Why does it take a tragedy for the good stories to come out?

On Tuesday of this week I tweeted the following

There were some amazing stories that came out of the aftermath of the bombing at Manchester Arena, not least of which being the heroics of Steve, the homeless guy, who subsequently was offered 6 month’s accommodation by the co-owner of West Ham United Football Club.

But, why does it take a tragedy for the mainstream media and the public in general to start paying attention to our dedicated NHS workers and other public servants? And, it has to be asked, why does a homeless person have to perform heroic deeds before he is offered accommodation?

Health workers and public servants are doing great work every day of our lives, and there are homeless people on the streets of every city who have not had the opportunity to respond in the way Steve did. Are they any less deserving?

People doing good work need to tell their own stories. Because there are few occasions when the mainstream media and public pay attention to them.

We are a society that believes in sharing, in helping each other, and in being there when needed. That is our story.

Still think that TV and radio are not being changed by social media?

I still have conversations with people who think that traditional media such as TV and radio are not being disrupted by social media. My contention is that, increasingly, and particularly in the case of radio, people are consuming media via apps on mobile devices, and that this means that they see TV and radio as one of many apps.

And here is a little illustration. Earlier today, the BBC cricket correspondent, Jonathan Agnew, was surprised to find that, as he attempted to hand over to a report on the Lancashire v. Durham County Championship match, he was interrupted by colleague Simon Mann, to be told that there had been a change of plan, and that there was now to be a feature celebrating “Aggers'” 300th Test Match as a commentator, and 25 years as Cricket Correspondent. As the clips of his commentating highlights faded out, Sir Michael Parkinson then took to the airwaves to begin an interview with him.

What made this different was that, anyone who had “liked” BBC Test Match Special’s Facebook Page would have been let into the secret before Aggers, as Sir Michael’s entry into the Engineering Room was being live streamed via Facebook Live with a commentary by a member of the team. So, while radio listeners were hearing Aggers carrying on on air, oblivious, Facebook users knew he was about to be knocked out of his stride.

What this means to me is that “broadcasting” is no longer linear. While the backroom scenes being streamed via Facebook were not officially part of the programme, they were a vital piece of information about what came next. And, as the Facebook Live camera moved into the actual commentary box, there was then a choice for anyone with a smart mobile device, either to continue just listening to the interview, or to switch to Facebook and see the interview with pictures. Thus the programme was available, on mobile devices, either via the BBC iPlayer Radio app (or others such as Tunein), or via Facebook. It’s a question of switching apps.

I know it’s a long way off, but we are heading closer to the day when mainstream broadcasting is simply one of many apps to chose from.

The EU Referendum – proof of the power of storytelling

I’m banging on about storytelling again. Because I believe a momentous decision has just been made because slightly over half of the UK adult population believed a story. That story might be true. It might not. I very much doubt that all of it is true. Much of it might have its roots in truth. But….

You see, the Leave Campaign bus had a slogan on the side which said “We send £350m a week to the EU: Let’s spend that money on the NHS”. Nigel Farage made a speech in front of a poster saying “Let’s spend money on the NHS; not Brussels”. This morning he has said that nobody promised the EU money would be spent on the NHS. You see, not all stories are true. But some of them are powerful enough to make people believe in them.

I watched a TV programme recently about the guy who debunked Yuri Geller and several evangelical Faith Healers. Even though their methods were publicly shown to be fake, after a brief glitch in their popularity, most went on to resume their careers. People wanted to believe that what they were doing was real more than they wanted to believe the facts. The story won out over the reality.

So, in the face of myths, we have to tell the real story and we have to get people to want to believe the reality more than they want to believe the myth. People believe that all social housing tenants are cheating scroungers because of “Benefits Street” and the like. They believe that having any kind of ambition in life is setting yourself up for a fall because that is a recurring motif in TV Soap Operas.

So, some of the stories we have to tell, in ways that that engage people, are:

  • Social housing is necessary for social cohesion and a balanced society;
  • Some people need benefits because they can’t work either permanently or temporarily;
  • Collective community actions can improve people’s lives;
  • Some people can and should be able to improve their own health and wellbeing if given support and access to resources;
  • WIthout immigration our economy would collapse;
  • Ethnic and social diversity is a social good and enhances all of our lives
  • Older age is not “God’s Waiting Room”.

And those of us who believe in these ideas, or work in organisations whose existence depends on them, need to tell these stories ourselves. All the evidence suggests that no one else is going to do it for us.

I am passionate about the power of Digital Storytelling and I want to help all organisations and individuals to gain the skills and capabilities to tell their own stories to the world. If you share this objective, and just need a little help getting there, please get in touch.

Why You Should Use Digital to Tell Stories


It’s about 3 years now since I first started calling myself a Digital Storyteller. I was far from the first to do so, but I’ve come across very few people who work largely in the non-profit sectors who do so. Most of the others who have adopted the title have been journalists or marketeers. My own evolution came about through a gradual realisation that the people I was training in using social media in the public and voluntary sectors were often failing to put their new skills into practice mainly because they thought they didn’t have a story to tell. So, I shifted my emphasis away from the physical mastery of the tools and towards helping people to find the stories they were going to use those tools to tell.

The non-profit sectors are still not taking full advantage, however, of the opportunities digital tools now give us to tell our stories. If you look at how the big brands do it, it is clear that they have always told stories, whether it be via TV advertising or otherwise, about why they should be part of your lives. It’s how good marketing works. And consider politicians. Their key aim is to tell a story about how they see everyone’s future, and to get voters to buy into that story enough to want to vote for them.

The past six years have been a struggle for many non-profit organisations, with Government-led austerity meaning that funding has been declining while, often, workloads have been expanding. But the cuts have not fallen evenly across the board, with some sectors being protected, and others even being successful in getting planned cuts reversed. This is because these sectors and organisations have greater public support. Like the brands, the public buys into their stories. On the other hand, the mainstream media has often been cheerleading moves to downgrade and cut funding to some sectors, by producing reality TV programmes which degrade and stereotype the people they support. Thus programmes such as “Benefits Street”, “Skint”, and “On Benefits and Proud” all contribute to the story in the public’s mind that certain groups are undeserving of public support and thus taxpayers’ money shouldn’t be spent on services that cater for them. Another case in point is how the EU Referendum debate has been dominated by issue of immigration. This has become the story to the exclusion of most of the remainder of the multitude of issues which the EU deals with.

But the fact is that, when the people actually understand what non-profit services do, their support for it increases. I often point to the case of Dave Throup, the Environment Agency Officer, who gathered a cult following on social media, at the same time that the Agency he worked for was getting a kicking in the media for failing to save the country from floods. This occurred because Dave was telling the story of the great work he was doing on the front line by tweeting about it. It is much easier to love passionate individuals, working hard to help people, than it is to embrace faceless, corporate entities like the Environment Agency. This is why it is so important for non-profit organisations (by which I mean public, voluntary and social enterprise organisations) to tell their stories. And there are three stories we should all be telling:

  • Our personal stories: who we are, what we do, and (crucially) why we do what we do;
  • Our organisational stories: the history of the organisation, its role in society, how it does what it does; and
  • Our client stories: how what we do makes people’s lives better.

All of these insights into what organisations do can be vital in contributing to public perceptions of what we do. But perhaps the most important is the latter element. It is obviously in an individual’s interest to promote what they do, and in that of an organisation to present the best possible image. But, as the best brands have discovered, customer testimonials are the most powerful stories as they don’t have vested interests in being positive about the goods and services they receive. Client stories, therefore, need to be front and central of any digital storytelling strategy.

Social media has become central to millions of people’s lives. This trend shows no signs of abating, in fact, as demographics previously resistant to it recognise its value, it is reaching into new areas of society all the time. And people using social media are increasingly getting the majority of their news and information online. The big brands are all there competing for attention, and telling their stories to the world. But still, far too many non-profit organisations are leaving the field clear for mainstream media organisations and politicians to tell negative stories about what they do. Can you afford to let this situation continue? I think not.

If you would like me to help you with your organisation’s Digital Storytelling strategy, please get in touch.

#HousingDay 2016

Can you believe that this year sees the fourth #HousingDay, the event which has now become a fixture in the annual calendar? #HousingDay is 24 hours when staff and tenants in social housing take to social media to celebrate their work, lives and communities. This year, the event is on the 19th September.

I’ve sort of made a tradition now of organising high profile stunts on the day designed to try to bring the world’s attention to the work that social housing is doing. In 2014 I did the #Housing Day Roadtrip, when I drove 800 miles visiting social landlords up and down England and Wales to highlight their great work, and in 2015, I did the #HousingDay NewsRoom when I was joined by some doyens of the social housing sector to live stream hourly news bulletins about what people were doing for the day.

This year I want to do something that is a little more ambitious. In fact, it might be a bit too ambitious, but I am putting the idea out there to see if there are any takers to help me make this happen.

One of problems that I think besets the social housing sector is that it is guilty of talking to itself rather than to the outside world. #HousingDay is, of course, an attempt to break out of that self-perpetuating bubble, and I think it does that to an extent, but not to anything like the extent that is necessary to make a real difference. And, by make a difference, I mean get widespread support for the sector such that it becomes impossible to impose damaging laws on it, starve it of resources, and make stereotyped TV programmes which demonise tenants. I think we are still a long way from a position where we might achieve these objectives.

2016 is the 50th Anniversary of the broadcasting of the TV programme “Cathy Come Home” the play that did so much to raise the profile of the housing crisis of the time, and which led to the founding of Shelter and many of the housing associations which exist today. That was a real breakthrough moment, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the current housing crisis has caused director Ken Loach to come out of his self-imposed retirement to produce a new film.

So, this is what I want to do on #HousingDay 2016. I want encourage people involved in social housing to organise Housing Film Shows, and I want these to happen in as many towns and cities as possible. I want “Cathy Come Home” to be on the bill of these shows, along with any other housing-related films people can think of. In fact, I want to challenge the social housing sector to make its own films about its work to show alongside “Cathy”. It would be great if each town and city could have its own unique film to show on the day.

But more than the film shows, I want this to be a major opportunity for the sector to talk to others outside its boundaries. I want everyone who organises a show to pack the audience with people who live and work in social housing, but I also want them to invite as VIP guests:

  • local MPs
  • local councillors
  • the Chief Executive of the local authority
  • local business representatives
  • the editor(s) of the local newspaper(s)
  • the editor(s) of the local radio station(s)
  • local and regional TV news
  • local celebrities

And I want organisers not to take “no” for an answer. I want us to move heaven and earth to get as many influential non-housing people there as possible, and I want each show to be a high-profile, media-friendly event.

Can we do this? Is it too ambitious? I hope not. Your comments welcome below. And get in touch if you want to help organise shows.


Stories not Statistics

You know me I like stories. I promote storytelling; particularly Digital Storytelling.

I am constantly being told that evidence is what matters. That you cannot tell stories without evidence. Well, that may be true…. but….

Most people would agree that social housing and the people who live in it have been unfairly stigmatised. Despite all the efforts to get social housing to be a key issue in the 2015 General Election, whenever the subject of housing is raised, the politicians end up arguing over which party does most to promote home ownership. It’s like Mrs. Thatcher’s oft quoted view that anyone over 30 who uses a bus is a failure. She also changed the paradigm so that society’s prevailing view is that anyone who doesn’t own their own home is a failure, or at least that is what everyone should be aspiring to.

And so, social housing tenants are stigmatised, and the media pile in reinforcing this stereotype by pumping out poverty porn like “Benefits Street”, “How to Get a Council House”, “Skint”, and “Immigration Street”.  And still, people tell me that he only way to counter this view is by producing evidence to the contrary. And the evidence they want to produce comes in the form of reports, statistics and infographics.

But, stop to think for a moment. Where is the evidence that backs up the viewpoint promoted by the purveyors of poverty porn? It’s not there. They go out, they find a story they want to tell, and they tell that story, whatever the evidence might suggest. And they are the ones whose world view prevails. The public is not interested in evidence. If they were, news channels would have larger viewing figures than soap operas.

So, please; by all means produce your reports, your statistics, and your infographics. But don’t kid yourself that any of this wins hearts and minds. It’s the stories of people living happy and productive lives in social housing that will be much more persuasive.

Stand up for positive uses of the internet

This morning’s edition of the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 was guest-edited by the musician, Tracey Thorn. There were two sections of the programme which were about how the internet can help vulnerable teenagers find support online. There were some great, inspiring stories, but, both of the items were topped and tailed by negative comments from the programme presenters suggesting that this kind of thing is a rarity on the internet, amongst a sea of trolls and threats.

We can’t allow the mainstream media to go unchallenged when it pedals this line, partly out of self-interest as the web eats away at its audiences. There are millions of positive interactions every day online, many of which go ignored by TV, Radio and Newspapers. Just look at all the offers of free Christmas Dinners for those who would otherwise spend Christmas alone, as only one example. The web is a powerful force for social good, and the media cannot be allowed to get away with suggesting otherwise.

The Hyperlocal Jeremy Paxmans are out there; we just need to find them

I wrote this article for the Journalism Foundation in March 2012. Searching for it this morning, so I could reference it, I discovered that the Journalism Foundation, and thus its website, is now defunct. So, to make sure it stays out there, I am reproducing it here:

Browsing Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I came across a tweet which, I think, was from one of the many sessions at the South by South West technology conference in Austin, Texas. I’ve lost track of it now, but the gist of it was that politics is an activity which appeals to an ever decreasing proportion of the population, and that its participants seem to have little interest in changing their approaches to appeal to more people.

We can all point to the many ways in which life has changed in recent years which make the traditional ways of doing things less relevant. And it is a story familiar in other walks of life, that the people at the top cling to the old methods, while everyone else finds something else to do which is more interesting and relevant to their lifestyles. Thus, small bands of politics junkies continue their debates in panelled rooms, while the rest of the world gets on with using ever simpler and more effective means of sharing and communicating with each other. It is tempting to see politics as yet another “industry” gradually being killed off by new technology and changing demographics.

But politics is too important for that. It is, after all, however imperfect the systems, the way we do things. It’s the expression of our collective will. Looking over the broad span of history, politicians, or whatever those who hold the reins of power, have been called, have generally been drawn from a small elite. Social progress in the 20th Century went a long way towards changing this. Is it now going too far to suggest that this progress might be reversed as the rest of the population distances itself from the way politicians do things?

One of the big ironies of modern politics is that the politicians who bother to go out on their tried and trusted mission to knock on the nation’s doors are probably dragging people away from their screens and mobile devices. And those people have at their fingertips the means of keeping in touch with political issues in a far more informed way than a rushed doorstep conversation. Whether they choose to use them for that purpose is another issue entirely.

Of course, there are lots of initiatives attempting to address this divide. I’ve been involved with some myself. And there are some politicians who are great at using social media, although all too many see it as just another channel to broadcast their messages to a wider audience. Effective use of social media by politicians is still too much of a minority activity.

Just the other day, I was watching a live video stream of a council meeting, during which some councillors berated their colleagues for tweeting during the meeting, claiming this meant they weren’t paying attention to the debate. Now, those of us who are regular social media users know that it is possible to become quite adept at multi-tasking; listening to debates and translating their key points into tweets, but this can be a difficult skill to master, and it can seem an impossibility to those not versed in it. But this incident is a very good indication of the tension between the old and the new way of doing things; and it further shows how politicians are developing their own channels to communicate with the public, without the mediation of journalists and traditional media.

Live-streaming of council meetings is an interesting case in point. A number of local authorities are now video streaming meetings, thus making their content available on a much wider basis than to those prepared and able to attend in the public gallery or read the minutes. A few councils have tried using free streaming platforms, with mixed results, largely because they haven’t taken account of the in-stream advertising that some free platforms deploy, and these can attract negative reactions. More common, amongst the minority of councils streaming meetings, is a managed system deploying a number of fixed, remotely controlled, cameras in the Council Chamber, which produces a TV-like experience for the viewer.

It is undeniable that using live-streaming to open up democratic processes is a good thing. But I would argue there are some fundamental difficulties with the way it is being approached by most local authorities.

The first issue is the cost. There is a natural element of risk-aversity in a lot of the public sector, for very good reasons. At the recent LocalGovCamp North West event, I ran a session on live-streaming council meetings. One of the key messages which came out of this session was that many councillors are worried about experimental systems which they think might fail to present them in a favourable light. But the reliance on expensive systems is acting as a block on other authorities moving into providing their own live streams. In my opinion, people form their own opinions about their elected representatives based on many other factors than the quality of the internet stream they might view them on. And I have witnessed councillors misbehaving on good quality webstreams. I think risk-aversity, coupled with lack of in-house skills required to make different systems work, is holding back councils which don’t have the budget to buy in expensive systems. And, in the current fiscal climate, that is most of them.

The second issue about live-streaming meetings is the focus on the Council Chamber. This is particularly inevitable when costly video equipment has been installed in the Chamber. But, not every decision is taken there, nor does every debate happen in the Chamber. So, the question is: what exactly is it that we are opening up? Yes, we get to see the Full Council meetings, which, after all, are the ultimate governing body, responsible for signing off the decisions of all sub-committees and other groups. And some councils stream other meetings which take place in the Council Chamber too, including Cabinet meetings. But, a lot of the most lively, and best informed, debates take place away from the main Chamber, and, again, the investment in Council Chamber equipment and lack of preparedness to experiment, mean that other debates don’t get a wider audience. In fact, as many of these meetings take place in venues with minimal facilities for public attendance, a lot of these discussions are unwitnessed by anyone not directly involved. I think this is a democratic deficit, as many of the real issues get proper scrutiny in small rooms.

But I think the most dangerous assumption in all this is the idea that simply “putting it out there” is sufficient. I’ve no idea what the average viewing figures are for live streams of council meetings, but I suspect they are not high, and the numbers of people sticking with them all the way through must be significantly lower still. I’m very interested in this stuff, but I don’t find much of it gripping viewing. People are interested in the issues that directly and tangibly affect them. And they are also, whether we like it or not, interested in personalities. Most people don’t know much about the personalities in local government. They probably don’t even know who their local councillor is.

So, what I don’t see happening, which I think it pretty vital, is any move to popularise local political content. The live streams from council meetings are the local equivalent of the BBC Parliament Channel. They’re put out there through some sense of obligation, but not many people really watch them. What we really need are the local equivalents of Question Time, News Night, the Daily Politics, and Election Night Special. These are the programmes that package politics, make it more entertaining, and bring it to a wider audience. But no one is producing local versions at the moment, or ever has. It could be that a solution is riding over the horizon in the shape of the Local TV stations being promoted by the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. But, the jury is out as to whether Local TV in the form envisaged by Government can be made to work. It feels like a very old model, requiring expensive kit, staff and studio spaces. And its catchment areas are based on TV transmitter footprints, rather than any communities or geographies that make sense to people. On the other hand, there are lots of hyperlocal bloggers, news gatherers, and citizen journalists out there who are only too willing to act as bridges between politicians, institutions, and the public. The internet is where large numbers of people get their information these days, and it offers cost-effective channels for communication between all parties involved in the local political process.

Pits ‘n’ Pots in Stoke-on-Trent has been holding its local elected representatives to account for a number of years now, as is well documented elsewhere on this site. Other hyperlocal websites have been doing the same. There are lots of examples where politicians and officials have felt threatened by these processes. Indeed, a number of local sites and initiatives have emerged as a response to a perceived lack of openness on the part of their local authority. But this relationship need not be antagonistic. In many localities it should be possible for local authorities, politicians, and citizen journalists to find new ways of engaging the public in democratic processes. The hyperlocal Jeremy Paxmans and David Dimblebys are out there. They just need encouragement and a small amount of resource to make local politics sexy.