A STORMY 2019: Some predictions for public sector comms and PR in the year ahead


I’m reading a memoir of a trawlerman at the moment and it’s making me think about public sector comms in 2019.

The skipper remembered how he looked at the boats moored in Peterhead harbour and he felt nagging disquiet that all this was going to change.

So, after carefully thinking through his next steps he moved from targeting cod with heavy quotas to the greener niche catch of langoustines to send to Spain and France. A few years later he looked at the same view and it was different. Those cod trawlers had largely gone and those that were left were struggling.

In 2019, storms are coming.

‘Predictions are very difficult, especially if they are about the future’ – Niels Bohr.

Every year for the past eight I blog some predictions. Last year, I made a series of predictions.

In 2018, here’s what I got right:

  • Facebook group admins did grow in importance.
  • Technology continued to outpace the public sector.
  • There was a need to improve the quality of video.
  • The need to use all Facebook has to offer rather than the corporate page grew
  • The need for human comms grew as did the need for specialist generalists,
  • GIFS and threads became expected.
  • Twitter continued to struggle and social media became less social.
  • The need for digital first grew.
  • Video grew in importance along with the need to demonstrate evaluation.
  • Income targets remain a minority pursuit.

In 2019, here’s what I got wrong

  • Live video hasn’t caught on in the public sector although it thrives in the metric conscious field of local journalism.
  • 360 images and VR haven’t moved into the mainstream yet.
  • Internal comms didn’t reach a crisis point.

So, what will happen in 2019? 

As each year passes, the gap between the cutting edge of technology and the public sector grows wider.

As the public embrace new technology such as voice to use the internet, the public sector lags behind. Weighed down by legacy systems and legacy attitudes many of those in the ship’s wheelhouse are poorly equipped to meet the dark clouds of 2019. But as much as they may wish the clock was stuck in 2005, the dial moves and the boat chugs forward. This year the sea gets faster.

In 2019, the single greatest gift a comms person can have will be strategic vision. To know what is coming down the track is one thing. Having the time and space to manoeuvre will be a luxury.

One take is that social media has gone from the positive sunny uplands into something darker and negative. Another view is that it has matured and the positive as well as negative sides are in view.

Social media will continue to get more closed. The public comment is being replaced with the walled garden where people feel freer to speak. This explains the rise of Facebook groups, Messenger and WhatsApp and the decline on Twitter. This will continue.

Get ready for strategic Brexit chaos. If you are in the public sector, the impact of Brexit will be profound. The worst case scenario of ‘no deal’ is food shortages, medicine running out and a whole lot else. The best case is short term deep uncertainty.  So, expect strategically, get your troops in the right place and expect smaller budgets as the public sector will inevitably take the financial hit.

Get ready for tactical Brexit chaos. The UK public sector is well placed to deal with emergencies as terror attacks have proven. Local Resilience Forums provide the platform for councils, central government, police, fire and NHS organisations to handle emergencies. I’d be recommending polishing up these links as there is a fair chance they’ll be used. Digital comms needs to be at the forefront of any breaking scenario. Good luck, Kent County Council. With Dover on your patch how well you do with this has national significance. This is local government, NHS, fire and police. Not just the Whitehall Department for Leaving the EU.

Get ready to support elected members. As the waters ahead get choppy there is a need to give extra help to elected members and those in comms who deal with day-to-day social media channels. Some of this may be perceived. Some of what will come won’t be.

Spotting and rebutting fake news. As things get thrown up in the air there’ll be plenty of misinformation. Some deliberate from Russian trolls and some accidental by your mate Dave who heard something in the pub. The ability to screen, spot and rebut swiftly is needed in the public sector in 2019. A process that allows swift rebuttal in minutes not days is needed.

Prepare for bankruptcy. Northamptonshire County Council’s financial problems showed that there are problems stacking up in the public sector. Some organisations will fall over in 2019. Re-building will be a specific skills set.

As trust in institutions is hammered, the need to give social media to the frontline grows. I’m returning to the theme of ‘sharing the sweets’ and letting others have access to social media. The need to train and devolve in this most crossroads of years has never been greater. Your librarian can handle telling people about their table top sale. You’ll have other things in your inbox. Trust me.

Hello 5G. The 5G mobile network will start to roll out in 2019.  As this explainer shows, this means that people could be able to use a mobile phone out and about to download a film in 10 seconds rather than 10 minutes. This will start in 2019 but will take time to roll out. This will mean a greater use of mobile devices to access websites and video.

Voice. The market for voice to search an activate the internet is growing beyond the tech bubble. What was niche 12-months ago is getting mainstream and will get more so in 2019. Yet, public sector websites risk falling behind this trend. How can people search your website using voice? Can they? Or will they fail?

Subtitle, baby. As video continues to rise, the need to subtitle gets larger. Why? Aside from regulations coming down the track for public sector people most video is watched without sound. So, be creative.

Same as it ever was. Yes, you’ll need to demonstrate your evaluation and as the landscape continues to make tectonic shifts the role of the communicator as educator to the organisation rises. Please fulfill that role. Please.

Facebook won’t go away. The debate about the ethics of Facebook will continue but as a platform there’s no prizes for saying that it will remain the largest single platform consumed by UK people.

Facebook groups will get even more important. For public sector people, the lack of budget means a creative use of the Facebook platform with the ability to search out relevant Facebook groups will become an increasingly key skill.

AI continues to rise. There will be useful tools offered by vendors that use Artificial Intelligence that help make public sector comms people’s lives easier.

Local Democracy Reporters prove their worth. The BBC-funded journalists have fanned out across the country and are intended to fill the gap in local government coverage left by hollowed-out newsrooms. Some bright public sector people have spotted that good relations with them can lead to positive coverage across eight local news titles simultaneously instead of one.

Gig economy comms teams. Bringing people in with specialist skills for one-off projects will be default.

The best ideas will come from journalism. For the last 10 years journalism has been on the ropes. Like the boxer who has taken too many blows the betting was how quick it would fall. While there will be fewer titles in 2019, the best ideas of how to use digital channels will come from journalism and not the public sector. They have the resource – just – but they also have the existential business case.

Do we talk to young people or don’t we? The public sector needs to ask itself if actually wants to talk with young people in the places where it hangs out. As the media landscape continues to fracture, this will involve experimenting in new places. The alternative is to be honest and tell people that you’re not interested in talking to them.

So, that’s it. There’s storm clouds ahead. But there have been storms before. Prepare. Look ahead. You’ll get there.

Shout if you need a hand. I’m dan@comms2point0.co.uk and @danslee on Twitter.

Pic credit: Darren Flinders / Flickr

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