For over 20 years much of my day career was not in local government but in broadcasting. My broadcasting work was concerned with what became 'social action broadcasting'. This used the power of radio and television to encourage people to do things such as volunteer, consider adoption or fostering; take better care of their health or donate money to charities. This article is a summary of some of the lessons I learned and where I think those lessons have direct applicability to those in local government, thinking about how we engage with individuals and influence what they do. I tell this as a story, in the order that I learned these lessons.
Understand your audience
In 1974, aged 24, I arrived at Granada Television in 1975 and was responsible for a regional programme dealing with the response from a show called Reports Action (presented by a then young unknown called Anna Ford). My first task was to understand what the real boundaries of the transmission area were. A simple task I thought; I asked those who made the programmes, only to discover that this was not a major focus for them.
So instead I asked the sales department, whose job it was to sell the adverts that paid our wages. Their maps were incredible. It seemed that people across much of Wales and nearly as far south as Birmingham could potentially watch Granada. So for one year I monitored every single response to the show until I was able to produce a real map of the places from where people responded. The parallel here with local government is that all too often too few senior managers and politicians have a detailed understanding of their demographics.
An exception would be the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, where this knowledge has been used to reshape services. They used 'Mosaic' methodology, but thankfully we now have a free equivalent available to us in local government.
Build a sense of urgency and theatre
The first couple of series were rather turgid. It was as if in awe of the subject matter we produced rather 'goody two-shoes' television. The change came with a new producer; a live format and banks of telephonists in view with a scoreboard to record the number of calls made. My role was much enhanced, because we aimed to be more adventurous in what we covered. The subjects which we could feature depended on them being able to engage respondents in a positive manner. I was shaping the content and not merely dealing with the consequences thereof.
Shortly afterwards, we became a peak time network show, broadcast early on Sunday evenings (now presented by Joan Bakewell and Bob Greaves). The ratings and the response to the show exceeded by far those of the earlier format.
The parallel with public service campaigns is simple: timeless generic encouragements to 'be good' just do not work. You have to grab people's attention and give them a sense of urgency and a reason to do something now!
It's the emotional connection and not just reason
The item which really showed that we were dealing with a different range of interaction than any other approach was one encouraging people to give up smoking. We had assembled a pack of free goodies to give away containing the usual suspects of chewing gum, patches and other commercially available products. The pitch was simple: the only thing that works is you wanting to quit but see if any of these help.
We had 15,000 packs to give away; the trouble was that nearly 600,000 people successfully responded! We have no idea how many people attempted to respond, the phone system of Britain was at breaking point. The day after I had to appear on ITN News, appealing to people to stop calling. Wondering what to do with at least half a million people for whom we had nothing to offer, I telexed David Ennals, (then Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security), asking for help and he immediately agreed. We met the next day to work out what could be done.
I thought our troubles were over, but the next few months were a trial of culture clashes. To my mind (and David Ennals') we had successfully connected with over half a million people who wanted help. However, the Civil Service thought we must do technical work first to determine what should be the right response, for example, which wording would work best. In their search for technical excellence, they missed the opportunity for a quick response.
How many people subsequently gave up smoking we do not know. I do know that the stress created in our office due to dealing with hundreds of calls every day from people asking when would they receive something, meant that within three months, I was the only member of our team who was not smoking!
Jumping ahead, when heading up ITV's 27-hour charity fundraising show, our biggest critics were again operating with this mindset. Their criticism was that we should not focus on fundraising but should instead devote time to detailed in-depth documentaries exposing key evils. If we had done so, our audience would have simply switched off their televisions. We conducted detailed research on the impact such programmes had on viewers. The findings were clear; we increased people's empathy. We were also able to attract their attention and to temporarily get them to consider a different perspective.
What we needed then was public service professionals and charities utilising this opportunity so the change could be sustained. What we need now are public campaigns which emotionally connect.
Tell a story people can relate to
The 1980s saw the rise of the big television fundraising events. ITV had five such telethons, two London and three national. They were powerful and raised significant sums of money (one raised over £24million). Over the 27 hours we reached large numbers of viewers, on occasion in excess of 37million.
We adapted these events from America and the BBC subsequently evolved its own approach. For me the issue was, what would make people make the call and make the pledge. We had a sophisticated way of finding this out: over the show we had a simple format – 20 minutes of network television coupled with 10 minutes of local television produced by the regional ITV company.
In every region, viewers would ring a telephone number specific to their area. We worked with BT so we were able to use their network control centre to map the number of attempted phone calls made every five minutes to all the key telephone sites. We could compare this to the output in any region at any given time and easily discover what part of the output motivated people to pledge money.
The answer was pretty clear. Of course we needed celebrities and entertainment to attract and hold the audience, but viewers did not respond to that. What mattered were stories of people, people with whom they could relate because they could have been themselves or their family members. However, time and again we see public campaigns where the assumption is that if only we can get X celebrity or Y star to front it, will it be a success. Advertisers have learned this lesson, as they now increasingly use 'ordinary people' rather than awkwardly framed shots of celebrities 'endorsing' products.
Despite this, in the public sector we retain this mad mix of 'fact, fact, fact' wrapped round a celebrity and hope that this will somehow work. Stories have always been central to human beings; Max Bygraves started the key part of his show with "I wanna tell you a story". John Nalbandian, of the University of Kansas, is one of the key political academics in the USA. He has a wonderful way of describing the parallel, but different logic sets of politicians and officers. One of those differences is that the politician deals with stories, the officer with reports.
'We' is stronger than 'me'
Starting in 1988, the network telethons were scheduled for the Sunday and Monday of the May bank holiday weekend. On the first weekend there was horrendous rain, bad news for many, but a gift if you needed a large television audience. For the next, in 1990, we had the reverse. An amazing heat wave had swept across the whole country.
This meant that people were outside enjoying themselves, and were not watching our show. With only three hours to go we had raised many millions less than at the same point in the last telethon. We decided to rip up the remainder of the schedule and replaced it with an emotional rollercoaster that raised over £10 million in three hours. This is still, despite being 19 years old, the most successful three hours of fundraising ever in Britain.
We achieved the effect you can see at some evangelical meetings, the difference being that our audience was not all together in one place but sitting at home watching their television, often alone.
People may feel uncomfortable with this, but for good or for evil, 'we' is greater than 'me'. So much of what we do in the public sector is so individually focused that we fail to capitalise on the fact we are social animals, and more prepared to do things when others are also doing them.
KISS ('keep it simple stupid!')
Getting people to offer to volunteer, or to donate money was one thing, but getting them to fulfil their pledge required more than just presuming on their goodwill. For our first few shows, I felt that our promotion of credit card payment was more an advert for the credit card companies than an effective fundraising tool. At the time credit cards were a yuppie brand, even more so than mobile phones and whatever ITV was, it was certainly not a yuppie channel.
As the telethons worked in collaboration with NatWest and the Post Office we ensured that having made the pledge in the evening, people had a paying in slip and a simple set of instructions on their doorstep the next morning to help them fulfil their pledge. It was simple, unthreatening and easy. We kept everything at a low level; even the expectation about the size of the donation was low.
In contrast, many parts of the public system still have too high a barrier for the first step. For those who are unconvinced of this importance, look at the Obama campaign. It was a campaign where everyone could do something, and they gently encouraged you to do more and more once connected.
Thank and reinforce
Following a pledge every donor also received a thank you note from the Prince of Wales (our patron), which also reminded them of the importance of their donation. Communication with the Prince of Wales was not a common occurrence for our audience.
Positive reinforcement of behaviour is something we encounter at a very early age, as it is core to parenting. Regardless, if we look at so much of public sector activity the attention is too focused on the anti-social behaviour of individuals. We forget to acknowledge and reinforce the positive behaviour that most of us do, most of the time.
None of these seven points are rocket science, but sometimes in dealing with very complex problems we forget that the building blocks are that the basic foundations on which we can construct very elaborate structures. They don't have to be complicated; they just have to be there.
Joe Simpson is Director of Politics and Partnerships, Leadership Centre for Local Government. He started his career in the voluntary sector, becoming Assistant Director of CSV. He has also worked in television, heading up the ITV Telethon, working as the strategy co-ordinator for BBC Worldwide and the director of programmes for the World Learning Network with David Putnam. He is also the former National Programme Director for the New Millennium Experience. In parallel he had a 16-year stint as a local councillor.