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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

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