If not social media then where?

This is a particularly good blog post from Martin Belam.

There’s a paragraph that says:

I think part of the problem for – yes, I’ll bite – the mainstream media is that “what happens on the internet” is still not regarded as a specialist beat to be covered like you would healthcare or science. And when it is, it is usually more along the lines of “Here’s 10 jokes that made people laugh about recent event x”

This really resonates with me, because any time I read or hear mainstream media coverage, phrases such as: ‘news spread overnight on social media’ appear.

Clipping from Daily Mail citing online speculation on Prince Philip

‘on social media’. Where else was it going to spread?

As Martin says, audiences miss general coverage of internet developments through lack of widespread reporting. But worse, the internet itself is regularly cited as if it is an occasional or optional method of communication, rather than the central route by which all information is published and shared.


Civil servants should be assessed for social media skills, not just TV and radio

I welcome any change that tasks more civil servants to speak publicly about their work, whether they’re being asked to account for something that’s happened, or explain a policy.

Civil servants can bring a greater level of credibility to Government communications than Ministers. For example, economists, chief scientists and medical officers are better able to explain complex issues to discerning audiences.

Social media continues to offer senior public figures great opportunities to communicate – and there are many who do this well, including Lynne Owens at the National Crime Agency.

So it seems strange that the UK Home Office is choosing to determine the suitability of senior candidates based on their potential performance on TV and radio, but not their confidence to communicate online.

In all likelihood the senior civil service candidates the Home Office are recruiting will find themselves under scrutiny on TV or radio, defending something. This much is acknowledged in their tender for ‘media’ assessments. But Home Office staff will also be under scrutiny online, in the places where people discuss the headlines they’re reading, where they speculate, ask additional questions and seek advice from other sources.

The web will also be the first place that new problems and criticisms are first raised, and also where voices of support and alternative views might be found.

So why focus on TV and radio interviews?

TV and radio communications isn’t really working out loud.

TV and radio can’t provide the same speed of response.

To harness TV and radio relies on lots and lots of experience, training and confidence, as well as all the opportunities in the first place.

TV and radio can’t even guarantee reach, that hoary old metric, which sounds great on paper but delivers so little.

Good online communication skills can provide all of the above, and more. Discussion. Engagement. A conversation, if you will.

So why focus on TV and radio interviews?


Pretending to control the story

In the past 3 months I have worked with around 50 press officers in different industries, of whom 10 were based outside the UK. Not a scientific sample size, but enough to get me thinking again about where and why corporate press offices continue to struggle.

There are 3 consistent remarks from the press offices I encounter (not all, but most).

The first is this phrase: ‘controlling the story’. As in, ‘we need to control the story’ or ‘we don’t want to lose control of the story’. This seems like a hopelessly unrealistic objective (a myth, even) for any team, unless you have the means to apply some legal intervention. Even then, you surely can’t control everything that is said online.

So why bother committing to controlling a story? Why not make the objective about understanding, monitoring and responding to what people are saying instead?

The second remark is usually an assumption that people go to the same sources of information for local, national and international news. That somehow briefing a handful of journalists represents a tightly sewn, accurate estate of coverage.

This assumption completely misses people’s dependence on search, the vagaries of social media feeds and as part of that, our attraction towards news and suggestions from within our existing network.

Finally, there is often disappointment with the lack, or type, of coverage a story is receiving (see ‘losing control’ above). However, I rarely see press officers rushing to report on online coverage beyond trending or mainstream media.

It’s essential for press offices to start reporting on everything that is being said online about a story, and to take some ownership of how this information is presented internally. Sometimes this will be positive, other times less so. This data on coverage around US flu vaccination in 2015 is essential reading [PDF]. Either way, it’s data that press office should own.

Like I say, not exactly scientific. But from where I’m standing, 3 important changes that are still to be made in the press office.


It’s the internet, Tim, but not as you know it

It's my final night in Beijing – my first visit to China. I'm hoping it won't be my last. This is a fascinating country, the people I've met have been very friendly and the sights and sounds are sufficiently different for days to feel exciting. Not something that can be said about many parts of an increasingly smaller world.

Before I arrived, my eclectic knowledge of China was limited to what I had read: rapid economic growth, human rights issues, my own personal fascination with the auto industry, and, of course, references to state-owned media and the blocking of social media.

On the flight out I read Chinese Whispers by Ben Chu. If you even have a passing interest in China it's a brilliant read, and certainly helped to straighten out my preconceptions.


These days it feels strange not having access to all my social media accounts, unless I happen to be in a remote location. So travelling to a huge city, with wifi on tap, but no Twitter, Facebook or WordPress, has been odd. At the same time, it doesn't hurt to have a break from these things, and has encouraged me to take a look at what is available to the Chinese.

I joined Sina Weibo a month or so before I travelled, and as a platform it's pretty good to use. Fast, intuitive (even with my non-existent Mandarin), and lots more functionality than Twitter. Consider it a more comprehensive publishing platform, with the option to host closed community chats, as well as open replies. Other platforms are available of course, but Weibo (way-boar) is what everyone talks about. The t-bomb of China, if you will.

It's worth knowing that I also managed to use LinkedIn, Google + and Foursquare, which came as a surprise, particularly because Google appears to be largely blocked.


Platforms are all very well, but there's no doubt the country is grappling to come to terms with this unprecedented opportunity for self publishing, organisation, sharing of information and conversation.

I'm not going to list the history and emerging issues here. But it's worth listening to The Forum on the BBC World Service on 2 November, for a fascinating exchange of views between the Government and Chinese bloggers.

Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times, has spelt out some of the really big implications of social media in China.

Governments wanting to put boundaries around social media and control messages is not something unique to the Chinese, of course. But coupled with the lack of independent domestic media within China, it becomes a problem. Citizens can access some independent journalism from external media sources i.e. the FT or BBC for example, but access is sometimes hindered.

Look what happens to BBC content, for example:

Click on the story in the top left, and you get this:

It's easy to understand why the Chinese are so excited about the potential of social media, and frustrated about censorship.


I have spoken to a dozen Chinese bloggers while in Beijing. They ranged from young people with regular, public service jobs, to those whose sexuality or political beliefs put them squarely in the Government's spotlight.

It is a shame that for some, they feel compelled to restrain their blogs to restaurant reviews and holiday diaries, sometimes published on WordPress via a Virtual Private Network (VPN).

I didn't hear any first hand accounts of intimidation or blocking of blogger's content. But from some of those I spoke to, I understand that blogging is not an option if you are trying to rally support for a cause or campaign that may be deemed politically unacceptable.

The repeated story was that of the 'big Vs' – bloggers with large numbers of followers. Big V refers to the verification tick alongside their Weibo profile, like the blue tick on high profile Twitter accounts. A number of big Vs have had their profiles closed, and this has created a sense of outrage and despair among the blogosphere.

Clumsy blocking of web pages, outright banning of entire networks, and closing profiles with large followings sounds like a very crude attempt at controlling something that, ultimately, is uncontrollable. The web simply doesn't work like that.

Much of the emphasis in China seems to be on sheer numbers of followers, rather than actual influence. According to a recent judicial interpretation 500 shares equals rumour mongering – although that kind of benchmark will sound familiar to British Twitter users.

Bizarrely, it seems that publishing in English allows for greater freedom of expression. My own experience of reading Weibo for a week indicates that English provides greater freedom to comment on political issues. A simple search for 'Tiananmen Square' yielded several negative references to the 1989 protests and the Government's actions.

My short week in China has left me more confused than clear, about the country's use and understanding of the web.

I don't think the Government will relax the restrictions that exist, but evidently nor can it control the web. The potential of social media to change the country is huge, but it is increasingly painful for all sides to understand how. For those of us in the West, it will be difficult and sometimes shocking to watch, as this understanding evolves.




Do live blogs work?

Yes, according to this research from the Guardian.

In between sandwiches and cups of coffee at my desk, I’ve often wondered whether or not live blogs really work for the user.

A Guardian live blog

In a snatched 10 minutes in the middle of the day, I might browse to a news site. But in that very limited time, I want the key facts of the story, and little else.

With many news sites, I find myself having to wade back through a clunky live blog to find the facts, in among minute-by-minute updates from journalists.

However, it seems for the Guardian at least, there is evidence to suggest live blogs work.

There’s probably a whole different case to be made for them in a corporate context: mainly opening up events to people who can’t otherwise be there.

What do you think? Is there a place for live blogs?

The friend of the honest financier

I enjoyed reading my reprint of the first ever issue of the Financial Times this week, published to celebrate 125 years since its launch.

On first glance, many of the (tiny) headlines sounded strangely familiar: articles about Russia's booming economy, investment in British railways and rumours about the future of London's docks.

Some of the original strap lines are quaint: 'friend of the honest financier', 'without fear or favour' etc.

Perhaps most curious of all was four words of legalese at the top of the page: 'registered for transmission abroad'. The idea that people who first bought this paper in 1888 would later be able to transmit information independently, wherever they wished, using radio, television and telephones, in their lifetime, is fascinating.


Government communication, 1930s style

Cover of magazine The King's Air ForceThere’s lots of changes happening to Government communications right now, not least of which the closure of the Central Office of Information. Quite by chance, I was sorting through some of my Grandfather’s effects and found this issue of The King’s Air Force, published ‘in co-operation with the Air Ministry’.

By my reckoning it pre-dates COI by a few years – this issue is celebrating 20 years of the RAF, which would make it circa 1939. Accordingly, the first page carries a wonderful stiff-upper-lip introduction from the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood, who advises us of ‘the significance of the air in relation to the security of Great Britain and the Empire.’ Wannabe pilots could not have guessed what an understatement that line would become, with the Battle of Britain just 12 months later.

As a piece of historic Government comms, there’s plenty to enjoy. It must have represented cutting-edge ‘customer’ publishing at the time, full of inspirational stories, technical information, but with the requisite spin and editorial-by-committee.

Tone and channels may have changed since 1939, but the need for communications, and the challenge of creating messages for the public are much the same.

Judging by the sticker in the top right corner of the cover, my Grandfather may have forgotten to return this copy to the Fleet Air Arm, where he served. I’m quite glad he forgot.

What does a digital press office look like?

What might a press office look like, if a selection of the brilliant and (mostly) free digital tools were put to work?

I’m thinking about a real world scenario: where budgets are lean or non-existent, so I won’t be suggesting iPads for every press officer. And I recognise that not everyone is a confident social media user, so the emphasis is on listening rather than engagement. I am also trying to be realistic about how important social media channels are perceived to be on the media scale. While social media plays a role in keeping abreast of breaking news and opinion, it is not considered as important as the daily front pages or TV news.

My thoughts have been centred on press offices in Government departments or other public sector organisations, but I think the same principles could apply anywhere where there is a requirement to monitor and react to the news.

Listening to the web

The press office I have pictured in my mind has a TV screen for displaying a social media dashboard; searching all the different networks for key terms like the name of the organisation, names of Ministers or leaders, or key policy areas or products. By putting social media up on the wall, where everyone can see it, alongside traditional news broadcasting, the press office is making a statement about the channels it monitors.

There’s a useful post here about monitoring news and debate online.

Typically a press office might be divided into different desks, each covering specific topics. The staff working on each of these will have more niche monitoring requirements such as following specific journalists or perhaps technical terms. It’s important they have a Twitter profile, to follow and read what their contacts are saying. Having a Twitter profile doesn’t mean they have to engage, as long as they are clear about who they represent and the purpose of the account: i.e. just to listen.

I think it’s also important that a press office has its own collective digital profiles across different channels, so that journalists can choose their channel of preference to make contact. Perhaps a press office twitter account like this one from the FBI(!) and blog, for starters.

Collaborating with each other

A great deal of press office time is also taken up with collaborating on writing press releases, statements and agreeing lines. Google Docs is ideal for this. It isn’t as secure as some would like, but I think the risks posed by multiple versions of documents flying around between random copy lists is far greater. There’s always Huddle or Basecamp for an added sense of privacy, plus shared calendars for identifying important events and milestones.

Email traffic can be huge, so some sort of instant messaging system would be ideal, such as Blackberry Messenger, Skype or Yammer.

A shared delicious account is ideal for clipping and sharing relevant news reports and features, without having to constantly email links to the whole office.

Creating content

Visits and events constitute a huge amount of work for many press offices, so it makes sense to come away with some original content that can be used now, and at a later date. Budget flip cameras and tools like audioboo allow press officers to quickly and easily film or record events, or previews of speakers.

Webchats can open up media briefings to many more journalists than would otherwise be available to visit the office in person, and materials such as presentations, photos or film can be shared during the chat, and afterwards. Transcripts of the webchats are available after the event, for those who couldn’t attend and for reference at a later date.

Sharing content and information with press and the public

Incoming phone calls with requests for standard information like quotes, copies of press releases, stock imagery or important dates can be time consuming, which is where the web can help house and share all this information.

A dedicated RSS feed might help keep enlightened journalists up-to-date. Stock imagery sorted into sets on Flickr provide a one-stop-shop.

A daily email summary of press releases and announcements is another option for keeping contacts updated. These can be generated automatically from some websites using tools like Feedburner.

Some of this might be wishful thinking, but I reckon a lot of could be deployed quickly and cheaply. Corporate IT and security could throw up some challenges like downloading Skype or uploading video. But listening to what’s being said online, and using effective tools to collaborate with colleagues should be a no-brainer.

Does any of this sound familiar or too far fetched? I’m keen to hear your experiences, good or bad.

A press office at a festival, with a graffiti sign
There’s more than one way to raise the profile of a press office

Communications on a shoestring

What does communicating on a tight budget mean for organisations?

Whether you’re Global Megacorp plc, a charity or an SME, its highly unlikely that the communications and marketing budget for 2011/12 is going to be bottomless, or that a budget will even exist, in some cases.

shoestring in the shape of pound currency symbol
You can still make money using shoestring. Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/128Rrb

(And if you do know of an organisation with a bottomless budget, please let me know. I have lots of recommendations and referrals to make!)

In the week that the future of the UK Government’s direct communications was announced, budgets are still the focus of many public sector communications teams too.

I spoke to contacts who run independent publishing and research agencies, as well as thought about some of the projects happening closer to home including these examples. This is a summary of what I heard.

Shoestring communications means:

1. Being more creative ourselves – instead of commissioning creativity, we need to learn to write, edit and design content ourselves. This means being confident about our own abilities, and the organisations we work for need to give people the freedom to be publishers and not just ‘drafters’.

2. Using the tools and channels we already have, and making them work harder. For example, turning a simple blog platform into a discussion forum, or building on relationships with stakeholders and partners to make better use of their platforms.

3. Using existing low-cost tools like Facebook, email, Youtube and RSS instead of building a new channel for each project.

4. Planning communications by audience (i.e. children or motorists), rather than product, to consolidate plans that target the same audiences and enable economies of scale.

5. Making all our content easy to share. We need to leverage people’s offline and social networks so that they can print, cut out, post, Tweet and forward our posters, leaflets, images, video and other content.

This will seem obvious to many, but its amazing how many organisations of all types still seem to be creating custom, expensive, channels or failing to even offer basic social bookmarking.

I’m not going to name-and-shame here, because for those businesses without any in-house technical knowledge, or who have a conventional approach to communications that is perceived to be successful, there’s quite a journey to travel.

These are my thoughts so far – what have I missed?