Tom Foremski’s this-can’t-go-on wail reads as powerfully as a Martin Luther deconstruction of one of the central pillars of the public relations industry.
“I’ve been telling the PR industry for some time now that things cannot go along as they are,” Tom wrote, “business as usual while mainstream media goes to hell in a hand basket.”
There is no point, he says, in writing slabs of text in journalese, and sending them to journalists when the traditional newspaper industry is dying and the news landscape is undergoing a digital revolution whether it likes it or not, Tom argued.
He’s right. The future is the message being shaped as web content and as social media conversation that has to be two-way and authentic, fun and interesting. Public relations people, no, communications people need to realise this if they are to still be relevant.
But that’s not to say that the press release is dead overnight. It’ll be here but diminishing.
Twelve months ago at an LGComms event I pointed to Tom’s post in a presentation and explained why this was something people needed to know. For five years I’ve been pointing to rapid change from my very small corner of the digital allotment.
Other louder voices have seen what I’ve seen too.
Government director of communications Alex Aiken made a similar point although more forcefully in a speech to the PRCA conference reported by PR Week.
Ashley Brown, Coca Cola’s global director for social media and digital communications, recently talked about the wish to end not just the press release but the corporate website too.
“For the first time ever, our PR teams are being asked to think beyond a press release or beyond a toolkit or beyond a launch package. They had to think: ‘Wow, what is a two-minute really high quality video that someone would really want to share with the friends?’”
“We’re finally breaking the last connections to the corporate website. I think the corporate website is over. I think it’s dead. I think everyone needs to start thinking beyond it. How can you turn it into a media property and hopefully the age of press release pr is over as well.
“I’m on a mission. If there’s one thing I do it’s to kill the press release. We have a commitment to reduce the number of press releases by half by the end of this year. I want them gone entirely by 2015. That’s our goal.”
That’s fine for Coke. But how easy is it if you work somewhere else?
Actually, press release murder is a pretty tricky subject to raise amongst comms people. It’s akin to telling people the skills they’ve spent a career crafting are now not so important. It’s telling a room full of sailors to put down their reef knot and lore and learn how to service an outboard motor. PR people are often former journalists who have in any event spent years as juniors crafting the ability to write press releases. Every word is pored over and shaped by committee. That control gives power. To attack the use of the press release is to launch a personal attack on the career history of PR people.
In the UK, the Government Digital Service published a fascinating study - the half life of news – of more than 600 press releases on gov.uk that looked at the traffic they got. Many spike quickly then fade like digital chip paper.
But if the battle is to be won it’s probably not the revolutionary cry of ‘Die, press release!’ that will win in it. It’s not even a study of how effective the numbers are in getting a story across that will lead the victory, although that will be important. It’ll actually be you, me and the people you went to school with who vote with their feet and share the sharable content.
There is nothing so boring, I’ve heard it said, as the future of news debate amongst journalists because what they say will have no bearing whatsoever on what the outcome will be.
It’ll be things like Oreo’s mugging of the Superbowl with an image of a biscuit created on the spot and tweeted and Facebooked within minutes to take advantage of a powercut. It wasn’t the lavish TV ads that was talked about. It was the real time marketing team who made the sharable image and the 15,000 retweets and 20,000 likes it achieved.
What’s real time marketing? It’s people making content that capitalises on real time events. Look it up. You’ll need to know it.
All this is why I’m finding communications utterly fascinating right now.
And you have to ask yourself the question, if you are not thinking of what post-press release life looks like now, what will you be doing in five years?
Creative commons credits
Sorry, no gas http://flic.kr/p/7vtFzZ
Back in 1882 when England took on Australia at the game of cricket it took 10 weeks for the message of who won to travel 9,000 miles from London to Melbourne. Today it takes seconds.
Nothing is a better yardstick of how communications is innovating than this never ending battle between two countries.
Message by ship was succeeded by the telegram, radio, TV and the internet. Like a timeline each innovation has carried the message.
In 2013, it’s been no different and this historic game of bat and ball has shown a yardstick of where we are. As Australia lost to England the story was told by tweet, picture, TV broadcast and blog.
Here are 18 things we can learn about digital communications and The Ashes.
1. Pictures work on Facebook
As a Facebook page Official England Cricket works brilliantly in many ways. They are a case study in how creating sharable content works well. They don’t add score updates. They post pictures of Ian Bell lifting his bat in triumph with a message. Even a damp image of an outfield gets more than 60 shares and a barrage of 1,800 likes.
2. You need to moderate your Facebook page
As great as Official England cricket is at posting content they’re not always the best at moderating the abuse that goes on at times between people. Including an amazing amount of spam and grief that comes out of the Indian sub-continent.
3. Post on Twitter to the popular hashtag
Both England with 221,000 and Australia with 219,000 followers used Twitter effectively. But when they posted content they may have had their own hashtags but they also added content to the far more popular #ashes community which at its height was trending globally.
4. Be careful about your own hashtag
Yes, it’s lovely looking at metrics which belong to you through a distinctive hashtag. England had #rise based on a piece of commissioned poetry which was all about rising to the challenge. Australia had the bold #returntheurn about how Australia were going to sieze back the six inch urn. Which sounded fine when the series started but led to derision when they were on the end of a 3-0 stuffing. It was dropped.
— Cat Jones (@Cricketbatcat) August 25, 2013
5. The Twitter hashtag as news channel
Forget the TV. Forget the radio. Forget news sites. If you were away from them the place to find out what was happening was just checking the #ashes stream itself where you had the beauty of two perspectives. The English and the Australian. At the same time. So, as I sat on a train as Stuart Broad ran through the Aussies to secure victory it was via Twitter that I was following what was happening.
6. Hashtags as an instagram community
The photosharing site Instagram was used by Australia. Less newsy than Twitter. Less engaging than Facebook Instagram was a platform for capturing people photographing the TV they were watching, the pint they had just bought or their view from the boundary itself. Australia sprinkled their own content with behind-the-scenes pictures.
7. Google Plus has good numbers but a mixed take-up
While Australia ran a cracking page for 50,000 people updated regularly with images and content the Official England page for 190,000 was lacking the TLC that makes a page fly. The jury remains out it seems.
8. Old media doesn’t like new media and would rather it went away
For decades radio coverage of cricket in the UK has come from the BBC’s Test Match Special. It has done the job incredibly well. But they pay for the privilige. And the alternative Test Match Sofa coverage doesn’t. The Sofa is some blokes sat on a settee watching the cricket of telly and burbling into a laptop and broadcasting the results online. Deliciously amateur? Yes. But when The Cricketer magazine linked up with them the BBC was not happy.
The late Christopher Martin-Jenkins remarked:
“The thought of having to listen to the predators who purport to be producing commentaries from sofa or armchair without paying a penny to the England and Wales Cricket Board for the rights, is too ghastly to contemplate. The sooner they are nailed and swept offline, the better.”
The row escalated when a Cricketer employee tweeted about Test Match Sofa in breach of accreditation guidelines.
9. Audio works
Both Test Match Special and Test Match Sofa did rather well with tailoring snippets of commentary from key moments of the series. Like Kevin Pietersen falling for 62 in a glorious thrash towards a target in the 5th Test. The BBC did similar with their polished version although they only stay up for a limited amount of time. But nothing was as good as the close-of-play podcast the BBC version produced.
10. YouTube works if it is from the heart
Aussie journalist Geoff Lemon produced a memorable diatribe against his error strewn opener Shane Watson recorded outside the ground as the crowd were heading home. It’s so angry it’s beautiful. The thing is that Shane kept getting out lbw. And then to make matters worse kept wasting a precious review that allows a second look by off-field umpires. “Stop being so… Shane Watson,” a red-faced Lemon roared as he searched for the worst abuse he could think of.
You can watch it right here.
11. The player’s relative’s social media account is a news creator
Aussie opener David Warner was demoted to the ‘A’ team after he attacked a rival player in a Birmingham pub. His brother unhappy at Shane Watson taking his bro’s placed launched what is known in the journalist’s trade as a ‘Twitter tirade.’
12. Ghost written columns by players are pointless
They don’t say anything, they don’t do anything. They’re exercises in platitudes not offering a scrap of anything interesting.
13. The celebrity fan’s social media account is a news creator
When Piers Morgan tweeted from the US to criticise Stuart Broad’s decision not to volunteer his wicket and instead turn to the umpire to make the decision (he didn’t) it became news. Drearily.
14. Journalists need to be on Twitter
The leading journalists from old media – and new – were active on Twitter. Not just linking to their latest finely crafted piece but also presenting a human side. Without noticing it the journalist as human being has entered the list of things the good hack must be. It’s not enough to lurk or to dismiss the platform.
15. Social as a way of taking the temperature
When things blew well for either side it became clear by taking a look at social. A search for either time showed how happy / angry / incandescent supporters of both sides were with Stuart Broad / DRS / the weather / umpires / David Warner.
16. The accidental tweet is alive and well
When a particularly amazing umpiring decision was made against Australia the official stream chipped in with a tweet describing the decision as #bullshit. It was quickly deleted. Make sure you know who has access to the account is one lesson. I’ll bet that using two different platforms to get onto Twitter – one for personal and one for work – is now part of the press office brief.
17. Venues are poorly equipped for social
Outside of press rooms the paying punters are overlooked when it comes to WiFi – free or otherwise. The bright venue will look to offer a way of their customers staying online to contribute to the conversation, tell the world what a great player Michael Clarke or Ian Bell is and what a tasty burger they’ve just eaten. This will change.
18. Social media is just part of the landscape
Sometimes those who live on Twitter can lose sight of how the media landscape isn’t just Twitter although sometimes it’s hard to seem otherwise. The industry around the Ashes remains TV and radio with a whole side industry of books a by-product of every series. But social is becoming so embedded we no longer see it as something to raise an eyebrow at. Like an Aussie win in the 1990s. Or an English victory since 2009.
Earlier in the year I presented this rather fine deck of slides to LGComms in Manchester and wrote a blog post around the subject of Die Press Release, Die! Die! A post partly inspired by the rather fine Tom Foremski post of the same name from way back in 2006. A whole load of text words and images.
It turns out I was wasting my time. What I really should have done was to just show this table from Fred Godlash from the BusinessWired blog. It talked about a post they wrote in 2007 that put the price of a press release at $5,000. The equivalent price is $7,500 they surmised. Oh, how I wish that was the case for the corner of the public sector that I work in that collectively put out more than 1,000 in the previous 12-month period. You can read the full post here.
But what really caught my eye was a table that set out the reasons for writing a press release in 2007 compared to 2013. I’ve reproduced it here:
Why? Because it really nails the motivation behind getting a message out. In the past the aim was ink inches and coverage in the local newspaper. Today, the aim for any communications person is to think both print and digital.
The question is, are you? And how are you doing it? If you are not what are you doing about it?
Creative commons credit
This month I got to go to Dublin to talk to some great people from Dublin City Council who are looking, like we all are, to better understand how the internet is changing what they do.
There I got to meet The Studio a kind of crack team of people enabling change with skills from different parts of local government.
I also got to hear how Carmel McCartney, a community worker for the council has built and nurtured a Facebook page to serve the Crumlin community in the north of the city . There’s also Pauline Sargent who runs a hyperlocal blog in the community of Drimnagh who has met and connected with Carmel.
Carmel, although she doesn’t know it, is doing things that in years to come with be second nature to community workers. She set-up a Facebook page for one of the community she serves. She’s savvy enough to know that the 83 likes she has on her page isn’t the measure of what she’s doing. What is is that when she posts other neighbourhood Facebook pages pick up on this and share her content which allows her to reach thousands.
At the heart of it is a simple thing. It’s basically the council talks to it’s residents at the place where they’re gathering.
There should be more people like Carmel and in truth there are. But they’re often the people and in places you’d least expect.
Similarly, hyperlocal blogger Pauline Sargent is another glimpse of what things should look like. Her hyperlocal site Drimnagh is Good seeks to better tell people about what is going on in the community and sites like hers should be welcomed as part of the news landscape. They won’t always say great things about the council. But then newspapers don’t either but we think nothing about engaging with them where we can.
The whole relationship between blogger and local government is something that will become more important. Just because we never have is no reason to never will. I’ve written about what the blogger – press officer relationship should look like before.
But as Pauline and Carmel show it all just boils down to building good, human relationships. Offline as well as online.
Creative commons credit
Yes, it’s true that it has only a percentage of the users that Facebook has. But when the bottom line of that percentage is 230 million that’s a significant figure.
As someone who dodged the hype of the ill-feted Google Wave I hung back when Google+ was launched as a local government comms person. A couple of things have made me re-think things.
Firstly, there is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Google+ page that has racked-up more than 200,000 likes. Shane Dillon has been a real evangelist for the platform and as one of the pioneers he deserves credit and wrote a fine post on the page here.
Secondly, there was a hugely fascinating chat with Shane as well as community web evangelist John Popham, Leah Lockhart from Scottish local government and Phil Rumens from localgov digital who wrote this fine post on what it can offer. That chat really offered up some insight.
Thirdly, there’s the Birmingham City Council Google+ page with more than 24,000 users. That moves the bar from being a global brand thing and one that my corner of local government can take a look at.
So, in Janet and John terms, what’s Google +?
For me, it’s an intelligent Facebook without the farms or a slightly longer Twitter. It’s ad free for now. It’s a place to start a discussion or share a link, a video clip or an image. When you start an account you can create circles where people from different interests can be placed so you can more easily drink from the firehose of information.
When you have your own account you can then create a page that acts in the same sort of way that a Facebook page does for the Google+ community.
So how has this big corporation attempt at social sneaked-up up on us all?
The reality is that since it was launched in summer 2011 there has been a devoted list of people who have been using it and enjoying. Niche perhaps at first but they’re growing and as Google+ develops and keeps adding features that are rather useful those numbers will grow.
Many were sceptical at Google’s record in the field. Great tech but poorly presented. Besides, this felt like a top-down invention from big business rather than something that emerged from a start-up’s bedroom. The counter argument is that neither Facebook or Twitter are exactly small business these days.
Where are the good examples?
When I asked the question 12-months ago there were few if any pages that you could look at and feel as though new ground was being made. But here are three good pages.
With more than 3.2 million followers (or maybe they’re likers? Or plus-ers?) the Cadbury page is witty, imaginative and engaging. It’s a soft sell. There is sharable content aimed at people who like chocolate. Look hard enough and you’ll see the purple and white branding.
Furniture made out of chocolate photographed and posted, for example.
Odd as though it may sound, amongst the corporate pages there’s a rather lovely example from little business too. Ladders Online are a company that supply extra big ladders. Their page features content of inappropriate ladders badly positions and other trade advice. If ladders can be made to be engaging what is the rest of us waiting for?
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office page for me is the gold standard. There’s senior buy-in. There’s updates from the Minister and good content.
Birmingham City Council’s Google+ page went into orbit after Google reached out and made contact, verifying it and then promoting it. As I understand it from Guy Evans, the council’s social media officer, content is linked to Facebook.
When the Shropshire Family Information Service wanted to reach more more they chose Google+ as a way to do it. More knackered dads use the platform that knackered mums and elsewhere North Yorkshire County Council are starting to make some sense of it while Toronto Police used the Google hangout functionality to livestream a press conference here. In New Mexico in the US Governor Gary Johnson staged a hangout with some residents.
What’s good about Google+
- Google juice. There’s extra brownie points in the search rankings for a link from Google+. For the most part, my corner of local government doesn’t have to stress too much about such things as SEO (that’s search engine optimisation, the art of getting a website up the Google search rankings.) But for micro-sites and other projects this is rather good.
- Google hangouts. Back in the day video conferencing was an expensive business. With Google hangouts there is built-in video conferencing between users and the ability to run it via YouTube to larger audiences.
- It’s not got adverts. A refreshing change after spending time on the hyper-targeted world of Facebook. Google makes it’s money via search, mainly so doesn’t need to spam users just yet.
- Images and video. Realising that good images get shared it’s clear that they’ve put images at the heart of things. You post a link and the image gets posted prominently to catch the eye.
- How to use it is largely a white piece of paper. Because it’s new it’s not blighted by people who claim to know what they’re doing and where you’re going wrong.
What’s bad about Google+
- There aren’t the numbers of Facebook or Twitter. They have big numbers but not really, really big numbers.
- The mobile apps aren’t great. Certainly the Android app is a bit clunky for pages although this may change.
- It’s 50-50. Blogs knocking it sometimes seem equally balanced with those gushingly praising it.
- Anyone can add your personal profile to their circles. So be careful about dissing your boss thinking you are behind a walled garden. You’re not. There are some excellent comments on this theme on this blog post here.
- It doesn’t have the stickiness of Facebook. People don’t stay on it for long. Just three minutes or so a month in this study compared to more than seven hours with Facebook.
In the changing landscape, Google+ is now a feature. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.
Working in local government at best can be inspiring and life affirming. At worst can feel like a cross between a natural disaster and the battle of the Somme.
Great landslides are appearing overnight in an old familiar landscape and the normal ways of doing things have gone. I loose count of the number of bright people I know who have left or have been forced to leave.
Against that backdrop the LGA have reacted to a major funding cut by calling into question their walled garden Knowledge Hub be closed. The thinking is that this job can maybe be done by social media without the need for an expensive to maintain website and small army of mostly voluntary curators.
I feel for those in the LGA worrying for their jobs. I’ve been there. Those at risk would rather Knowledge Hub closed in a flash if it meant their jobs were saved. I know I would. When you are in a trench being shelled old soldiers would recall how you would hope the next shell doesn’t land on you. You are not thinking of innovation and better concrete-lined dugout.
If unconferences like localgovcamp is a kind of digital Glastonbury which brings the cutting edge together then the Knowledge Hub is the Top 40. A mainstream place to ask questions.
I’m an infrequent visitor to Knowledge Hub and I get my ideas and inspiration from Twitter. But I know that this isn’t for everyone.
I help with comms2point0 whose blog gets 10,000 visitors a month for comms people. I know how much work it takes. I simply don’t see similar platforms emerging for the 600 tasks local government does.
I’ll leave the debate on what and how to others like Steve Dale who were involved in the original concept for how Knowledge Hub should look and know that it didn’t quite work out that way.
The truth is obvious. There is a need for a central safe platform where people can ask, share and be inspired in. It’s madness to think otherwise.
Creative commons credits:
There are four reasons why I’m not in the CIPR which is progress, I suppose, as there used to be five.
Of course, the optimist in me calls this a 20 per cent improvement year-on-year.
But the realist in me still thinks there’s an 80 per cent reason for me not to join. Just yet. Although there’s much I greatly admire.
The CIPR – the Chartered Institute for Public Relations – is an organisation based in London and represents PR people from across the broad sweep of the industry from the newest student to the most experienced agency chief. It costs £260 to join as a member with £50 of that being a joining fee.
They do good things
It’s also an organisation I do have time for. Their excellent CIPR conversation aggregates blogs from people across the industry and pulls them into one place. They’ll also be tweeted. Disclaimer: my blog gets syndicated there from time to time and Andrew Ross does a fine job in pulling all of this together. I learn things there.
I’m also quietly rooting for Stephen Waddington to become president in the current elections. Why? Because he’s from Northumberland. But mainly because he understands digital communications and sees its growing place of importance. Besides, he tweets pictures of lambs on his farm.
It was a Twitter exchange with Stephen and then with CIPR member Stuart Bruce a couple of days ago that prompted me to think just why I wasn’t a member. So, here are the reasons:
Four reasons why I’m not a member
1. I’m local government. I spend a lot of time in the trenches with my sleeves rolled up doing day-to-day comms that doesn’t easily fit into extensive comms plans. There’s definitely the ability to draw-up one page of A4 as a comms plan in 20 minutes that is a skill that draws on local knowledge.
It also means that having a budget to carry out strategy is largely a thing of the past.
2. I’m West Midlands. There’s no question that if I was in London with the events on offer this would be a different proposition. But a trip to the capital makes even a free event cost £50 and the activities in the middle of the country are scarce.
3. I’m public sector. With budgets cut it means that paying £200 to attend a day of conference isn’t ever going to happen anytime in the next 20 years.
4. There’s too many PR people. Stick with me on this. When we were getting our head around social media in 2008 case studies were rare and the CIPR seemed to be living in the past. A group unhealthily centred on print and talking a 20th century language of channels and key messages. The ideas that formed the bedrock of our use of social came from coders, bloggers, police officers and geeks who were busy inventing new envelopes to push to care too much about comms plans. They inspired us at events like localgovcamp and every day still do. As social tools become easier to access the role of comms is changing. It’s often those at the frontline who are doing amazing work and it’s the role of comms to inspire, train and give the green light.
I’m sure there are some hugely talented PR people who are re-writing the rule book. But there are many more rule books being invented on the web by others outside the traditional comms job description. These are the geeks that are inheriting the world that are taking code, messing about with and building things.
There was of course a fifth which isn’t always the case these days. The CIPR is not just understanding digital but doing some great pioneering work with it too.
No comms organisation can exist in 2013 without both eyes firmly on 2023 and not with it’s heart hankering for 1983.
Creative commons credits
Telephones black http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholasjon/4331186333/sizes/l/
Jo Smith has taken a massive step towards clearing her name and accepted an out-of-court compensation payment from Argyll & Bute Council rather than press ahead with her claim for unfair dismissal. You can read all about it in the Dunoon Observer.
Okay, isn’t this just a backwater story? Actually, no. If you work in local government, are a comms person or speak or have ever learned something at a conference this all is pretty significant. Had Jo lost there may have been a chilling effect on all three.
It’s an attractive story on the face of it. Council spin doctor accused by an anonymous source in the Glasgow Herald of saying at a conference she’s been spying using social media. Uproar at conference. Politicians get angry. She gets sacked.
Only thing was it was not true. There was no uproar at the conference. The story emerged four months after it took place. The comments some people attributed to her at the event were not made. People at the conference confirmed this. There were no spy accounts despite a thorough and expensive internal investigation. Jo even topped the feedback as being the most popular speaker with attendees. Some uproar.
Disclaimer: I was at the uproar-less conference and confirmed this less exciting version of events to the Glasgow Herald journalist who first wrote the non-story and failed to quote me. Or organiser Nick Hill. As a former journalist that’s, how shall we say, somewhat disappointing. I also contributed to the internal inquiry along with others who were at or spoke at the event.
You may have heard of Argyll & Bute Council before. They gave the world a world case study in how not to do social media. You may recall they picked a fight with an eight-year-old who was blogging on the Never Seconds blog about her school meals. Jamie Oliver and others came in on the child’s side and they were forced to climb-down. You just know you are on a loser when even a sock puppet makes up a song about you…
You can read BBC technology correspondant Rory Celland-Jones’s take on the Argyll & Bute Never Seconds debacle here.
By the looks of things there are enough people in Argyll & Bute asking questions that now need asking and I think that’s best left to people there.
Jo hasn’t commented on the matter but as organiser Nick Hill this week told Scottish media:
““I organised the conference where the allegations stemmed from and I told both the newspaper involved and the council’s investigation at the outset that Jo didn’t say any of the things she was accused of.
“This has been an extremely trying time for Jo, and I know she wants to thank everyone who has supported her: family, friends, the National Union of Journalists, colleagues and fellow communications professionals. This episode would have been much more difficult to weather without their efforts.
“I know Jo wishes Argyll and Bute Council all the success it deserves.”
Here are seven thoughts…
1. Would the Never Seconds blog debacle have happened with Jo Smith in her post? It was clear that there was no handle on how to respond to bloggers. Or how to respond when things started to go wrong. A Twitter account that was silent but being bombarded with angry tweets is a case study in how not to. It shows the value in having a digital communications-savvy comms person on the bridge.
2. This shows why it’s a good idea to be in a union. The National Union of Journalism stepped in to offer advice and legal representation. Not everyone knows it covers PR people too. I’m in it because you just never know when you’ll be in a situation that Jo found herself in.
3. Jo Smith is made out of stronger stuff than you or me. Weaker people could have gone under. Heaven knows there must have been some dark times but she battled through and can now hold her head up again.
4. It begs the question of what Jo now does about a sometimes digital foot print. In which some pretty vile stuff remains. She’d be entirely forgiven for taking a long hard think about that with her legal team.
5. There could have been a chilling effect on the sharing of knowledge across local government comms had Jo have lost. Many would have re-thought the benefits of speaking at conferences or even attending when the penalty for mis-quoting is the sack and potential career ruin.
6. Jo is an excellent and engaging writer. We were fortunate enough to take a guest post from her on comms2point0 last year based on her experience as a London 2012 games maker. You can read it here.
7. She now deserves to make a success of her life as she puts her experience behind her. With the determination she’s shown she will. Vindicat PR is her new venture and I hope she’ll continue as a contributor to comms2point0.
We all need to be doing more of this digital communications stuff from the hard-bitten pr to the frontline officer.
There shouldn’t be a digital comms team and a traditional comms team in a different part of the building.
There should be one. Which doesn’t mind if frontline people use digital too.
But this is the tricky bit. Every organisation now needs a digital communications specialist to help make this happen.
Let me explain.
Why there shouldn’t be a divide between digital and traditional comms
Back in 1998 the newspaper I was worked at with reluctance set-up email addresses. Our office of 12 reporters had one email platform rigged up to one machine. We gathered around like a bunch of Marconis as the first e-mail landed. “Oooooh!” we cooed as it landed and someone plucked up the courage to type a reply. When the inbox filled we didn’t know what to do.
Back then email in the office I worked in email was seen as specialist job trusted to just one person. Times change and now every new reporter there gets an email address. Which is as it should be.
When digital communications emerged to greet the social web a whole new series of skills were required. Cutting and pasting a press release didn’t work so people re-discovered conversation and informality. It became clear that the language of each platform was different to each. People’s media use splintered and people could no longer be found in one place but several.
This is something I’ve blogged about before and others have too and GCN’s Ann Kempster has written:
I don’t see how a modern press function can operate in isolation, not taking up modern communication methods and solely relying on press cuttings and column inches. The world just does not operate this way anymore. We all need to be able to operate across comms disciplines. That goes for digital too – we need to grasp marketing and press and internal comms.
As soon as everyone realises that digital is nothing to do with digital and all about interactivity and that interactivity allows brands and people to interact as no other medium does then trad and mod will all regroup under the same roof.
To communicate over a range of platforms needs new skills
According to Google, 90 per cent of our media consumption takes place via a screen. Sometimes several screens at once as the Newsnight TV audience contribute via their smartphones to the debate on the #newsnight Twitter hashtag, for example.
Acording to Ofcom’s annual survey, in 2012 more than 50 per cent of adults have a social networking profile with 78 per cent of those aged 15 to 24. It makes fascinating reading.
In short, if you want to communicate with people you need to use a variety of channels.
A press release is no longer your gateway to the media.
A press release, web update, a picture of a nature reserve posted to Twitter on a mobile phone, a sharable Facebook image, a Soundcloud audio clip of a politician speaking or a LinkedIn group contribution from a named officer is. But the thing is. It’s not always all of those things. Knowing the landscape means knowing which will be relevant.
Which is why we need a digital communications specialist.
But won’t a digital comms specialist mean that people think ‘oh, that’s their job?’
I’ve heard it said from people I rate that having a social media officer or a digital comms specialist means that things get chucked over to them to tweet, or whatever. That’s certainly a fair point.
But the specialist whose job it is to share the sweets, advise and train others is vital and won’t let that happen. Think about the teams you’ve worked in. If you are lucky you work with great people who come up with great ideas. But not everyone in the team is always like that. Often, you can only be as good as your least enthusiastic employee and if their grasp of digital comms is poor their delivery will mirror it.
The pace of change in technology is frightening. It’s unrealistic to think that everyone will be equally across it.
Which is why we need a digital communications specialist.
What a digital comms specialist should look like…
1. A trainer…
2. A geek…
3. A solver of problems that aren’t problems yet…
4. A horizon scanner…
5. A builder of an internal community…
6. A source of help…
7. A winner of internal arguments…
8. Someone who knows the channels. Trad and digital…
If you have someone who is already doing this full time you’re quids in. If you’re not your organisation risks falling behind.
Some great work has been done adhoc with digital communications across local government. But without mainstreaming the advances at best will be patchy.
Creative commons credits
Which is pretty much what we did with Commscamp the first unconference for communicators in and around local and central government.
Held at The Bond Company, a lovely converted warehouse in Birmingham’s creative quarter of Digbeth, we drew people from all over the country. It’s 135-capacity we could have sold four times over.
More than 170,000 saw the tweets on the day, a tweetreach survey revealed, and more than 500 joined in the debate on Twitter. More watching the sessions which were livestreamed.
People left the day fired with ideas with connections having been made with the unconference format allowing debate to flow over the tea, coffee and cake.
What is an unconference? It’s attendees deciding what gets talked about and voting with their feet to choose the break-out sessions they want. Want to crack a problem? Pitch a session and help run it yourself.
A revolutionary approach? Not really. It’s based on the success of sister events like UK Govcamp, localgovcamp, librarycamp and Hyper WM with many of them being staged in the highly networked city of Birmingham.
Why has there been such an explosion? Simple. A perfect storm of budget cuts, new technoplogu and people excited a little by the new and better things they can do with them.
A couple of years ago I talked to Home Office press officers.
“Why would I bother with a few thousand people on Twitter when the frontpage of the Sun gets read by two million?” one asked.
A few months later the riots struck and those organisations without a Twitter presence were hopelessly exposed.
I thought of that press officer when the streets burned.
But commscamp was far more than just geeks needing to understand how the web has changed.
It was also about the real human day-to-day problems of how not just to do better for less but how to do completely different for less too.
There was the central government comms person sharing in her session how they coped when their team was cut by two thirds almost overnight.
There was the local government officer talking about how comms people should be letting go of the reins and allowing frontline staff to use social media to tell their day-to-day story.
I’m biased, but people like Morgan Bowers, Walsall Council’s tweeting countryside ranger should be revered and held up as an example to every organisation. You can connect with people with a realtime picture of a newt. Morgan does.
There was the heated debate over the future of the press release. Some thought they had just as important a role as ever. Me? I’m not so sure. Not when you see what things like Torfaen Council’s excellent singing Elvis gritter YouTube can achieve with its 300,000 views. That’s just brilliant.
There was the local government press officer who button holed me with the words: “I just didn’t know comms people could help democracy” or the central government comms person almost drunk with the ideas and possibilities they’d breathed in the asking anyone who would listen how things like commscamp could be repeated.
But the simple answer is it can. With enthusiasm, some volunteers and a smidge of sponsorship you can run your own and it was heartening to hear how others were planning their own.
The fact that it was planned by three people – two local government people myself and Darren Caveney – along with the Cabinet Office’s brilliant dynamo Ann Kempster really shows the power of a good idea, drive and some free social media platforms. The helpers who helped on the day showed that too.
The real value of unconferences is not just the lessons learned on the day and there are plenty. But it’s the connections made and the experiences shared that will still be paying back in 12 months time.
There’s no question that local government and central government have got so much in common and can learn from one another. Fire and rescue people too. And NHS. And the voluntary sector. We need to work with each other more because we face the same problems.
But the golden thread that ran through everything was a determination to do things better by sharing ideas. That, people, is just a bit exciting.
A version of this appeared on The Guardian.