TRADITIONAL DIGITAL: What comms teams should look like in 2012

All the best films have a challenge at their heart.

In Dunkirk, its Johnny Mills as a British corporal steering his men to safety.

In Pulp Fiction, its Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta getting away with accidentally shooting Marvin in the face.

One if the biggest challenges facing press offices and communications teams is how to blend the old with the new to stay relevant.

There was a fascinating post by Ann Kempster who works in central government about what comms teams should look like. You can read it here. Emer Coleman from the Government Digital Service and others made some excellent comments.

A couple of years ago I blogged about what comms teams needing to adapt and have traditional and digital skills. I probably over-sold open data. We’re not there just yet but will be but the basics I still hang my hat on.

Back then I said the communications team needed to be both digital and traditional so calling something a press office these days is a bit of an anachronism. It would involve the basics:

  • 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.

But would need to have these too:

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 podcasts
  • 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 theblogosphere.
  • 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.

So how can we make the joint traditional and digital press office work?

There’s no question that the traditional press office and the digital press office should be under the same roof.

There’s no point in having an old school team with spiralbound notebooks and in the next room a digital team with jet packs and Apple macbook pros not communicating.

So what can help make the joint digital and trad comms team work?

Press officers won’t all head voluntarily to this bright new dawn. It’s just not going to happen overnight. Some won’t change and will be left behind.

The bright ones will adapt and are adapting to a place where a bog standard comms plan will include old media + social media + web as a matter of course. After all. We don’t all have specialists for TV or radio sat in most press offices and certainly not in local government where I work.

We all need a specialist digital comms officer to help blend the old and the new

Once I knew a man who was a mechanic. He used to repair petrol engines. At night school, he learned how electrical generators worked.

When his company changed to electrical generators he alone had the expertise for both and was invaluable in training staff.

That’s the approach we need for press officers.

In other words, what will blend old and new in the short and medium term is the dedicated social media or digital communications officer.

On Ann Kempster’s blog the anaology was made about digital cameras. We don’t refer to cameras as ‘digital’ these days. They are just cameras. That’s true and that’s where we need to go with comms teams.

But in many ways there’s more to it than that. I remember working as a newspaper when the first photographer – who was not a popular man – walked in proudly with a satchel with the paper’s first digital camera and laptop. “Schools broken up early has it?” came the dry-balloon bursting quip from the long-serving deputy chief reporter. The same quip was made every time the photographer walked in until the whole of the company’s photographers had them. Somehow, knowing the characters involved that made it funnier.

There was a cross-over period while photographers adapted to the new technology but the basic work of the photographer remained the same. Composition was unaltered. They were still building the same things through their view finders. But with digital communications it’s asking people to use a completely different set of skills. Like asking a photographer to become a sculptor overnight. But still take pictures when needed too.

From experience, the shift from the traditional to the traditional + digital takes time but it has to be coaxed and encouraged. That’s where the digital specialist in the comms team comes in so long as they share the sweets, horizon scan and work to give back-up to help others gain confidence. They also need to flag up the successes. They need to do some measuring and reporting back. We need to include digital stats along with traditional media ones so when the cabinet member in local government, or whoever, gets told what’s happening in the media they’re getting the digital picture too.

Just because an organisation has given the green light to social media doesn’t always mean the influential people in an organisation get it. One of the big complaints is that digital is tacked onto the busy day job. Well, if the day job means press releases churned out to dwindling newspapers maybe that work needs re-calibrating. But you need to convince the powers that be that it’s not 1985 anymore and digital and traditional is the way forward.

Why do comms need to share the sweets?

That’s something I’ve been banging on about for a long time. Comms needs to train, give advice, shape policy where needed but most importantly hold the door open for others to go through.

Across the country these either formally titled or informally tasked digital comms people can be seen doing good things. Look at Helen Reynolds in Monmouthshire County Council, Geoff Coleman at Birmingham City Council and what Al Smith did at Newcastle City Council and elsewhere as a couple of examples.

It’s the path that Walsall Council’s comms team has taken too thanks to bright leadership. As a result we now have press officers like Tina Faulkner and Becky Robinson who by no means are digital natives putting together inspiring campaigns like this one which saw a morning with a carer and her husband who suffers Alzheimers. They found magic in this approach which told a human story beautifully.

The challenge is to find the innovator in every comms team and gently give others room and confidence to grow if they need it.

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Faye Newsham

@Dan – what makes your Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 items different? Why do you have “add and edit web content” and “some HTML” in entirely different “Web #.0” sections. Web 2.0 has always been a bit of a misnomer anyway since many of these things existed long before the term was coined. Also, what would you classify as “basic journalism skills”? I see little enough employed in news (online or otherwise) let alone different fields…

Samuel Lovett

Are “web 2.0” and “gov 2.0” interchangeable terms in this line of thinking?

Re: Faye: I haven’t read too many definitive opinions about what web 3.0 is actually agreed to be… any help anyone?

Corey McCarren

I think soon there will be no boundary between traditional and new media teams. The old guard in communications departments must be adapting to this technology.

Dan Slee

Corey – you make a really good point. The people who I feel most sorry for nare the comms people who see the light but are stuck with managers who still think it’s 1985. That must be dreadful.

Dan Slee

Hey Faye.

Thanks for your comment.

Basic journalism skills? That’s the ability as a press officer to interview and write content for press, TV and radio. That’s a press release that covers the who, where, why and when that’s taught to journalists. You can throw in basic news sense into that whole mix too.

Acres are devoted to definitions of web 1.0, web 2.0 and web 3.0. This wikipedia page on web 3.0 is useful:

As an example, here’s a story from earlier in my career. Back in the mid-1990s I was a journalist in the UK town of Halesowen, near Birmingham and would write stories about the fact that people had set-up a website for a curry house.

Using that as a starting point, web 1.0 was ‘we have a curry house website. Come and see what our menus is. Then ring us.’

Web 2.0 is ‘we have a curry house Facebook page and you can like us and tell us and your friends what you think of our chicken balti.’

Web 3.0 is ‘we’ll come and find you in augmented reality’ or when you run a search on Foursquare.

In the UK, augmented reality, mapping and open data are becoming tools for people increasingly. There is a vibrant community of hyperlocal blogs in the UK with who Talk About Local do great things. They’re working with augmented reality (here’s a link:

The challenge in web 3.0 for comms people is how to represent their organisation and its reputation on such platforms.

We’ve not even begun to take stock of the challenge that lies ahead of us in this field…