LONG READ: Public sector comms, PR and digital predictions for 2020

Me in 1980.

When I was a kid, towards the end of 1979, my Mum told me a whole new decade was coming and it was going to be great. I can still remember the excitement.

As 2019 ends, a new decade will begin. Excitement isn’t the overriding feeling. If the last 12-months have been turbulent next year will be more so.

Always around this time of year I’ll look forward and make some predictions, some will be right.

What I got right in last year’s predictions

Last year I predicted Social media did get more closed, and Facebook groups would grow along with WhatsApp and Messenger. We’ve seen the public forum and we don’t like what the mob can look like.

Predictions of 5G roll-out, Brexit chaos and abuse of elected members now feels like shooting fish in a barrel although the food shortages and queues didn’t happen. Voice search did grow. More public sector people did sub-title their videos and the need to evaluate got more pressing. Facebook didn’t go away despite some predictions the game was up. 

AI became more important but was a hidden set of skills as people bought new media monitoring and other tools. Local democracy reporters did prove their worth and they will expand in 2020. Comms teams did rely on gig economy work and innovation came from journalism

What I got wrong

I spoke at the need for fake news rebuttals in minutes but we’re nowhere near close. More bankruptcies didn’t happen in the public sector although the threat remains. Trust in institutions continued to fall but the public sector didn’t respond by allowing more voices from across the organisation to connect. The public sector again shied away from properly engaging with young people through new channels just when I thought they’d get better at it.

So, predictions for 2020

The teams that root-and-branch re-shapes their strategy every single year will prosper

It feels like 2020 is a prime year for a re-boot. Eleven years since the first public sector organisation started using Twitter the holy trinity of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube badly is as dated. Twitter is now the joint 6th largest channel. Facebook pages are withering choked by indifference and deliberate Facebook strategy that starves pages of audience unless you advertise. Go back to brass tacks. Check your audience. Check your channels. Is it really a press release? Is it Twitter? Do it urgently.

Oddly, local newspapers and local radio will become more important

By local newspapers, I don’t mean the print edition. I mean the online version. There has rarely been more readers of their content. Reach plc has 39 million online readers and is only marginally behind the chart-topping BBC.  With declining trust in institutions, the online mob and fake news growing the established voice of local radio and local newspapers will be trusted more. But to crack this comms people may need to entirely adjust the content they’re creating.

The need for well thought through regulation grows… but there won’t be any

It’s widely accepted tech companies, privacy and new technology needs checks. But with the long shadow of Brexit, Parliamentary time will be spent on other things by national politicians who don’t understand technology.

Brexit will continue to cast a long shadow

If you think Brexit is over because of a Conservative majority, think again. Leaving at the end of January will happen but will a transition period, negotiations, relocations, emergency planning and the chance of crashing out without a deal. Tactically, polish-up your emergency plans. Strategically, plan for smaller budgets.

Managers with EU members in their team need to be especially aware.

Nationalism grows

As the impact of Brexit becomes clearer louder will become the voices of the nations. Government and local government communicators will feel this pull. Not all of it will be attractive.

Ethics will be challenged

The 2019 General Election saw ethics flouted and barriers pushed. There will be pressure on government communicators to build that fake fact checking account or create that Facebook ad with falsehoods. Institutions like CIPR, NUJ and LGComms need to batten down the hatches and make sure their ethical advice is clear and available. Managers and heads of comms need to brief their teams and stand behind them. NUJ membership has never seemed so sensible.

Aside from this, you may be asked to justify something you feel to be morally unpalatable.

Mental health-washing

From CIPR research, it’s clear that mental health issues are an issue. Beware managers, people and organisations who tell you to take lunch breaks then overload you with work. A yoga session once a year isn’t a strategy. It’s a fig leaf.

Stay neutral

As debate continues to polarise, public sector communicators need to double down on their neutrality. Most communicators are politically restricted which allows them to be a party member but not campaign or make political statements. There will be more pressure on this and greater penalties for those who break it.

TikTok and influencers

TikTok will grow. This is a tricky. It has a growing audience. But there are barriers for the public sector. They’re Chinese-owned and they have issues as a platform around child protection. The bright public sector team may find most success by side-stepping to engage influencers rather than using it direct. Influencers doesn’t mean Zoella. They’re your museum visitors. Or the teenage carers’ group encouraged to create content on their own channels.

In the NHS, crisis comms

With NHS staff recruitment and retention problems and stretched budgets the challenge will be simply to keep the A&E doors open. Expect a year of attritional crisis comms caused by shortages and partner screw-ups. Where private companies are involved pay very, very close attention to who is responsible for PR in the contract.

In the fire service, crisis comms

Expect cuts and fires under the long shadow of Grenfell.

Get good at voice search or go home

Between 30 and 50 per cent of all searches are done by voice. The skill of creating online content for voice is poorly lacking. Your web team need to look at how to crack this problem to serve their residents. Reputational damage looms.

5G will see more video consumed

5G was introduced in the UK in late 2019 and will grow in 2020 as more devices are sold. In theory, downloading a movie takes seven hours on 4G and no more than 40 seconds on 5G. However, it will take time to roll out. Over time this only points to greater video consumption and over time a flattening out of the digital divide as rural areas enjoy far faster download speeds.

Facebook groups continue to grow

In 2019, research showed that the number of Facebook group members grew by more than 120 per cent. This trend will continue. Public sector people will need to develop the skill to connect with group admins and share content.

Public sector no-go zones and shareable content

Dark social platforms such as WhatsApp and Messenger have created a black hole on the internet where the public sector are not allowed or encouraged. These no-go zones are where misinformation and disinformation can circulate.

To counter this, the need for sharable content that works in whatsapp as well as social media is needed. So, images, gifs, memes and videos. Not unsearchable pdfs on websites.

Getting good at pre-buttals

A pre-buttal is getting your voice in before someone else does. The Royal British Legion in the run-up to Poppy Day are gold standard. They tell people that no, wearing a poppy doesn’t mean you support war and they create sharable content in doing it.  Take a leaf out of their book and create things than can be shared.

In 2020, you are locked out of part of the landscape with WhatsApp, Messenger and hostile Facebook groups, this is part of the arsenal you’ll need.

Check in with AI

AI will grow. For me, you don’t need to know how to do it. You do know its happening. There is some great work  done by the CIPR #AIinPR group. Keep tabs on their work.

Gig economy comms support grows

The cost of employing people full time as part of a team is onerous so the trend towards bringing people in project-by-project will increase. If you are skilled and freelance you’ll find clients.

Email marketing as a safe harbour

In a changing landscape where investing time on a platform doesn’t lead to long term certainty there will be safety in investing time in email marketing. Unsexy but effective. Collecting email addresses in a GDPR-compliant way will be worth it as part of any mix.

The tech gap widens

As new technologies emerge the public sector won’t be in the vanguard. Postponing the website rebuild for another year won’t show up on a balance sheet but it will further erode the point of the public sector to someone who banks and shops online.

Voter ID will be a headache

In 2016, there were two convictions for voter fraud. As a response, the UK government is bringing in legislation to require all voters to bring photo ID. If people think online grief about pencils in polling stations is a headache, boy, you’ve seen nothing yet.  Plan. Communicate. Do your best. Don a helmet. Don’t get me started about Russian involvement in elections.

Climate change comms

The recurring issue will be climate change either directly through flooding or extreme weather through protest as the green movement goes mainstream. Expect more incidents to react to and more protest.


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