Marmite tech sometimes has a hidden audience

In my feed I see quite divergent views on Voice and how useful it really is or will be.

And yet there’s this: Alexa is a revelation for the blind.

More and more people I see on my train and in the street using speakerphone.

But on a car forum full of grumpy old men, I’m reliably informed by a deaf poster that speakerphone avoids interference with digital hearing aids.

So while it’s easy to mock emerging technology, or different ways that people use technology, there are always examples of how these ways can be really useful, even to a minority.

And this in turn reminded me that my Granny is still doing well with her upgraded tablet, 3 years on. She’s using it for on-demand TV, browsing places she’d like to visit and researching menus. Things she’d struggle to do with books, with limited mobility.

Bulletin boards, nobheads and good people

There’s a very niche car forum I inhabit, full of grumpy old men. It’s my favourite place online.

This contributor summed up his experience of the internet since 1993. I can only imagine, but it sounds about right to me.

And it’s a a nice reminder of how the first generation webbies I meet through work often feel.

Years ago the “proper internet” was just obscure bulletin boards and stuff on usenet, and the general public were absolutely ignorant of it – It was mainly used by intellectuals, hobbyists etc. A good place, unsoiled by the general public – If you wanted access to it, you had to work for it.
One day in September 1993, AOL included Usenet access in their internet package for the general public, and this basically ruined the place.

Car forums experienced a similar thing in the mid/late 2000s, where loads of idiots turned up and ruined the game. Before then you could safely presume anyone you were talking to on a forum was probably a decent person, but once word got round to the nobheads, it dragged the whole place down.

I really can’t stand facebook, but all the dickheads who ruined forums are now on facebook instead, and forums are slowly falling back into the hands of mostly good people, and I’m really happy about that.

From typing pool to twitter

When I’m ‘doing’ digital with teams who want to learn new skills, it’s tempting to bundle everything in at once. I convince myself that they’re clutching a buzzword bingo scorecard, and their assessment of my knowledge will be determined by how many times I refer to big data, agile, APIs, twitter, hyper local and so on.

Perhaps that’s what they think they should be hearing. But I think the majority of people I meet on training courses want some solid, practical advice and guidance, because often we are leading people through a huge change to their working lives.

It’s helpful to get a bit of a jolt from people now and again and be reminded of just how much change someone has typically seen in their working life, so far. I’ve had that jolt twice in the past six months.

The first occasion, when the subject of access to social media came up led to once colleague saying:

this is just the same as when the internet first arrived in our office – managers weren’t sure then whether people would waste their time online, or not

On the second occasion, a colleague told me how how cloud-based digital tools were only the third wave of technology change he had ever experienced in the workplace:

this digital training is all new to me, just as it was when I received my first desktop PC. Prior to that, I had a course on how to use the typing pool

I’ll be keeping the typing pool in mind, next time I am tempted to burden people with too much information and too many buzzwords.

Rusty typewriters outside

Image courtesy of under Creative Commons

If you have a WordPress problem, and no-one else can help, maybe you should hire…

We’re going to lose a much-valued member of the team soon, and its a real shame. Anthony O’Malley has been with us for 12 months, helping to run our bit of web estate that hasn’t yet made it to

He’s done a brilliant job of managing the BIS digital estate: archiving, converging and pruning a plethora of websites, updating campaign pages and setting up some clean-looking blogs for our policy teams.

The best bit is that he has done most of this on his own, calling on Helpful and dxw if needed. When I’ve thrown my arms up and fled into Victoria Street, Anthony has calmly sat down with people, filtered their requests and ideas, and come up with stuff that works.

It won’t feel at all comfortable without Anthony around. But he’s leaving us a neat platform to get on with, and continues to offer us more of what we need.

Unlike the A-Team, Anthony doesn’t reside in the Los Angeles underground. You can hire him here. And I recommend that you do.

‘PDF me a coffee!’ Where does it all go wrong?

In 2003 I worked for a small Anglo-American company publishing journals, magazines and websites. The company had moved with the times, sort of, but was still predominantly an advertising sales-led, offline publishing company.

Useful technology was making the production process easier and faster. But we still used a fax machine for certain processes.

PDFs were still something of a novelty in certain quarters and the term was bandied around, without everyone fully understanding what it was. Hence, one morning I was walking through the office kitchen when I heard a senior director say to another colleague 'and PDF me a coffee, please'. Needless to say, I wasted no time in taking the piss.


Now, what could possibly have happened for him to think that a file format could also help deliver a hot beverage, I know not.

In hindsight I was arrogant and stupid to react the way I did to the PDF comment. Why should my colleague have known or cared? He wasn't on the production team. His work was a million miles away from the Macs and wires and printing presses.

But his words come back to haunt me when I peddle presentations about digital engagement around Government departments.

Until now I have never worked in any organisation where there is such a broad range of ages. I really value it, because there's a corporate memory there that has often been lacking in the young, high churn companies I have worked for. But it also makes me think twice about assuming too much knowledge or confidence when it comes to digital.

I don't think for a second that age automatically relates to confidence or knowledge of digital. But its fair to assume that while my career started in a digital environment, many people's did not. And for some, that does affect confidence. I do my best to allay fears and preconceived ideas.

This got me thinking about what, where or when will be the break point for me? I would consider myself reasonably close to the innovative end of the modern workplace, but presumably so did lots of other people at one time. I don't have much to do with open data or code, so maybe that is the future and therefore where I might be left behind. Or perhaps there is some yet unknown platform or channel out there that I just won't be able to get my head around?

I feel like I am waiting for my own 'PDF me a coffee' moment. Has anyone else identified theirs?

Image courtesy of


Saying farewell to an old friend

The Land Rover in a field
The old Land Rover in it's natural habitat

For a long time I’ve refrained from letting my passion for cars creep into this blog. If you came here hoping to read about digital, government or health look away now.

This week is a very sad week for me. As well as leaving the Department of Health, I’m saying goodbye to one of my prized toys: a Land Rover. Not just any old car, this is a slightly smoky example, with a shiny chassis, lovingly rebuilt by my Dad and driven by us for the past the past ten years or so. In the intervening years I’ve owned more reliable, much faster and more modern cars.

I’ve been lucky: lapped a Ferrari at Goodwood, thrashed a Mini Cooper across France, glided across the length and breadth of England in a Jaguar and cruised through Cape Cod in a Mustang.

But the Land Rover has always been in the background, deployed at a moment’s notice for camping trips, house moves and on occasion, trips to expensive restaurants where it raised more than a few eyebrows squeezed between the middle-England Mercedes and BMWs. Most memorable have been the annual camping trips to Dorset where the Land Rover ferried children across meadows, dragged firewood back again and provided a handy platform for a shave; using the big flat wing and door mirror.

When the snow arrived this car – the basic design of which hasn’t changed since 1949 – delivered a consignment of computers to a school for the visually impaired in Redhill, and towed a stranded Sainsbury’s lorry from a drift. And it never broke down. Not once.

But times change and the Land Rover can’t be justified any more. A deafening top speed of 60mph (with the speedo reading ‘Made in England’) and 2.5 seats don’t make economic sense when the car is used for just a few glorious weeks each year.

So, here’s the tenuous connection to the strap line of this blog: will I feel as emotional as this about my iPad or any other technology in the future? I doubt it. Modern technology doesn’t offer a bond of adventure between user and tool like an old vehicle does.

Tags and categories: not big, but they are clever

A new website doesn’t feel that newsworthy, amongst the carnage in London of the past few days. However, a new-ish face for the Department of Health‘s corporate site appeared on Monday afternoon. I’m quite excited about it, as this represents the culmination of lots of hard work by my colleagues.

Essentially the homepage and some other important information now sits on our WordPress platform. We originally used this platform for blogs, but team head Stephen Hale quickly realised it’s potential to release us from the shackles of an old content management system. More importantly this new found flexibility helps us communicate more quickly and effectively with the Department’s audience.

The real story, though, is not about the technology that sits behind the site, but how it is changing the way we publish content. By carefully using tags and categories, we can start to ensure that information is presented in the way that people might expect to find it, instead of it being categorised according to how the Department is structured.

For example, in health, obesity is a subject that is dealt with by several different teams across the Department. Each of these teams would have published content on the corporate site individually, in the sections that covered their particular area of responsibility, or as a reflection of their location within the Department’s structure. Fine if you know your way around a Government department, or know exactly what you are looking for. Not so good if you are searching for the latest information about obesity, be that policy, campaign material or press release.

Department of Health website screen shot
Here it is, in all it's glory

Tagging and categories should hopefully allow this information to surface in a more intelligent way. I also believe that it will help colleagues within a large organisation think more about how their work interlinks with each other, because they’ll see their contributions to the website automatically appear alongside those of other teams.

By tweaking the layout of the home page, it was also a good opportunity to simplify the menus too. A spring clean is always a good idea.

This isn’t an easy process and I reckon the hard work is just beginning. The majority of the website is still sitting on the old platform. However, it has put the audience firmly back at the centre of our thinking about the website.

It has also got me thinking about hospital and regional websites. I wonder how the user experience could be improved if different disciplines and organisations within the NHS contributed content to centralised websites (defined by hospital or trust, for example), but tagged it consistently?

What does a digital press office look like?

What might a press office look like, if a selection of the brilliant and (mostly) free digital tools were put to work?

I’m thinking about a real world scenario: where budgets are lean or non-existent, so I won’t be suggesting iPads for every press officer. And I recognise that not everyone is a confident social media user, so the emphasis is on listening rather than engagement. I am also trying to be realistic about how important social media channels are perceived to be on the media scale. While social media plays a role in keeping abreast of breaking news and opinion, it is not considered as important as the daily front pages or TV news.

My thoughts have been centred on press offices in Government departments or other public sector organisations, but I think the same principles could apply anywhere where there is a requirement to monitor and react to the news.

Listening to the web

The press office I have pictured in my mind has a TV screen for displaying a social media dashboard; searching all the different networks for key terms like the name of the organisation, names of Ministers or leaders, or key policy areas or products. By putting social media up on the wall, where everyone can see it, alongside traditional news broadcasting, the press office is making a statement about the channels it monitors.

There’s a useful post here about monitoring news and debate online.

Typically a press office might be divided into different desks, each covering specific topics. The staff working on each of these will have more niche monitoring requirements such as following specific journalists or perhaps technical terms. It’s important they have a Twitter profile, to follow and read what their contacts are saying. Having a Twitter profile doesn’t mean they have to engage, as long as they are clear about who they represent and the purpose of the account: i.e. just to listen.

I think it’s also important that a press office has its own collective digital profiles across different channels, so that journalists can choose their channel of preference to make contact. Perhaps a press office twitter account like this one from the FBI(!) and blog, for starters.

Collaborating with each other

A great deal of press office time is also taken up with collaborating on writing press releases, statements and agreeing lines. Google Docs is ideal for this. It isn’t as secure as some would like, but I think the risks posed by multiple versions of documents flying around between random copy lists is far greater. There’s always Huddle or Basecamp for an added sense of privacy, plus shared calendars for identifying important events and milestones.

Email traffic can be huge, so some sort of instant messaging system would be ideal, such as Blackberry Messenger, Skype or Yammer.

A shared delicious account is ideal for clipping and sharing relevant news reports and features, without having to constantly email links to the whole office.

Creating content

Visits and events constitute a huge amount of work for many press offices, so it makes sense to come away with some original content that can be used now, and at a later date. Budget flip cameras and tools like audioboo allow press officers to quickly and easily film or record events, or previews of speakers.

Webchats can open up media briefings to many more journalists than would otherwise be available to visit the office in person, and materials such as presentations, photos or film can be shared during the chat, and afterwards. Transcripts of the webchats are available after the event, for those who couldn’t attend and for reference at a later date.

Sharing content and information with press and the public

Incoming phone calls with requests for standard information like quotes, copies of press releases, stock imagery or important dates can be time consuming, which is where the web can help house and share all this information.

A dedicated RSS feed might help keep enlightened journalists up-to-date. Stock imagery sorted into sets on Flickr provide a one-stop-shop.

A daily email summary of press releases and announcements is another option for keeping contacts updated. These can be generated automatically from some websites using tools like Feedburner.

Some of this might be wishful thinking, but I reckon a lot of could be deployed quickly and cheaply. Corporate IT and security could throw up some challenges like downloading Skype or uploading video. But listening to what’s being said online, and using effective tools to collaborate with colleagues should be a no-brainer.

Does any of this sound familiar or too far fetched? I’m keen to hear your experiences, good or bad.

A press office at a festival, with a graffiti sign
There’s more than one way to raise the profile of a press office

Communications on a shoestring

What does communicating on a tight budget mean for organisations?

Whether you’re Global Megacorp plc, a charity or an SME, its highly unlikely that the communications and marketing budget for 2011/12 is going to be bottomless, or that a budget will even exist, in some cases.

shoestring in the shape of pound currency symbol
You can still make money using shoestring. Image courtesy of

(And if you do know of an organisation with a bottomless budget, please let me know. I have lots of recommendations and referrals to make!)

In the week that the future of the UK Government’s direct communications was announced, budgets are still the focus of many public sector communications teams too.

I spoke to contacts who run independent publishing and research agencies, as well as thought about some of the projects happening closer to home including these examples. This is a summary of what I heard.

Shoestring communications means:

1. Being more creative ourselves – instead of commissioning creativity, we need to learn to write, edit and design content ourselves. This means being confident about our own abilities, and the organisations we work for need to give people the freedom to be publishers and not just ‘drafters’.

2. Using the tools and channels we already have, and making them work harder. For example, turning a simple blog platform into a discussion forum, or building on relationships with stakeholders and partners to make better use of their platforms.

3. Using existing low-cost tools like Facebook, email, Youtube and RSS instead of building a new channel for each project.

4. Planning communications by audience (i.e. children or motorists), rather than product, to consolidate plans that target the same audiences and enable economies of scale.

5. Making all our content easy to share. We need to leverage people’s offline and social networks so that they can print, cut out, post, Tweet and forward our posters, leaflets, images, video and other content.

This will seem obvious to many, but its amazing how many organisations of all types still seem to be creating custom, expensive, channels or failing to even offer basic social bookmarking.

I’m not going to name-and-shame here, because for those businesses without any in-house technical knowledge, or who have a conventional approach to communications that is perceived to be successful, there’s quite a journey to travel.

These are my thoughts so far – what have I missed?