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Sausage rolls socks would complement the cape rather nicely

I’m fairly new to the #CommsHero world, little did I know that despite living and breathing comms since Uni, there was such a huge bunch of awesome people waiting to say hello and unleash their inner hero. The tables, perfectly set with personalised note books and goody bags full of swag, built excitement on arrival and whilst itching to find my cape (I had a red one) I held off until the break to listen as the speakers began.

The ever lovely, smiley Helen Reynolds opened the event and set the scene for a motivating, energetic day.  I was lucky enough to benefit from Helen’s social media training recently so it’s always good to see her IRL.  Then Mr Grant Leboff – he took my mind off my cape and mask with his great, upbeat delivery about brand authenticity and reputation.  More thought-provoking stuff followed by Yorkshire Tea’s Sam Ward and Gina Stringer, on the importance of ‘doing things proper’.  Celebrity endorsements aren’t something I can easily relate to coming from the public sector, but the part about investing in relationships is on point and as important as strategy. Relationship building is something we can all do, whichever sector we work in.

Mr Choudry! Great to meet Asif before breaking for lunch. What he has done is create an environment (on and offline) which celebrates comms and drives home the importance of believing in yourself.  Thanks to Asif, in #CommsHero we have a community to share ideas and challenges; we can all feel empowered and be ‘thought leaders’.

Lunch time brought about much excitement. Not only could I finally get the cape and mask on – it fit like a dream – but I could also have a spin on the wheel of #dunkability.  This was a long awaited moment for me and it turns out that jammie dodgers have incredibly good staying power.

After enjoying a Greggs sausage roll – why didn’t I try the vegan one?? – the afternoon session opened with Greggs who talked through their very entertaining campaigns including of course, the vegan sausage roll and romantic Valentine’s suppers. What really came across from Fiona Mills and Ian White though took me back to the whole theme of the day – keeping it real and being authentic. Greggs celebrate who they are, they celebrate their staff and their customers. They deliver what people want from their brand and it turns out that sausage roll socks are a part of this! #sockenvy

Next up, Liam Smith of Yorkshire Wildlife Park, he was so incredibly entertaining and uplifting. He really does put the human into social media and offered lots of very quirky, comical ideas about how to really engage audiences. But then he did have photos of mongooses so he was winning from the start. Either way, he certainly had us glued to our seats.

The day concluded with Helena Langdon, formerly of innocent, with her accidental success of a travelling office stapler which went viral, to never under-estimating the power of non-sense. The penguin awareness day is now a firm fixture in my diary. You had to be there.

So now I am back in the office, I have ideas and my colleagues have swag envy. If there’s one thing I have learned from my day in Manchester, it’s that I can’t wait to book my place for the next #CommsHero. And this time I think I may have company. Until then a huge virtual fist bump to my new #CommsHero buddies.

CommsHero – Keeping it real since 2014

by Josephine Graham @iojosy

I’ve never worked in London. I’ve visited a few times and it’s nice enough. You’ve got some great museums, a few palaces and a heck of a lot of company headquarters.

And with all that corporate workforce to cater for, London also has scores of breakfast briefings, drinks receptions, and conferences galore to keep everyone networked up and on top of their game.

But guess what. 88% of this country’s population is outside London. And even the CIPR’s latest State of the Profession report recognises that around three quarters of PR practitioners exist beyond our capital.

So across our nation, from Aberdeen to Anglesey, Belfast to Bridlington, there are tens of thousands of dedicated, talented comms and PR types, for whom a trip to London, for an expensive conference or post-work networking event, with the associated travel and hotel costs, is just not that accessible. That goes for our colleagues in the countless in-house and agency teams around the UK, but is doubly the case for anyone operating their own small business, or working in a public sector or not-for profit organisation.

This is the issue that Bradford-born Asif Choudry set out to address in 2014 when he first had the idea for CommsHero. Fed up of paying hundreds of pounds for identikit conferences, being talked at by people from businesses with budgets so immense you could never emulate anything they did, he decided to take a risk (or ‘dare to fail’ as he puts it) and try something a little different.

I won’t tell his full story here, but in summary, in the space of eight weeks, Choudry launched the CommsHero brand, started spreading the #CommsHero love on Twitter, and created an event in Manchester where 80 professionals gathered for a full day conference, with tonnes of swag (freebies) and terrific speakers, for the highly modest price-tag of just £180.

Now in its fifth year, and after touring locations around the UK including Bristol, Leeds and London (just so no one feels left out), the twelfthCommsHero has just taken place, back in the place of its origin – Manchester’s impressive Bridgewater Hall. And I was there.

How to approach conferencing heroically

So CommsHero claims to be different, but is it really? Well, I put it to you, at how many conferences can you expect to find an actual superhero cape and mask in your goody bag, while opposite the coffee bar there’s a dressing up rail and heroic backdrop for photo ops?

Meanwhile, rather than canapés and fizz, at the latest CommsHero bash we enjoyed a mug of Yorkshire Tea and a choice of ‘dunkable’ biscuits. OK, so maybe tea and biscuits isn’t exactly ‘out there’ when it comes to conference catering – but you don’t usually find a ‘wheel of dunkability’ to help you choose which biscuit to go for.

But it’s not about the gimmicks, although they are fun. People go to CommsHero because they get great networking, hear from thought leaders like Grant Leboff, find out industry trends from peers leading the way (Greggs, Yorkshire Tea, Yorkshire Wildlife Park and Innocent) plus all the extras such as dazzling cartoonist and comms siren Helen Reynolds who popped along to compère.

So what about the content?

OK, OK I was getting around to this. The theme this time was ‘authenticity’ – #KeepingItReal. How can we be more human and relatable, be true to our brands, be ‘proper’ (as Yorkshire Tea put it), find our natural brand voice and have real conversations with our publics?   

The speakers took us on a journey, with each presentation creating new avenues of thought on a consistent theme. You could not help but pick up some useable or inspirational insights along the way, to help with the day job. Here are my three top takeaways from the day.

1. Leboff on brand

Speaking about brand, author and expert Grant Leboff is nothing short of gripping. I’m awe of the clarity and authority he brings – if you ever get the opportunity to hear him speak, do not pass it up. “Brand is the process of taking an inanimate or indistinguishable product or service, and giving it meaning.” Like transforming a slightly sickly, fizzy brown liquid into Coca Cola. Damn, he makes it sound so obvious!

Brand is a concept the public sector in particular often struggles with. It’s so much more than a logo and coordinating colour palette. Leboff provides a handy triangle to help us hone our thinking, combining (1) the unique or special product or service we provide to our customers, (2) our ethos or purpose why we bother and (3) the emotional connection we hope to make with our stakeholders. This is brand. Boom! But trying to capture his wisdom is a blog post (or indeed a book) in its own right, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead on that one.

2. Properness

As a committed Yorkshire Tea drinker, hearing from this award winning team (represented by brand leads Sam Ward and Gina Stringer) was always going to be a highlight for me. ‘Properness’ is the attitude, or ethos, that brings the whole company, not just the comms and marketing team, together.

For example, when they wanted to create a biscuit domino rally to launch their ‘biscuit brew’, they didn’t just film a few sections in a studio and edit it together, oh no. They got a proper domino rally expert in, set up a proper course in the Harrogate HQ, with real biscuits (carefully filed so they would stand up straight), then filmed the whole thing in real time to make a fantastically engaging film which has had almost 1.5 million hits on YouTube.

To be honest, my main takeaway from this (as someone who has spent the last 10 years working for a local council) was, wow, it must be nice to work for a company where the public likes you! But of course, notwithstanding that tea and coffee is somewhat more benign than your much- derided local bin and council tax collectors, a great deal of that love is down to the brilliant handling of the Yorkshire Tea brand by the team and business as a whole.

It’s clear that the comms and marketing team combines exceptional creativity with a robust strategic planning approach – while always allowing a bit of give for capitalising on unexpected gifts, such as a World Cup footballer casually mentioning Yorkshire Tea is his favourite brand. (They reacted quickly and sent him a personalised box of tea – gaining a huge amount of positive media coverage as a result.)

With so many ideas and opportunities, they use a handy approach to choose what to prioritise – only if an idea will appeal to their customers, their media stakeholders AND it fits their company ethos will it go ahead.

3. People like funny posts about animals

I’ve been a fan of Liam Smith’s work since his Doncaster Council days – he and former colleague Rob Jefferson are widely recognised as game-changers in the world of council social media. Since his move to Yorkshire Wildlife Park, Smith’s ingenuity has been further unleashed. He is naturally inventive and hilarious and – bad news for us mere mortals – I think a portion of this is innate talent which not everyone can learn. But all is not lost, because he gamely shared many tips which any of us could adopt to create more engaging content – whether for social media, internal comms or any other channel. 

He encourages us to take risks. Why – because otherwise we’re in danger of being boring.  He also spoke knowledgeably about ‘finding your voice’ – if your company were a person what would they be like? In internal communications we sometimes fall foul of lapsing into a boring corporate voice in our copy, because that’s what we are sent by our managers or internal stakeholders, and we’re too busy to do anything about it. So this was a timely reminder that, on a tactical level, it is our job to inject a bit of spark and creativity into our communications, so that the corporate voice represents a personality that people actually want to hear from.

Smith’s key message for me was – make a flipping effort. When asked to put out a job advert (potentially the “dullest content ever”) he took a step back and challenged himself to do it in a more interesting way, and ended up devising an interactive job interview on Instagram. (No, I didn’t know that was possible either.) This resulted in more click-throughs to the jobs page than any job-related social media the park had ever put out before.

That’s how CommsHero types roll

The learning above represents just three of the great speakers on the day – we also heard from Greggs, Innocent, and Mr Comms Hero, Asif Choudry, himself. And this ace event, with bags of CPD, took place in Manchester, 179 miles from London, playing to a room of delegates from predominately not-for-profit and public sector organisations, for whom the £180 ticket was a realistic investment they could justify.

CommsHero is not the only affordable conference around – it is part of a wave of free and reasonably priced learning events which have sprung up around the country over the last few years. Often funded through sponsorship, or made possible through the work of volunteers, these are organised by people who care passionately about professional development and want to make a difference. And that is what being heroic is all about.

No, You’re The Hero

Not just any hashtag … it’s a CommsHero hashtag *camera to film custard seductively oozing out of a Krispy Kreme doughnut

I can’t remember the exact date I discovered the CommsHero hashtag, but I do remember that it changed my mindset, it helped me pursue my mission.

Yes, I know that may sound a little dramatic but let me explain. 

I’m a people person.  My heart is filled with happiness when I’m surrounded by people, my wish is for everyone to live a healthy and happy life, I want everyone to reach their full potential, I need everyone to know that it’s not selfish to put your physical and mental health first. 

I’ve been freelancing for over 2 years now, mainly creating content to help organisations engage with their workforce (aka their greatest asset and don’t you dare forget that). I spend a lot of time on my own at my desk in my house instead of being surrounded by 1,500 corporate colleagues which I did for nearly two decades.  #CommsHero became my lifeline – it opened up a whole new world to me – in seconds I can connect and engage with like-minded creative people.

asif.jpg

The creation of this hashtag has brought together a community, without it I’d probably be sat at my desk and dare I admit it – maybe consider ditching the freelance life and getting myself a j.o.b.! Thanks Asif, you’re a legend!

My first CommsHero Conference

Say what! A room full of others who love the CommsHero hashtag? People I follow and ‘chat’ to on social media in the actual flesh!  Hell to the yeah – sign me up!

And there I was, handwritten ticket in hand (if you think Charlie Bucket was excited when he found his non-personalised gold ticket schmicket in a filthy grid think again!) about to walk into the Bridgewater Hall on my own in a room full of people I hadn’t met IRL*. 

What the AF** was I worried about, I was surrounded by familiar faces – thank you hashtag.

There are bits about being a freelancer that suck!

Being freelance means I get to work in my pyjamas – all day if I want.  I can market myself how I want to with no sign off – I worked for a bank for 18 years and you have no idea how good that feels.  I can (and do) drink Yorkshire Tea constantly without any judgemental looks (nothing to do with the choice of brand, everything to do with the quantity I consume).  Ultimately, I get to be me.  I get to live out my personal goals and values.

But being alone sucks.  I launched Redwood Copy with one aim.  That was to help companies find more creative ways to engage with their staff – even just communicate with them would be a start whether that is through the written word or actually speaking! You can have the best strategies and plans in place to boost that bottom line, but if your workforce aren’t feeling the love – you can kiss goodbye to it – simple as!

There were many moments when I worked in the gloriously boring world of finance (sorry ex-colleagues and bankers across the world) when I would simply day-dream about running my own copywriting business and my purpose.  Allow me to share one such moment with you:

For this to make sense I need you to know that I have Crohn’s disease (having any invisible illness and working for a large corporation is a ruddy challenge and tests the strongest of people, even Strongy McStrongface***).

Me chatting inwardly to myself while scanning the sea of heads in an open plan office crippled with the pain that Crohn’s cruelly brings: “You lot don’t know how lucky you are.”

Colleague walking past 10 mins later after getting themselves a cuppa and not bringing me one (aka tw*t): “Hi Mand, you look well.”

I look WHAT now!  He couldn’t have been further from the truth, but why would he know? Maybe he would have brought me a brew if he did know I was feeling like shit – btw ‘getting yourself a cup of tea without asking if anyone else wants one’ is a crime in my eyes and yes, I hold grudges.  Statistically 1 in 4 of us experience poor mental health every year, so why did I assume that my fellow colleagues were all OK.  Probably to do with the fact that we don’t talk, we’ve forgotten how to communicate, or maybe we feel that if we open up, our story will stop our chances of succeeding or getting promotion.  Sod that … organisations need to treat everyone as individuals – motivate them, embrace diversity, make adjustments, support them and develop them to be their best selves.  It should not be seen as an unnecessary cost – it’s an investment.

Redwood Copy launched.  I knew my purpose, my core values and my goals.

But I was doing this alone. 

Authentic connections

The theme of the conference was Authenticity.  Bloody brilliant – let’s all be a bit more human in our communications.  Weirdly, this doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people.  As soon as they put a pen in their hand or place a finger on a keyboard formality kicks in.  We’ve all done it, it’s time to stop that crap and realise that the people you are communicating to are just that – real life people with families, worries of their own, in need of a bit of humour, craving for some genuinely authentic emotional connections.

The theme didn’t disappoint, and I learnt so much from the most talented people in the world of comms – Grant Leboff, Hel Reynolds and the marketing and PR gurus from Yorkshire Tea, Greggs, Yorkshire Wildlife Park (The UKs number 1 walk-through wildlife adventure) and Innocent.  It would have taken me weeks to research the expertise they shared on the day.  Plus, I got to enjoy Greggs’ delights, plenty of proper brews and my very first Krispy Kreme – hhhmmmmm dreamy!

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greggs.jpg
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Even better, I made my own authentic connections.  I met my twitter fam.  These are the colleagues I CHOOSE to have.  The colleagues who inspire me every day. The colleagues who never fail to make me laugh.  The colleagues who support me without even realising they are doing it. 

So, a word to all freelancers out there.  It’s hard, I know it is, but there are people out there who bring communities together and keep us emotionally happy and healthy, they do this alongside their day jobs – yes, I am talking about the team at We Are Resource committed to bring amazing marketing communications to life.  They really are heroes.

If you haven’t discovered the CommsHero hashtag, take a peek.  It may just spark a beautiful relationship.

Oh, and thanks for inviting me on stage to say a few words too.  My mum would have been proud.  Not because of my bravery to speak in front of a large room full of frickin’ heroes, but because I managed not to swear. 

Keep it real everyone, Amanda x

*in real life

**actual flip

***unoriginal idea for a name, heavily influenced by Boaty McBoatface (polar exploration ship which ended up with a much safer name – BORING!) and Gritty McGritface (Shropshire Council’s gritter name).  I’m proud to know (thanks again to the CommsHero conference) the person responsible for Doncaster Council’s poll to find a name for their gritter – David Plowie.  Genius, and no Mc or Face in sight.  For the record I also liked the other choices of Basil Salty, Spready Mercury and Usain Salt.  You de man Liam!

An epic learning experience, on a truly heroic scale

by Josephine Graham @iojosy

I can’t exactly remember the first time I noticed #CommsHero. It was a couple of years ago, maybe slightly more. There I was, a peaceful citizen of the world of work-related social networking, wandering amiably along the streets of Twitter City, when I looked up and spotted a dazzling streak, way up high.

Was it a bird? Was it a meme? No, it was #CommsHero!

I watched in wonder as our champion zipped about the Twittersphere, anointing and applauding worthy #CommsHero types as it went.

Gosh, I pondered. How does one become accepted into this illustrious alliance?

It seemed like the coolest club in town, so I typed ‘aspiring #CommsHero’ into my Twitter biog and waited to see what might happen next…

OK, let’s pause there. Before anyone gets too excited, this story doesn’t continue with Christopher Reeve/Dean Cain/Henry Cavill (delete according to demographic) swooping down to rescue me from Lex Luthor just before he brainwashes me into producing tedious and unengaging comms.

Rather more prosaically, a few months later I saw a tweet about the 2018 #CommsHero event in Leeds, and resolved to get a ticket. (Easier said than done when you work in local government, but we’ll chat more about that another time.)  Lucky me, I live in Leeds, so at least I didn’t need to fill out a purchase req. for the bus fare.

I was super-excited about meeting my #CommsHeroes IRL (that’s In Real Life by the way) and that probably overshadowed how I felt about the speakers. I was looking forward to seeing the ‘Innocent lady’ (Helena Langdon), the crafty and creative Doncaster Council lot and the very lovely Helen Reynolds. To my very great shame I hadn’t actually heard of Grant Leboff (I’m not from a sales and marketing background, what can I say, I’M SORRY!)

I was blown away by how much the event exceeded my expectations. Hearing from Mr Leboff was worth the ticket price alone. The way he clarified what it actually means to engage, why we need to create content that has intrinsic value and just how much content is the right amount – I felt like someone had placed a tube in my ear, syphoning incredible insights directly into my brain. The number of times I have mentally referred back to that over the last year… well to be honest I wasn’t actually counting but it’s been quite a few.

Every speaker had something different to offer and I haven’t even mentioned all the fun stuff and freebies yet. The CommsHero guys go all out to make all the delegates feel special, with personalised swag and lots of super goodies including (last year at least) everyone’s favourite Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a crate full of Innocent smoothies.

So, yes, the event was pretty special, which is why I am going again this year. The #FOMO would have been too much to bear.

But before you rush off to get your ticket, or quietly congratulate yourself for already having yours, there is one more quick point to make.

Blogs are not marketing copy, they should be written from the heart. And when the #CommsHero 2019 event theme is authenticity, this is doubly important.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been maximising every learning experience I can get. I go to anything I can that’s free or local, and I’ll go further afield to connect with like-minded people. Working in cash-strapped local government, I pay for a lot of stuff myself.  I get involved, I contribute to the comms community and I have fun doing it. I’ve made good friends along the way and found that there are some really special people out there, who want to make our profession better, and make being part of our profession better for all of us working in it.

I admire the #CommsHero brand because it is supportive, celebratory, inclusive and genuine. What I know now, that I didn’t know when I first saw that heroic cape zooming across the digital sky, is that everyone can be a member of the club. You don’t need to go to the event (although I would recommend it!), or know a secret code, you just need to be authentically you, caring about what you do, doing your best to connect and share, and learning as you go along.

So if you are going to the event on 6 June I’ll see you there. In the meantime, I’m just going to practice wearing my cape.