STOP BEING IRRELEVANT: Here’s five things every comms person should know

It’s amazing communications people are walking towards irrelevance but have not yet woken up.

In 2011 people get their information through a range of places.

Twitter broke the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. For some peoplem, it was Gary Neville’s Twitter stream that did it.

Closer to home, for the first time I found out the reason for a blocked road near my house via social media. That’s a personal tipping point.

But what of communications units?

They’re tackling the 21st century media landscape with a 20th century set-up. They’re geared to print when the world is turning to digital. It’s still what the local paper says that drives the agenda despite the paper being read by a minority. They’re a voice. But they’re one of several.

It’s now about doing both. Really well and getting to that point really, really quickly.

Here’s a quick history lesson.

Typesetters were once the kings of their craft using hard won skills to play a key role in delivering the news.

Computers came along and soon it was easy to replicate what they did.

Almost overnight generations of hard learned skills were irrelevant.

Once, having the skills to deal with media queries and to shape messages for print were all important.

But the media landscape has changed.

  • Newspaper sales are collapsing around us. People who read at least one a day fell from 26.7 million to 21.7 million from 1992 to 2006.
  • Best estimates  in 2011 are that 12 million local and national newspapers are sold every day. A further three million like the Metro are given away every day in the UK.
  • In April 2011, not a single national newspaper recorded growth.

And digital? Here are some random stats:

  • How many people are on Facebook in the UK? There’s 29 million. About half the population.
  • Facebook is  the fourth biggest website in the world for news.
  • By 2013, smartphones are predicted to be the first point of contact with the internet overtaking PCs.
  • 85 per cent of the UK population in summer 2010 was online.
  • Of those, 29 million had visited a social site in ther past month.
  • If you’re starting out there’s a great YouTube clip from Simply Zesty that’s a good starting point. The link is here.

Stop and think.

Where are people getting their information? Where do you get your information?

Then think how much time do traditional communications units and press offices devote to print media.

How much time is spent on digital platforms?

Are we really spending time going out onto Facebook to tackle issues where they arise? Or are we – at best – waiting for them to come to our corporate page? If we have one, that is.

Too many communications units have got the balance wrong putting scarce resources into print with little if any for digital.

But by doing so they’re becoming more irrelevant with every passing day and comms people with them.

This isn’t an argument for stopping writing press releases overnight. It’s more about recalibrating and getting the balance right.

Right now, it’s the press release, the photocall – where news photographers or photography budgets – AND the digital channels too.

My grandpa was a headteacher in the Lake District. He refused to have a telephone in the house because people he didn’t have the time to answer it. Many comms units are backing off from truly embracing digital for the same reason. They think they’ll be inundated, that the world will end and they don’t know where to start.

But digital is the one thing that will keep them relevant.

A couple of times recently I’ve been at events where trad comms people have been in the majority. You could almost touch the fear of change. The digital disasters and ‘what if scenarios’ were being trotted out. You could practically see the wagon train forming a circle.

It’s fine to keep the trad comms skills for the while. But press officers and marketing people need to learn new skills too if they’re not to become the typesetters of their generation.

A transport officer recently asked me if comms people would be irrelevant in 10 years time when we all have Facebook streams and officer Twitter accounts or presences on platforms that have yet to be even start-ups.

It’s a fair question.

As things stand, yes.

But as professionals who can help deliver a message through different channels, not at all if we evolve to meet them. That means new skills but most important of all the time and space to deploy them.

Here are five things a trad comms person needs to know:

Without learning new skills you’re unemployable. Interviewing skills, drawing-up a release, a campaign and dealing with the old media are still good basics to have. But without the digital strings to your bow how are you going to talk to the Facebook generation? Social media is not a silver bullet. But it’s a bullet you’ll need in your next job.

It’s not scary. Honest. The fact that you can deliver a message via print and radio means you are halfway there. Surely, you’d like to reach as many people as possible? Once you grasp the basics the door will open and you’ll find whole new vistas of possibility opening up.

It’s easy to get started. Do things under your own steam first to learn how platforms work. The lessons you’ll learn blogging about cake will come in handy further down the track. There’s also a wealth of learning out there on blogs, at mashable,com and places like the LGiD’s Communities of Practice forum.

There’s no such thing as a social media expert. We’re all learning. All of us. Every day is a school day and chances are the things you’ll do will be pioneering because social media hasn’t been around that long.

It’s web 2.0, baby. It’s a new way of doing things. People expect a two way conversation not someone broadcasting at them.

All these things so many people are already taking for granted.

Are you?

And have your comms team?

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  1. Once again Dan, spot on – required reading for any PR/comms person.

    And their managers – the top man at one of Boilerhouse’s clients asked me the other day: ‘how come we don’t send out those nice printed press releases on headed paper anymore….?’. Not a PR person, it took him all of, oh, about half a minute to totally ‘get’ my explanation……

    1. Thanks, Vicky.

      It would actually be really wrong to say that it’s just comms people who fear it or don’t get it. Pennies have yet to drop in so many areas. Sometimes you lose sight of that when you spend a lot of time on Twitter or in the ‘bubble.

      This morning – and I’m not making this up – I found Twitter had been accidentally blocked to my screen by our ICT. The help desk person admitted she didn’t use Twitter or Facebook. Surely it should be ICT people that are pushing the envelope and insisting we all have jetpacks and ipad2s?

      1. Yes, of course you’re right, its not just PR/Comms people who don’t get it, but as comms people, I think they really should……

        Re ICT folks, and popping my Socitm hat on, we’ve been surveying attitudes and in January last year issued a press release based on the results, with the following headline and opening para:

        Council ICT managers should lead their organisations to embrace social media rather than block it says new report from Socitm

        Public sector heads of ICT should be taking the lead in encouraging councils to embrace social media and not be party to moves to block staff from using these important new tools for business, says the latest report from Socitm Insight…….etc

        You can read the rest at

      2. Oh, that’s good stuff, Vicky.

        SOCITM have such a massive role to play in all of this. They’re an organisation that do good things but most importantly of all they have the ear of IT people…

  2. Dan, you’re not just smelling the coffee you’re growing it too! An excellent blog post, thank you.

    Yesterday I attended an interview for a PR/comms role in local government and cited examples like your own when talking about how the tools of the job are changing and changing fast.

    1. Thanks, John. That’s kind of you to say.

      Remember reading about how a newspaper wouldn’t give a job to a candidate who didn’t have a Facebook and Twitter account. If these are the platforms that are being used that’s where comms people should be too.

  3. The biggest missed opportunity is for councils to make best use of the characteristics of each medium. Far too many councils are content just to churn out links to press releases through Twitter, ditto on Facebook.

    No-one ever had a conversation with a press release.

    The social web brings intense scrutiny to organisations, often from people who are both passionate and expert. If you’re only used to dealing with relatively tame local journalists this can be a real shock.

    1. Think I might print out that second paragraph and stick it to the wall as a reminder…

  4. So what replaces press releases in this new world? What should press releases become? ‘Hot Topics’? ‘Conversation topics’? or are they now simply the Council’s status updates? I’m not in comms but isn’t social media were the press get much of their news from now anyway?

    1. It’s a really interesting question, Dave.

      When you think about it, what’s a press release? It’s content tailored for print. It’s often written in newspaper style by ex-journalists. For a newspaper it works brilliantly. For other platforms its not so good.

      What replaces a press release in web 2.0?

      It’s still content tailored for the platform.

      It’s updates tailored for Facebook, Twitter or whichjever platform. In otherwords a short update in suitable language, an image or a YouTube clip.

      It could be a widget with opening times.

      It could be sound files that could be re-purposed by a broadcast journalist.

      It could be a data visualisation. Or a wordle.

      But it’s definitely the ability to take part in the conversation and the two way debate.

  5. A press release in this day and age is 140 characters. Put it out once on Twitter and use the right tools to automate the process across all the online real estate where your audience hang out. Note that: your audience have probably discovered 1001 ways to communicate that a large org hasn’t yet. It is marcomms job to find them, not for them to find you!

    Make sure your 140char PR goes out as an email to your pet journos too. If you are really uncomfortable with making your job easy, print it out on pieces of paper and go and stick it in every in-tray across the building to make sure the rest of your department/organisation has seen it too.

    Three to four years ago we said Facebook would be big for businesses and public sector; we were dismissed as crackpots. Ditto with Twitter, Digg, social networks and bookmark sites. Ten years ago it was websites. Six years ago it was smartphones. Now, I could mention and be stared at blankly by my council. Livestreaming of meetings should be a given by now, but the so-called bottom up approach of an online Big Society doesn’t seem to have quite reached its target yet.

    The people get all this stuff and do it almost unconsciously – connecting, promoting, engaging, sharing. But the big organisations struggle to even grasp it. Good article Dan.

    1. Thanks, Linsey. Some really good points. Like your analogy. Today it’s social media platforms. Thirty years ago it was the telephone…

  6. Brilliant article, Dan!

    We’re all still learning. These new technologies certainly help alert us to new things faster, and deliver the news we want. I love how we can simply filter what we want to hear, but that’s detrimental in some cases. I haven’t followed local news for years. Maybe I’m out of touch. But I hate the politics of my local media (TV news, papers), so I stay away from them. I’m considering finding new ways to keep my ear to the ground, in this aspect.

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