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.


Maps and Apps in the news

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.


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Sky News LIVE Feb 2012: NHS Future Forum “Maps and Apps” from Phil O’Connell on Vimeo.

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Sky News PACKAGE Feb 2012: NHS Future Forum “Maps and Apps” from Phil O’Connell on Vimeo.

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