Council comms is boring, right?

When I joined my local council comms team after a 14-year career in journalism many people thought I was mad. ‘It’ll be boring,” they said. “It won’t challenge you,” they said. “Can you get the pothole in my street fixed?” they asked.

Well, it has been a challenge – I’ve learned loads every day working in the public sector.

I have met comms professionals who are passionate about what they do and the majority of them want to make the lives of our residents better.

It definitely hasn’t been boring so I thought I’d share some of the highlights with you. Why?

Because today is my last working day with the council. Then I have a holiday. And then I start in a new job as Senior Stakeholder Engagement Professional with Jacobs. I’m sure it will be just as challenging, providing advice on digital comms and behaviour change but indulge me and let me reflect on some of the highlights of my last 17 years with South Lanarkshire Council.

South Lanarkshire Council HQ
  • Holocaust Memorial Day. Not long after I started the council hosted the national commemoration event for the 65th anniversary of liberation of Auschwitz. I was moved to tears at the event
  • For the programme I interviewed Mile Gasic, mayor of Banja Luca in the former Yugoslavia who came to Edinburgh as a refugee during the Balkan War. We both cried during that interview 
  • I escorted two senior school pupils on the first annual Scottish schools trip to visit Auschwitz. I think we all cried at parts of that and it took me a few days to cone to terms with what I’d seen and learned. There isn’t a day goes by without me thinking of the horror
  • Researching the sinking of the Arandorra Star and finding information in the War Office archives that would answer a question that had haunted a Hamilton family for decades
  • Interviewing second World War vets for a VE Day commemoration event. Most of them said I was the first person they’d told their story to – they just couldn’t share the horror with their families when they returned home
  • Recognising that the organisation could use social media way back in 2010 and setting up some Twitter accounts under the radar as a ‘pilot’. I went on to make a career from social media
  • I held an #EpicDinnerParty in real life, at my house for some of the people I met in the first year of having my own Twitter account. Some I had never met. Some of them hadn’t met each other. I still count many of them as good friends
  • Advising Scottish Government on social media use in emergencies for their Warning and Informing guidance
  • Lots of speaking events all over Scotland, London, Berlin and online to Sweden
  • Getting my Masters in Corporate Communications and Public Affairs, part funded by the council
  • Being shortlisted for Comms Professional of the Year at the Comms 2.0 UnAwards
  • Setting up training for all Scottish councils in social media, behavioural economics, data visualisation and customer journey mapping
  • Being invited to join the Digital Leaders network
  • Working with the Cabinet Office comms team for a week and having access all areas, including No.10 because I was with Alex Aiken
  • Spending the day at Google and another day at the Government Digital Services
  • Helping create the Digital Team – Team Awesome
  • Meeting my now husband – we met at a website meeting and the rest as they say, is history

I have managed all this because I had bosses who gave me enough space to learn, take educated risks and grow. So I thank them and all my colleagues at South Lanarkshire Council. Council comms officers are the unsung heroes who put up with more flak than they should. Who don’t get paid nearly enough for the hours they put in, but they mostly do it because they feel it is their duty.

When he was Director of Comms at Westminster Council, Alex Aiken used to go round the office at end of play and ask each comms officer what they had done to make the lives of the citizens of Westminster better that day. And they could all answer without thinking.

Comms matters and don’t believe for a minute that council comms is boring. 

Digital journeys can be a dead end

For just over a week I was one of the 9% of the UK population who doesn’t have a smartphone. In fact it was worse than that I didn’t even have a landline.

We’ve all done it – my Google Pixel was in the back pocket of my jeans and ended up in the loo. I had thought the model was water resistant but turns out it wasn’t. It took about a week to die then it’s replacement turned up damaged and had to go back. Eventually I dug out an old Huawei but in that nine days, even with a Chromebook and a work laptop I felt digitally excluded.

Given my job I know that organisations prefer that we transact with them online, and even better via an app on a phone but due to my circumstances I was denied access to so many things that I had previously taken for granted. Things that, now I was logged in from the Chromebook needed verification that I was who I claimed to be. And how did they want me to verify? You guessed it – a verification code sent to my phone. #epicfail

Like the majority of people I couldn’t remember my account passwords because I use fingerprint recognition on the apps on my phone. So I couldn’t access Amazon – my husband had to do it for me. I almost couldn’t pay him back via online banking but eventually I found my card reader at the back of the kitchen drawer.

Road sign showing a dead end and a turning point to the left

I couldn’t do an online shop with Sainsbury’s because they wanted to send a pin to my phone and when I phoned customer services they said there was nothing they could do – Tesco got my custom instead.

I couldn’t use PayPal for the duration either so paying for a lot of things was tricky and I had to dig out my bank cards which have been languishing in a bag in the bottom of the wardrobe since the start of the first lockdown.

These are all parts of the customer journey that these organisations’ service designers have either not bothered with or have been told to ignore if they are using the 80/20 rule. If they had half-decent call centres or webchat maybe I wouldn’t have been so stuck but for me this didn’t seem an option with the services I was trying to access.

I’m back in business now but my brief period of being digitally excluded was frustrating and exhausting – everything went round in circles with no result.

So I think my take from this is that there are varying degrees of digital exclusion, from no technology, to some technology to fully digital and it’s the bit in the middle that organisations are ignoring.

It also goes to show that we can escape from the tech hamster wheel most of us are trapped in and think about where we can reuse or lengthen the life of our digital devices.

But don’t get me started on digital waste. That’s a whole other post.

Photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash

I’ll be working here, there and everywhere

Like millions of other people I started working from home a year ago today. No one knew how long it would be for but I don’t think any of us could have predicted we’d still be at it.

I’d worked from home on snow days, when the kids were sick and when I needed time away from the office to concentrate on a weighty piece of project work. It was OK but there were lots of things wrong with it. I felt guilty for not being in the office. I felt guilty for putting the heating back on. Sitting at the dining table or on the sofa wasn’t that comfortable. I was easily distracted by The Real Housewives.

So when I packed up my laptop and notebooks last year I was determined to do things differently. I already had a desk in the bedroom with aspirations of it being a writing space for those books I can never find the time to write. Anyone who’s ever been in my old office will know my desk was a bombsite but with a much smaller workspace I couldn’t afford to be messy or it would stress me out. I rearranged everything and organised some storage.

Where the desk sits I can have the door open and it hides the bed from view. The desk sits round a little corner so from the bed I can’t really see the desk. The desk space feels like work and the bed feels like home.

Home office with desk, shelves and family photos

Teams and Zoom were game changers but Teams messaging is what keeps my team sane – there’s a constant stream of conversation, just like in the office. Don’t get me wrong – I miss the face-to-face interaction, the banter and the office nights out. I miss the PostIt and chunky crayons creative sessions. And I miss the team nights out.

I don’t miss the commute, spending too much money in TK Maxx at lunchtime or wearing work clothes. In fact I’m Saint and Sofia’s favourite customer at the moment for what I’m calling work lounge wear.

I’ve heard a lot of people saying they can’t get back to the office but I can’t say I’m one of them. 

Now it looks like working from home will be permanent, aside from touchdown spaces back at base and that suits me just fine. You see, for me working from home to me doesn’t just mean working in my house. Once we’re allowed back into other people’s houses I’m looking forward to creative sessions with the team round my dining table with bottomless cups of tea and coffee and home baking. And it doesn’t stop at the team – there’s nothing stopping colleagues from other councils and organisations coming over for the day for some creative exchange. It could come down to working wherever has the best cake and coffee.

So if anyone fancies working with me for the day just give me a shout – if you’re further away than just down the road I have a spare room for a sleepover. I can recommend the house coffee and after the working day the house wine and house cocktails are pretty good too.

So I declare Mondays to be open house at Chez Mitchell. The kettle will be on, the wifi fired up and home made soup prepared for lunch time. Give me a shout if you fancy it.

My home office is your home office.

Note – the radiator is never hot so don’t worry about health and safety.

We need to stop whitewashing history

The other night my son asked for help with his history homework. He had to look at some primary and secondary sources of information about the capture of slaves.

I made a comment about them not being slaves because at the point of capture these human beings had no idea what lay in store for them. The only people who knew them as slaves were their captors. In the words of Samuel L Jackson in his recent documentary series, they weren’t slaves, they were enslaved.

I asked my son if he knew what a manilla was. The answer was no.

I asked if he had seen the diagram of the optimum layout for the hold of a slave ship. The answer was no.

The optimum layout for slave ships, via Wikimedia

Did he know that the first time the difference in skin colour between slave and owner was written down was in legislation in Barbados to protect the minority white population and their estates from the majority black slave population? No he didn’t.

Were they covering Black Lives Matter, civil rights, apartheid or anything about Windrush in Modern Studies? No, why?

I proceeded to give him a potted history of coffee, tea, sugar, tobacco, cotton, the Middle Passage, the Caribbean, the Deep South, Glasgow, the Raj, Partition, the American Civil Rights movement, Windrush, South Africa, Mandela, jazz, gospel, BLM and white privilege. I spoke for 45 minutes trying to explain over 400 years of oppression.

Every now and again he’d say, ‘but why’ or ‘how did they get away with it’ or my favourite, ‘I just don’t get it’.

I told him that a black boy his age in, say Glasgow, London, or Alabama is more likely to live in poverty with an absent father than a white boy in the same place. That the black boy is statistically less likely to thrive at school, more likely to get into trouble with the law and end up in prison. More likely to die in police custody, more likely to be in a low paid job and more likely to die from COVID.

‘None of that makes sense,’ he said.

‘Good,’ I said. ‘Because if it made sense you’d be part of the problem.’

There’s not a lot I remember from school history lessons. Random dates, hand-to-hand battles, a string of kings and queens and the Union of the Crown.

One lesson that stuck with me was the capture of African men, women and children and their transportation to the ‘New World’ as slaves. There was something about those drawings of the layout of the ships and the description of the Middle Passage that horrified me. There was something about being hunted down, shackled and shipped to another continent that was recognisable. It was the Highland clearances. It was why every little girl is told not to talk to strangers. It was the stuff of nightmares. It was the bogeyman.

Other than Anne Frank’s Diary I don’t remember being taught about the Holocaust.

I wasn’t taught about colonialism and all of the brutalities carried out in the name of the Empire.

I wasn’t taught about the Windrush generation.

There were no black kids in my primary or secondary schools. There was one Chinese girl from Hong Kong in my year and one boy from Pakistan. I couldn’t tell you their religions – the only kids who got out of religious assemblies were a Brethren brother and sister. My childhood was far from diverse.

I remember finding out as an adult that a friend I had at primary school had been adopted. It didn’t even dawn on me that she was a different colour to her parents.

When I was little I remember watching the Black and White Minstrel show on my gran’s black and white TV. At no point did I ever think I was watching black people singing and dancing and at no point did I think I was watching white people ‘pretending’ to be black people. They were just white people in silly make-up. Blackface was not in my vocabulary.

The Brixton and Toxteth riots were on the news but I had no real clue what the people were rioting about.

Brixton, 1981, via Wikimedia

At that age I had no need to know the whys and wherefores because the only divide where I lived was between the Protestants and the Catholics and not being religious that made no sense to me either.

Roll forward a few years and I’ve interviewed the former mayor of a Bosnian town who fled the country with his wife and son in the clothes they stood in. Why? Because his Catholic son, conscripted to the army was told he had to kill his Muslim mother. I cried during that interview.

Then there was the interview with a reconnaissance tank operator who told about his experience of liberating Bergen Belsen. His tank was first on the scene and at first he had no idea what he was looking at because his brain couldn’t fathom that the piles of rags could possibly be people. I cried during that interview.

By No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Oakes, H (Sgt) –
from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., via Wikimedia

Then there was the trip to Auschwitz with a group of senior school pupils to make a video diary for Holocaust Memorial Day. I cried during that visit. I couldn’t talk about it for 24 hours afterwards because I couldn’t unpack how we could do that to our fellow human beings.

When I looked at my children I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hurt them. How could a person’s religion or skin colour incite hatred or fear?

I have been an existentialist since I knew what the word meant. When my children were small and they asked difficult questions I attempted to give them lots of different points of view so they could make up their own minds about the world. I tried to bring them up to be tolerant of people with different opinions and to understand why they held those opinions. I tried to bring them up to be tolerant full stop and to care about the people and the world around them.

My daughter learned about slavery in history at high school. She learned about gun laws, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement in America. She, like me, didn’t learn about colonialism or Windrush.

When Black Lives Matter became a thing she became outraged. On her social media she started sharing links to news reports about people of colour who had died in police custody or while being arrested. She got angrier when she started finding the British black people who had died while in the ‘care’ of the police. She marched. She demonstrated. She educated herself. I watched in awe as she started correcting the internet trolls about white privilege.

She’d message me at stupid o’clock with her latest piece of research. So then I started some of my own reading. I started with Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala. I’d read it at breakfast and get so enraged I’d have to read full passages to my husband in consternation.

I then bought Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart. It traces her family history from the moment her white great 5x great grandfather boarded a ship from England to Barbados in the late 1630s to the present day, with a lot of history and ‘fraternising’ with his slaves in between. Before the story even begins there are two family trees, one white, one ‘mulatto’. Again I’d read passages to my long suffering husband over breakfast.

These books didn’t change me – I’ve never understood the human construct of race or colour, both of which are based on dodgy science.

What I do now understand with hindsight and some education is that in the UK our history lessons are still being whitewashed. Why does the curriculum still concentrate on slavery in America? Brazil had the highest number of African enslaved people, followed by the Caribbean. Barbados gave America the blueprint for how plantations should be run, how slaves should be ‘managed’ and all the laws that went with slavery. America was too busy fighting for independence to exploit tobacco, cotton and human lives when the British, Spanish, Dutch and French were literally pillaging their way through South America and the Caribbean. Our history classes are still being whitewashed. By concentrating on the American story we absolve ourselves of any blame for what happened in the British ‘territories’. Barbados was British and if you teach that version of history we, as a nation, need to be accountable for the 400 years that followed, and for what is happening now.

I get that history has shaped where we are today, created inequalities and white privilege.

I get that if you are white and housed in a sink estate, out of work and living hand-to-mouth, white privilege can be difficult to understand or acknowledge. But it is very real.

I get that if you are British and black, dealing with white privilege every minute of every day is exhausting.

I get that some of you reading this will write me off as yet another liberal. But if a liberal is defined as ‘willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own’ or ‘open to new ideas’ then I’ll take that – I am.

If you are black and you see me as that white person like all the rest please believe me when I say that, although I can never feel your pain or the injustices that you and your ancestors have gone through, I am an ally. I stand with you in the face of injustice and inequality.

Photo by James Eades on Unsplash

All lives don’t matter until black lives matter. And for that to happen we need to educate ourselves and our children as to why we even need a slogan and a movement to make millions of voices heard in the first place.

Our children need to be taught about history from more sources than they are at the moment. History is always written by the oppressors and the winners. I have approached Education Scotland to ask how people other than policy wonks can be involved in shaping the curriculum. I’m not holding my breath but watch this space.

History needs to be linked to the present so that the same mistakes aren’t repeated in the future.

This blog post was inspired by Andrea Stuart who was kind enough to encourage me to expand on a message I sent to thank her for sharing her family history in her book. I hope I have done her justice.

Reslience isn’t about being strong

Like the proper ambulance-chasing journalist that I used to be, I enjoy watching a natural disaster from afar. I don’t mean I enjoy watching people suffer. Far from it. No, I am fascinated by the rescue, the reporting, the citizen journalism and the things people do to survive. I like a good recovery.

I have watched social media platforms like Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp flourish as tools for good in floods, earthquakes and wildfires. I wrote a Masters dissertation on the subject and made a career out of being a so-called ‘expert’ on social media use during emergencies.

Before COVID many people didn’t know that councils are often involved in emergency response, alongside blue light colleagues in police, fire and health. This has been the longest emergency scenario I have worked through and it has seen the biggest prolonged upheaval in my working life. The destruction may not have been on the scale of a tsunami or an earthquake but we’ve had to adapt pretty quickly to a new way of living and working.

I was full of optimism. For me working from home, no commuting, new technology and online events were all embraced wholeheartedly. We even got a long awaited COVID puppy.

Our COVID puppy, Lula

My council’s recovery plan is looking at what went well during COVID, what changes made to services under lockdown can be kept, what can go and for once we are involving our citizens in the decision-making.

I was over the moon when blended learning was discussed for the schools going back after summer. My son has severe dyslexia and he prefers working at his own pace, online, sometimes in the wee small hours. I thought we’d get a shiny new 21st century model for learning so I was disappointed when it was back to business as usual in our schools. Personally I think we’re overdue educational reform – the school day, the school year and the method of delivery, but that’s a whole other blog post.

So as the country heads for local lockdowns, masks in schools and overly complicated rules that can’t be policed, I hear a lot about how well Australia and New Zealand coped with COVID and how good their political leadership is. I had two conversations in as many days about the same things and it got me wondering New Zealand and Australia have been beacons of common sense through all of this.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s down to lots of things. But I reckon the fact that they are developed countries that have more than their fair share of large-scale natural disasters has something to do with it.

In the UK we’ve had the odd earthquake and some localised but devastating flooding. We haven’t had anything on a scale that has made other countries set up relief funds or send over emergency responders in vast numbers.

In Australia the flooding and wildfires have been catastrophic while New Zealand has had earthquakes on a biblical scale.

When Christchurch had their last epic earthquake in 2011 there wasn’t much about life that was untouched. People were displaced, schools, universities, shopping centres were all flattened, damaged or evacuated because of the noxious fumes coming up from under the ground. If life was going to continue they were going to have to come up with novel ideas.

Shops who hadn’t previously, started trading online. Planners rethought how they would develop trading areas – if your financial institutions are all in the same district then trading grinds to a halt if the whole district disappears in the rubble.

Shipping containers were used for shops and housing. Schools and universities set up virtual campuses. Insurance companies were brought to heel when it was discovered neighbours in the same street were being treated differently.

Photo by Marcus Lenk on Unsplash

The city’s Recovery Plan is a great read. It was developed with the city’s communities and was never about getting back to normal – it was about getting making things better than they’d been before but at the same time remembering the past and ‘interpreting’ what had happened to the city and its inhabitants. What’s more, they are still in their recovery phase – the plan covers up to 2032.

I’d say Christchurch, New Zealand and its inhabitants are resilient, not by being strong like a British bulldog with its feet firmly stuck in its imperial past greatness but by being flexible, willing to change and by thinking of the future as an almost clean slate.

If Mother Nature can change your world in the blink of an eye you get really good at starting again but ignoring the stuff that previously wasn’t working.

Which is why I can’t understand why our schools are doing their best to get back to the old normal. Or why people complain about local lockdowns. Or why this government harks back to a golden age of imperialism that didn’t really exist for the common man or woman. Or why we’re hellbent on leaving the EU because we think we’re better on our own.

To quote two ancient Chinese philosophers, Confucius and Lao Tzu:

“As the water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it, so a wise man adapts himself to circumstances.”

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

60% of the adult human body is made of water so we’re more than half way to being a stream anyway. Why not be a flexible force for good rather than the ancient oak that blows over in the wind.

Photo by Mark Basarab on Unsplash

A local bus for local people

If you’ve read my previous blogs you’ll know I’m interested in customer-centric, co-created service design.

So far the examples I have seen have been government or local government projects but I have been unwittingly been benefiting from a hyperlocal working example for a few years.

Again, if you’ve read previous posts you’ll know how much I like public transport for people watching and earywigging the conversations of my organisation’s potential customers.

If I need to be in Glasgow for an early meeting or training I catch a Parks of Hamilton coach from practically outside my house. It starts in Strathaven a few miles up the road, has a few stops through my village then goes straight onto the motorway and into Glasgow city centre. The return journey leaves at 5.15 and I’m back in the house for 6pm.

It’s a pretty much perfect service. The drivers are always courteous. Depending on the coach the seats are leather. There is a toilet. The lights are dimmed and there’s a hush reminiscent of an Emirates long haul flight. And believe me it’s a far cry from schlepping in on the service bus to then transfer onto a train. And it’s cheaper.

People sitting inside a bus

The Parks website has a timetable but the service doesn’t appear on Traveline Scotland and the timetable isn’t up at the bus stop. The service is legit though as it has a stance at Buchanan Street bus station.

If I need reminded of the times my port of call is the Strathaven Facebook page where someone helps me out within minutes.

So last week as I was sitting in heated luxury I wondered about how the service had started. Facebook couldn’t remember so I phoned Parks. The lovely lady who answered didn’t know but she would find for me. Two days later she emailed to say that she’d had to track down their longest-serving employee who told her it was a group of people in Strathaven who worked in Glasgow who had done their research, crunched the numbers and approached the company who decided to trial it and clearly it worked and is still working.

You may not find the service on any travel planning app but it is looking after itself and is well embedded in local knowledge. As people retire, others leave school, uni or college and start using the service. It’s a well-used and loved local secret.

It’s also service so-creation at its best.

Image by @anniespratt via

Your customers probably aren’t like you

I’m not posh.

I have dinner at 6pm, not supper at 8.30pm.

I have never skiied.

My second name is not my nickname.

In our house we have a loo not a lavatory.

And I don’t shop in Waitrose.

I can guarantee you that the heaviest users of council services are not posh either.

By the same token I am not poor – I have a job, I can feed my family, we have a car, own our own home and can afford to go on sunny holidays. I’d describe us as comfortable.

Other than emptying their bins, collecting their council tax and educating some of their children I don’t think the majority of the comfortably off are heavy users of council services.

So when it comes to wording leaflets, creating web content and forms or designing services with actual customers in mind, how can we be sure we’re pitching it right?

As humans we like to think that other people are like us but are they really?

In the office we use PCs mostly but a look at the web stats shows me that the majority of our citizens look at the website on a phone. We need to look at the website through their eyes.

That 45-page housing application form? Yes, we need to look at the form through an applicant’s eyes but we also need to understand what life is actually like for that citizen as they try to fill it out.

Empathy and a good dose of nosiness is what service managers and service designers need.

I’ve always been nosy – that’s why I enjoyed my 14 years as a journalist.

It’s also why I like public transport, particularly the bus. I sit at the bus station for half an hour on a Wednesday and another 30 minutes on the bus home. Now, you could look on the bus station as the armpit of hell where the human flotsam and jetsam congregates to compare court orders, the price of a bag of green, who the father of the baby is or the latest rumblings on Love Island. It is all that. On the other hand these human beings are likely to be the heaviest users of council services, whether as ‘troublesome’ council tenants, at risk of becoming homeless, known to social work for one reason or another or up on a Police warrant.

Last week, a group of four 20 somethings came in, clearly out their faces on something, loud-mouthed, sweary and slightly scary. The rest of us looked at each other, hoping they wouldn’t get on our bus. As the bus pulled in they sprang into action, falling over each other, dropping stuff, looking for bus fares, all with smart phones, when one of them shouted out, “Whar’s ma dug! Ah’ve loast ma dug! Whar’s ma dug!”, as he circled round and round checking around his ankles. I had visions of the poor dug tied up outside a pub for hours and for a couple of seconds the guy was as panicked as if he’s left his first born in a pram outside a shop.

Embed from Getty Images


The dug – a staffie-cross, naturally – came slinking out, shamefaced from under his seat. And we all heaved a sigh of relief.

And that was a perfect picture of just one of our customer groups – chaotic lifestyle, drug habit, friends just like him, public transport user. But he loves his dug.

Could he fill out our housing application without help? He’d probably struggle to find it, never mind fill it out on his phone.

However, should he ever lose his dug and it gets picked up by the dog warden I am pretty confident he’ll see the picture we’ll post on Facebook and Insta telling him where to pick it up.

So if you work in local government and you want to understand your customers, get out among them. Take the bus. Hit up Iceland instead of Waitrose (Iceland has pledged to remove palm oil by 2020, unlike Waitrose btw). Go into the chemist serving one of your housing estates for a browse and listen to the conversations around you.

This is real life.

A meeting room filled with middle managers deciding how to deliver a service isn’t.

Transformation can be transcendental

I’m no yoga bunny but I do find the breathing techniques relaxing and the teacher always tells that the asanas massage internal organs, lower blood pressure and heart rate.

I haven’t practised yoga for 17 years  but now I’m back at it, with a brilliant studio I am finding that I can apply it to a lot of my leisure time. I wasn’t expecting to draw parallels to the transformation programme going on at work so tonight’s unravelling of my thoughts after class surprised me.

Like most transformation programmes parts of ours feels like wading through treacle, other parts half-hearted and yet others scratching the surface. Don’t get me wrong, there are flashes of inspiration and aspiration but where can yoga help, I hear you ask.

Something clicked in class tonight, There was the in breath and an awareness of what I was about to ask my body to do, there was an exhale as I moved to a position, an awareness of any tension as I inhaled again (sometimes this was tricky and I had to imagine breathing by expanding my lungs and ribs at the back then a complete relaxation on an exhale, using the weight of my limbs to get a deeper stretch. Finally there was an inhale to raise my head and become aware of coming back to an equilibrium before moving on to another position.

Embed from Getty Images

Applied to transformation, there needs to be an awareness of where you are and an understanding of where you need to be. Along the way you need to take regular breathers to take stock of the effects the changes are having on citizens, employees and processes.

You need to have empathy for all the stakeholders.

You need to carefully balance internal processes with citizen experience.

You need to feel the connections, use the breath and the transformation will come.

So maybe instead of agile we should be aiming for yogic.

Who’s up for a sun salutation?

Movies aren’t just for the silver screen

A few months ago I attended a training day with BBC Scotland and sportscotland about using shortform film to tell stories. Whenever I am in meetings and refer to it people ask if I have anything I can share. Well, I have six pages of scribbled notes so I decided I should try to get it down in a blog.

Shortform is generally anything up to 90 seconds and used most effectively on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Some simple rules before we get down to business:

  • avoid talking heads
  • it should be able to be understood without sound
  • use text overlays but keep each screen short and snappy
  • if you are using text, use Plain English

One of the easiest ways to schedule film work (and any other social media for that matter) is to look for ‘tent pole moments’. These are the dates in a calendar when people are likely to be looking for online content. Examples include Blue Monday, the Queen’s birthday, Wimbledon. These moments aren’t necessarily big events but occasions that may spark conversations which end in people looking up Google. Can you create content that will tie in and maybe even appear in those Google search results underneath the ubiquitous Wikipedia entry.

You then need to CODE your content:

  • Content – what is the objective?
  • Optimise – make it the best and most sharable it can be
  • Distribute – use the right channels
  • Evaluate – did it achieve its objectives?

Shortform rules:

  • Jump straight in – get to the point within 3 seconds. That means no messing about with logos or scene setting. People scroll quickly on their phones and their eye is subconsciously scanning for what’s coming next. If you haven’t got to the point by the time they have moved your film to the centre of their screen, chances are you’ve lost them and they’ll scroll straight past.
  • Any movement in the first 3 seconds should be towards the camera.
  • Tell audiences how to feel straight off the bat. Go straight for the emotion you need.
  • You don’t need the traditional crescendo at the end – the payoff should be 2/3rds of the way through because after this point people are beginning to think about what to watch next.

Shortform tools:

  • 1 Second Everyday – tell a story in a second or join them together for a longer story. Great for travel journals or ‘lifetime’ stories.
  • Boomerang – the Instagram child of a photo and a gif
  • YouTube cards – these let you collect live feedback while your film is playing
  • YouTube Creator Academy – tutorials by YouTubers for YouTubers
  • Google Trends – helps you identify topics for evergreen content
  • Giphy – a place to create and share gifs. A great example is the #blacklivesmatter gif – simple but effective. It makes your news feed look busy


This photograph is from the Australian War Memorial’s collection

Making content sharable

In a similar way that movies have just 7 storylines there are 7 qualities that will make people want to share your content.

It needs to:

  • be amusing
  • be inspiring
  • be illuminating
  • be shocking
  • make people fearful
  • make people angry
  • be controversial

There are also 5 rules to follow.

  1. Appeal to the audience’s key motivation – the need to connect to each other
  2. Keep your message simple
  3. Appeal to the positive emotions above
  4. Embed a sense of urgency- Snapchat is perfect for this as it is built in
  5. Spend time listening to a community then establish credibility. If you can add value to a conversation you will gain credibility

Tools to make sharable content

  • Combine apps – use a Boomerang within an album. this will create movement within the album and draw the user’s eye, making them more likely to stop and take a look
  • Facebook Canvas – Canvas uses a combination of video, photos and call to action buttons

Distributing content

  • What are people actually searching for? Capture users’ intent by playing with the predictive search box in social media platforms such as YouTube then create and tag content that fits.
  • Create recurring episodes to keep viewers coming back.
  • Schedule around tent pole events
  • Release content at the right time of day to suit the target audience. Many organisations have found that weekend posts perform better than office hours posts.
  • Get content embedded in 3rd party sites looking for stories. CBeebies got a better reaction from film embedded on NetMums than they did on the CBeebies site.
  • Try newsjacking where appropriate. This is the art of inserting yourself into a news story.  However this can be risky but if you’re willing to try you should: 1. have a process with sign off in place because you have to move fast. 2. monitor the news using tools such as Google Trends. 3. Create your response. 4. Promote it across appropriate channels.
  • Breathe new life into old content.

Digital storytelling
It’s not just about movies though, it’s about great content combos like words and photos or film with text overlays.

Great examples
Humans of New York
Body on the Moor which is built on the Shorthand storytelling platform

Digital storytelling tools
FiLMiC Pro – turns your mobile camera into a broadcast quality high-definition video camera
Lanparte gimbals – turn your phone into a steady cam
Smartlav+ microphones – broadcast quality wearable mics for mobile phones
Quik – free editing app that uses content from your phone’s gallery, albums, Google photos, Facebook, or GoPro Plus footage
BBC Taster – a place to try, share and rate new ideas

Not everyone is equal online

I dropped off the social media radar for four days recently. I doubt anyone noticed – everyone’s timelines and feeds are so busy I’d have to be Caitlin Moran or the Pope for anyone to miss my tweets, posts or Snaps.

The fam and I headed north for a short break on the far north west coast of mainland Scotland, Red Point to be exact. I’d never heard of it until just after New Year when HimIndoors and I watched the film What We Did On Our Holiday starring Billy Connelly and David Tennant. It was written by the Outnumbered team and follows the family north to visit David Tennant’s character’s father for his 70th birthday party. The story is hilarious and poignant in equal measure but what stole the show for me was the beach used for a lot of the shoot. Golden sand, turquoise sea, an island on the horizon and blue skies made the perfect backdrop.

A quick look on the web revealed it was Red Point Beach and the first thing Google threw up for Red Point was a log cabin for rent, practically a stone’s throw from the sand. A quick email to owner Ian Warren and it was booked for the start of the school holidays. Another email revealed there was no wifi and a search on the web showed no signal in the area from 02 or 3. Hurrah, said I – a complete break from everything to do with work, including Twitter and Facebook. We decided to let the kids find out for themselves. We knew the first day would be hell then they’d get used to it.

On the way north it all dawned on MiniMe when her reception disappeared between Perth and Inverness but the sulk didn’t last long. The cabin was cute with unspoilt views over to Raasay and Skye.

Inside was a home from home but once the car was unpacked we all piled down the beach. It was picture perfect, often deserted and we visited it at least once a day.

The next day we discovered there was a second beach just around the headland. Day three was the only complete day of rain. I went out for a walk myself – I’ve always said skin is waterproof and the rain was warm anyway. I started on the first beach, the headed cross country to the second beach. The tide was out this time and I realised that around the corner was a third beach.


Between the beaches, the pony trekking next door, the shops in Gairloch and the walks and the ever-changing landscape out the windows there was plenty for the kids to do and at night we watched DVDs and played copious amounts of Uno and Cluedo.

There were only two reasons we really missed the connectivity.

Conversations tend to die out when you don’t have Google or a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to hand for reference.

The other, and I may sound sad, was the recycling. We recycle a lot as a family and South Lanarkshire Council recycles more materials than most. The cabin had a black bin and a blue bin but I couldn’t assume that they were used for the same things as our black and blue bins. Then, if the blue bin was for recycling, what could I put in it. And what days were they collected. I’d have loved to have seen the vehicle coping on the single track road too. See, I’m sad.

No internet meant I couldn’t look up Highland Council’s website so in the end everything went into one black bin bag and slung in the black bin.

Bu that got me wondering how Highland Council, with so many holiday homes, is ever going to meet its recycling targets. Even locals with their slow broadband would struggle to use the things the rest of us take for granted.

But it’s not just Highland Council. My parents live in rural South Lanarkshire and struggle with the BBC iPlayer with their 3Mb broadband. If you and your neighbours live a bit away from the exchange I doubt you’d all be able to stream Netflix at the same time.

And there’s the rub. Digital exclusion is rife in Scotland, because you can’t afford to be connected, you don’t have the skills to use digital safely and effectively or you just don’t have the infrastructure to cope. DotEveryone has produced this telling digital exclusion heatmap and some of the information contained in it is worrying. 0% (and that’s not a lot!) of homes in the Highland area have 4G coverage by all providers and 37% of homes have broadband speeds of less than 10Mbps and 17% of residents have never been online. Ditto on the 4G for Dumfries and Galloway who have a quarter of homes with broadband speeds of less than 10Mbps and 20.6% of residents have never been online. Meanwhile in Glasgow only 5% of homes have broadband speeds of less than 10Mbps, only 10.3% don’t get 4G from all providers yet 16.6% pf residents have never been online.


It’s not like BT and the other communications companies can’t afford to sort this out – they make profits every year after all. Rural communities shouldn’t have to sort this out for themselves – us townies got it handed to us on a plate but we just want it bigger, faster, stronger and to hell with the rest of you! But there’s still a worrying amount of people around us who have never been online

The Internet is the fourth utility. This has been discussed since 2006 – go and read  for yourself.

The very people who most need online services are the ones who are being excluded. Think of the remote elderly who could use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family. Families in poverty could be taking advantage of the cheaper online prices. There’s a wealth of online courses available to those who maybe can’t move away to the city to go to university and those people far from a supermarket could be taking advantage of home delivery.

The telecomms companies claim they are addressing the problem but the people living in rural areas tell a different story. Access to the internet should be equal for all and basic digital skills should be just as essential as the three Rs.

I have to admit it was great to be cut off from the world for a week. I didn’t miss the ever changing political landscape and Pokemon Go was a bit of an enigma for 24 hours till I caught up – @JenniferMJones soon had me up to speed.

If you work in work in comms and particularly social media I can’t think of a better place than Red Point to get away from it all. Running a business or living there full time would be a challenge. In the words of Joni Mitchell ‘You don’t know what you’ve lost till it’s gone’.

If you fancy renting the Cabin at Red Point you can check out the website and email

But Ian, please don’t install any broadband – let’s keep it off grid.