As beautiful illicit guilty pleasures go watching BBC2′s The Thick Of It is not exactly an out-of-control gambling habit.
A satirical fly-on-the-wall Yes Minister for the 21st Century Civil Servants and politicians scheme, plot and manipulate obsessed by the whims of public opinion.
Chief amongst them is the figure of Malcolm Tucker. Like ‘Iago with a blackberry’ as The Spectator calls him in the programme itself, he is the government’s director of communications whose Machiavellian command of the dark arts of spin is direct drawn from the underworld. Nothing is too low.
“Congratulations on your first confirmed kill,” he chillingly writes on a card to a junior who ill in hospital goes along with his plot to unseat the Leader of the Opposition. Out of the box the card comes from drifts a helium baloon with a picture of the deposed Leader sellotaped to it. A perfect blend of malice and slapstick.
Watching the programme is also a secret vice of comms people to talk of the programme illicitly in hushed tones.
A few years ago the subject of The Thick Of It came up in a conversation I had with someone who had worked at the heart of government in the Civil Service. “On a good day it was nothing like it,” the individual said. “On a bad day it was actually a toned down documentary.”
Yet, part of me thinks people will look back in years to come and find that Malcolm Tucker is a bygone relic. Obsessed with newspaper headlines and able to cajole the Priesthood of journalists with bribes and threats.
Or maybe the government comms people of the future will be just as frenetic and just as twitchy about public opinion. It’s just that it’ll be the bloggers and the digital journalists they’ll be obsessed about.
The fourth series ended with Tucker disgraced, chased by a press pack from a police station after handing himself in to be arrested after he perjured himself at a public enquiry.
And Malcolm Tucker to use a very Malcom Tucker word is ‘is damaging’.
Because he forms people’s warped idea of what a public sector comms person looks like. Which is why he needs to be brought down from grace. It’s why he needs to die. Under a bus. Outside Parliament. With a single bunch of flowers from his ma in Scotland. Leaving a stack of cracking YouTube clips as his legacy.
Comms, like journalism, is a broad church and across it finds all sorts of characters and practices. Yet there is nothing I find in what he does remotely similar to what I do working in an environment that encourages open access to social media and open data. Central government people may disagree.
But as Alastair Campbell, the man who did most to create the late 20th century idea of a spin doctor, said recently the landscape has changed: “You can’t dominate the news agenda now. The agenda is more chaotic but that’s a good thing.”
Excited and smiling he took it out of it’s wrapping in the living room. Light blue and shiny it was. It fitted into his hands perfectly. A while later that day after all his cards other presents were opened I found him playing with it on the settee. He was moving the device around as if chasing objects around the room.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Shooting aliens in our living room?”
“Well, they’re not aliens,” he says. “They’re pictures of mum on my new augmented reality game.”
Leaning over his shoulder I could see what he was doing. He’d used his new Nintendo to take a picture of his mum and he’d transferred them onto bubbles which he had to shoot down as part of the game. On the screen, there was my living room as the backdrop for the game. The image came from the device’s video camera. As my son moved the device so what was on the screen moved too.
What’s augmented reality?
Rewind to earlier this year. I’d heard Mike Rawlins of Talk About Local talk about augmented reality at a Brewcamp session in Walsall. He’d spoken of the experiments him, Will Perrin and others had been doing with augmented reality by effectively placing blog posts, pictures and news updates on a map. In effect each item was given its own co-ordinates and through a platform called layar people could use their phone’s GPS system to find it. Of course, each items was on the web anyway. It’s just that they can be accessed a different way.
In short, augmented reality is adding an extra layer of information to what you are looking at. You point a phone at a building, an artwork or a landscape and you can opt to access content related to it. It also works with print too. Point a smart phone at an image and you can access extra content. You can link to a video clip or even buy the item.
To me, this is just a little bit amazing. To me as a communications person it starts to get me thinking.
A mobile first strategy
Back in 2009 I read a blog post that utterly changed the way I think about news and the future of news. Going back to it today Steve Buttry, it’s author, seems like some kind of Tomorrow’s World visionary pointing out the obvious. In short, he wrote that he spends lots of time in airport departure lounges. In the past, people had killed time by reading paper newspapers turning each page literally. Increasingly, he was seeing people killing time by reading their mobile phones. So, he suggests, isn’t it smarter to think about mobile first? In other words, he describes a mobile first strategy.
Steve suggests that newsrooms take a deep breath, stop using antiquated titles like reporter, photographer and editor and just think of themselves as journalists. They need to get used to the idea of metadata. That’s the tags of extra information that help categorise an item so it can be found again. In other words, a story about a £5m leisure centre in Brown Street, Oxdown would be tagged with Brown Street as well as Oxdown, as well as leisure, Oxdown Council, finance, the ward name and the co-ordinates of the new building. That’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just the who, what, where, when and how that’s always been the cornerstone of news.
The mobile first approach, Buttry says, also includes links to the back story. The pieces of content that have already been produced which are relevant. The approach also allows journalists to crowd-source a story or views on a story.
It’s what most national news organisations do today and what The Guardian do very well.
Yes, yes but public relations?
What’s relevant to the news landscape is also relevant to communications landscape too.
I love newspapers. I started my career on them before I moved into local government communications. But I’m long past the point that Buttry saw of seeing more people look at their phones rather than look at their local paper. Only, I’m not catching planes. I’m catching a bus or a train and I’m in the Black Country in the English Midlands.
For me, I’m less interested in shiny technology than I am with communicating with people. If shiny tech can help reach an audience then I get to be really, really interested. Where news, the media and ultimately residents are heading then I believe that’s where communications people must be there too. Or even be as one of the first so they can get to understand what’s over the horizon. Maybe it echoes Buttry’s call that newspaper titles are obsolete but I’m getting increasingly convinced that the phrase ‘press officer’ and ‘PR officer’ are getting irrelevant. What does a press officer do when there’s less or no press and we still need to communicate with people?
We’ve changed in my corner of communications to adapt to social media because that’s what people are doing. We need to start to tentatively think about augmented reality too.
Yes, yes but how?
Now, I’m, not saying for a minute that we need to change everything to add everything we do to include an augmented reality – or AR to use the buzzword – element. The communications team that ditched print for the web in 1993 may in hindsight be seen as visionary. They’d also be a bit silly too. For me, it’s just being aware of the curve and investing a little time and effort into a project that’s going to be a learning process.
That’s probably where something like The Guardian’s n0tice platform can really start to come into play. Set up earlier this year, it aims to add news to maps on its platform. It has a small but growing following. There’s a board for Walsall which I’ve very tentatively started and I’m looking to head back to soon.
There’s also plenty of mileage in creating getting to know platforms like http://www.layar.com/ or seeing if a friendly webbie can work with you.
As comms teams are looking at changing the way hey do thinks through digital press offices this is something that can add some value.
How can augmented reality be used in local government?
Just last week I was in my car giving a lift to a town planner and somehow amongst the football banter, the work gossip and the cricket talk the subject of websites for planning applications came up. Yes, yes. I know. That’s just how I roll. The discussion turned to augmented reality. At this the light bulb above my planner mate’s head really lit up. Planning applications could be accessed. Maybe artists impressions could be added too. With links to allow people to comment.
Looking at other parts of local government and the opportunities are vast. Local history. Leisure. News. Content to help explain areas of countryside, habitats and what lives there. The truth of it is, we don’t know how local government can fully use augmented reality until people start to use it more, start to innovate and to try things out.
But in the back of my head I always think of my Dad when I hear of digital innovation. The real tipping point is when it opens up for someone like him with his very old phone and his late adopter use of the web. But if you wait until then to start to look at the subject you’re already far too late.
It’s far better to know what’s on the other side of the hill so you can spend a little time innovating and making a few mistakes when there’s not many people around to see.
If my eight-year-old is already using augmented reality it’s probably time grown-up organisations started to think about it at a comfortable pace too.
Some extra reading
Steve Buttry’s blog post on how news organisations can put mobile first
Talk About Local on hyperlocal websites and augmented reality
Augmented reality. A useful six minute YouTube starter
Will Perrin of Talk About Local demonstrating augmented reality
Philladelphia History on using augmented reality in local history.
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In Dunkirk, its Johnny Mills as a British corporal steering his men to safety.
In Pulp Fiction, its Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta getting away with accidentally shooting Marvin in the face.
One if the biggest challenges facing press offices and communications teams is how to blend the old with the new to stay relevant.
There was a fascinating post by Ann Kempster who works in central government about what comms teams should look like. You can read it here. Emer Coleman from the Government Digital Service and others made some excellent comments.
A couple of years ago I blogged about what comms teams needing to adapt and have traditional and digital skills. I probably over-sold open data. We’re not there just yet but will be but the basics I still hang my hat on.
Back then I said the communications team needed to be both digital and traditional so calling something a press office these days is a bit of an anachronism. It would involve the basics:
- Have basic journalism skills.
- Know how the machinery of local government works.
- Write a press release.
- Work under speed to deadline.
- Understand basic photography.
- Understand sub-editing and page layouts.
But would need to have these too:
For web 1.0 the press office also needed to:
- Add and edit web content
For web 2.0 the press office also needs to:
- Create podcasts
- Create and add content to a Facebook page.
- Create and add content to a Twitter stream.
- Create and add content to Flickr.
- Create and add content to a blog.
- Monitor and keep abreast of news in all the form it takes from print to TV, radio and theblogosphere.
- Develop relationships with bloggers.
- Go where the conversation is whether that be online or in print.
- Be ready to respond out-of-hours because the internet does not recognise a print deadline.
For web 3.0 the press office will also need to:
- Create and edit geotagged data such as a Google map.
- Create a data set.
- Use an app and a mash-up.
- Use basic html.
- Blog to challenge the mis-interpretation of data.
So how can we make the joint traditional and digital press office work?
There’s no question that the traditional press office and the digital press office should be under the same roof.
There’s no point in having an old school team with spiralbound notebooks and in the next room a digital team with jet packs and Apple macbook pros not communicating.
So what can help make the joint digital and trad comms team work?
Press officers won’t all head voluntarily to this bright new dawn. It’s just not going to happen overnight. Some won’t change and will be left behind.
The bright ones will adapt and are adapting to a place where a bog standard comms plan will include old media + social media + web as a matter of course. After all. We don’t all have specialists for TV or radio sat in most press offices and certainly not in local government where I work.
We all need a specialist digital comms officer to help blend the old and the new
Once I knew a man who was a mechanic. He used to repair petrol engines. At night school, he learned how electrical generators worked.
When his company changed to electrical generators he alone had the expertise for both and was invaluable in training staff.
That’s the approach we need for press officers.
In other words, what will blend old and new in the short and medium term is the dedicated social media or digital communications officer.
On Ann Kempster’s blog the anaology was made about digital cameras. We don’t refer to cameras as ‘digital’ these days. They are just cameras. That’s true and that’s where we need to go with comms teams.
But in many ways there’s more to it than that. I remember working as a newspaper when the first photographer – who was not a popular man – walked in proudly with a satchel with the paper’s first digital camera and laptop. “Schools broken up early has it?” came the dry-balloon bursting quip from the long-serving deputy chief reporter. The same quip was made every time the photographer walked in until the whole of the company’s photographers had them. Somehow, knowing the characters involved that made it funnier.
There was a cross-over period while photographers adapted to the new technology but the basic work of the photographer remained the same. Composition was unaltered. They were still building the same things through their view finders. But with digital communications it’s asking people to use a completely different set of skills. Like asking a photographer to become a sculptor overnight. But still take pictures when needed too.
From experience, the shift from the traditional to the traditional + digital takes time but it has to be coaxed and encouraged. That’s where the digital specialist in the comms team comes in so long as they share the sweets, horizon scan and work to give back-up to help others gain confidence. They also need to flag up the successes. They need to do some measuring and reporting back. We need to include digital stats along with traditional media ones so when the cabinet member in local government, or whoever, gets told what’s happening in the media they’re getting the digital picture too.
Just because an organisation has given the green light to social media doesn’t always mean the influential people in an organisation get it. One of the big complaints is that digital is tacked onto the busy day job. Well, if the day job means press releases churned out to dwindling newspapers maybe that work needs re-calibrating. But you need to convince the powers that be that it’s not 1985 anymore and digital and traditional is the way forward.
Why do comms need to share the sweets?
That’s something I’ve been banging on about for a long time. Comms needs to train, give advice, shape policy where needed but most importantly hold the door open for others to go through.
Across the country these either formally titled or informally tasked digital comms people can be seen doing good things. Look at Helen Reynolds in Monmouthshire County Council, Geoff Coleman at Birmingham City Council and what Al Smith did at Newcastle City Council and elsewhere as a couple of examples.
It’s the path that Walsall Council’s comms team has taken too thanks to bright leadership. As a result we now have press officers like Tina Faulkner and Becky Robinson who by no means are digital natives putting together inspiring campaigns like this one which saw a morning with a carer and her husband who suffers Alzheimers. They found magic in this approach which told a human story beautifully.
The challenge is to find the innovator in every comms team and gently give others room and confidence to grow if they need it.
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