COMMS 3.0: How open data will change the face of news and PR

Robert Peston famously spelt out the future of journalism – and PR – in a landmark Richard Todd lecture.

In a world of 24-hour multi-platform news the blog ‘is at the centre of everything I do’, he said.

His speech covered the role of the print media, TV and Twitter.

Just 12 months on and he’s out of date. Or rather, he needs rebooting slightly.

If web 1.0 was the equivalent of pinning up a digital public notice with web 2.0 we started to learn how to listen.

With web 3.0 we’ll be learning a whole new set of skills. The role of open data will be central to journalism and hand in hand as a consequence with PR. I wrote an idiots guide to it here a few months back and boy, I’m still learning.

With the open data revolution gathering pace reporters must now also be at home navigating a data store as they are on the Town Hall press benches. Press officers must do likewise.

Why? Because the avalanche of public information that will be released has the potential to sweep all before it and drown the unprepared.

Mathew Ingram, the communities editor of The Globe and Mail in Toronto, famously has said “the golden age of computer assisted reporting is at hand.”

Open Data logo

Data journalism is a phrase that will become as familiar in journalism colleges as Teeline shorthand and exam favourite The Oxdown Gazette. What is data journalism? It’s the use of apps and mash-ups to mine for news amongst released data. Isn’t that for geeks? No. Where once a council committee report would bear fruit the data set is the new news source.

Open data brings transparency and openness.

Think of it as FOI turbo charged and you’re not even close.

Hyperlocal bloggers who are at home on the web are light years ahead in the interpretation of open data compared to print journalists.

Some journalism courses understand this. The excellent Birmingham City University gets it in spades.

So where does this leave the press officer?

The fashionable thing to say is the press officer as gatekeeper will be redundant by web 2.0 and buried by web 3.0. For me, that’s hooey.

But the old-style press officer who has served time as a hack and can only write a press release is a dead man walking.

What is needed to keep pace with the information arms race are new skills.

The ability to work with or create a mash-up will become as important as having a notebook or a sharp pencil.

Will the press officer for web 3.0 be an allrounder? Definitely. Will they have to have the command of every skill? No. But the team he belongs to sure as hell collectively will have.

At the risk of sounding in years to come as a BBC Tomorows’ World clip, here is how the web 3.0 communications team needs to look:

In the days before the web the press office needs to:

  • 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.

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 the blogosphere.
  • 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.

But with web 3.0 upon us and the pace of change growing faster to stay relevant the comms team has to change.

Data journalism links

What is data journalism? A good introductory piece from The Guardian..

Mapped: the UK’s road cycling hotspot A mash-up of accident data by The Times.

Oil and Gas Chief Execs Are They Worth It? Lovely Financial Times data visualisation – needs a sign-up.

Is It Better To Rent Or Buy? New York Times data visualisation.

How to guides

What is a mash-up? Great advice from the BCU journalism lecturer Paul Bradshaw.

Creative Commons credits:

Open Data logo

Mobile phone

Join the Conversation


  1. Holy cow! I need the world to slow down just a fraction. Great post this.

    Saying that, for me it serves to highlight the necessity to continue pushing and learning, informing colleagues not as familiar, and management(other than the couple I gratefully learn from)that like ‘The Terminator’, this is coming and it will never stop!

    Thanks @Danslee. A twittersphere educator.


  2. Cheers, Spencer. Need the world to slow down a fraction? You and me both.

    I suppose the one thing to concentrate on as things are going at 100 miles an hour is that it’s a team game now more than ever. There may be a dozen skills that are needed. You may only have four or five yourself. So long as there are people in the organisation who can cover all those skills you are fine.

    I last wrote a line of code in 1981 on a ZX81. Marching men went across the screen. It was going to be the future. Then Bill Gates came along. However, that’s fine. Kev the web manager does code. It’s just not possible to know every subject in detail. You’ll just end up beating yourself up which is never much fun.

  3. Yeah, range of skills required, definitely team game.

    I’m pretty new to it all, but learning fast, making the transition from ‘finding out’ to ‘impartng’ thanks in part to actively pursuing knowledge, but mainly in learning from @Gr8governance and @StevenTuck, my human and first rate colleagues.

  4. Interesting and informative post as ever, Dan.

    I’m not sure to what extent a press officer will need to create a data set. There is going to be an increasing amount of work done in the public sector around opening up the datasets that we currently hold inside organisations and making them available to the public for reuse. That might be the release of csv documents into the cloud or it could be converting them into Linked Data and placing them in a triplestore. Are you sure that press officers need to be involved in that process, or do they need to encourage it, be aware of it going on, promoting its use and reuse etc.?

    I think the skills required are going to reduce over time. If you take the example that you used: back in the day, we wrote code to get marching men across our screen. Nowadays there are tools that allow you to do that without a need to know any code. We used to write webpages in text editors, typing in the raw html that was needed. Nowadays there are content management systems with wysiwyg editors that do all of the difficult stuff for us.

    While the above is a bit of an oversimplification, I do think we will see tools being developed very soon that allow people to discover and visualise data from various sources in a way that doesn’t require them to learn any code. In fact, I wouldn’t be that surprised if something already existed, but that rate of change is just so fast that I haven’t discovered it yet ;0)

  5. Spencer – You’re very lucky. @StevenTuck and @gr8governance are excellent people. It’s impossible to know everything about all this digital stuff. Many a melt down has happen when people look at the Himalayan mountain range of change ahead of them and think ‘WTF!’ when actually concentrating on climbing a small peak is just fine.

    Si – Cheers for the comment. You are dead, dead right that one day someone will invent something that makes all this very simple. That’s a brilliant and hugely perceptive point.

    There WILL be a Microsoft-style app that will make it simple for a non-coding monkey like me to bring data to life.

    I suppose where I’m coming from in the press officers should be able to create data sets line is for them to get a basic understanding of the raw material that open data consists of. However, they shouldn’t be sole gatekeepers to this stuff and nor should they be the only people who can create a data set in a wider organisation, for my money.

  6. Hey Dan

    Great post.

    I think the open data logo shared in your post is telling. It plays into the “Data is for developers” narrative that has become so prominent – but which isn’t the only way of thinking about open data.

    There are already tools for working with data that just about everyone has access to (Excel etc.) and existing online tools that let people do a lot of what they want in relatively easy ways (we’re just missing some of the How To resources / step-by-step examples right now… well, that an the culture change that puts these into the hands of people in LAs)

    The ability to create a mash-up may be one important skill that emerges for the press-officer; but I would hazard that equally important may be skills for understanding the details of data, and even increased stats skills to know when something being reported is statistically sound or not… (e.g. when someone has graphed your street light repair rates, can you explain to them why there is a blip in the data for March – was it an end of year budget spend? A data collection error? etc.)


  7. good post dan

    for the rapidly evolving press officer basic statistical literacy and fluency would be a good/necessary start. they need to be as comfortable in excel as they are in word or be able to find rapidly somone who is.

    in my long experience of working with press officers inside th epublic sector this hasn’t always been a strength. they need to be able to manipulate and understand a data set as fast as people outside the system. even at the very local level.


    where i feed the local paper (which had the decency to ring and ask me) the police never did mange to engage properly with the data even though it was their own

    or the simpler



  8. Nice post Mr. Slee, will have to redigest in the morning, but props for bringing up the Oxdown Gazette. Bought a nostalgic tear to the eye.

  9. Bloggers continue to ask whether blogging has died. Bloggers also question the future of Web 3.0.

    Let me be simple in response: Web 3.0 is an idea, but a good 5 to 10 years away. Before its idea surfaces, the world needs broadband access to the internet. Sadly, most of the world is still in dialup or satellite mode.

    Access to online community building and instant gratification are great, but neither will occur if the people can’t keep up, literally, with the data.

  10. Thanks Ari. It’s always really interesting to get a perspective from the US.

    You’re dead right that broadband is key.

    However, in terms of timescales the landscape in the UK maybe a little different.

    Local government has been asked by 10 Downing Street to release all spending over £500 in an open data format which is definitely web 3.0. We have until January 2011 to do this and much work is being done behind the scenes not only to make this happen but also to publish other data sets.

    Lichfield District Council and Warwickshire County Councils have been amongst the first tranche of councils to really pick up the ball and run with it.

    Hope the blogging recomendations I tweeted were helpful.

    Stuart – Any man who picks up an Oxdown Gazette NCTJ reference enjoys a lorry load of extra kudus ; )

  11. Brilliant and thought provoking post Dan – sorry I didn’t get to it sooner. Another dimension for me in this context is the need for the developing press officer skills sets to have regard to the councillor role. The value of open data to facilitate the representative role is a crucial feature here – one of the core internal customers of the press office are the local councillors, particularly the Leadership. We surely need to make a virtue of the opportunities of the open data debate to equip our councillors with the data (and intelligence) to be effective representatives, including in the media. I guess for me the point is we must not neglect the councillor support and development element of the open data discussion.

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