Eight years ago I walked into a room in Birmingham for the last few minutes of an event about digital communications hosted by a relatively new company.
There was about 30 people in the room and a bloke who was at the front came over and introduced himself.
“Hello, I’m Dave,” he said shaking my hand. I’d met Dave Worsell for the first time. The event was the first govdelivery annual conference. Fast forward and the company has grown, changed and been re-named as Granicus. Dave remains the same.
On September 26 along with my colleague Darren I’ll compere Granicus’ Public Sector Communications Conference in London.
The event has grown but Dave has stayed the same. So has the ethos of what he and his team does. They believe in really good communications but with a generosity of sharing good learning that chimes with my own. Here’s a thing. Without Dave I probably wouldn’t be doing what I do now and comms2point0 would look very different. It began as a site in 2011 with myself and Darren. In late 2013, I was weighing up whether or not to leave the security of a salary make it my full-time job. A conversation with Dave was instrumental in helping me make the leap and in April 2014, I worked on comms2point0 full-time. Darren followed 12-months later.
So, when I say it gives me great pleasure to compare the event this month, I mean it.
When I say you’ll learn something if you go along to the event, I mean that too.
There will be 13 speakers and a whitepaper that myself and Darren have written. The focus will be on income generation and better communications. I go every year to this event because I always learn things and if you go I know you will too. And Dave is great and he has a great team.
The Granicus UK Public Sector Communications Conference will be held in London on September 26. For more information click here.
I saw the past and I saw the future of newspapers within a few days of each other.
The past? A glorious documentary on the Birmingham Evening Mail from 1993. Unbroadcast it emerged on YouTube from an old VHS copy.
The future? A blog post from the newspaper’s successor as editor Marc Reeves. In it he explained the push towards a digital-first approach that will see a re-brand as Birmingham Live.
What the past looked like
The newspapers of the past were glorious places. They were staffed by journalists whose craft had not changed for a hundred years. Build contacts. Talk to them. Build stories on what they told you. It’s as simple as it is hard. I worked in the largest district office in the largest regional newspaper in the UK. There were 12 of us and three photographers and we were a team.
The Birmingham Mail documentary captured some of that. Big stories saw a reporter go out accompanied with a photographer. The deadline was print. There were some characters.
What the future looks like
For all that I loved working on those old school newspapers when I left in 2005 they were already changing. Journalism was changing too. Where I learned how to write the new journalist wrote, took pictures, blogged, worked with FOI and posted video.
As my career in communications has evolved I’ve seen what you need to do change and evolve. There are at least 40 skills you need. You can’t do all of them but your team should.
Just this month the Oldham Chronicle closed its doors for the last time a victim of the change from print to digital. In its heyday 40,000 copies were sold. When the last rites were read there was little over 6,000.
It is tempting to be sad and declare local journalism dead. From the evidence of those who are doing it, that’s not the case. The old newsrooms are dead. I get the pain of journos who have lived through that. But I also get the excitement of new thinking too.
Birmingham Mail editor Marc Reeves in his Medium post ‘I Do Run A Newspaper’ shows the path he is taking. There will be a print team. There will be a digital team. There wikll be a bit of cross-over. The digital team will focus on communities. Part geographical and part community of interest.
Two lines in particular stand out:
In an analytics-driven newsroom, you go for the stories that engage more people more meaningfully — and tell them using audio, video, data and graphics, if that’s what’s needed.
In the smartphone age, only 5 per cent of the average person’s attention is devoted to news on their device. Can we build a business by limiting ourselves to 5 per cent of people’s attention, or can we own more of the remaining 95 per cent?
Why comms people should be bothered
When I started the comms team was geared around the needs of the newspaper. Some newspapers live on. But if there is no newspaper as we know it, or it has changed from the 1993 model what should the comms team look like?
It should have more than one skill for a start.
It should have the 40 skills I blogged about and more. It should be able to articulate the organisation’s own stories in content that can be shared.
It should see the changes in the tectonic plates.
It should plan a new path while articulating why these changes are being made to those inside the organisation.
It should also be able to listen, be answerable and create content for the new newspapers of the future as well as the bloggers.
Above all it shouldn’t fear change.
There’s always moments when a new digital platform comes into its own.
In 2011, it was Twitter that really came into the mainstream during the London riots. It was where middle managers in the organisation and the public could find out what was happening.
Twitter and Hurricane Irma
In 2017, Twitter is the bread and butter of emergency communications. The US Government department FEMA have been using it and have been using this and the web to shoot down rumour.
— FEMA (@fema) September 8, 2017
In 2017, live video and Hurricane Irma seems to have made a similar transition.
Both platforms allow you to use your phone as an outside broadcast unit and stream to the internet.
Both platforms end up feeding in the media by providing eye-witness reporting from the scene. In an environment where fake news has undermined trust in text, video is hugely important for communications people.
Case study #1: Behind the scenes news room tour
A journalist takes a tour of the TV news room that is keeping people informed of what is taking place.
Case study #2: The calm before the storm
Residents took to walking around deserted streets to show what was happening.
Case study #3: The eye witness
Views from the balcony showing the hurricane as it is striking.
Case study #4: The professional storm chaser
In the US, storm season is met with enthusiasts chasing down tornados and extreme weather. People like Jeff Piotrowski have been using Periscope to connect with people and give a realtime sense of the storm.
I remember where I was when the old news media died for me. It happened in a phone call from a journalist.
“Look,” he started off. “When you write something on Twitter could you do me a favour and give me a call, please?”
I said I couldn’t. Not because I was being awkward but because it wouldn’t work. I suggested he join Twitter himself. This was when Twitter was in its infancy.
Time has passed and the news media is being re-born. Many of the old ways have gone. Digital first has come into play. In other words, not sitting on news until the next edition but publishing it as soon as it breaks and driving traffic to the website.
Time was when all the innovation was happening in local government. There are still bright people doing bright things but as the sector has suffered austerity many have moved on. Newspapers are now working out what the future looks like. They have swapped print dollars for digital dimes. It’s not always pretty to look at for time served journalists. But their need to find an audience to survive teaches lessons for communications people.
One of the best places to see where the cutting edge is is through the Reuters Institute of Journalism. Based at the University of Oxford the body brings academic rigour and research to the sector. There are lessons for communications people too in their Digital News Report 2017.
Resistance to change will be punished
Newspapers have had 20 years to make sense of the internet and have largely failed, the report says. Who creates the news is less important to people in 2017 than the places where they can get it. Audiences and advertisers have embraced new technology. The brighter news organisations have too. But whether the public sector has or not, I’m really not sure. If the expectation of the public sector is that people will come to them for information because they are the public sector history shows a shock is in store. The audience has moved away from newspapers who thought just that.
News in the UK is consumed mostly online
The art of writing a press release is still part of the mix. But as people move away from print media they are consuming news online. But the content of news online is often sharable content from video, images to infographics. Is your content mirroring this trend?
People consume the news online but can’t remember where they read it
‘I read that on Facebook,’ is the response. ‘But I don’t remember who told me.’ This is really significant. It means that people are consuming information without looking too closely at the masthead of what delivered it. Reuters Institute research showed that 47 per cent couldn’t remember the people that served the news they’d read. The important thing for me is to have content on Facebook. It is less important where that presence can be found. So, sure, a Facebook page. But it is most important just to get your content out and circulating.
Whats App as a channel for news is important
We can’t see it so we can’t measure it. But 40 per cent in the UK use Whats App for news and 36 per cent use Facebook messenger. The Guardian, for example, deliver a daily message through Facebook Messenger. If that can be done for news, why not for public sector news?
People prefer an algorithm to serve their news more than an editor
More than half prefer an algorithm setting their news agenda as opposed to 44 preferring an editor, the Digital News Report says. For under 35s the algorithm figure rises to 64 per cent.
So, if people are happy to have their news served to them doesn’t it make sense for your news and messages to be in the places that are going to be hoovered up? This points to Google News and Facebook. There is no direct footprint a public sector organisation can have in Google News but there is in Facebook.
If you work in communications and PR look outside the sector too for clues on how to communicate better. Newspapers, or rather media companies, are evolving as well as dying. Their business model is based around reaching an audience. There are things they are doing which can teach us all. Often I’ll talk about public sector communications. There can be an inherent laziness sometimes about reaching an audience because there is no bottom line or sales target. But that’s not good enough.