You know the good old days of newspapers have gone, don’t you?
You know that the press release is at best dying too?
If you don’t, here are three more nails for the coffin.
Firstly, the digital first Manchester Evening News have been telling PR people, apparently, they won’t look at what you send unless there is an image or a video attached.
Secondly, when Birmingham New Street re-opened central government comms people by-passed the Birmingham Mail and the BBC and went straight to the Birmingham Updates hyperlocal site with a video for their 200,000 Facebook page.
Thirdly, the Independent newspaper is to scrap its print edition and concentrate on the web. ‘There are not enough people,’ Independent editor Amol Rajan wrote ‘who are prepared to pay for printed news, especially during the week.’
A downward spiral for print
But it’s not just one national title that’s fading from print. More than 300 have closed completely in the UK in the last 10 years.
Brian Cathcart, a journalist professor and Hacked Off co-founder on the day the Independent announcement was made wrote in The Guardian mapped the decline:
“Trace the downward curves of print sales over the past couple of decades and then extend those lines into the future: you will find they all hit zero at some point in the next 25 years or so – and of course they will have to cease publication long before that zero moment comes.
“Indeed for most people under about 25 it is already extinct – a couple of years ago I stopped talking to my students about newspapers because even budding journalists don’t see the point of buying a wad of newsprint every morning.
“The grand tradition of newspapers, sometimes noble sometimes shameful, is coming to an end. Connections that go all the way back to Gutenberg are fraying and we will soon be left with little more than old people’s memories.”
But let’s not be sad
I love newspapers. I worked on them for 12 years and started my career on a Staffordshire weekly carrying pages of type on a hot metal newspaper that used 1880s technology. I’ve had printers ink under my finger nails. It’s sad to see an industry in decline. But watching this trend for communications and PR people is a red herring.
People aren’t consuming the media through newspapers in print or web in the numbers they were.
The future of news debate, I once heard it said, is the most boring debate imaginable. The only people having it are hacks and ex-journalists. Everyone else was already hearing Osama bin Laden was dead on Facebook.
Stats confirm it. Ofcom say the average UK adult spends 15 minutes a day reading newspapers in their hand or online. That’s just over half the amount of time they spend scrolling through their Facebook streams and on their other social media sites. Newspapers are also the least popular way of getting news.
Yet there is an unhealthy fixation with the newspaper industry in some parts of public sector communications. The tyranny of the local newspaper frontpage is a thing.
Print may go but journalism evolves. This is the death of a redundant medium and not the message, Brian Cathcart in The Guardian says. He’s right.
The lesson remains the same
But communications people shouldn’t smugly ignore the lesson here. You may not have to live or die by newspaper sales. Your .gov website may be well placed for SEO. But nobody is queueing up outside their town hall, head office or headquarters for their press release. They’re too busy reading the BBC website, watching a 20-second Facebook video or finding out the football score on Twitter.
Newspapers have woken with a jolt to realise that shorter, sharable, engaging content is what people want. Communications people should pay heed.
The lesson remains the same. Change and get new skills or be irrelevant.
Credit to Albert Freeman for spotting the Independent editor’s comments.
Picture credit: Peter Burka / Flickr / https://flic.kr/p/uUcuRJ
Almost 80 people took part and props to Ben Capper and Darren Caveney for navigating the discussion.
One post from Simon Hope really caught my eye. Is the comms specialist dead? he asks. Do we need to be generalists? You can read it here.
He makes the point that most people join a team with a specialism whether that’s marketing, media relations or social media. However, thinning teams means that people have to turn their hands at a whole range of different things.
But what skills does a comms team need? I’ve blogged about the 40 skills I think comms teams will need. I won’t repeat them here but they range from everything from writing a press release to using data. Just looking at the broad spread of the list it’s apparent that not everyone is going to have all of them. You just can’t.
So, does that mean we should have specialists? Not really. I’ve long argued that we should share the digital sweets.
The aim to have generalists is a good one. But the reality is that some people will still specialise and actually, it’s right that there should be some space so flair should be encouraged.
Looking back, I worked in a team some of whose members in 2008 did not want to learn about social media at all. So, I was defacto spec ialist. I know of one comms person who was sidelined from making videos, crazily, because they were too good at them. The head of comms wanted to forcibly share the sweets. His colleagues didn’t want to learn new skills and the officer in frustration left.
You can aim to have generalists. But there needs to be some allowance to specialise because it’s going to happen anyway. So, a kind of generalist and specialist-generalist. What that will look like in your team is going to be different from another.
But what I believe you must have is a team that has set of core skills and attitudes:
- you need to know traditional and digital and know when to best deploy them.
- you need to know where the answers are if you don’t.
- you need to know how networks work.
- you need to embrace change.
- you need to be able to experiment.
- you need to collaborate.
- you need to know what comms you are doing will change things for the better
- you need to know how to measure the change for the better.
- you need to ask ‘why?’ a lot, say ‘no’ too and be supported in that.
Sound straightforward? In theory it is. In practice, not so. Teams that find a way to do all that prosper and are valued. Teams that don’t wither on the vine.
Commscamp was that good event and one that drew 154 comms, PR and digital people from across the public sector in the UK.
As an unconference, the day has no agenda, with the sessions getting decided on the day by people who came along. There were NHS, local government, Welsh Government, UK government and one or two third sector.
Was it a good event? It seems slightly self-regarding to call something you helped organise ‘good.’ But I’m sure my fellow co-organisers Emma Rodgers and Darren Caveney would agree that it really, really is the attendees who make it. We just provide the space.
Here are 20 things that struck me.
- I love the look in the eyes of some people who came for the first time who revelled in the permission to talk, think and do with freedom. It’s important that everyone is on the same level. Organisers included. I’m quite nostalgic for that.
- A pre-event curry and drinks are a good thing.
- Cake really does bring people together and Kate Bentham is brilliant at building that spirit. So is Andy Mabbett.
- Music playlists also bring people together. Big up Sarah Lay and everyone who contributed.
- The spirit of the event can be summed up by a first time attendee called Chloe ending up helping out on the check-in desk minutes after she arrived.
- Twitter running commentaries by John Fox are a good thing.
- There is a need for people who are trying out new things in their organisation to come together face-to-face to remind themselves that it is not ‘you’ but ‘them’ who are the problem.
- Birmingham in the sunshine looks great.
- Next year we are hiring a canal barge and running a session in it.
- David Banks is on the money with media law in a changing landscape. You really should make friends with him. Or sign-up for his regular emails.
- It would be great to get a handful of private sector people along who came in the spiurit of sharing not selling.
- It would be great to get some third sector and not for profit people along. Catching-up with Laila Takeh at the post-event pint made me even more convinced of that.
- A junior media officer can have better ideas than a self-appointed thought leader or head of a big department. No-one has the monopoly.
- Media teams should stop doing things that aren’t their job at all. First, do so by being polite. Then by banging the table a bit. This doesn’t happen in planning or legal. Stop under valuing your job.
- Sitting round for a good whinge is quite theraputic.
- Sitting round to be deliberately optimistic is also theraputic.
- Bad intranets are a symptom of an organisation that doesn’t care about or trust staff.
- There’s no point replacing the intranet and building something better until you tackle the culture. Sorry.
- Musterpoint is a hootsuite for the public sector built by someone from the public sector.
- There are still some people who think that giving staff social media should be controlled and treated as an extension of core trad comms. I fundamentally disagree.
- Maybe we don’t need intranets.
- No matter how many unconferences you go to you end up wanting to be in two places at once.
- A first ticket release that went in less than three minutes is quite something.
- Nigel Bishop takes good video and pictures.
- Big up Sasha Taylor, Sian Fording, Rob McCleary, Nicky Speed, Kelly Quigley-Hicks and Amanda Nash and James Cattell for their volunteering.
- I’d like to be part of the team of volunteers who does another one of these next year. It was good to see old faces and new. I hope co-founder Ann Kempster can come next year.
- There’s still so much to do.
- Having good sponsors helps. Thank you Christine at MusterPoint, David and Paul at Govdelivery, Liz and Jason at Knowledge Hub, Kirstie and Scott at Touch Design, Steph at Helpful Technology, Pete at IEWM, Nick at PSCSF and supporters Alex and David at GCS, Hannah at LGA, Rachel at All Things IC and Phil at the NUJ.
- Thank you if you came because you helped make it a success.
It’s not next week, the next Tour de France or who will be in the squad for Rio that occupies cycling’s Dave Brailsford. It’s what his best team will be in five years time.
“I find that once you’ve done that,” he told the BBC, “you can work backwards to work out a way to get to where you want to be.”
It chimed with something I’ve often reflected on for some time. Just what should a comms team look like? Not the press release counting machine of history. Not either a team of ninjas on hoverboards. Communications people if they want longevity should be moving. Unlike Dave Brailsford we don’t have until 2020. For some its too late.
Your job used to be create content in a place where people went to consume content passively.
Your job is now to create content in places where people want to consume content where they can share, comment, engage, praise and complain.
If that’s not for you, it’s maybe time to think about that alternative career.
The best day to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best day is today. It’s the same for you and your team.
But that’s enough of the clichés. Here’s some nitty gritty of what you need to know.
As a head of comms or as an individual start mapping where you want to be
Dave Brailsford is right. If you aren’t looking forward you will be made an irrelevance if you aren’t already. It isn’t for your line manager to map your positive future. It’s for you.
As a team, don’t call yourself press officers or even PR
No longer the only show in town the Press is changing. News rooms decimated, Photographers laid off. Anyone who says otherwise is a fool. What is left is a media – let’s call them that rather than newspapers, radio or TV – blinking at the harsh light of the web. Some are evolving. What will survive are those changing into organisations who tell stories with data, pictures or video and in realtime unfettered by print deadlines. Like here or here.
If public releations was to give PR advice to PR it would be to drop the line ‘PR.’ Too toxic. Too reminiscent of Max Clifford and spin.
As a team, don’t be channel fascists
So, be content creators. Not a press officer or a press office. Provide content in the right way at the right time to the right people. Do that free from always having to go through the Priesthood of journalists. The team that does everything as a press release or as a tweet is just as guilty of being a channel fascist. Understand the variety of channels there are and know how to create content for them. And by the way, cut and pasting the same content in six channels doesn’t work.
As a team, look for the influencers who can influence networks
Some may be in the media. Some may be bloggers. Some may be people with important jobs. Some may not have important jobs but have a huge following on Twitter or run a hyperlocal site. Some will be your staff.
As a team, outsource comms to plug into networks
There won’t be enough of you to do everything anymore. So when you set the strategy be gateopeners to other people across the organisation. The Environment Agency manager on Twitter reaches an audience the press office can’t reach. So does the museums assistant who uses Twitter. Or the countryside ranger.
As a team, know your media landscape and break the tyranny of the local newspaper frontpage
If the days when everyone read the local paper ever existed they are over now. Find out what media cover your organisation. Find out their circulation and reach. Find out how many people are on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and YouTube. And use email. Use the annual Ofcom stats as a starting point.
Run a survey of where your team are spending their time. Does it match up with what the landscape actually is? Produce an infographic of where the landscape is and circulate it to everyone. Hang it on your wall. In reports refer to it. Sit down with those in charge and explain it. Ask for permission to re-calibrate.
As a team, the look finance in the eye test
In the old days, comms and PR teams could get away with a vague brief of ‘making the people in charge look good.’ An office two doors from those in charge was their ether. They realised too late that where your office is is no guard against the pain of cuts. Scrapbooks of cuttings from the local paper of a person in a suit planting a tree is spent capital. What talks are business objectives expressed as pounds, shillings and pence. That drive to recruit more foster carers? Thanks to comms it saved £100k. That is what justifies what you do. If it’s not a business objective don’t waste your time.
As a team, generalise but specialise
Making video is tricky and if someone is good at it encourage it. Don’t hold them back. Encourage fresh thought. Embrace experiments. Some will work. Some won’t. But always be learning. But share the sweets across the team and wider.
As a team, get over yourself
You used to have it all. The control. The ear of the people in charge. The sole ability to communicate with the media. That’s gone. But don’t fight it. Sometimes it’ll be you. Other times you’ll get in the way. Sometimes your job will be advice. Sometimes it will be to stand back. Set the strategy. Share the sweets.
As a team, think beyond ‘traditional social media’
At some point the tipping point was reached and people started to ask not for press releases but for Twitter accounts or for stuff to be posted on Twitter. What lazy rubbish.
As an organisation, it’s okay to have social channels that are social
Let the guidemark of the 80-20 rule govern what you do. Share other people’s content. Be human. Tweet a picture of where you are and what you are doing. Asda observe this rule for their hard headed business focussed yet social channels. So do police officers. It works. It’s not messing about. It’s being an effective communicator.
As an individual, challenge, experiment and learn
Whether you are the head of comms or not you need to learn, experiment, challenge, kick tyres and do things in your own time. By all means clock off at 5 o’clock. But you won’t be around for much longer. A new job? Not in communications you won’t.
Three quotes you need to know and live by
‘Hyperlinks flatten hierarchies,’ – The Cluetrain Manifesto, 1999.
‘We need to communicate like insurgents,’ – Tom Fletcher, UK Ambassador to Lebanon, 2014.
“There remains a perverse determination within PR to defend top-down behaviour in a flatter world. PR currently speaks to hierarchies in a world of networks. It is therefore starting in the wrong place both for its own domain and the wider universe of citizens, companies and brands. PR can no longer dictate on its own terms.
“It is not about loudhailer broadcasting or ‘managing the message’ anymore. Shrill press releases are irrelevant in a world that sees through obfuscation and deceit. Building advocacy and activism within networks is the way forward. The voices of regular people need to be heard.” – Robert Phillips, 2015
– Robert Phillips, 2015.
40 skills a comms team needs
Here comes the list. You know what the single most reassuring thing is? All this is achievable. Many of the skills we have can stay with us. Story telling. Relationshiips and the like. But the technical skills are evolving constantly. You stand still at your peril.
All will need
To build relationships
To educate the people you serve
To know the value of networks and to know yours
To accept change
To know when to say ‘no’
To be a diplomat
To challenge – ask why we are doing this?
To listen as an individual
To help people listen as an organisation
To write for the web
To tell stories
To create the right content for the right people in the right channel at the right time
To source photographs
To train others
To know the value of internal comms
To take risks
To be small ‘p’ politically aware
To know when to write a comms plan and when to say ‘no.’
To be self-aware
To be professional
To interpret data
To be broad shouldered
To capture and communicate emotion
To be tenacious
To be visible
To be professional but not be constrained by one profession
To be creative
To manage time
To create and run a survey
To take photographs
To know how to handle crisis and emergency comms
Some will need
To write press releases
Technical: Content creating for the right channels
To know when and how to create content using data
To know when and how to create text, images or video content tailored for email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Audioboo or Soundcloud.
To experiment with new channels and to know who uses them.
To know when and how to create a press release
To know when some print is needed
Two sessions and a lot of thinking shaped this blog. One session at UK Govcamp two months ago and one at comms2point0’s campaigns masterclass last month. At both I just asked for ideas on individual skills to see what patterns emerged. Thank you if you contributed. Thank you to Emma Rodgers who co-led the masterclass session and annogtated the skills we listed. This post is the reading of those ink blots mixed with things I’ve written about before.
If you are slightly apprehensive and a little excited and good luck we’d love to talk to you.
More precisely, we’ve hired the Electric Cinema in Station Street, Birmingham which is the oldest working cinema in the UK. The date is Thursday December 11.
We’re doing three things. We’re having an awards ceremony, we’re watching a film and we’re showing that you don’t have to spend a fortune and go to London for an awards bash.
The event is the comms2point0 unawards and I’d like you very much to come along and to enter. It’s going to be great. December is a chance to celebrate and its a chance to think back to what you’ve done well.
If you don’t fancy picking a category come and watch the film. It’s Armandoi Iannucci satire ‘In the Loop.’
1. Best communications team chosen by the overall event sponsor
7. Best communications for change activity sponsored by Public Sector Customer Services Forum
8. Best piece of creative comms sponsored by Capacity Grid
9. Best freebie or low cost communications campaign
10. Best email marketing sponsored by GovDeliveryUK
11. Best social media campaign sponsored by Digital Action Plan
12. Best private sector/agency comms campaign or initiative
13. Best ‘Worst comms’ (this can be anything from use of clip art, worst poster, silliest random request – feel free to be creative) sponsored by Alive – The Ideas Agency
14. Best collaboration sponsored by Knowledge Hub
Big thanks to Emma Rodgers who is helping stage the event and Andy Mabbett who will compere.
An arresting comment to make, particularly as the man in the jacket was HM Government’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher.
The comment was made – and a whole host of others – at the tail end of a fascinating two day event in Jordan hosted by the Foreign Office for their Middle East and North Africa comms staff.
A week later and it’s a comment that keeps rattling around.
We need to communicate more like insurgents. What does that mean?
It could mean a whole host of things. To nail the obvious, it’s not about communicating beheadings. To me, it’s more about having an overall framework to work in and allowing people on the ground to be flexible, creative and agile. What I took was that it was about being not hemmed in by procedure. It’s about creating sharable content that is going to be shared. It’s seeing what works in the field and replicating it.
Here’s a second arresting comment from the event that keeps re-occuring.
“Al-Qaida’s leaders view communications as 90 percent of the struggle.”
Think for a minute of that group and what do you see?
Ossama bin Laden in a fuzzy vhs video?
The Twin Towers?
Both are powerful images which frame the first 14 years of the 21st century.
They are communications.
They were framed by communications people.
The Ambassador is of course right. Sometimes we can be too hemmed in by process to think agile, creative, sharable and flexible.
To have such a green light from the top is a gift to cherish.
Sometimes the play book comes not from the institution or the old ways of doing things. It comes from unexpected quarters and what your enemy does.
It also poses the question that if communications is 90 per cent of the issue then are you doing enough? More importantly, have you got the support to do enough?
Spanish poet Baltasar Gracian said that a wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends.
So, how can you learn from your enemies?
Magic bullet https://www.flickr.com/photos/45175402@N00/51470257/