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.
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.