, which had a positive knock-on effect of bringing value-added skills and employment opportunities. 

A wifi project in NYC that had to work hard to win over sceptical residents

Queensbridge Connected was a project to bring free wifi to North America's largest public housing complex in New York. This wasn't without its challenges, not least the concern from residents that installing free wifi meant the gentrification - and eventual sale - of the estate to private developers. And there were technical problems, such as for the network to provide even coverage throughout the buildings, small access points - the size of a dessert plate - had to be installed in the hall cupboards of roughly every third unit. The story of how this worked - like in Wales, in no small part thanks to residents hired to work on the project - is a fascinating one, and well worth a read. 

Providing free wireless networks; it's not just about the wifi

Greece and Germany both have good examples of community driven solutions, using existing infrastructure to meet a need.

The Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network (AWMN) is a grassroots wireless community, using new technologies, to connect people and services. AWMN started in 2002 because of the extremely limited broadband coverage available to home users, and was founded as an alternative broadband network.

The freifunk community in Germany is part of a global movement for free infrastructure and open frequencies. Where this differs from simply providing free wireless access - although they do in many cases - is the fact that they want interconnectivity between users that bypasses commercial providers. One of their key goals is reducing the digital divide: "We want to connect neighbourhoods, villages and regions to counter the digital divide and build free, independent network structures, such as unlicensed community radio, broadcast of local events, private digital swap meets and shared internet access". 

How digital inclusion can support health and social care priorities

South West Yorkshire NHS Foundation trust - a specialist NHS Foundation Trust that provides community, mental health and learning disability services to people in Yorkshire - are now providing wifi for service users of NHS mental health services, primarily those who stay in forensic (secure inpatient) settings. An absence of internet access for many of those users meant they were denied access to services that were vital for them, such as accessing health information or staying in touch with family members, but also - and critically - internet access means service users can return home quicker as they’re able to bid on council houses online. This is just one small example from the NHS of how internet access can make a very real difference to someone's life, but also reduce the strain on already stretched public sector services.


There are many other examples of the NHS working on digital inclusion for health and social care. There is clear recognition of a need to support people to get online and use digital health resources and how this can be crucial to achieving local priorities, such as shared decision making, long term condition management and appropriate use of urgent and emergency care.

The NHS Widening Digital Participation programme has 20 pathfinders across the country working to embed digital inclusion into healthcare, working with different groups including homeless people, young people, older people and gypsy travellers. A best practice guide for local health and care organisations to help them to take practical steps to support digital inclusion in their communities was published in April this year, with tools and case studies to support this programme, including a useful digital exclusion heat map, indicating the likelihood of an area for their population to be digitally excluded.

Surveillance or support?

I want to save my final example for something that is pretty close to my heart, as I now live 280 miles away from my elderly parents, and the work that is being trialled at Hampshire Council is something I am watching with interest. They are using voice recognition tech (and were the first local authority to do so), trialling Amazon Alexa for the delivery of social care and helping people to live independently. As Annemarie Naylor said to me, using new technology and the internet of things definitely has an important role in the provision of social care, but is it surveillance, or support?

As Ozzy Osborne said, you now need to use a computer to turn on your tv, but if you have a disability that makes it nigh-on impossible for you to operate a remote control and you can link Alexa to an Amazon Fire TV Stick to operate your television, that's definitely a dream, not a nightmare.


With thanks to Annemarie Naylor, Jude Tipper, Nicola Fulton, Nicola Capper and Makaela Stephens.




ONS publishes latest figures on internet access and use: what you need to know

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its latest report today on Internet access and use in Great Britain, including how many people have internet, how they access it and what they use it for.

This comes hot on the heels of last week's report from Ofcom on our communications habits which has plenty of data to get your teeth into, including:

  • 78% of the UK population own a smartphone (up from 17% ten years ago)

  • 20% of adults are online 40 hours a week or more; the UK average is 24 hours per week

  • 77% of people have a social media account

You can read more in a really good summary of this report written by Dan Slee.

 photo credit Federica Galli

photo credit Federica Galli

The ONS also published at the end of May their report into Internet use in the UK for 2018 (with data on age, sex, disability and geographical location). Key highlights included:

  • In 2018, 90% of adults in the UK were recent internet users, up from 89% in 2017

  • 8.4% of adults had never used the internet in 2018, down from 9.2% in 2017 (more than half are 75 years old and over)

  • Virtually all adults aged 16 to 34 years were recent internet users (99%) in 2018, compared with 44% of adults aged 75 years and over

  • 20% of disabled adults had never used the internet in 2018, down from 22% in 2017

  • Recent internet use in the 65-74 age group increased from 52% in 2011 to 80% in 2018, closing the gap on younger age groups

  • Recent internet use by retired adults has increased by almost 25 percentage points since 2011, to 64% in 2018

Today's ONS report follows on from this, with more on how we are using the internet.

89% of adults use the internet weekly, but older people are still behind the rest of the population

As in previous reports, the vast majority of adults in Great Britain are using the internet, with 89% accessing it at least weekly in 2018, up from 88% in 2017 and 51% in 2006. 90% of households in the UK have internet access; in 1998 that was just 9% and in 2008, 65%. Fixed broadband has continued to be the most popular type of connection since 2015; 98% of users in 2018 use it.

While older adults in Great Britain use the internet less, this number is growing. Households with one adult aged 65 years and over had the lowest proportion of internet access, at 59% in 2018. However this is up 23 percentage points since 2012, compared with growth of 10 percentage points in all households.

Accessing the internet is now part of our daily lives

Since 2006, the percentage of adults who use the internet daily has grown from 35%, to 86% in 2018. In 2018, among all adults, 78% used mobile phones or smartphones to access the internet. These were the most popular devices across most age groups, apart from those aged 65 years and over, who reported a tablet as the most popular device used to access the internet, at 42%.

In 2018 77% of adults had used the internet “on the go” using a mobile phone, smartphone, laptop, tablet or handheld device. 

Despite the popularity of smartphones, 26% of adults who use them did not have smartphone security and a further 24% did not know if they have security installed.

Email still rules

The most popular activity on the internet is still accessing email, with 84% of adults sending or receiving email online. 

46% of adults watched videos on demand from commercial services (such as Netflix) in 2018, up from 29% in 2016. Video viewing on YouTube (or similar) is also on the rise, up 15 percentage points from 47% in 2016 to 62% in 2018.

Women are more likely to use the internet for social networking (69%) compared with men (60%), and are also looking for health-related information more (59%) compared with men (50%). 

Online banking has shown yearly growth over the last decade, with 35% of adults banking online in 2008, rising to 69% in 2018.

Online shopping rises, but not by much, except in the older generation

In 2018, among all adults, 78% bought goods or services online in the last 12 months, up 1 percentage point since 2017 and 25 percentage points since 2008. 95% of those aged 16 to 24 years and 96% of those aged 25 to 34 years shopped online in 2018, while adults aged 65 years and over who showed the lowest proportion of online shopping at 48%. However, this age group has shown the largest increase in this activity, with three times as many over 65s shopping online in 2018 compared with 2008. 

Clothes or sports goods were still the most popular online purchase in 2018, bought by 55% of adults. Household goods (for example, furniture, toys, vehicles and so on) were the next most popular items, purchased by 48% of adults. Holiday accommodation was purchased by 42% of adults.

Most employed adults believe they have the necessary computer skills for work

In 2018, of all employed adults aged 35 to 44 years, 83% used computers or portable devices at work, the highest proportion across all age groups. Of those aged 16 to 24 years, 51% had needed to learn how to use new software or computerised equipment in the last 12 months for their jobs, compared with 15% of employed adults aged 65 years and over.

In 2018, employed respondents were asked to select one out of three statements that best described their skills relating to the use of computers, software or applications in work. Most respondents felt they already possessed the required skills to do their job well (70%).



Your communications works best as a mirror

I was back in Essex for a few days last week to look after the parents.

While I was there I went to Basildon hospital cardio unit, dealt with pest control, talked to the postman, the barista in Costa coffee and the cashier at the bank. And in every encounter, I heard the glorious Estuary English accent of the county of my birth. 

 Photo copyright https://twitter.com/GermanDoner_UK

Photo copyright https://twitter.com/GermanDoner_UK

Each conversation reflected the company or organisation the individual worked for. Each transaction was customer service. And for each situation, I knew I'd be understood, and that people would 'get me'. They knew I was one of them (despite moving away from Essex when I was 18, never to return, I still slip into dropping my 'h's and my 't's when I'm back, much to the chagrin of my mother).

For me it's a nod to the need in communications to reflect your audience when speaking to them. You'll get your message across better if you know who you are dealing with, what they are like, and what their values are. There's no point simply broadcasting or telling people what to do, and expecting them to listen, much least take action.

I suppose this is why I picked up on my favourite thing of the week. Joey Essex promoting kebabs in Southend. The fact he was opening a new kebab shop in Southend and you could meet him AND get a free kebab was on the front page of my parents local paper two days in a row. And I loved it. 

I know this is an oversimplification of audience targeting, and effective communications, but hey, I'm an Essex girl, what can I say. I'm just gutted I wasn't still around to get lunch and a selfie.

#Commscamp: the number 1 public sector communications conference in the calendar

Plenty has been written about #commscamp in Birmingham on 12 July 2018; here’s Ben Capper plus all the activity on Twitter and LinkedIn and this from my old pals at Helpful Technology. It’s all good stuff, but doesn’t even scratch the surface for how much was on offer at this year’s event, with sessions on topics including AI, freelancing, podcasts, accessibility, Facebook workplace, creative play, media law and mental health. Needless to say, I've not been to a better public sector comms event, and it continues to get better and better.


So here’s a quick list of just 10 of the public sector communication-type-things that I took away from this one:

 #Commscamp is also about cake

#Commscamp is also about cake

  1. Engage with people on their level, be more human and, essentially, be more Dave Throup from the Environment Agency. This man is a hero to many! https://twitter.com/DaveThroupEA?lang=en

  2. If you want real discussion and real engagement, create spaces where people feel they can mix (and they are people, not citizens or customers or consumers). Don’t force your council or organisation processes on them, or make them come to your all important meetings. Do it their way.

  3. If you’re consulting with people about a project, make sure you have touchpoints along the way. Or to put it another way, keep talking. Better still, keep listening.

  4. Don’t forget all those volunteers on the ground in your area who may be already communicating with the people you want to talk to. The sports coaches, church groups, scouts, brownies etc. They’ve got skills, knowledge but also data on the people you want to talk to. Make use of it.

  5. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer. Have the difficult conversations with the difficult people, and have them independently of everything and everyone else. And yes you probably will get shouted at, but you may well win them round.

  6. There is no shortcut if you want to do engagement properly, even in this golden age of digital. Sometimes the best method is to just get out there and meet people, and do the leg work.

  7. Subtitling your videos isn’t just about accessibility, don’t forget all those watching on trains on their phones. Either way, it’s essential, not an option. Read this from Albert Freeman on the ‘how’, not just the ‘why’.

  8. Be upfront and honest in all your comms, especially where things may be a bit challenging. It still never ceases to amaze me where I see comms that doesn’t tell the whole truth. When will we learn?

  9. Use Twitter hours to get your message across on social media. Here’s a handy list thanks to @al_osaur on Twitter.

  10. And finally, no, the press release isn’t dead, yet, but it’s definitely on its last legs. Media relations is still alive, but you’ve got to do better than a simple (and boring) press release.

session list at commscamp

Being creative and northern at #commscampnorth

I've just come back from the south. Sheffield that is. When you live in Durham, most of England is south.

I was volunteering and doing a bit of (net)working at the brilliant #commscampnorth unconference run by some top drawer colleagues including Dan Slee from comms2point0.

I facilitated a session in Sheffield on creativity and innovation in communications where the aim was to inspire others to try new things in public sector communications, and give those who came along some tips and techniques in how to be more creative.  What was important about the session was the contribution of others. That’s the point of an unconference. Everyone has a chance to have their say, and people come to #commscampnorth to learn and be inspired from what others have achieved.

The reason I wanted to write this blog post was to showcase the brilliant stuff that people from across the public sector have produced, usually on shoestring budgets. 

So here are some of the highlights from the great bunch of people who came along.

Stoke-on-Trent sent a duck into space for the Stoke-on-Trent City of Culture bid.

Manchester Council produced a beautiful ‘This is Christmas’ video last year.

Sheffield put together a hugely popular anti-smoking campaign music video called ‘You can leave your patch on’.

Barnsley dumped a weeks worth of flytipping outside their town hall as part of their #EverybodyThink campaign

Of course you can’t talk about creativity in public sector comms without a nod to colleagues at Doncaster, who are now rightly famous for speedboats and gritting. My favourite piece of their content was their ‘real time’ map of gritters, a truly innovative use of data and technology.

But it’s not just humour that was mentioned, and there were other more serious examples of communications done well, including the piano playing PCSO from Nottinghamshire, and some shocking dashcam footage of a drunk driver published by Sussex police.

There are 100s more examples of creativity in the public sector, from the NHS to the fire brigade, local government to the Environment Agency. You can find more great campaigns on the Comms2point0 unawards website.


Innovating for good: the story of how we had a hack for a hospice

I came across a great word reading an article recently. 'Talkoo'. It's Finnish, and means 'working together, collectively, for a specific good'. For those who ask me what a hack is, this is a good way of putting it, and pretty much sums up how #HelpTheHospice went.

Essentially, a hack is a way to innovate and be creative to solve a business challenge, with a team of people who usually haven't worked together before, and in a short space of time. You can read more on my #helpthehospice blog post.

On 22 February I managed the #HelpTheHospice hack for Willow Burn hospice in Durham that had been a good four months in the planning. 24 people came on the day to help the hospice with a challenge; raise their profile across Durham and the North East.

This is my story of that day, and some of the key things you need to know if you're running your own hack event.

HackTheHospice_Gavin Forster Photography.jpg

Making a hack a success involves three main elements:

  • Getting the right people there
  • Coming up with the right ideas to work on
  • Momentum

The people at the hack were a diverse bunch, and this was deliberate. We had social media experts, web developers, students, a photographer and film maker, IT specialists, communications professionals, a project manager from the training sector and innovators from Newcastle University.

I wanted to harness the experience of those who didn't necessarily work in a hospice, in a charity, or in communications or PR, to give a different approach to what was a communications challenge. 

It was at once, the most antisocial and collaborative workshop I’ve ever been to. For people to come together, form ideas, then ignore each other enough to get things done in one day really takes some doing.

Being innovative is often about looking for new ways to solve a problem or improve something. Bringing people with different skills, experience and knowledge together would contribute towards that.

Much of my effort was put into getting the people there that could bring the most benefit, and I tapped up just about every network I had over a couple of months to find the final team. And I made sure I met with or spoke to everyone before they came to the hack. I wanted to make sure the right people were there, and that we all got the most out of it.

But we also needed things to do. The best way to get a good idea is to get LOTS of ideas. So part of the work before the hack wasn't just getting the right people there, but also to get those people thinking. The hard work for a hack is done before the day itself. It's a bit like a marathon. Put the effort in before the actual event and it'll make it much easier on the day.

So a few weeks before the hack I set up a Slack space and started conversations with people who were coming (and some who couldn't make it, but still had plenty to offer). I talked on social media and gathered ideas, blogged, and published background information on hospice care and charity comms to get people thinking. 

At the start of the hack, I asked everyone to be curious, and to challenge. To ask questions. To look for alternatives to how Willow Burn currently marketed themselves and engaged with their audience. We didn't want the hack to just do the same things that Willow Burn had done before. 

We got more than 30 ideas, which we then grouped into themes.

From this, five very different solutions to the challenge were worked on. And they were all great ideas.

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  • One team set up an alliance with Northumbria University and created a student society called WillowBurn initiative to support student care givers and to provide an opportunity for members to volunteer at the hospice.
  • A Facebook chat bot was built to engage with potential supporters online, and save the hospice time answering some of the more common questions they get like "How can I donate?"
  • A group for professionals to donate time or services to Willow Burn was created - called Willow Bank - and more than 30 days of support were pledged before the hack was over.
  • A suite of marketing materials and a toolkit for roadshow activity was developed, to generate awareness in the local community.
  • And a scheme called 'One for you and One for me' was developed and marketing materials produced to encourage businesses to sign up, to allow their customers to donate towards a treat for those at the hospice, like a haircut, massage or yoga class.
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This work was done in chunks, with hourly presentations of progress (PoPs) to the rest of the group. This helped keep the momentum going, which is so important for a hack. You can't just rely on the people that come to keep their energy levels up, sometimes they need a bit of a nudge. 

Part of my role was to keep the effort up. So I'd look for when people needed more help, or when to bring teams together when they had a common need. For example, we realised quite early on that two of the groups could do with some video and photography of the hospice, so we sent a few of the team on location to shoot what was needed. 

This also meant that the hospice had some great stock photography to use in the future. Double win!

To keep the momentum going, it was also important to have a fuelling strategy. Caffeine, cake and lots of healthy options too. And we let people have plenty of breaks. While we had an agenda, it was fairly flexible. People work at different paces, and in different ways, and there's little point imposing what works for you on everyone. Just let them get on.

 Sending some of the team on location to shoot photography and video at the hospice

Sending some of the team on location to shoot photography and video at the hospice

I’ve been to many hacks and I would say this has to be one of my favourites and the funnest (is that a word?) that I’ve been on

One thing that was particularly important was for me to do a risk analysis before the day. It was a bit worrying thinking about everything that could go wrong, but did mean maximum preparedness on my part. So we boosted the wifi, got extra power cables, printed out agendas and presentations in case of tech fail, came up with a back-up list of ideas if people drew a blank and prayed that there would be good weather (as I write this I am actually snowed in!)


What an amazing experience my first hack has been! Who ever thought we’d be able to achieve so much in just 8 hours!

Having a great venue was critical so thank you to the North East Business Innovation Centre and the team there for letting us have the room for free, and all their help on the day.

And a big thank you to everyone who came along on the day, but particularly to the core sponsor, Groundswell Innovation. Jane Dalton from Groundswell brought innovative thinking, brand expertise and the skills to help the groups turn their ideas into action. 

If you'd like to know more about running a hack, or would like to talk to me about running one for you, please get in touch

All photos copyright Gavin Forster Photography

Using real stories to talk about hospice care

A guest blog post from Frances Fox, Strategic Communications Officer at Macmillan Cancer Support


Talking about death, dying and bereavement is perhaps not what most of us would choose to discuss on any given day, but it’s important to try and make sure people feel comfortable discussing it and their wishes for the end of their life – this is one of the many things a hospice may aim to do.

I had the privilege of working at a hospice as the PR & Communications Manager. I had no experience of hospices before I started the role, and I quickly realised that hospices are places focussed on life, happiness, and enriching whatever time we have. Yes, there is sadness but more often you’ll see laughter, friendship, joy and if you’re lucky – a therapy dog!

Next week I’m pleased to be taking part in the Hospice Hack Day for Willow Burn Hospice in Durham. Ahead of the hack day, organiser Kate asked me to share some thoughts on what it’s like working in comms at a hospice.


Drawing on lived experiences

One of the main challenges in doing PR for a hospice is that the public don’t usually want to be reminded about death and bereavement, so encouraging them to consider supporting a hospice might feel like you’re starting on the back foot.

When I worked at a hospice, I found three strong groups of voices that could be used to tell the hospice story – the voice of staff, the voice of supporters and the voice of patients.

Many people support a hospice because they have an experience of one, perhaps through being a patient or through a family member, a friend or a colleague. Being able to develop and share the story of a patient or supporter was an incredibly powerful way to encourage others to support the cause.

When it came to using patients’ and supporters’ stories to promote the cause, thoughtful consideration was given to the message, tone, channel and format of any communications.

Where I worked we had supporters who were willing to share their experience alongside a call to action relating to fundraising or volunteering – putting their first-hand accounts to the hospice experience greatly enhanced the communications strategy.

The voice and knowledge of a hospice’s staff and volunteers was an asset to draw on. I would integrate this knowledge in to the comms plan, turn it in to content that was easy for the audience to understand, and share it across multiple platforms. For example, I invited a journalist from Buzzfeed to the hospice to interview staff which resulted in this article, which reflects the variety of work a hospice does.

Sharing the stories of patients, supporters, volunteers and staff across a variety of channels was a successful way to create a conversation with our audiences, in particular on social media where these stories consistently had a higher organic reach and generated more engagement than other types of posts.

Life first, not death

In the communications I was responsible for one theme was apparent - telling people’s life stories, not their death stories. It was people’s experiences of how the hospice impacted their life that shaped communications about fundraising, volunteering, education, service developments and much more and ultimately without those stories it would have been much more difficult to generate support for the cause.

Creative innovation and a hack: an event to help a charity in Durham raise their profile


I am really excited to be running a creative hack on 22 February next year for a local charity up here in County Durham. I’ve run a few hacks in my time and really like the energy, the chance it gives people to innovate and take risks, the opportunity to work with and definitely learn from different people, and, most importantly, the chance to collaborate for good.

I’ve spoken before about how traditional networking isn’t really my bag, so running a hack is perfect for me. This is definitely a much better way of spending my time.

I’m looking for local businesses and creative people to get involved so I’m on the scrounge. I’m doing this on a pro-bono basis, as is everyone else who has volunteered their time. But I’d like more of you there. The more people who come, the more good we can do for a really good cause.

So why come?

Willow Burn is a hospice in Lanchester, County Durham. The hospice treasures the lives of people whose illnesses are no longer curable, enabling them to achieve the best quality of life, at the worst time of their life. Willow Burn provide a friendly and supportive environment in which everyone feels welcome. A hospice is not just about death. Willow Burn Hospice is proof of this. Typically, people come to Willow Burn for end of life care, respite care and day hospice services when they have limiting illnesses. The hospice also has a family support team so that before and after death, family and friends have someone to turn to for comfort.

But they obviously need more money to do this really important work, and want more people to hear about them and the work they do.

The business challenge for this hack will be to help Willow Burn raise their profile across Durham.

So, what’s a hack?

Simply put, it is a fast paced event that challenges attendees to make and do; usually working on  something to help improve people’s lives. Hacks are a chance to innovate, experiment and collaborate and create something that solves a problem, delivering outcomes in a non-typical way. It’s not just about doing business as usual, it’s about making something quicker, or easier or stand out more.

Importantly, it’s not an ideas generator but a chance to design, build, develop or write something with like-minded skilled and experienced professionals, and it’s definitely not a seminar, conference or talking shop.

DWP Digital recently held a hack in Manchester which aimed to identify and address the barriers to people applying for jobs, and develop an innovative solution to encourage people to retrain and travel to where the work is. One of my favourite hacks was one I ran in London for a local authority, which aimed to help more older people get online; it was a particularly rewarding event because it had a community focus, with older people from the community there to contribute on the day.

Please get involved

We are looking for graphic designers, web developers, local businesses, entrepreneurs, innovators, photographers, marketing people, digital experts, charity workers and creatives from across the North to collaborate on developing new and innovative solutions to support Willow Burn.

Already signed up is Lancaster University’s Entrepreneur in residence and brand and innovation expert and Northern Power Women ambassador, Jane Dalton, from Groundswell Innovation, and more contributors will be announced over the coming weeks.

It’s a great opportunity to network, learn from industry experts and enjoy yourself, while contributing to a really good cause. If you can’t make the whole day, don’t want to come to the North East (you’re missing out!) or just can’t make it, but still want to help, please get in touch. You can follow the event on Twitter at #HelpTheHospice

Find out more about the logistics and all the organisational bits including how to sign up on the Hospice Hack page.