Whither digital communication?

If GOV.UK is delivering the website, what’s the purpose of digital communications teams in government departments?

gcn review

That’s one of the interesting issues tackled by the Cabinet Office’s Digital Communication Capability Review, whose draft report is online for public comment for another couple of days.

It’s a fine piece of work, led by some creative thinkers inside government alongside some interesting outsiders with deep and varied experience of digital (disclaimer: I was one of the people they interviewed).

The bits I like most are the principles and manifesto, which shine a light on some of the issues holding back good digital communication in central government:

  • IT networks which prevent civil servants doing their jobs with commonplace digital tools
  • The focus on Twitter, to the exclusion of other digital channels and thinking
  • The deliberate, understandable constraints that GOV.UK places on branding, content and engagement on its platform, and the need to clarify roles and responsibilities (and that digital communication is a different thing from digital service delivery)

One of the external reviewers, Max St John of Nixon McInnes, has written about the process and why rather than just coming up with worthy recommendations, they’ve drafted a manifesto and principles for change.

Three connected thoughts that occurred to me:

  • I’m not sure there is in government, even with this document, a shared understanding of what ‘good’ digital communication looks like. User-centricity and needs-driven design is part of it. Evaluation and iteration is part of it. Meaningful engagement, integration with policy and service delivery are in there too. Open source, sharing, content strategy, internal upskilling, and partnerships have a role. But nobody, including me, has quite articulated it yet.
  • As a consequence, it’s hard to be 100% behind the call to tear down digital ‘silos’ – coming from the background of one, I appreciate the complex and sophisticated craftsmanship of digital communication but also the risk of becoming the Twitter Support Team. Embedding skills across government communicators makes sense, but which skills, and to what depth, and with what support? GDS created a digital silo very effectively to focus effort, attract elite talent and achieve momentum, after all.
  • So we need to define what those necessary skills are in a bit more detail (there’s a useful general comms competency framework, I know), and think creatively about how to develop them across thousands of government communicators. I make a living partly from delivering off-the-job training courses in digital skills to this audience, but I recognise that classroom sessions are just a small piece of the jigsaw. Like criminals, government communicators need motive and opportunity as well as capability and tools, and that’s going to take a lot more mentoring, corridor chats, personal blogs, Google Analytics accounts, social media experimentation (and mistakes), email lists, teacamps, user testing observations, forum participation and encouraging emails from big cheeses.

Go tell GCN what you think, too.

Getting community conversations going

conversation starters game

Over the last year, one of the toughest but most rewarding areas of work I’ve been doing is training, mainly with central government communications staff, and often through the Government Communications Network. Our team of Simon Booth-Lucking, Dave Briggs and Giles Field, with occasional invited guests such as Dan Slee or Tim Lloyd, run soup-to-nuts courses for people generally fairly new to digital and social media where we talk through the tools, culture and examples of this unfamiliar world. People bring many, many questions, challenges and concerns and we do our best to unpack them and work them through, either in the room or afterwards, online.

Take last week’s course on working with online communities. We started from a discussion about the changing landscape of trust in communications, the shifting trends in media especially at local level, and the diversity of forum-style communities from Mumsnet to Kiva. We talked about the different ways communicators might engage with communities – from listening, through to engagement, customer service and even co-production of resources initiated by those communities. I’ve banged on about examples like the BIS partnership with The Student Room for long enough, but I still think it’s the future. (It’s great to see the crew are still at it, as are Number 10.)

cardsEngaging within an existing forum isn’t always the right approach, so we also look at the pros and cons of community platforms from Ning to GetSatisfaction, via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. As part of our final session looking at what Community Managers do, we played the first outing of the Online Conversation Starters game. If you’re familiar with the Social Media gameor Dave Briggs’ digital engagement version then you’ll get the idea. Participants have a deck of 24 cards, each with a ‘points’ value correlating to the effort required to implement them, and are set a budget to ‘spend’ on the selection of cards that best fit their objectives. I should acknowledge the huge inspiration of Richard Millington’s Feverbee in their development – a man who knows community management inside out.

We had a team trying to get parents to talk about holiday travel plans, another looking at community views on a troublesome bottleneck road, and another getting a segment of drivers to be more considerate at roadworks. They came up with some great ideas, including ‘hotseat Q&A’ sessions, getting community members to share their own tips, and even running photo competitions. I’ve tidied up the artwork for the deck of cards in a ready-to-print format via Moo.com’s business cards service (tip: they look nice in the rounded card format), and released them under a Creative Commons licence for anyone to use. If you’d prefer me to send you a ready-made set, please drop me a line.

Download Online Conversation Starters cards (PDF, 182kb)

Use them as part of your own sessions, make money from them, improve them – please just share your enhanced versions and don’t just pass them off as your own.

Look forward to seeing how they’re used and improved.


The digital newsroom Kool-Aid

There’s an interesting online discussion coming up on Wednesday in the form of the regular #nhssm Twitter chat, which this week is focussing on using social media to connect with the media and running a digital press office in the health sector.

Newsroom by Matthew Simantov

This is something Tim Lloyd, one of the conveners of #nhssm, has been thinking about at the Department of Health, and enlightened press officers like Dan Slee has been talking about in local government for a while.

The conventional wisdom (and one I’ve endorsed in the past) is, in a nutshell:

  1. Media consumption trends are changing, and so is the process and output of journalism.
  2. News is more: (i) multimedia, (ii) data-driven, (iii) localised and user-generated.
  3. Therefore, press officers & PRs need to give journalists – including news-oriented bloggers, forum admins and tweeters – more multimedia, data-driven, localised material in order to get stories covered and reach the target audience. Buy Flip cameras, tweet press conferences, engage bloggers.
  4. Discussion of news, and the news cycle itself, is shifting online and speeding up. To avoid being stung by bad news or a crisis, press officers and PRs need to be monitoring this discussion and jumping in to deal with misinformation quickly before it grows and spreads.

I run a training course for the Government Communications Network which covers these issues, and the practical approaches that press officers can take.

And yet, I’m finding the Kool-Aid tastes a bit funny. Newspaper circulation may be in decline, but to a busy press officer with a press release in their hand, they still seem to be a more efficient way of getting news out than hunting for bloggers – even if you know where to start looking. Interesting stuff happens on Twitter (and I’m struggling to find stats on this) but I suspect more people scan the Daily Mail each day than fire up Tweetdeck and hear news or views about government policy. People go on forums and talk about stuff, but it’s an entirely different dynamic from the press release -> interview/conference/launch -> article workflow that press officers and media are comfortable with, and which frankly, millions of us lap up every day. I look up BBC News online to read about what’s going in the world, but hit the forums to fix my computer or get advice on toddler activities.

It doesn’t seem realistic either to ask shrinking public sector press teams to start shooting and editing their own film or snap their own ministerial photo-ops and expect the outputs to grace the front pages and news bulletins. The quality, the skills, the time, the connections… aren’t there yet, even if media were inclined to take it.

Maybe ‘yet’ is the crucial word here. Perhaps a new breed of press officers and PRs is coming up, ready to service a new breed of journalists alongside people like me who blog and tweet about stuff as a sideline to a regular job, for love rather than money. At a local level, the pressures on media and the opportunities for press officers to reach audiences in ways other than the local paper are a bit clearer already. And maybe I’m underestimating the extent of media fragmentation, especially for niche topics and news.

Digital can certainly help:

  1. enable media self-service: 24/7 access to profiles, mugshots, key facts, contact numbers
  2. improve connections: help press officers and PRs understand correspondents’ interests and newsgathering techniques and find useful case studies or prominent critics
  3. accelerate speed: help quotes, images and breaking news fly around more quickly, and pick up issues faster

But while it feels like social media news releases are a better bet than traditional press releases, I’ve not seen them change the way journalists cover public sector stories. And while digital newsrooms can save time and maybe reduce some enquiries, phones are still ringing quite a bit in government press offices. Maybe to get taken seriously by press officers, we digital and social folk need to water down the Kool-Aid a bit and look at where there’s time to be saved or connections to be made. Things are changing, but maybe more slowly than it sometimes seems?

If you’re interested in how digital is changing the role of news in the health sector, search for the #nhssm hashtag on Twitter, Wednesday 24 August, 2000-2100 BST. 

Photo credit: Matthew Simantov