OFF SPIN: Why Malcolm Tucker must die

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’.

Why 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.”


STOP BEING IRRELEVANT: Here’s five things every comms person should know

It’s amazing communications people are walking towards irrelevance but have not yet woken up.

In 2011 people get their information through a range of places.

Twitter broke the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. For some peoplem, it was Gary Neville’s Twitter stream that did it.

Closer to home, for the first time I found out the reason for a blocked road near my house via social media. That’s a personal tipping point.

But what of communications units?

They’re tackling the 21st century media landscape with a 20th century set-up. They’re geared to print when the world is turning to digital. It’s still what the local paper says that drives the agenda despite the paper being read by a minority. They’re a voice. But they’re one of several.

It’s now about doing both. Really well and getting to that point really, really quickly.

Here’s a quick history lesson.

Typesetters were once the kings of their craft using hard won skills to play a key role in delivering the news.

Computers came along and soon it was easy to replicate what they did.

Almost overnight generations of hard learned skills were irrelevant.

Once, having the skills to deal with media queries and to shape messages for print were all important.

But the media landscape has changed.

  • Newspaper sales are collapsing around us. People who read at least one a day fell from 26.7 million to 21.7 million from 1992 to 2006.
  • Best estimates  in 2011 are that 12 million local and national newspapers are sold every day. A further three million like the Metro are given away every day in the UK.
  • In April 2011, not a single national newspaper recorded growth.

And digital? Here are some random stats:

  • How many people are on Facebook in the UK? There’s 29 million. About half the population.
  • Facebook is  the fourth biggest website in the world for news.
  • By 2013, smartphones are predicted to be the first point of contact with the internet overtaking PCs.
  • 85 per cent of the UK population in summer 2010 was online.
  • Of those, 29 million had visited a social site in ther past month.
  • If you’re starting out there’s a great YouTube clip from Simply Zesty that’s a good starting point. The link is here.

Stop and think.

Where are people getting their information? Where do you get your information?

Then think how much time do traditional communications units and press offices devote to print media.

How much time is spent on digital platforms?

Are we really spending time going out onto Facebook to tackle issues where they arise? Or are we – at best – waiting for them to come to our corporate page? If we have one, that is.

Too many communications units have got the balance wrong putting scarce resources into print with little if any for digital.

But by doing so they’re becoming more irrelevant with every passing day and comms people with them.

This isn’t an argument for stopping writing press releases overnight. It’s more about recalibrating and getting the balance right.

Right now, it’s the press release, the photocall – where news photographers or photography budgets – AND the digital channels too.

My grandpa was a headteacher in the Lake District. He refused to have a telephone in the house because people he didn’t have the time to answer it. Many comms units are backing off from truly embracing digital for the same reason. They think they’ll be inundated, that the world will end and they don’t know where to start.

But digital is the one thing that will keep them relevant.

A couple of times recently I’ve been at events where trad comms people have been in the majority. You could almost touch the fear of change. The digital disasters and ‘what if scenarios’ were being trotted out. You could practically see the wagon train forming a circle.

It’s fine to keep the trad comms skills for the while. But press officers and marketing people need to learn new skills too if they’re not to become the typesetters of their generation.

A transport officer recently asked me if comms people would be irrelevant in 10 years time when we all have Facebook streams and officer Twitter accounts or presences on platforms that have yet to be even start-ups.

It’s a fair question.

As things stand, yes.

But as professionals who can help deliver a message through different channels, not at all if we evolve to meet them. That means new skills but most important of all the time and space to deploy them.

Here are five things a trad comms person needs to know:

Without learning new skills you’re unemployable. Interviewing skills, drawing-up a release, a campaign and dealing with the old media are still good basics to have. But without the digital strings to your bow how are you going to talk to the Facebook generation? Social media is not a silver bullet. But it’s a bullet you’ll need in your next job.

It’s not scary. Honest. The fact that you can deliver a message via print and radio means you are halfway there. Surely, you’d like to reach as many people as possible? Once you grasp the basics the door will open and you’ll find whole new vistas of possibility opening up.

It’s easy to get started. Do things under your own steam first to learn how platforms work. The lessons you’ll learn blogging about cake will come in handy further down the track. There’s also a wealth of learning out there on blogs, at mashable,com and places like the LGiD’s Communities of Practice forum.

There’s no such thing as a social media expert. We’re all learning. All of us. Every day is a school day and chances are the things you’ll do will be pioneering because social media hasn’t been around that long.

It’s web 2.0, baby. It’s a new way of doing things. People expect a two way conversation not someone broadcasting at them.

All these things so many people are already taking for granted.

Are you?

And have your comms team?

Creative commons credits

Facebook http://www.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/503165914/sizes/o/in/photostream/#

Phone full http://www.flickr.com/photos/djenan/468459784/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Smiles http://www.flickr.com/photos/walker_ep/5771324633/sizes/m/in/pool-26241990@N00/

Turn out the lights http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/4272463964/sizes/l/in/photostream/


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