Social media has a place in digital transformation

Social media managers and people with similar roles sometimes get a rough ride in the wider digital community.

It’s seen as the fluffy lighter-weight end of the digital spectrum. If you want to do big or meaningful things, you’ll probably want to build a website or transform a service.

I think the high profile of innovative social media marketing has something to do with this.

It’s not helped by comments like the one below, which I do understand.


1. Social media is often the right answer to colleagues who would otherwise insist on building something
2. It keeps organisations true to their audience, to listen
3. It helps us observe behaviours and the ways people are consuming information
4. It gets organisations in the habit of measuring and being critical about numbers, in a way that website stats never managed

The customer isn’t always right (but they all have needs)

Being a supplier means that sometimes it is easy to make assumptions about the people and organisations we work for.

‘Organisation X have the same problems as all the others in that sector’

‘It was the usual thing when the brief came in’

‘They don’t need (what they’ve asked for), they need this thing’

And so on.

Sometimes we all need help to listen more carefully. To not make assumptions, or project our ideas or frustrations on the requests that others are making.

It’s also important for us to recognise what we need, and request it clearly – and politely – from others.

Generally we’re not that bad at this, as a team. But when work is stacking up, it’s easy to relieve the pressure by projecting our frustrations on to the requests we receive. There’s no such thing as a stupid question or a bad brief – we just haven’t yet identified the need behind it.

Frustrated face

A common source of frustration might be a request to close up white space on a web page. When we hear that, it’s easy to think ‘what do they know about design?’. In fact, the client may be under pressure to find space for competing priorities, or to satisfy a perception that less white space equals greater value for money.

Whatever the real need; pausing to consider, and listening attentively to find out the answer, is invaluable.

Easy enough to say this in a few lines on a blog, but more tricky to put in to practice every day.

For that, we’ve been working with Max St John and Wild Things – his alternative business school.

Max has run a workshop for the Helpful team and been visiting our office once a month, to help us apply a form of Non-Violent Communication, which he calls Collaborative Communication, to our work.

It’s early days, but I feel there has been a real difference in how our team copes under pressure. We’re not a consistently serene, happy and forgiving ship, and nor should we ever think we can be – Max is pretty clear on that. But the value in simply recognising when we are getting into a judgement cycle is brilliant. The atmosphere is lightened and we can all have a laugh – recognising that it is us who are wrong in the first instance, and working together to identify the real need behind clients’ requests.

It is now OK for us to get frustrated, openly, but work together to lighten the load and get to the nub of the problem. And that means we’re better able to help our clients too.

If you’re working in a team where blame and frustration are creeping in to projects, then I’d encourage you to get in touch with Max.

photo credit: Untitled via photopin (license)

The digital comms team: a warm, safe blanket

This month we’ll complete a project to kick start digital engagement for a relatively small, but important, organisation. The delivery has involved reviews, planning, strategy, pilot projects and training: I feel like I have spent time with everyone, from the CEO to the newest recruits.

What made this project tempting to us, was the fact it had been commissioned by a team other than communications. This is unusual for us, but very welcome. We’re always keen to work with people who are on the front line, seeking audiences beyond media and wanting to get involved in conversations.

This wasn’t a case of the communications team hogging the sweetie jar, or not being helpful. But the impetus to do more online came from elsewhere in the organisation.

The challenge for an established organisation is that they’re used to channeling conversations, statements, broadcasts and engagement, through the communications team. Typing this blog post as I am (as I would have done years ago when employed by big Government departments) and hitting the publish button of my own accord, has been a completely alien concept for the staff we talk to. Without evidence of regular digital engagement from within the communications team, the rest of the organisation feels a little more nervous.Woman under a blanket with laptop

Digital can, and should, live everywhere in an organisation. But it really helps if the communications team are confident digital practitioners. They should have oversight of the critical messages coming out from any organisation, but they also have a responsibility to disseminate digital engagement, and empower their colleagues.

In the case of our latest project, the communications team became some of our best participants and proved to be fantastically flexible, encouraging and enthusiastic.

I used to think it was all about wresting digital from shrinking communication teams. Now, I’m changing my mind. Organisations need a safe blanket: confident digital communicators who encourage and empower.

Late night via photopin (license)

Trust me

There’s this great event each year called Govcamp. It comes along at the end of January, which is just the right time for some inspiration, group therapy and sharing ideas.

I couldn’t possibly cover all the topics that found their way on to the agenda this year. You can catch up on much of the conversation by reading the live blogs.

There was one common theme to all the sessions I attended, that deserves more airing. That theme is trust.

We rely on trust in order to get things done. No one person can control all the information flows, relationships and projects in any organisation. When you employ someone, you make a judgement call about their abilities, their strengths and their weaknesses. On this you base the amount that you pay them, and the type of work you give them.

On the basis that most people go to work to earn money, need to earn money and want to continue to earn money, you should be able to trust them to handle information and conversations with proportionate care. That’s at any level of an organisation.

All this is missing when we try to control how people use collaborative platforms for work, or decide whether or not they can use social media to bring value to an organisation.

In fact, when an organisation says ‘you can only use our XYZ intranet’ or ‘you can’t access Youtube’, what they’re saying is ‘we don’t trust you’.

Am I being fair?

Does less equal more, at home and work?

About a year ago I started renting a garage near home. This was for various complicated reasons involving a dinghy, some classic car speculation, and various mountain bikes in states of disrepair.

As it happened the boat never materialised and the car was sold to fund something rather boring.

So, logically, I should have let the garage go. Instead, I've been working out ways to fill it with other things, none of which I really need.

We expand to fill the space that is available.

And it gets worse. The bikes that now luxuriate in their own dry space, carefully stacked and surrounded by just-in-case tools, are sometimes treated to new bits: special tyres for tackling mud, or better brake pads.

This is because I am a sucker for a good bike shop, and surely the way to improve my PB for ascending the North Downs, or tackling that awkward berm on the common is by buying better equipment? Nothing whatsoever to do with my own ability, naturally.

We focus on products to solve problems, rather than behaviour change.

In the office we are going through a Ways of Working review: identifying the things that might better contribute to efficiency, productivity and well being in the workplace. Having recently worked my way through Culture Shock and Peopleware, I am more interested in these ideas than ever.

However, I've noticed that unlike the values from these books, people tend to get a bit hung up on the visible changes and 'design' of these new ideas. Open plan meeting spaces, bring-your-own-device and mobile phones instead of desk phones are seen as the catalyst for improvement.

My worry is that, like my surplus garage and the shiny bits on my bike, none of the changes above really get to the crux of typical workplace problems like prioritisation, inefficient meetings or general workloads. In fact, if my use of cloud tools is anything to go by, it's all too easy to get suckered into handling even more information and losing focus.

What most workplaces need to do is get to the heart of what causes inefficiency and resulting unhappiness or stress. And it's not about hardware or the way in which space is designed. It's how this stuff is used or abused in the first place.

So, instead of testing and deploying new furniture and equipment I'd like to see:

1. Email accounts restricted by memory size. Let's say 5MB tops.

2. The ability to send emails restricted to just two 30-minute windows every 24 hours

3. Much less closed meeting spaces, to get people out of the habit of holding meetings, that don't really need to be so formal in the first place

4. Knock down the surplus meeting rooms and use left over furniture – the less of it the better. That way we stand and focus on what needs solving, not the colour of the fabric

5. Cut out messaging around the building that doesn't specifically and directly link with the organisation's priorities

6. Give managers the freedom to structure teams and projects in a way that audiences will understand, and that delivers results, not just replicating historical structures

Some of these are quite basic, and others more fundamental, but it would be a start. Know anywhere that has done this already? Do tell me.

In the meantime I'm off to clear the garage and get fit.


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