A reasonable portion of our work in any given year is commissioned by non-Comms people, who want to develop their skills and confidence in using social media.
Demand has come from the UK public sector, specifically central Government policy teams, and the NHS. It’s also evident among much larger private sector clients, who employ teams of people around the world in public-facing but non-Comms roles.
Reflecting on a couple of recent projects, it is not a pretty picture. At best nothing has moved forward in the past few years, and among the public sector organisations we work with, things have regressed.
In the slavish pursuit of digital marketing goals, many comms teams have failed to support their colleagues in the use of social media. Staff social media policies are vague and unhelpful, if they exist at all.
There is no acknowledgement of the real and valuable relationships and influence that people working on the front line of policy and operations have with customers and users.
Comms teams tell me they are under resourced and under funded. But these are exactly the reasons to support their colleagues’ use of social media: to build capacity and reduce the organisation’s reliance on a handful of corporate channels.
Whether your Comms team is 2 people or 200, your priority has got to be building digital communications capacity across the business, in a meaningful and practical way.
Don’t wait for a channel strategy or a policy on this – just get on and train, support, cajole. Because your colleagues are already using social media and they need your help.
The best teams we work with do little and often. They recognise the importance of mediums like twitter to say something as soon as they can, rather than wait to approve more information for a press release. This comes along sometime later and may – or may not – have more information.
Organisations are more likely to get dragged over the coals for providing too little information at a later date, than for saying something quickly, even if it’s just a simple acknowledgement of a situation.
The best way to be quick off the line is to empower staff as spokespeople. One person with the permission to talk publicly will always beat an approval process. They’ll also need the confidence to use their online network to spread that message, and be ready to do it on their own, in the middle of the night or the weekend if needed.
For the past couple of years I’ve been invited by an old colleague, Professor Scott Wright, to speak to a group of his students who are studying media and communications at the University of Melbourne.
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.
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.
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.
So, what am I looking for in a truly digital press office?
1. A team, not a person
The whole team applying digital as part of their routine work. A ‘digital press officer role’ is just that – only a role, not a team.
Does the team have a clear sense of their purpose and responsibilities? I’m thinking in particular of any distinction being made between PR activity and media relations. If this isn’t clear, then it is difficult to know how digital can be useful to teams and individuals.
3. Real people or spokespeople?
I expect to see press officers using real names and profiles, not generic corporate ones, to engage with media online. Tracey does this well.
4. Prepared to say something
While I’ve always admired a press officer’s ability to say ‘no comment’ a million different ways, I’m not sure that the equivalent radio silence works online, particularly in the jaws of an emerging crisis. The best press officers quickly refer back to what they can say at least: linking to previous statements or other types of content.
5. Open minded about what media looks like
This is the big change for me. I always assumed that once traditional press offices could see all the conversations, blogs and forums online, using their shiny new platforms and hardware, that this would herald a new way of thinking about the breadth of media. I’ve yet to be convinced this has happened universally, particularly in the public sector where it still feels a little all-or-nothing: newspaper front pages and Today are still king. Someone prove me wrong on this?
6. Making the case for online coverage
Linked to number 5 – will the team confidently report on online coverage alongside offline, or is it only for quiet days?
7. A culture of coffees as well as deadlines
The happiest and most productive press offices I’ve encountered have been those where individual members of staff are in charge of their own diaries. There is an expectation that, like a traditional newsroom, people are more often out of the office than in. People succeed on the strength of their contacts book, and the effort they put in to networking and meeting journalists, bloggers, hackers and commentators.
8. Being of the internet, not just using it
Another common characteristic of a happy, digital, press officer are those who contribute to the web: they’re connectors of people, writers of blogs, contributors to forums, sharers of interesting or funny content.
This is a tough one to reverse-engineer, but I’ve yet to meet a team where there isn’t someone with a genuine (sometimes hidden) passion for digital. It is imperative that the senior team lead by example, set objectives and recruit with this in mind.
I’m as excited about the prospect of a digital press office as ever, but, I am moving the goalposts, three years on. Technology and platforms are only part of the story – it’s attitude and experience that brings digital to a press office.
So it is only fair that I should ‘fess up to three pieces of twitter-specific activity.
Firstly, a Q&A session with one of our Ministers, Jo Swinson. Twitter was used as the platform here, for convenience of curating, as much as anything else. The real win for us was inviting John Adams, a blogger who writes about parenting issues, to facilitate the session, rather than simply picking other people’s questions to put to the Minister.
Secondly, since the start of 2013 Paul and I have been running weekly sessions with our press office, to help them get started with Twitter, and, where individuals were already using it, helping them to get more from search and publishing.
More on that another time.
Finally, I spent half an hour with our Permanent Secretary, Martin Donnelly, setting him up with a Twitter account. I think this will be a helpful way of encouraging colleagues around BIS to have their own personal, attributable Twitter accounts.
Was in Berlin with BIS DGs meeting German opposite numbers and celebrating the best of British exports. pic.twitter.com/ixqiCR0d
I’m at pains to remind everyone involved in the above activity that Twitter is only as good as the conversations we use it for, and the content we publish. As more people adopt Twitter for regular work, and the platform continues to be even easier to use (publishing photos, sharing links etc.), this conversation is becoming more simple.
My parting shot for the Department of Health (DH) was to help organise a showcase event bringing together the most popular entries to Maps and Apps.
I’ve blogged about Maps and Apps before, but in essence we (the DH digital team) asked people to suggest and vote for their favourite health apps and maps. As a piece of digital engagement it worked well, generating lots of conversations on our blog, on the crowdsourcing platform and elsewhere. Most importantly the entries that people submitted have been fed in to a policy making process at DH.
The showcase event was primarily a thank you for those who had taken the time to suggest popular ideas and get involved with the project. Secretary of State Andrew Lansley attended, as did some of the judges who supported the project.
However, the project has also generated lots of high profile media coverage. This isn’t always familiar terrain for digital engagement projects in Government, but very welcome nonetheless. I woke up last week to see coverage on Sky News, and in The Times and Guardian.
Significantly, it helped us to produce something meaningful with the press office, rather than occupying the monitoring/rebuttal/publishing space, which is the norm for most teams.
Thanks to Phil O’Connell (an enthusiastic and very helpful advocate for the project) I am able to share this footage from Sky News on the day.
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.
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.