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
Back in 1979, the amazing invention called the mobile phone was road tested. We would, they said, no longer have to have to rely on landlines. In 1969, they called school computers and in 1994 it was the internet.
The mood music of it all was that one day, things would be so much different. It would be better but we were in control. For a while now there’s been a few emerging trends that I’ve been trying to make sense of. They’re now just starting to drift into view and they’ll change things for everyone. Not just comms people.
Bear with me. It’ll get weird, but let’s walk through it together.
A man in glasses has told me my fridge will talk to my scales
A couple of years ago a futurologist in sharp glasses told me that the internet of things was coming. This would be objects connected-up to the internet to allow them to talk to each other. Your scales would work out your ideal weight and, if you wanted, tell your fridge when milk stocks were running low to re-order semi-skimmed milk rather than full fat. And not chocolate. Or your smart whiskey bottle will let you know if someone is nipping at your Johnie Walker Blue Label.
Of course, the possibilities of all this are endless. Predictions of the scale of the internet of things – or IOT – range from the seriously mindblowing to the you’ll need to sit down because you’ll be rocking back and forth unable to comprehend. Deloitte says that a billion devices will be shipped in 2015. By 2020, Gartner says this will reach 25 billion devices or the equivalent of six devices for every person on the planet. Cisco says it’s 50 billion. Intel have it at 200 billion. Either way, it’s going to be a lot and my new printer that I can email and has its own URL blinks back at me as proof.
There’s always a trade-off with tech and one that equates to the Native Americans getting a handful of shiny jewels in return for the island of Manhattan. They dangle something cool in front of us and we handover loads of stuff they want. In this case its stacks and stacks of personal data. Think of Facebook. They give us a place to post baby pics and view cat videos. We give them our date of birth, school, University, where we live, where we work, spending habits, political beliefs and who we want to win Strictly. It’s a marketer’s dream. But the University library of information you’ll give to the internet of things will make Facebook look like a Janet and John easy read book.
Your communications will be automated
So, as the internet of things grows the more devices will communicate to each other. We just won’t see it. But what we will maybe see is sharp tailored personalised communication based on our sleeping, spending and drinking habits. It’s happening already to some extent. I think of the Troop canvas shoulder bag that keeps cropping up in my Facebook timeline after I google searched it last week. However, with lots more data the possibilities open up.
“More of our communication will be artificial and less of it will be human,” says Tracey Follows in The Guardian. “It is now common to say that the world is uncertain and therefore can’t be planned for. One thing is certain though. We are entering into a world that’s post human.”
The link did the rounds on Twitter. The tag ‘post human’ certainly jarred with some people in my timeline but it’s an eye-catching line. To some extent it is factually accurate. All that data. All those fridges. All those supermarkets. But to some extent it’s also wrong. The communications that will really stand out will be that which makes best use of the data to personalise it. As a married father of two children who likes cricket, technology and doing things with my family at the weekend anything that takes that data and helps me spend my time and money better is welcome.
Your crisis comms needs to be really, really good
We have the expansion of tech through the internet of thing and others the surrender of all that data. Here’s a really bright and cheery prediction. There’s going to be a massive cyber attack along the lines of a web 3.0 9/11. Not if. When.
Thomas Lee upon sees an internet of things showroom in San Franscisco by US firm Target where a car alarm wakes a baby whose cries are spotted by sensors which play soothing music. It dawns on him:
“We are so screwed… it was all very impressive, but I couldn’t help notice an irony: the retailer that ion 2013 was subject to a hack that compromised the credit card data of 100 million consumers now wanted people to entrust their entire homes to the internet.”
So, I’d maybe look at how you respond when there’s a data breach and things fall over.
Your internet is being automated
Data, data everywhere. That’s for the geeks, right? Actually, no. Not really. In a really challenging piece in Vox Todd Van Der Werff wrote a piece under the headline ‘2015 is the year the old internet finally died.’
He drew a simple conclusions from a number of recent stories which he maps out in the piece here before concluding:
“The internet as we know it, the internet of five, 10 or 20 years ago is going away as surely as print media replaced by the new internet that reimagines personal identity as something easily commodified that plays less on the desire for information or thoughtfulness than it does the desire for a quick jolt of emotion.
“It’s an internet driven not by human beings but by content, at all costs, And none of us – neither media professionals, nor readers can stop it. Every single one of us is building it every single day.”
People prefer the snackable and the fun, he argues. And it’s true. Yet most comms people haven’t got that. They – we’re – born in a world of newspapers and press releases. They – we’re – institutionalised to think that the organisation we work for is the centre of everyone’s waking moment and if it isn’t that’s their fault not ours.
At this point I think back, not for the first time, to the former Her Majesty’s Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher who said that we need to communicate like insurgents. In other words, fast, agile, snackable, fleet-of-foot content that thought more about the person than the organisation.
Getting good at data… and saying ‘no’
Of course, we’ve said it for years that data will be important to communications. We’ve said it but I’m not sure we really acted upon it. I’ve got a bit testy with the open data community in the past for not being very good at talking to people. But I wouldn’t deny the potential that data has to make the world a better place and to help you communicate better. I think of open data helping to expose massive fraud in Canada. I think on a very micro level the Coast Guard comms person who when I showed her followerwonk realised there was a spike in how active her Twitter followers were at 6am and then decided to schedule some content every day at that time.
The reality is that communications and PR people are very, very bad at using and interpreting data and need to be better. We also need to be much, much better at kicking back and asking for the data to be produced by the people who are asking us to write the press release, set-up the Twitter account or plan the campaign.
There is an art to saying ‘no’ and I don’t think comms people say it often enough. Sometimes, this can be done politely. Sometimes, this needs to be done by banging the table. Or in other words, to be able to command the skills of ‘Yes Minister’ alongside almost but not quite ‘The Thick of It.’ But maybe just be really careful who you are Malcolm Tucker direct with, okay?
So what does all this mean?
It means more things changing faster. It means the Robert Phillips phrase of ’embrace chaos’ being ever more relevant. Why? Because that’s all we can do. There’s a long tail with all of this. This will take shape in some sectors way before they reach others. But this is the direction we’re headed.
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.
Refreshingly, the UK government has stood up and on The Guardian website admitted it had a good idea. But not a definitive one.
The newspaper asks readers what it would tell Alex Aiken the government’s executive director of government communications. Which is either a blast of refreshing openness or a bit of window dressing. Actually, let’s take them at face value. Because no-one really has the last word. And Alex used to be localgov as I am now.
A changing landscape
If you are interested in communications, have a look at the new draft communications plan here.
Not only that but whole swathes of the government-wide communications plan should be printed out and shared vigorously. Not least the paragraph:
“We are operating against a fast changing backdrop.
“Digital TV and broadband access at home are now the norm.
“45 per cent of viewing is now of non-terrestrial channels, three times more than ITV1.
“Half of homes now have some form of personal video recorder such as Sky Plus.
“Newspaper sales continue to decline but the growth of online versions means that some content – often entertainment related-news stories – can reach more people than ever before.
“Social media channels are playing an ever greater role in spreading news and opinion.”
That they see that the landscape is changing is a profound relief to me. The facts loom so large as to be undeliable and people are starting slowly to grasp this. Whether we are all moving as fast as we could to embrace change is something else.
“In simple terms government should continue to shift from a static or traditional view of channels and audiences to one that reflects people’s lives, preferences and influences.”
It also talks about the three things that government comms needs to do. The legal obligation to tell people about big planning matters, for example. Or the explaining Minister’s priorities. And the attempt to change behaviours.
For local government too…
It’s tempting to think that local government can do this too. At a stroke. As a sector. But that would be silly. And it also forgets that people in Devon know more about what channels Devon people use than people who live in Dudley. But it’s absolutely the path that local government comms needs to go down.
It also means that comms people need to acknowledge they may not have all the answers to comms any more. Will that undermine the profession? Not, really. A bit of refreshing honesty is vital. Besides, I’ve learned so much about digital comms from bloggers, engineers and environmental health officers.
The 37 skills a comms person will need
Last summer I wrote a post that talks about the 37 skills we’ll need. I was a bit wrong. We won’t all need those. But you can bet your bottom dollar that teams will and the more you’ll have the better it’ll be for you.
The list includes traditional, digital, community building, mapping, infographics, social media, story telling, political nous and lots more beside.
We’ll need better training. We’ll need better ways to share good ideas. We’ll need more things like commscamp where local and central government people came together to do just that (disclaimer: I helped organise that.)
But more important than that, much more we’ll need the space to experiment and try new things. That’ll come from the top. It’ll come from Ministers themselves and senior officers. Or rather, it’ll come from our ability to re-train the Minister that something on Twitter is more important than the Today programme’s running order. Or in local government terms, that’s the local newspaper.
When I was a journalist we had an amazing media law refresher. We returned to the chalk face keen to push the boundaries. We were slapped down by our news editors. Training is wasted unless the people at the top get it too.
Salvation will come from an ongoing bombardment of stats, facts, figures, reporting back and internal communications. We think training is the answer. It’s not. It’s the start. Space to fail and learn from failing is.
But we also need to think about trust. More specifically, the Edelman Trust Barmeter that talks of how trust in institutions is up. But trust in those at the top is low but trust in those at the bottom is high. In other words, we don’t believe the chief executive of Royal Mail. But we trust our postman.
We need to be able to deliver comms outside of comms and give the people on the frontline the tools to communicate like West Midlands Police do and like we do in growing parts of local government too. At this point I link to Morgan Bowers a countryside ranger at Walsall Council with 1,100 followers on Twitter who are receptive to explanations about why saplings have to be cut down.
It’ll also mean hiring bloggers for their skills. Not just journalists.
So much is made in the Government document about savings. I’d like to hear more about results and what exciting possibilities we have stretching out in front of us too, please.
In Dunkirk, its Johnny Mills as a British corporal steering his men to safety.
In Pulp Fiction, its Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta getting away with accidentally shooting Marvin in the face.
One if the biggest challenges facing press offices and communications teams is how to blend the old with the new to stay relevant.
There was a fascinating post by Ann Kempster who works in central government about what comms teams should look like. You can read it here. Emer Coleman from the Government Digital Service and others made some excellent comments.
A couple of years ago I blogged about what comms teams needing to adapt and have traditional and digital skills. I probably over-sold open data. We’re not there just yet but will be but the basics I still hang my hat on.
Back then I said the communications team needed to be both digital and traditional so calling something a press office these days is a bit of an anachronism. It would involve the basics:
- Have basic journalism skills.
- Know how the machinery of local government works.
- Write a press release.
- Work under speed to deadline.
- Understand basic photography.
- Understand sub-editing and page layouts.
But would need to have these too:
For web 1.0 the press office also needed to:
- Add and edit web content
For web 2.0 the press office also needs to:
- Create podcasts
- Create and add content to a Facebook page.
- Create and add content to a Twitter stream.
- Create and add content to Flickr.
- Create and add content to a blog.
- Monitor and keep abreast of news in all the form it takes from print to TV, radio and theblogosphere.
- Develop relationships with bloggers.
- Go where the conversation is whether that be online or in print.
- Be ready to respond out-of-hours because the internet does not recognise a print deadline.
For web 3.0 the press office will also need to:
- Create and edit geotagged data such as a Google map.
- Create a data set.
- Use an app and a mash-up.
- Use basic html.
- Blog to challenge the mis-interpretation of data.
So how can we make the joint traditional and digital press office work?
There’s no question that the traditional press office and the digital press office should be under the same roof.
There’s no point in having an old school team with spiralbound notebooks and in the next room a digital team with jet packs and Apple macbook pros not communicating.
So what can help make the joint digital and trad comms team work?
Press officers won’t all head voluntarily to this bright new dawn. It’s just not going to happen overnight. Some won’t change and will be left behind.
The bright ones will adapt and are adapting to a place where a bog standard comms plan will include old media + social media + web as a matter of course. After all. We don’t all have specialists for TV or radio sat in most press offices and certainly not in local government where I work.
We all need a specialist digital comms officer to help blend the old and the new
Once I knew a man who was a mechanic. He used to repair petrol engines. At night school, he learned how electrical generators worked.
When his company changed to electrical generators he alone had the expertise for both and was invaluable in training staff.
That’s the approach we need for press officers.
In other words, what will blend old and new in the short and medium term is the dedicated social media or digital communications officer.
On Ann Kempster’s blog the anaology was made about digital cameras. We don’t refer to cameras as ‘digital’ these days. They are just cameras. That’s true and that’s where we need to go with comms teams.
But in many ways there’s more to it than that. I remember working as a newspaper when the first photographer – who was not a popular man – walked in proudly with a satchel with the paper’s first digital camera and laptop. “Schools broken up early has it?” came the dry-balloon bursting quip from the long-serving deputy chief reporter. The same quip was made every time the photographer walked in until the whole of the company’s photographers had them. Somehow, knowing the characters involved that made it funnier.
There was a cross-over period while photographers adapted to the new technology but the basic work of the photographer remained the same. Composition was unaltered. They were still building the same things through their view finders. But with digital communications it’s asking people to use a completely different set of skills. Like asking a photographer to become a sculptor overnight. But still take pictures when needed too.
From experience, the shift from the traditional to the traditional + digital takes time but it has to be coaxed and encouraged. That’s where the digital specialist in the comms team comes in so long as they share the sweets, horizon scan and work to give back-up to help others gain confidence. They also need to flag up the successes. They need to do some measuring and reporting back. We need to include digital stats along with traditional media ones so when the cabinet member in local government, or whoever, gets told what’s happening in the media they’re getting the digital picture too.
Just because an organisation has given the green light to social media doesn’t always mean the influential people in an organisation get it. One of the big complaints is that digital is tacked onto the busy day job. Well, if the day job means press releases churned out to dwindling newspapers maybe that work needs re-calibrating. But you need to convince the powers that be that it’s not 1985 anymore and digital and traditional is the way forward.
Why do comms need to share the sweets?
That’s something I’ve been banging on about for a long time. Comms needs to train, give advice, shape policy where needed but most importantly hold the door open for others to go through.
Across the country these either formally titled or informally tasked digital comms people can be seen doing good things. Look at Helen Reynolds in Monmouthshire County Council, Geoff Coleman at Birmingham City Council and what Al Smith did at Newcastle City Council and elsewhere as a couple of examples.
It’s the path that Walsall Council’s comms team has taken too thanks to bright leadership. As a result we now have press officers like Tina Faulkner and Becky Robinson who by no means are digital natives putting together inspiring campaigns like this one which saw a morning with a carer and her husband who suffers Alzheimers. They found magic in this approach which told a human story beautifully.
The challenge is to find the innovator in every comms team and gently give others room and confidence to grow if they need it.
Creative commons credits