TRADITIONAL DIGITAL: What comms teams should look like in 2012

All the best films have a challenge at their heart.

In Dunkirk, its Johnny Mills as a British corporal steering his men to safety.

In Pulp Fiction, its Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta getting away with accidentally shooting Marvin in the face.

One if the biggest challenges facing press offices and communications teams is how to blend the old with the new to stay relevant.

There was a fascinating post by Ann Kempster who works in central government about what comms teams should look like. You can read it here. Emer Coleman from the Government Digital Service and others made some excellent comments.

A couple of years ago I blogged about what comms teams needing to adapt and have traditional and digital skills. I probably over-sold open data. We’re not there just yet but will be but the basics I still hang my hat on.

Back then I said the communications team needed to be both digital and traditional so calling something a press office these days is a bit of an anachronism. It would involve the basics:

  • 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.

But would need to have these too:

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 theblogosphere.
  • 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.

So how can we make the joint traditional and digital press office work?

There’s no question that the traditional press office and the digital press office should be under the same roof.

There’s no point in having an old school team with spiralbound notebooks and in the next room a digital team with jet packs and Apple macbook pros not communicating.

So what can help make the joint digital and trad comms team work?

Press officers won’t all head voluntarily to this bright new dawn. It’s just not going to happen overnight. Some won’t change and will be left behind.

The bright ones will adapt and are adapting to a place where a bog standard comms plan will include old media + social media + web as a matter of course. After all. We don’t all have specialists for TV or radio sat in most press offices and certainly not in local government where I work.

We all need a specialist digital comms officer to help blend the old and the new

Once I knew a man who was a mechanic. He used to repair petrol engines. At night school, he learned how electrical generators worked.

When his company changed to electrical generators he alone had the expertise for both and was invaluable in training staff.

That’s the approach we need for press officers.

In other words, what will blend old and new in the short and medium term is the dedicated social media or digital communications officer.

On Ann Kempster’s blog the anaology was made about digital cameras. We don’t refer to cameras as ‘digital’ these days. They are just cameras. That’s true and that’s where we need to go with comms teams.

But in many ways there’s more to it than that. I remember working as a newspaper when the first photographer – who was not a popular man – walked in proudly with a satchel with the paper’s first digital camera and laptop. “Schools broken up early has it?” came the dry-balloon bursting quip from the long-serving deputy chief reporter. The same quip was made every time the photographer walked in until the whole of the company’s photographers had them. Somehow, knowing the characters involved that made it funnier.

There was a cross-over period while photographers adapted to the new technology but the basic work of the photographer remained the same. Composition was unaltered. They were still building the same things through their view finders. But with digital communications it’s asking people to use a completely different set of skills. Like asking a photographer to become a sculptor overnight. But still take pictures when needed too.

From experience, the shift from the traditional to the traditional + digital takes time but it has to be coaxed and encouraged. That’s where the digital specialist in the comms team comes in so long as they share the sweets, horizon scan and work to give back-up to help others gain confidence. They also need to flag up the successes. They need to do some measuring and reporting back. We need to include digital stats along with traditional media ones so when the cabinet member in local government, or whoever, gets told what’s happening in the media they’re getting the digital picture too.

Just because an organisation has given the green light to social media doesn’t always mean the influential people in an organisation get it. One of the big complaints is that digital is tacked onto the busy day job. Well, if the day job means press releases churned out to dwindling newspapers maybe that work needs re-calibrating. But you need to convince the powers that be that it’s not 1985 anymore and digital and traditional is the way forward.

Why do comms need to share the sweets?

That’s something I’ve been banging on about for a long time. Comms needs to train, give advice, shape policy where needed but most importantly hold the door open for others to go through.

Across the country these either formally titled or informally tasked digital comms people can be seen doing good things. Look at Helen Reynolds in Monmouthshire County Council, Geoff Coleman at Birmingham City Council and what Al Smith did at Newcastle City Council and elsewhere as a couple of examples.

It’s the path that Walsall Council’s comms team has taken too thanks to bright leadership. As a result we now have press officers like Tina Faulkner and Becky Robinson who by no means are digital natives putting together inspiring campaigns like this one which saw a morning with a carer and her husband who suffers Alzheimers. They found magic in this approach which told a human story beautifully.

The challenge is to find the innovator in every comms team and gently give others room and confidence to grow if they need it.

Creative commons credits





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    1. Thanks, Richard. Everyone lijkes a sharer. Especially if they have fizzy cola bottles ; )

  1. Dan totally agree – just a point of emphasis that I’ve seen emerging and thankfully am pleased to say here @bromfordgroup we’ve got covered off, the quality of video editing … you need to plan into budgets not only the great peolpe to do this but the kit required … we just cant afford to commission AV outside of the team often content is needed now and of a good enough quality to have an impact. Ive completely revamped the team here with the great support of @alexabbotts. So lucky here to have support from our Execs.

    Thanks for the post Dan


  2. Thanks Dan – great post. I’ve copied and pasted the 2.0 and 3.0 into our team objectives 🙂 One point I would make is to be clear about how/when the digital press officer’s job is done. In my experience having one press officer who can do this stuff doesn’t always deliver an empowered news room, without ensuring everyone up skills quickly.

    1. Tim. I’m just a little bit honoured by your cutting and pasting. Thank you!

      You’re quite right in saying that the specialist digital comms person in a wider comms team doesn’t always deliver the goods. Every case is different. I’d guess the attitude of that member of staff is vital. If their key job is to share, train, horizon scan and encourage then you’ve got a pretty good fighting chance.

  3. I have a moleskin and a mac. Two weapons combined. Suddenly realised that reflects exactly who and what I am trying to become.

    But I still think it’s more ephemeral than this and that understanding patterns, watching the crowd movements and flow of conversations and sentiment, feeling the networks and feeding the networks come into this as well. I don’t think about skillsets. I think about behaviour.

  4. One of the key points is about building relationships with local bloggers. In a sense this is a recognition that communication channels have become much more disparate. The skills needed to do this are much more akin to community engagement as people running blogs are embedded in their communities. Ironically the growth of digital comminication means we need to be much more proactive going out to get a better understanding of concerns and issues. This is not a role that can be done from an office with cosy relationship with the local press.

    1. You’re absolutely bang on to make the connection with community engagement. I’m more and more convinced the organisation with the shiniest Facebook will fall over if they’re not listening to people properly from minute one…

  5. Reading that I do get the impression that you feel that the press office should be master of all things. I don’t think they need to be. Why would the press office need to be able to create a dataset when they have a GIS team just down the corridor to do that? Do you think that a press officer needs to know HTML when the council has a web team? I don’t think they do, but I agree that they need to know that such things can be done.

    I myslef are in both the web and GIS teams and whilst I can produce a dataset I know that if I ask one of the GIS people, they will have it done in a fraction of the time it would have taken me. It’s working together. If the press office starts doing other teams work won’t it just alienate them from the rest of the council, The very people that are supposed to be representing?

    1. Thanks, Peter.

      That’s a really interesting point you highlight.

      The broad point is that job titles are blurring and the demarcation lines are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

      It used to be that comms people were very protective of all the channels – and some still are. It’s far better when some of those skills are devolved and share the sweets so service areas can use digital channels too. So, what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander. Those in other areas of the organisation who used to enjoy a monopoly need to take a similar leap and devolve some skills too.

      That’s not to say the press officer – I’m more inclined to use the phrase communications officer – should be an expert at everything.

      What they should be able to do is get by. For example, without a basic knowledge of WordPress and being able to cut and paste html to embed stuff I wouldn’t have got far with this blog. It would be lunacy for someone tro write a blog but not be able to put up the content themselves. Same for being able to create a workable web-based map to illustrate a campaign or highlight in an emergency rest centres and road closures.

      That’s not to say that we don’t need people in an organisation with advance skills. We do. We just need to be able to have the basic skills elsewhere in an organisation when needed as well.

      1. You raise an important point Dan, One for GIS teams to think about. Whilst they are the experts when it comes to all things mapping, do they really need to contacted every time a communications officer or a website editor needs to have a single map of a single location. The answer is no. What they need to do in ensure that the communications officer and other interested people have a system where they can quickly select a point on a map (the location of an event for example) and have included in their press release or web page etc. It’s the GIS team that should be taking the lead on that one and if they are not then the communications officer should be having a little word with them..

      2. Exactly. That’s like reverse sweet sharing, isn’t it? I’d also add that an openness to non-proprietory maps is needed by mapping teams. Open Street Map, for example.

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