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8 lessons from the Harlem Globetrotters of communications

The Harlem Globetrotters, if you didn’t know, are an exhibition basketball team formed in the 1920s. They were a huge TV attraction as a kid growing up in the 70s. They are famous for being brilliant at basketball but also brilliant entertainers. And hence me describing the Digital Engagement Leeds speaker line-up as the ‘Harlem Globetrotters of communications’.

Leeds was the venue for the latest Digital Engagement Day on Grancius’ “world tour” event series. And with a rather stellar line-up of public sector communicators served up for over 100 attendees I was a very lucky host for the day.

You can view the photos and slide deck from the day here. Some of my favourite communicators were on show so I knew it would be very good. In truth I learned dozens of things but here is my top eight…


1. Bigger than Japan

Hilary Farmery from Visit Leeds opened up the event with a pitch for Leeds, my old university town. I already knew that Leeds was the third largest city in the country. What I didn’t know was the Leeds now attracts more visitors annually than Japan. Wow. (and what a great sales line that is, by the way).

2. Ducks in space

Emma Rodgers, head of communications at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, shared her insights on how the city had ramped up its place branding activity to support a highly impactful city of culture bid which featured sending ducks into space and via a promotional video which costs less than £1k. This work has given the city the confidence to make a bid to attract Channel 4 to the area. But the real lesson was that humour can galvanise local residents and instill pride and a sense of place.

3. Don’t forget the bread and butter information

As communicators it can be easy to get distracted with big fancy campaigns. But the truth is our residents, customers and patients are often really more interested in the bread and butter services which our organisations deliver. Albert Freeman at Bradford Council has quietly been chipping away and doing just that but with some impressive returns to boot. For example, by offering Bradford residents the chance to sign up to emails about severe weather alerts over 6k subscribed in five days generating an open rate of almost 70%. Over 14k residents have signed up for those alerts now – it took the council’s Facebook page seven years to attract those numbers.

4. ‘Doing a Doncaster’

Doncaster Council has been the talk of council social media for the past eight or nine months. So it was great to hear their web and digital manager, Rob Jefferson, lift the lid on why and how their approach has developed. The phrase ‘doing a Doncaster’ has now become part of local government parlance. Rob’s advice and insight was four-fold:

    1. You can’t teach passion
    2. Trust your instincts
    3. Make the time to be creative, and
    4. Embrace the power of nonsense.

5. Mind your language

Ali Marsland, director of the Effective English Company, reminded us that the average reading age in the UK is 8. For Sun readers it’s 7. It’s important we remember this when writing for our audiences. And watch that those sentences don’t become too long – 15-20 words per sentence is best for readability. And here’s another killer stat: a typo in your web copy can reduce online sales by as much as 50%.

6. Simple really is best

Viki Harris from Kirklees Council really has nailed simple images and messages which have maximum impact, through what she described as ‘help content’. My fave? ‘Don’t call us on a Monday unless it’s urgent as our phone lines are busy’ has reduced call centre demand on a Monday by 15% and which represents saving of £4k per week to the council. Impressive.

7. Less is still more

Chad Welch from NHS Digital gave many insights into his work and explained how the culling of multiple social media accounts – many of which were unloved and decaying – sparked a back to basics approach – doing fewer things but doing them really well. This encouraged increases in growth and engagement. Simple.

8. Truth, trust, lies and challenge

Eddie Coates-Madden was in his usual entertaining form and began his session with the line: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. This seems pretty apt in current times. But it was written all those years ago by Mark Twain. Eddie also reminded us that 6.5k does not = 2.25million (you had to be there).

Thank you to all of the speakers who took part and made the event a real success. And special thanks to Granicus for delivering an excellent free learning event and for supporting our industry once again, it is much appreciated.

P.S. REGISTER NOW Join over 300 communicators at the Granicus Digital Engagement Summit in London on 20 September. You can register here.

Darren Caveney is creator of comms2point0 and owner of creative communicators ltd.

Image via the US Embassy Canada