Rejoice that there are spaces where people of can come together and begin to find a relationship

I was interested in the newly appointed Bishop of Dorking, Jo Wells’ comments about social media 

Twitter is turning the world into a place where people hurl abuse at each other quicker than they can think or even speak, the Church of England’s newest bishop has warned.

I think we should also rejoice that there are spaces where people of can come together and begin to find a relationship with each other. Continue reading “Rejoice that there are spaces where people of can come together and begin to find a relationship”

Be nice if the CofE could do some proper brand advertising

It concerns me that the Church of England for whom I work sometimes equates the transfer of text based information with communication. A word written or read out loud is not the same as a word received.

The written or spoken word in a religious context is often a kind of legal transaction which establishes the terms of membership. The words are a statement of what we are signed up to. We are connected in a formal sense but it requires creative expression to bring the meaning to life. I wish we could be more like the advertisers, or at least learn from them.growing-younger-header.png.576x260_q100

In fact, I spoke too soon! Birmingham diocese has grasped the advertising thing with both hands in this message – “we’re growing younger”. In an unconventional move the diocese wants to install significant numbers of young people in positions of leadership.

Yamaha places a piano in a shopping area inviting the pubic to play.
Yamaha places a piano in a shopping area inviting the pubic to play.  An accessible and creative brand. A live product demonstration.

It has been said that St Francis of Assisi urged his followers to preach the Gospel, “use words if you have to”, but maybe he never said those words, I don’t know. The point is that it’s the stories that make the communication – every colourful detail of how we live our lives becomes our sermon.

We are compelled to tell our story by whatever means we have at our disposal. It is no use saying that words are better than pictures or any other medium for that matter.

What matters is the connection. The famous theme at the start of EM Forsters Howards End is “only connect”. That’s just it – THE CONNECTION. We live in fragments searching for a connection and in the end that’s what we strive to achieve.

Lloyds Bank advertising in Leeds
Lloyds Bank advertising in Leeds positioning banking as part of your life story and values. It takes no time at all to read.

I think it is fair to say that we live in a time where the captured image is the medium of choice when it comes to communicating stories; from films to magazines, to websites.  The power of the photograph to connect with people is extremely powerful.  But we must remember that according to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message. I understand from this that the words on the printed page can be spoken, and that the voice may convey images, and that the images can embody the stories.

Pictures have always been engaging and in our busy, mobile world pictures are now also extremely convenient.  An image can communicate an idea far more quickly than a paragraph of text. It is this convenience in our speeded up world that is the important thing to remember. This surge of interest in photography is not to diminish the power of words at all, it is simply to say that in our busy lives we need to keep it short. In fact pictures can assume tremendous power when accompanied by a few words of text. Poetry is a wonderful form. This leads me on the Twitter.

Twitter is a social media channel that restricts posts to 140 characters with the option of accompanying image, as you may know. The two most striking observations we can make is firstly that brevity (both in expressing and reading) is important and secondly that the message does not persist, by which I mean that it is designed to be visible only for a short time.

iPhone 6
The on-screen image is the message of this iPhone ad. Design and creativity.

So, the way we consume messages today is in the fleeting moments available to us.

As a society we are expected to be in sync with the conversations going on around us as they happen. These fragments of conversation are connected to other fragments of conversation and eventually coalesce into coherent ideas. We must be alert to the conversation.

The ideas are forming collectively with many voices participating. There is a flow and a rhythm to the dialogue which can be a beautiful thing. The connectedness of these conversations is a step towards being connected as humans and so here lies a wonderful prospect.

Yes I love photography and I love advertising because those who excel in these arts have understood that communication is about connection and  relationship not simply the transfer of information.

Three things the church can learn from advertising

I’m writing up a few thoughts on what church communications could learn from advertisers. It’s dangerous territory, of course, because the church and advertising has always been a little controversial. But here are three things.

1. People make decision based more on how they feel than what they think. Pretty much most advertising appeals in some way to the emotions. What will my audience feel about my product, organisation or service?

2. Understanding the target audience in advertising is hugely important and often buying choices are aligned to personal identity. People make lifestyle choices; products are the trappings of identity. Will my product, organisation or service enhance my audiences sense of their own identity?

3. The need to have high impact within a few words. When my audience sees my logo, twitter post, Facebook status or video will they be hooked within five seconds.

This is a video produced for Liverpool One Church. Like it or loath it I think they are confident in who they are and who they want to pull in “we are designing a church for people like you” they say (the identity thing).  It goes against my idea of a diverse local church and words like, “not your average church” seem less than respectful toward other denominations. However I admire their focused and energetic approach.

A church without a plan is a muddle – specially on social media

I’m putting together a few ideas about social media for a session with some of our local churches later in the month, so here’s where my mind is drifting. I am convinced social media presents an opportunity for the Church of England to portray itself as relevant, exciting and with a really quite wonderful part in our communities. However there is a risk that without self confidence and a clear message it could make for more of a muddle.

Creating a coherent web and social media presence for any organisation requires a plan and strong sense of purpose. The bones of a communication strategy consist of knowing the audience, having a clear expression of your own identity and a single minded message. Is the church ready for that? I hope so.

Vast numbers of people are now congregating on-line to shop, discuss, show off, celebrate and organise themselves. For most businesses and other organisations having a mobile friendly interactive website with integrated social media accounts is now absolutely essential. Over the Christmas season it has been astonishing how huge e.commerce has been. To be almost permanently on-line is now what you might call normal behaviour for many of us.

But the communications environment is now so very cluttered that the trick is not just to be present but also to be discoverable, to be noticed. It’s very easy to be a producer and publisher of content these days but let’s not be complacent – who’s going to notice our little drip in the ocean? Our on-line presence needs to stand out and be crystal clear in what it is saying.

To be discoverable means that we must be present not just on social media but in a range of media and in a strikingly creative way. At every turn and at every glance we must have an unmistakable, distinctive presence. We must be unshakably confident in who we are, what we stand for and what we look like. This is our brand.

Identity is weakened it it’s not consistent. A church that doesn’t have consistency across all its brand touch points is heading for confusion and disengagement. Every single person helps to form the identity of the organisation and so everyone must internalise the live out the values and mission of the church.

There is a temptation to believe that to appeal to the world we must try to be like the world with which we are trying to connect, but that works against being distinctive. What could be worse that being a chameleon in a crowded place (unless you work for Mi5) – let’s go for bright red not camouflage green.

What makes the Church of England distinctive is its extraordinary history and more importantly the message that we are loved and saved by God’s grace though Jesus Christ. It seems to me that we must be confident about the things that set the church apart – the really big differences. There is a temptation to talk only about the things that we have in common with our audience and to craft our image in a way that we think will be least offensive to our visitors, but there comes a point when we need to assert difference.

Here lies the biggest challenge for the CofE, not so much in using social media but in being confident and bold in the messages it puts out. There are encouraging signs of boldness from Archbishop Welby with some big statements on social justice. Can our local churches be equally bold when it comes to challenging local decision makers and drawing attention to local needs?  But whatever we say we must anchor the message in our single most important proposition, the reason we are who we are; unafraid to talk about the person of Christ.

So the Church of England is grappling with what it means to do business on-line. The church is not flogging goods (though it might), but more importantly telling life changing stories which is well suited the the medium. Nevertheless, the practical drive for the church to embrace on-line technology is in fact about selling something – getting people to buy into the real church and not some figment of the public imagination.

I’m looking forward to seeing some bold, creative and challenging messages from the church on-line.

Keeping perspective on social media. Oblong, All Saints and the CofE

I have been working with Oblong Leeds, a community development charity for some years now and we are at last getting round to re-working the organisation’s website. I’m also helping to develop the on-line presence of All Saints church in Ilkley and am part of a forum to discuss the on-line activities of the new CofE diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. I have resolved to be a bit more diligent in capturing my thoughts here, flimsy as they sometimes are.

I’m getting involved in these activities because I feel that communities must communicate, there are voices that need to be heard and stories that really must be told.

I’m not a web designer or an expert in social media, though I have worked for the BBC and more recently for ITV as the manager responsible for a news website. I can say that I am passionate about telling stories. Stories about who we are and the places we live should not be left to the professional journalists alone; talented as they may be there is only so much they can do. The world is so much bigger.

The big sparkling new diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, whatever you think of the decision, throws up an opportunity for fresh thinking, particularly in the area of communications. We are not talking about a clean slate because there is much that is good, but the disruption of re-organisation gets people thinking and talking – and talking is certainly what we should be doing. If we want to encourage conversation then Yorkshire is a great place to do it – blunt, diverse and passionate communities of every persuasion and experience.

The incisive question I am working with right now is as follows: How can we equip communities to tell their stories connecting them to each other and with the wider world?

As All Saints Ilkley puts it we are “finding connections with God” and in the process we are finding connections with each other (or is it the other way round?). As I find myself repeating, communications and relationships are absolutely dependent on one another.

At its most profound, communication wouldn’t require technology or language, we would just know. However our relationships are highly dependent on language and technology and if we are to put relationships with each other and God at the highest level then grapple with language and technology we must.

The on-line world of websites and social media is often dismissed by some people as an irritation and a waste of time. I would urge anyone to look at how radically the process of maintaining relationships has changed in recent years. There are extraordinary opportunities for people to open conversations with strangers and experience different worlds. Websites, social media, photography, video if an end in themselves would be a waste of time, but there is real evidence that the creative expression these tools enable is bringing people together with amazing significance. Social media in some parts of the world is literally revolutionary. Shared visual media is extending the reach of communication to those who struggle with words. Power is shifting.

When we’re setting up our social media channels and websites I think it is essential to keep an eye on these higher opportunities for bringing communities together, telling important stories, giving marginalised people a voice, seeing the the world as it really is.

For me, participation is the key which is why I hate the concept of the web-master or the notion that there are ‘experts’ in social media. Intuitive use of these tools should be the aim but I accept that we need people to encourage and share good practice.

Even today at Oblong Leeds we’ve been doing our quarterly planning and on-line communication is playing a big part. We are driving for outcomes in education & skills, employment, raised aspirations, expanded world view, community cohesion – so what activities can we implement? It could be those activities which connect people together, give us a strong sense of identity and self worth, pull people together around a common purpose.

Websites and social media can’t change anything. I cant change anything. I do believe websites and social media may improve the possibility of change just so long as we don’t lose sight of the big goals which can be reached by shared conversations and relationship building.

CofE communications. Why are we doing it?

Just has a couple of days talking about communications in the new CofE diocese and separately at the Woodhouse Community Centre in Leeds.  Here I’m capturing a few personal thought about the value of telling stories within an organisational structure and how important it is to work with traditional media.

At the CofE I was encouraged that we very quickly got onto the question of desired impact of our communications. If we are evaluating a piece of creative communication the big question is always who is it aimed at and what do you want the impact be? What change in the way the audience thinks or behaves do we want to see? That is the real point and power of communications. Unless something changes as a result of our communication then what’s the point? Bound up in this question of impact is a question about the overall purpose of the communication effort.

Is there one big, huge, hairy reason we want to do this communications thing?

For me, the Church of England is in an extraordinary position regarding communications, like no other organisation I know of. The fact that every square inch of the country is in a parish, and therefore within this great network presents mind blowing opportunity. More than any other organisation it is in a position to understand the realities of life in our communities and to witness the impact of Christian faith in people’s experience.

I have worked in newsrooms at the BBC and the organisation is rightly proud of its commitment to regional news. The BBC has reporters who mostly live within a couple of hours journey of where a story might break. They will not only deliver headlines on a daily basis but will also follow stories over extended periods offering analysis and understanding. But there is a real anxiety about resourcing. Where do stories come from, who processes them and what is their relationship with the consumers?

When you think about it the traditional media is at risk of becoming isolated and disconnected from the world they are trying to report. I met a camera crew recently doing a piece about a project in a poor part of Leeds, Woodhouse in fact. The crew turned up in an expensive black Audi car and they all wore lovely Berghaus ski jackets. The news presenter was tanned and wore a long black executive coat and was fiddling with an iPad. I didn’t feel comfortable.

In another situation I spoke to one senior correspondent who was saddened that he was servicing so many outlets that he didn’t have time to find out what was going on! The script was written in London and then read out by him in Brussels, so the concept of “being there” wasn’t fully realised.

Journalists would reasonably argue that their professional skills are essential if the integrity of reporting is to be maintained. This is true of course but the integrity of the reporting is also put at risk if there are stories and voices that go unheard. Over time imbalances in our ability to access stories can lead to a screwed view of the world which becomes self fulfilling.

The church, far from being other worldly, has a membership which if joined together and with their communities can be rooted in big reality. There are very few places where people of different backgrounds and generations can come together in the way they do in the Church of England. My own church in affluent Ilkley has a real mix of people from homeless to filthy rich, there are all ages and at least a tiny amount ethnic diversity.

But hold on, let me take my tinted spectacles off and start again. The church, I confess, has a long way to go to get real diversity into many if its congregations but there are signs of hope. If we can show the church as it could be as well as how it is now we may have a vision that can take off. It could be brilliant.

Bringing people together, using the diocese to encourage people to visit different parts of the region, sharing resources and ideas across social boundaries is exciting. Most of all I would like to see parishioners participating in telling stories, particularly those stories that the press and media will find difficult to break into.

If the church diocese can design a communications network that encourages people to tell stories and, importantly, can share those stories and invite reflection and analysis then I think it will be very powerful. This is not about the Church of England competing with the traditional media but it is an opportunity for the media to gain better access to community life. There is a huge and important role for professional journalists to process, analyse and comment but they do need the full array of raw materials.

My vision for the Church of England comms team (and those of some of our community centres like Woodhouse), would be about giving a voice to those who are falling through the communication cracks.  We would preach less and listen more.

The church should not just be an organisation that does communication but be, quite fundamentally, a communications organisation – bringing people together in relationship with each other and with God. Isn’t that the highest act of communication we could imagine?

What’s media got to do with the real world?

My part time role Oblong Leeds is to develop media activities at the Woodhouse Community Centre, but being a community centre every day there are many dramas. A community centre is just that – at the centre of a community where people live. Having a home and belonging to a community are fundamental needs.

Woodhouse is a place where some people have been displaced from the place they might otherwise call home. They may have moved here to study, others to find work – they are settling in, and the local community centre is a good place to start. There are other people who have lived here for years who have build strong links with the neighbourhood. These people have raised families, perhaps volunteered their time and made life better for those around them,  some for many decades.

Today I met a (John) who has lived in a council owned house for more than 25 years and raised a family there. He’s never missed a payment and the house is immaculate because (John) has done expert DIY work and spent hundreds of pounds on carpets and paint. His financial and emotional investment in his home is significant. Tomorrow he has to move out because he has too many rooms, he can’t afford the “bedroom tax”. The house he is being moved to is away from the people he has come to know over the years and is in a poor state of repair; The new house is small and has, “holes in the walls and no carpets”.  John has come to the community centre to use the phone. He says he’s looking for a loan of a few hundred pounds to buy carpets and paint which he doesn’t think he can afford. (John) doesn’t come over as angry just as a man with sadness etched on his face.

The other man I met today was (Jim). Jim has his rent paid for by the council but the letting agent hasn’t maintained the property properly – no heating for a month which I believe may be in contravention of he housing act. Last week the letting agent moved him to another house, but again with no heating and an infestation of rodents. (Jim) doesn’t speak good English and is finding it difficult to fined someone who will listen – other than his local community centre.

Outrageous as these stories may appear, you cannot always find someone to blame or easily point a figure.  Often the people who need to know about these stories are unaware, and the people who are reporting them are daunted by the process. John and Jim just need a hand in finding the right people to speak to and the right  tone and language to use.  Our processes serve the most vulnerable least well.

So here I am, a media specialist encouraging people to tell their stories. I am reminded that media is more than the technical aspects of twitter, Facebook, TV and radio, it’s actually about people and stories – making connections. The big media like the BBC and ITV, for example, make a brilliant contribution to the enlightenment of the nation, but by and large the producers and presenters often live in West London or the affluent suburbs of our cities. Financially comfortable politicians hog and use the media to keep our understanding aligned to their strategies. That outlook must have an impact, surely.

It is seems to me that we need to hear directly from the Johns and the Jims and to enable everyone in our communities a much stronger voice.

Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.

This is a reflection on how we communicate using social and other media. I have said some things I have regretted on social media in the past, but I’m learning slowly. Vigorous debate on-line is a wonderful thing and to be encouraged. It would be a shame if the mistakes we occasionally make can’t be accommodated by those taking part. Respect for readers and forgiveness for writers is essential if we are to make progress in understanding and build relationships. Without the capacity to be honest and take risks we will be seriously held back.

Each way of communicating requires rules and boundaries which are commonly understood. The way we read, say, a political drama on BBC ONE is very different from the way we interpret the Ten O’clock News which immediately follows it. A harrowing scene in Silent Witness is entertainment, violence shown the news is shocking. Communication requires a relationship in which the language is commonly understood.

The internet hosts many different ways of communicating and social media itself can be broken down into different forms. Even within one form of communication the expectations can be varied, take for example email. Is an email conversation or a formal letter? Can an email be a formal letter in paragraph one and a light hearted chat in paragraph two? How do we know whether a person is joking or is being serious? It seems to me that very few people use email as effectively as they could.

Social media is a minefield of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, and social media is both ephemeral and permanent. A throw away comment on social media intended to be quickly forgotten amid small talk can be permanently etched into the history. When we say something as a poke to get a conversation going we sometimes say things we would like to retract and say sorry for, “I didn’t really mean that, I was playing devils advocate, what I really think is….. “ And if you know the person, forgiveness is quick and easy, but if they are strangers the damage can escalate.

Good communication is founded on good relationships and good relationships can be forged out of good communication. Where strangers are communicating for the first time extreme care is required to establish the rules and boundaries of the conversation. It is dangerous make an assumption that the recipient will discern whether you are being deadly serious or light hearted.

So what should our response to on-line communication be and how should we behave?  I think that the responsibility is as much on the reader as the writer.

For the writer of a public message I think great care should be taken to explain the motivation for the communication and why they choose the words they do. When writing in a public forum we should take the publication as seriously as writing for print or broadcast. This may be an unrealistic expectation but a deep breath should be taken at the very least.

For the reader I think we must make allowances for the spontaneous outbursts some people make. Of course we all say things we regret and we often change our minds, so let’s, be charitable. If we see something we don’t like on social media the worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is respond in anger. Better to be cool and let the facts do the work.

The most powerful communication is that in which the facts speak for themselves and the story is true. The poorest communication is where the emotion masks the real message. At its worst emotion is used in the absence of an argument or defensively. I love humour contained in a fact of a story but I think as soon as the writer uses their own emotional state to get one over on another person they are on a sticky wicket.

So there we have it. I’ve said a few things that I may want to change my mind about, but it’s just a conversation, I’m sure you understand.

Life in all its fullness to the nation, The BBC and the CofE

What does the BBC and the Church of England have in common? Why is it important to support institutions that have a non commercial presence in out lives – even if we rarely drop in? Let’s think about this.

The BBC’s licence fee seems to be back in the news. Once upon a time the BBC’s output was universally consumed – 20 million figures for TV shows not uncommon. Today with so many channels to choose from people not needing or wanting to consume the BBC’s output could reasonably refuse to pay the licence fee (and become a criminal).

The point of the licence fee is that the BBC becomes accountable to everyone. Every single licence fee payer can expect to find something distinctive and interesting on the BBC. This accountability means that the BBC is obliged to take notice of every important aspect of British life and reflect the full diversity of interests.

The driving motivation at the BBC has not just been the size of the licence fee or the size of the audience. More important is the continuation of this universal support and accountability – in spite of falling numbers. The licence fee is not just a funding mechanism but a means of ensuring public ownership and ensuring diversity. The prospect of losing this anchor in the life of the nation has driven studies by the corporation into undeserved audiences which include minority language and special needs groups. In studies while I was an employee there were concerns about regional disengagement particularly in the North which may have influenced the move to Salford.

So when it comes to the licence fee it’s not necessarily the size of the fee but the presence of the fee that makes the difference, and the fact that it places quality media into the consciousness of every consumer of broadcast media in the country.

The idea that the BBC is accountable to the licence fee payers in theory facilitates public influence over the content of the output, “you make it what it is” as one campaign put it.
A broadcaster owned by the people who consume its output, representing every section of society. An important aspect of this is balance and impartiality, and its capacity to properly challenge unjust commercial and political actions.

The BBC consequently supports local and regional news broadcasting which is more or less unsustainable in pure economic terms. When Michael Grade left the BBC and went to ITV his big prudent decision was to announce that ITV could not support regional news and must focus on popular drama. That’s how it works in the commercial world. But, ITV is still doing regional news and one reason is that to remove it would leave the BBC as the only significant regional TV news provider, without competition. To rework the campaign, “ITV, the BBC makes it what it is” The influence of this institution goes beyond its own output – maybe the same can be said of the CofE.

There’s an interesting comparison to be made with the Church of England. The CofE has a presence in every neighbourhood (parish). When there’s talk about declining membership in the church you might think that its relevance and value is somehow proportional to the numbers of subscribers. It is precisely because of falling numbers that the BBC and the Church of England are more important now than ever. An emphasis of the church is on those people who are the most vulnerable and voiceless, the requirement of the BBC is to represent those who would otherwise not be seen or understood. Popularity is not its reason for being but appreciation is more important – I appreciate the BBC though I rarely watch it, I appreciate the CofE though I don’t go much, you might hear. Of course both organisations can hope for revival.

We live in a fragmented world which lacks cohesion and is difficult to comprehend. You might imagine that connecting everyone up electronically may lead to a more joined up and enlightened world but in reality there is confusion and misinformation. There is massive exploitation. Rapidly formed communities of interest become more intense and isolated in their beliefs, behaviour and language.

I hope that the BBC and the CofE can be strong and dependable voices that are truly concerned about bringing life in all its fullness to the nation




Communities Creating Change – Join #OblongLearning on Twitter

As you may know I work part time for a charity in Leeds called Oblong. I’m proud of the achievements of Oblong which has taken on and refurbished a community centre. It delivers transformational projects for communities and individuals including volunteer programmes, mental health courses, arts and social events. There’s a cinema event every month to showcase and support local filmmakers, a media collective undertaking design and communications projects, language classes. There are now more than 50 volunteers, a significant proportion of whom achieve employment not unconnected to the experience they gain at the community centre.

The culture is one of respect for every individual and creation of an environment where they can flourish independently and in partnership with others. The projects we establish come from the volunteers and are led by them

ob-bobThis weekend Oblong is running a two day course called Communities Creating Change for people who want to create real change in their communities and in themselves. Participants will discuss their community’s needs and strengths, learn how to collaborate, engage and think together, practice new skills and make a plan for action. The course will include a look at how we establishing the needs and hopes of the community, how we gather information, communication, collaborative thinking, creative ideas, project management.

The course is full now but the reason I mention it here is because there will be more courses in future and tomorrow we will be extending the discussion to social media by using the Twitter hashtag #OblongLearning . I will try and post a timetable of the discussions tomorrow and schedule some opportunities to join in. In any event there will be nuggets from the group on #OblongLearning from around 10am tomorrow.

Let’s connect.