It’s not often I’ll re-post someone else’s content. It’s even rarer that I re-post someone re-posting someone else’s content. But this one is something of a belter and it’s entirely within the spirit to do so.
There was an excellent TED talk YouTube on Stephen Waddington’s blog from Tom Standage who is both digital editor at The Economist and an author. The book he’s written is ‘Writing on the Wall’ which shows how far from being a modern blip is actually 2,000 years old. Not only is it rooted in history it’s the last 150-years of print mass media that’s actually the faddish blip.
As a historian that really appeals to me. It appeals even more to the geek in me. And it appeals yet more from someone who helps with the brewcamp meet-ups that actually idea sharing in a coffee shop has been around before. As Standage says, coffee shops in 18th century London were known as ‘Penny Universities’ where people could share listen, talk and meet with social superiors for the price of a brew.
Tom Standage’s three phases of media
New media 1993 – to date
That’s the stuff that’s been around since about 2000. It’s Twitter and it’s Facebook and it’s this blog post.
Old media 1833 – 1993
That’s the stuff that’s powered by a steam powered printing press. It starts with the first penny newspaper and ends with the invention of the internet.
Really old media 51 BC – 1833
That’s the stuff that first emerged in the late Roman period where people like Terentius Neo and his wife write letters to each other. Letters would be shared. Books were scarce. So you wrote one copy and place it in a library. If it was any good it it would be copied and shared. Or in other words, pirated. If it was pirated often enough then publishers would step in and produce more. So you really wanted your wortk to be pirated by as many people as possible because it meant your ideas got spread.
“You say my letter has been widely copied. Well, I don’t care. Indeed, I myself allowed several people to take a copy of it.” – Cicero Rome, 106 BC – 43 BC.
News would get around on wax tablets with the same aspect as the i-pad, Standage says.
Martin Luther’s ideas go viral
Priest Martin Luther sparked a revolution when he started to question with the Roman Catholic church was selling pardons from purgatory. He writes out a list of questions he’d like answering. He pins it to a church door in Latin. It gets copied down in long hand and shared. It gets copied and further shared. It gets printed. It gets printed in German and shared even more widely. Luther is amazed. He never intended the challenge to go viral. So, the next time he gets his message out by going straight to the printer with a German text. The result? The Reformation as the Catholic church splits and Protestantism is formed.
Coffee Houses and social media
There were no barriers to class in a coffee house and in London they led to an explosion of ideas and debate. Lloyd’s of London the insurance brokers began in a coffee house as did The Stock Exchange. So did the Royal Society.
“(The coffee house) admits of no distinction of persons, but gentlemen, mechanic, lord and scoundrel mix and are all of a piece.” – Samuel Butler, London, 1668.
Deliciously, Standage points to the parallels with social media and coffee houses and points to how people thought that people in coffee houses were just messing about.
“Why doth solid and serious learning decline, and few or none now follow it now in the University? Because of coffee houses. Where they spend all their time.” – Anthony Wood, Oxford, 1670s.
What the history lesson is for today
“Is social media a fad? If anything was a fad it was the old media mass media period that was a historical anomaly. Now we’ve gone to a more social model super-charged by the internet.” – Tom Standage, Oxford, 2013.
All of that rather appeals. It means that the brewcamps, teacamps and for that matter unconferences we think of as new ideas are actually rooted deeply in something that has gone before. It’s also something that has a track record of innovation. You put people into a room with a cup of coffee – and maybe some cake – and you start to get some good results. That’s tremendously re-assuring and tremendously exciting.
A few years ago when all this digital stuff was new to me I sat in the pub with Michael Grimes who is @citizensheep on Twitter. We were complaining that people were thinking that social media was just people wasting their time. And that people had once complained about telephones. And railways in the Victorian era. And every other invention.
Tom Standage’s book is called ‘The Writing on the Wall: Social Media the First 2,000 Years’ and you can buy it from shops and the internet very soon. You can watch the TED talk here…
Creative commons credit
Coffee and laptop http://www.flickr.com/photos/librarianbyday/2931756818/sizes/o/
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.
The @soldieruk Twitter aims to set out military best practice for social media use both for the job but also in military personnel’s private life.
Part teacher and part digital Military Policeman the account also taps people on the shoulder to let them know they’ve strayed across the line.
It’s also fascinating to watch how they strike the balance between adopting a voice that’s somewhere between the parade ground and the water cooler. A retro profile pic and reminders that ‘careless tweets sink ships’ does this rather well.
There are more than 200,000 British servicemen and women. There’s no way the digital genie can be put back into the bottle and it’s clear that social poses a real danger to the MOD as well as opportunity. It’s not just the giving away of troop movements that’s an issue. It’s the personal data that can put individual service personnel in harms way too. The murder of a soldier in Woolwich shows this.
When one serviceman tweeted about the far right English Defence League they were met with this from @soldierUK.
@exsacerdotal The views of the EDL, (like any extremist motivated group) are contrary to the core ethos & values of the UK Armed Forces.
— SoldierUK (@SoldierUK) June 2, 2013
There’s also more general messages too…
Are you running a Mil WAGs Facebook group? Think about making it a closed group and verifying members. #BeSafeOnline
— Roger Noduff (@Walter_Mitty007) May 31, 2013
In addition, there is general advice on how to use social media and to stay safe online. It’ll be interesting to see how the account pans out. Certainly, by embracing digital the MOD stand a far better chance of knowing the risks, pitfalls and opportunities. But with so many accounts to keep an eye on is just one team enough?
There will be some excellent speakers and there will I’m sure be much to learn. You can take a look at the line up from May 21 to 23 via a pdf here. The line-up is not available in a more a ccessible format, I’m afraid.
Last year, there was the profoundly depressing experience of a panel on social media being glibly introduced with the words: “There’s only two things wrong with social media. It’s not social and it’s not media.”
Thankfully, the person who uttered these words has since spoken of his sea change in attitude. There’s also a lot of digital on the agenda. There’s even an unconference slot with Lloyd Davis on Thursday afternoon which should be interesting.
Is traditional comms dead?
There’s also a Think Tank discussion I’ll be chairing on The Digital Debate: Is Traditional Comms Dead? That takes place at 6.30pm on Tuesday May 21. On the panel will be Eddie Coates-Madden of Hull City Council,
Eddie Coates-Madden, Assistant Head
of Service: Communications and Marketing, Hull City
Council, Gavin Sheppard, The Media Trust and Sara
Moseley, Cardiff University
Kuku Club, Park Plaza Hotel
With that in mind here’s five links that may fire some thought. See? I’ve even highlighted some key points to save you the bother.
Are comms the blockers?
Catherine Howe, of Public i wrote a useful summary of the commscamp unconference session in Birmingham asking if comms team are the single biggest block on good social media un local government.You can read the full text of her post here.
I think we have to conclude that communications are often blockers to social media activity but that they have good as well as bad reasons for acting this way. As the use of social media becomes more entrenched then I would speculate that this will become increasingly a question of organisational leadership rather than any specific practitioner groups and that it will be important to start discussing where that leadership should come from. If we want to start to see social media operating outside of comms then arguably that leadership needs to be external as well. The question of being good organisational customers of digital projects will perhaps be the next challenge we have to collectively face in taking some of the excellent best practice we see around us into more mainstream use and out of the ambit of a single team.
In defence of the press release
Local government press officer Kam Mistry wrote a defence of the pr here sparked by a different debate at commscamp in Birmingham earlier this year.
When you dissect it, you realise that the press release is a fantastic form of communication. You grab someone’s attention with a good headline, they then read your first paragraph and, assuming it’s still interesting, will continue to read the rest of it and then publish it. I suppose it’s a bit like the mating game – initial attraction, stimulate interest, maintain interest and then… oh dear this is turning into a Swiss Toni metaphor.
Yes, the press and media are having to evolve but they will be there for many years to come. Newspapers – in print and electronic forms – will continue to be key channels for effective communication and we really should not see them, or press releases, as anachronisms.
Put it this way. First there was radio and then television came along. Have we all thrown away our radios?
PR is dead and so are newspapers
Eddie Coates-Madden is part of the LGComms panel and wrote this on the challenge that traditional pr and newspapers face and a presentation he gave:
And I ended with my prediction of the future for journalism; that it will be fast, fast, fast; that stories are everywhere, not on a Press Release; that everyone can be a journalist (not necessarily a good one, but everyone can break stories and has the tools to publish); that journalists have become a brand in themselves; that broadcast without response is dead; that there will be ever more accountable journalism, more easy disgust, more easy offence and that accountability is every organisation’s to handle, and that there are more easily targeted campaigns and more moral tensions. activism is clicktivism and that might mean more and more difficult challenges, to freedom of expression, politically unpopular views, financial security, even – when wrongly done – to personal safety.
Death to the campaign!
Jim Garrow works in public health in Philladelphia. He writes a blog and updates it prodigiously. He has the uncanny ability to nail things. This post may be uncomfortable – nay challenging – reading for comms people at LGComms. But that’s why you should read it. He argues that campaigns are counter-productive and switching things on and off don’t work with people.
First, it assumes that our audience is there, available, placid and interested, during the time we decide they should hear our messages. If they are otherwise ready to lose weight, or set up a communications plan, or change the batteries in their smoke detectors, except for some family crisis that happens during our predefined “campaign time,” then they don’t get the message that they need to change their behavior. (This is a HUGE reason I despise days, weeks and months that celebrate or raise awareness for something; what, tuberculosis doesn’t matter the other 364 days of the year?
The other reason only communicating through campaigns is harmful is, in my estimation, infinitely worse. Say your timing works out and you get lucky and actually find someone who was patiently waiting for your message. Not only that, but the message is specifically tailored to the group she self-identifies with (because you’re still marketing to audiences and not everyone), and she takes action on it. She’s moved from Contemplation to Preparation based solely on your messaging. Congratulations! But, what happens when you end your campaign? Specifically, what happens to this wonderful person that you’ve prepped to be ready to move forward and actually change her behavior? Does she not move to the Action stage? Does she resent your messaging for leaving her hanging, alone? Is she willing to wait another year for you to become interested in her problem again? Will she even listen next time?
Creative commons credits
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.