You know the good thing about listening to different voices? Sometimes you get a different perspective.
That’s certainly true of Adrian Short, a web developer, who has written two excellent posts that comms people really do need to read. The first How to Fix Council News you can read here. It deals with a frustration that very few councils do council news on the web terribly well.
At best it’s a cut and pasted press release.
The second piece from Adrian is a 12 commandments for council news. It’s good thought provoking stuff and like the first post I don’t agree with all of it there’s enough there to think and reflect about.
Here are a few extracts:
Too long, too dull and far too pleased with itself. Little more than an exercise in vanity publishing. Irrelevant to the vast majority of people.
What’s this? 400 words on a benefit fraud case that didn’t even result in a prison sentence, complete with lengthy quotations from the magistrate and the lead councillor.
Now here’s 700 words on an upgrade to the council’s IT system that won’t be noticed by a single resident.
Sadly this useful information is presented, like the rest, in a turgid press release style. Residents are asked to plough through a huge slab of words that’s hard to scan for the essential details. The text is laden with contrived quotations from people no-one knows that rarely do anything more than state the obvious. It finishes without a call to action. It’s a wonder that anyone bothers at all.
There’s more points in the second blog post of commandments:
News is for residents. Press releases are for journalists. Thou shalt mark the distinction and honour it in all thy labours.
Thy reader is not an Editor and does not require his Notes. Likewise, his news shalt end when it ends, not when he espies “ENDS”.
Every comms person should read this stuff. Even if you don’t agree with all of it, it’ll make you think.
What is true is that council news is often steeped in the traditions of print. Many press officers a drawn from newspapers which makes sense as for decades newspapers and the council newsletter have been a prime source of information. The press release is tailored for the newspaper. It has a snappy intro, a quote from the relevant elected member and notes for editors. For newspapers it works. For the web, less so.
What’s needed is one approach for print, a different approach for the web and a different approach for each social media platform.
News is print + web + social media. Each of these needs a different voice.
Trying to bolt one format onto each of those doesn’t work.
So, how long before someone gets hired for their Twitter skills alone rather than their ability to write a press release?
But it seems fair pointing out to people they’re sleepwalking to irrelevance to point them in the right direction.
Here are some pointers to equip you as a comms person — or a press officer for the 21st century when there are fewer presses. I’m no expert. Every day is a school day. But what I can say is that the best learning for a comms person isn’t within an organisation or a college that teaches HND in Geek – although Birmingham City University is doing brilliant things – it’s actually to experiment yourself and learn from what others are doing.
Just starting out…
Firstly, don’t panic. You can’t know it all straight away. In fact, you can’t know it all. Learn one thing at a time. One step at a time. There are some useful people who can come in and give you a headstart. Helpful Technology, Nick Booth or Andy Mabett are all good people. Cold calling emails that promise the earth probably aren’t going to always deliver. If you’re doing this as a solo mission there’s plenty of resources.
As a starting point, watch the YouTube clip Shift Happens. It’s a cracking piece that while slightly old is still relevant. It sets out the pace of change. You can see it here.
Watch the Simply Zesty clip on where UK social media is in 2010. There’s some good stats. See the link here.
Read a landmark text. Clay Shirky’s ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is a brilliant book that sets out how social media can work.
Set aside time every week to read blogs. There’s a stack of good learning from innovators across the field. Have a look at those of my blogroll and also at Public Sector Bloggers. It doesn’t matter if they’re not comms people. There’s good learning all over.
Map your media landscape. Work out how many papers get sold on your patch. Then compare that with how many people are on Facebook. There’s an easy-to-follow way you can do that right here. It’s something I bang on about but it’s worth doing.
Sign up for mashable.com. It’s a social media news website that looks for things so you don’t have to. Don’t be put off by the geekiness of some of the headlines. There’ll be things there that are relevant.
Get a Twitter account. Yes, you may have scoffed about it being ‘Twatter’ and it being full of people talking about their breakfast. It’s actually a brilliant way to connect with people. Here’s a piece that helps explain it.
If you’ve got a Twitter account, follow some good people. Ones that share links can be a real help. @pubsecbloggers is one that pulls public sector blogs in one place. Other good ones for comms people include people who aren’t all comms people: @dominiccampbell, @davebriggs, @ingridk, @adrielhampton, @simonwakeman and @pigsonthewing. I’m on Twitter as @danslee. Have a look at who I’m following for some suggestions.
Get a Facebook account. If half the population are on its useful to know how they work.
One of the great things about a bright idea is that someone comes along, innovates and makes it even better.
Last year Greater Manchester Police had the bright idea of tweeting all the calls they had in a 24 hour period for #gmp24.
At Walsall Council we picked up the ball and hooked up 18 Twitter accounts to tweet what an average local government day looked like for #walsall24.
The linked social approach went global with a 24 hour event that reached a potential audience of more than a million people.
Water Aid 24 was a worldwide operation realtime stories were posted from across the world moving from Australia to Nepal to Africa and South America.
It’s amazing the stories that were told. Here is a few:
On the blog, Slus Simba, Papua New Guinea, on the Water Aid blog wrote about his pride in encouraging people to build life saving water toilets.
In Nicaragua, Mishel, aged 15, has to collect water herself and walk home with it. We get to see a twitpic of her.
In Mozambique, taps were installed at two primary schools while in Britain, the routine back office functions were tweeted.
In Nepal, only 203 of 3,915 villages have been declared ‘open defecation free.’
In Timor Leste, Jose ‘Rui’ de Oliveira Pires drives an hour by motorbike every day to remote villages to carry out work.
In Liberia, it takes two days to travel 300 miles. Roads as well as water is needed.
It’s the bringing together of those stories that build a picture of work going on around the globe.
It brings the fact that people die from water borne disease right home to your smart phone. The subtle message is this: give us the means to act and we’ll do it for you.
But the YouTube clip recorded for Glastonbury that’s embedded above also helps deliver the message in a fun, accessible way.
There’s a few things I love about this:
It thinks big. It brings together a variety of voices to tell a louder story and it uses the real time approach that is uniquely powerful. There is a stronger connection made in real time by a message delivered with a picture.
But the campaign does not stay onTwitter. It’s on the Water Aid blog, YouTube on their website and is communicated through the traditional means through press release to the media. It’s brilliant stuff and shows how social media and traditional routes can work hand-in-hand.
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.
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.
Back in 1997, the first Walsall Council website sported a dancing light bulb.
No, really. It did.
There’s also a notice telling people that the website was under construction (it’s slide number two on the presentation embedded in this post.) If you’re on a mobile device the embed may not be showing. If that’s the case the link is here.
We need to evolve, learn and innovate. Nothing demonstrates that better than the late 90s webpage frozen in time showing Billy the Bulb and one giant leap for a council website. Time has moved on and we need to too.
At the Socitm Learning from Better Connected event at Manchester there was plenty of examples of innovation.
Not least the forward-thinking webteam who ripped up the rule book and re-designed the liverpool.gov.uk website based on what people want rather than what officers think people want.
Here’s my preasentation that I’ve posted to Slideshare.
Included on it are:
Some stats on internet use.
Some stats on the mobile web.
A quick map of the Walsall media landscape 2011 and 2005.
A quick case study on engaging with the community through Flickr.
Back in the olden days all a press officer had to do was a write a press release and book a photo call.
Boy, how things have changed and more to the point are changing rapidly.
How web 2.0 and web 3.0 will affect the communications unit – or press office in old money – is something that I’ve spent a great deal of time mulling over. Why? Because it’s my job.
I’m a senior press officer at Walsall Council. The job I walked into in 2005 is almost unrecognisable to the one I do now. Yes, it now includes, Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media – or web 2.0 if you are a bit of a geek. But it’s also open data and the challenges of web 3.0.
The nice people from Local Government Improvement and Delivery have asked me to lead a session at their Local by Social online conference on November 3 2010 at 3pm. Looking at the speaker line up it’s something of an honour. There’s plenty for people to get their teeth into on a whole range of subjects.
I’d very much like to hear what your thoughts are. Take part ion the session. Chip in. Listen. It’s all fine.
Firstly, here is a presentation designed as a starting point and to get the ball rolling…
Secondly, here are a few thoughts I blogged a month or two back. You can read the full version here.
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 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.
Tyre tracks in the snow. Pic by lovestruck from Flickr.
It’s 3am, freezing and snow is about to fall.
Within an hour roads will be covered with a snow blanket children will squeal at and commuters will swear at.
It’s a race against time. And a time when the myth ‘all local government clocks off at 5 o’clock’ is tucked up along with everyone else.
If roads are not gritted there will be rush hour chaos, anger and hell to pay. Just ask the councils who look after Reading and Basingstoke.
Gritting is one of 800 often unseen vital local government jobs.
So as local government isn’t it a good idea to use social media to let people know what we are doing?
Or in other words, it’s not enough to do the job and hope residents pick up on what you are doing. That’s trickledown public relations. It doesn’t work.
What is increasingly important is doing the job and letting people know you are doing a job.
Gritting is a perfect way to marry an important service with social media.
It’s fast, immediate and talks to the resident direct. No need to wait for the evening paper to come out and people – hopefully – turning to halfway down page 16 to read what you are doing.
At Walsall, in the winter period we decided to tweet gritting information. In winter time gritting is becoming – like school closures and the cancellation of markets and events – important to communicate by social media.
At Walsall, in the winter period we decided to tweet gritting information. That was on top of schools closures, household waste and which schools are open.
There is a winter service plan at Walsall. It’s a 49-page document that sets out the 16 gritting routes covering more than 250 miles of road – that’s 50.1 per cent of the network.
A duty engineer checks weather data and assesses the risk of freezing temperatures. It’s down to them to make the call to order the fleet out.
Why? We already had a twitter feed @walsallcouncil with 1,000 followers. As the result of regular press queries we had good relations with the transport officers responsible for it. It was a small step to actually tweeting the info.
How? Engineers were primed to email when they made the decision to order out the gritting teams. Press officers are equipped with Blackberries and are able to pick up the email and use Twitter.
When? FHow? Engineers were primed to email when they made the decision to order out the gritting teams. Press officers are equipped with Blackberries and are able to pick up the email and use Twitter. When? From December 28 2009 to January 8 2010 we tweeted 71 times. We’d warn we were going out. We’d also link to advice on our website and issue urgent advice. There was a spate of thefts from the 175 grit bins, for example. Two incidents were reported to West Midlands Police. That was tweeted too. We also retweeted relevant @wmpolice advice and @metoffice updates.
Here’s some examples:
Grit update – Careful on the roads tonight. We’re gritting at 10pm after a sharp fall in temperature.
Grit update – We’re out. You’ll not be suprised to know. Take it steady on the roads. We’ll be monitoring the weather through the night.
Thanks @richjohnstone_. Heard back from a gritting team in Pheasey. A trip through the night is highly likely.
How was it received? Very well. There were two negative comments about what we were doing. But overall, there was a heck of a lot more positive feedback. We even had a couple of positive blog comments.
Spotted a @walsallcouncil gritter in the Crescent, Walsall! Good work guys.
@WalsallCouncil How about gritting upper station street? Lots of pedestrians walk up it from the station into town centre. Very slippy today.
We also responded to incidents in almost real time. A burst water main was flagged up as an ice hazard at a busy junction. We called engineers who were able to send out an emergency gritter as part of rounds…
@WalsallCouncil looks like a water main has burst – leighswood ave / middlemore lane WS9 – traffic lights being set up – traffic chaos
Thanks @stevieboy378. The Leighswood Ave / Middlemore Lane water leak has been added to the duty gritters’ list.
We got some positive, real time response. Forwarded to the team on the ground it was a boost to the drivers.
@WalsallCouncil thanks . . . best of luck to your guys – its damn cold out there . . . .
We also backed up the Twitter activity with a short film shot on a Flip camera and posted to YouTube.
We supported this with a press release to local media and trade press.
HOW OTHERS HAVE TACKLED IT…
The Walsall Council approach was by no means unique. There have been several other councils looking at gritting and social media.
In Warwickshire, a gritter was fitted so that it could send out geotagged tweets on it’s route. It’s a great idea in principle. But I do reckon @warwickwinter will need a few tweaks. Or is four or five tweets a minute okay if you lived in the area?
The hugely talented @pezholio took a look at the Warwick approach and drew up a test geotagged map. It’s a fantastic idea that could realy work. You can see a map of where the gritter has been and at what time. It would solve at a stroke the argument from an angry resident that swears blind his road hasn’t been visited.
Essex Council have also been tweeting gritting through their mainstream Twitter account. As this is something that has a 700+ following it makes sense to inform as many people as possible. Camden Council have also kept up a good output with snow updates through their central Twitter feed.
Also, big up Sutton Council who have provided a map of grit bins. However, with thefts taking place across the country of grit – and the bins themselves – would this escalate problems with crime?
ELEVEN THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND
1. GET PLUGGED INTO YOUR ENGINEERS – arrrange with your engineers to let you know when they’re gritting, find out what the standard questions are and find out what the answers are – or who can tell you them.
2. MONITOR TWITTER – Have someone monitoring who can use the corporate Twitter. Tweet out-of-hours. Explode a few myths.
3. CONVERSATIONAL – Be conversational. On-the-spot tweets are a good way to use Twitter and to turn around important inform
4. YES, YOU WILL GET FLAK – People will accuse you of not gritting. Even when you have. They’ll also want their side street gritted when you don’t do side streets. You’ll need to have a form of words ready. Bear in mind that social media is another form of communication. Those conversations you’ll have over the phone you’ll also have via Twitter. With this stuff you can be part of the conversation that is already taking place.
5. PASS IT ON – Even if you have an answer to the tweet cut, paste and pass it onto the engineers.
6. TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT – Make a log of your activity and pass it on internally. Don’t keep it t yourself. Create a Slideshare for your power point.
7. RESPOND TO @REPLIES – Where you can, try and respond. Even if it’s just to say ‘Thanks for your tweet. We’ll pass it on.’ People don’t expect a detailed answer within seconds. An acknowledgement is only what you do off-line. But if you can act, then respond quick.
8. YOUTUBE. A film of gritters shot on a Flip video camera is cheap and effective. 9. THINK PICTURES – Tweet pics of what you are doing. Add to the community’s Flickr group pool with your shots of council staff in action. 10. EXPLAIN, LISTEN, PROMOTE – It’s clear that everyone in your organisation won’t be an advocate of social media. Even if the person at the top ‘gets it’ you need to be aware that you may have to re-sell to managers. Possibly at times of great stress and pressure. Be patient.
11. THINK GEOTAGGING – Technology exists to geotag vehicles. It’s a small step to produce a googlemap where people can go to se when and where their street has been treated. Talk to engineers and you’ll find that hours are spent insisting to residents that yes, their street has been gritted. Wouldn’t it be simpler to let people log on if the technology already exists?
“Citizen journalists,” the sneer goes, “Whatever next? Citizen surgeons?”
It’s a glib, throwaway, catch-all comment designed to dismiss social media sites which spread news without the aid of shorthand, a spiralbound notepad and an NUJ card.
The argument goes that like a surgeon’s scalpel only someone trained can handle news properly.
But with the quiet opening up of the BBC College of Journalism website another brick in the ever shaky argument comes toppling down.
The website http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/ has been run internally for the corporation for three years. It is a treasure trove of skills refined from more than 60 years of award winning peerless journalism.
To survive a 21st century journalist must blog, podcast, film, edit and interview and write.
In the era of multi-skilling the press officer will also do well to take a look at the array of skills the site offers coaching in. There is plenty there for them.
But where the BBC training site’s hidden strength really lies is in the trasure trove of skills it offers to the hyperlocal blogger.
Recently, there has been a fierce debate in the UK digital community about defamation and media law. The Talk About Local project to encourage hyperlocals has started to debate it. Bloggers such as The Lichfield Blog’s Philip John have come up with some hyperlocal friendly resources.
But what the BBC site offers is a more extensive, professional insight into what will and won’t get you into trouble.
I’m tempted to call the opening up of the BBC training site as their greatest contribution to digital since the BBC Acorn computer pushed home computing out of the science fiction pages into the spare room in 1981.
This website starts to put quality journalism within the grasp of anyone who can operate both a WordPress site and the BBC’s training pages.
For a qualified journalist looking to embrace change this is a welcome resource.
To the press officer it is a reference point. But also another signal that the 21st century landscape is changing.
To a blogger it should be bookmarked and memorised.
SEVEN TOP TIPS FROM THE BBC THAT COULD PROVE USEFUL IN SOCIAL MEDIA….
1. A guide to defamation These tips will be especially useful to bloggers. But also with the ever changing media landscape handy for press officers and journalists a long time out of NCTJ college.
2. Contempt of court You don’t have to be in the dock to get on the wrong side of a court of law. The rights and restrictions that govern news – and yes, blogs – are complex and can be devastating if you get it wrong.
3. Using submitted content A great insight into how the BBC uses it. For hyperlocals where photography may rely heavily on submitted pics this could be of use.
4. Original journalism There are news rooms across the country drained of experience and talent that could benefit from this. High standards are never a bad thing.
5. Bloggers and the law A contribution from Birmingham City University leacturer Paul Bradshaw – @paulbradshaw on Twitter. Nice to know the BBC are listening to someone like Paul who has a foot in the blogosphere as well as journalism.
6. Making short news films With YouTube in the driving seat high production values are not needed. But a few tips that could transfer into making something watchable can’t be a bad idea.
7. Filming interviews A few minutes with a Flip video and you’ll know it’s a tricky business balancing the questioning with the filming.