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Wednesday
Jul112012

a modest proposal: plan to get rid of press offices

GUEST EDITOR: Ben Proctor of the Likeaword consultancy.

What should press offices do when the printing presses go quiet? In this post a plan for revolution is drafted. But there's still a role to play for communications people if they adapt.

 A modest proposal.

I think press offices in the public sector are a bad idea and that we should get rid of them.

I am not some wild-eyed tax-reformer wanting to end all spend on communications.

I am not prejudiced against ex-journalists, PROs and other assorted “spin doctors”.

I am, in fact, in favour of effective and well resourced communications.

In fact I believe I may be on record as having said that people make better decisions with PR professionals in the room.

Press offices though, it seems to me, are 20th century solutions to a wider problem. They were developed with 1950s technology and have evolved slowly. We have better technology now. It may be time to scrap this solution and design a new one from the ground up.

What is a Press Office?

Typically journalists get access to a special telephone number staffed by ex-journalists or other professionals who understand their needs and will answer their questions in a timely manner. Those people will also generate stories from within the organisation, tailor them to be suitable for journalists and provide them in a suitable format. When I started this format was a piece of paper dropped in an envelope (and I’m really not that old) but these days it is likely to be an email, or access to a photo-shoot, or just a photo.

This is a much better service than you, the citizen, can normally expect to receive. Your phone call may be queued for a long time, simple issues are likely to be resolved speedily but more complex answers are likely to take some time to filter through to you.

Why do journalists get such a superior service compared to you or I?

Because they are special.

They are special in two main ways:

- they have access to media which are, on the whole, trusted by their audiences

- they have an accepted role in society of investigating and holding the powerful to account

The cynical might argue that one way press offices are used is to neutralise the effects of both of these aspects. In so far as it is true it is an even stronger argument for removing them.

Things are changing

The media are becoming more complex and fragmented. The front page of a national newspaper remains a very prominent place to be but in some areas local paper circulation has crashed and in all areas media are having to find new business models. These models rarely seem to mean more journalists. For a long time and with notable and important exceptions local media tended to be clients of the local state rather than fierce watchdogs of it. It is easier for citizens to create their own media, whether these are hyperlocal blogs, mischief making facebook pages or simple twitter accounts. Journalism is evolving into a practice heavily embedded in a wider digital community.

We have infinite spaces. In 1997 as a local council press officer I relied on the local media almost exclusively to tell local people what we were up to. We did not have a website. We had only recently embraced email. Journalists had two sources of information about what we were up to: committee reports and me. They used both heavily. These days we can open up our organisations to a much greater degree. We can publish an unparalleled feed of data and make it useable. We can put every report, every draft and even every email up and open. And anyone can ask for anything. Mostly we have to hand it to them.

We have levelling tools. I never subscribed to the idea that journalists should be compelled to route their enquiries through the press office. I thought we were there to help not to mind the gate. Not all of my colleagues agreed. I remember explaining to a planning team that journalists were at least members of the public so they should feel able to answer their questions in the same way they would answer any other enquiries. The more we get people out into digital (and physical spaces) engaging directly with the public realm, explaining their work and listening to feedback, the less we need to use media to communicate that message.

What would we do instead?

We would replace press offices with a digital space and give citizens the same privileges to ask questions and demand explanations that are afforded to journalists. Not reducing journalists’ access just raising everyone else’s.

We would go headlong into open data: publishing everything we can in an easily usable format under an open licence. We would support citizens, including journalists, to interrogate and investigate this data. We would respond to what they (and what we) find hiding in there.

We would stop issuing press releases. Indeed we would end the whole concept of identifying news that the organisation feels is important, polishing this into acceptable copy, creating photo-opps and launches, and then pushing it out to the media. Individual professionals and politicians might, in the normal run of things, suggest that, say, teenage drinking was a problem or that cycle journeys should be increased. They could use digital publishing platforms to share these ideas. They could point to the published data for evidence. They could collaborate with a wider community to identify solutions. These could be discussed and debated and reported by journalists, other professionals and citizens as a whole.

There would still be a role for corporate comms professionals. A massively important role, to develop and build communities around the data. To train, and encourage, mentor and support professionals (and politicians) to play more active roles in public spaces. To tell the core stories in the organisation so that stakeholders understand what the organisation is about, what is important to it and what it is seeking to achieve.

And to be honest I probably wouldn’t do this tomorrow.

It would certainly be a bold move right now.

But we should start planning.

Ben Proctor is a former public sector head of communications, a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and an associate member of the Emergency Planning Society. He runs the likeaword consultancy which helps organisations to use communications to manage relationships and change behaviours. You can contact him on 01743 359721, 07904 1234 98 or ben@benproctor.co.uk

 

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    [...]free online comms resource - comms2point0 - a modest proposal: plan to get rid of press offices[...]

Reader Comments (13)

Ben
Thank you for writing this excellent post which contributes to the recent discussions around the digitisation of press offices most recently at #teacamp. I think your point that this is less about reducing journalists' access and more about raising everyone eles's is on the money. I was asked at interview for my job in Government Digital Service in an emergency how would I segregate audiences for key messages. My response was there is only one audience - users. The media are part of that the same way that citizens are and the messages are pretty much the same. I totally agree with you about the role that Open Data can play in this. No journalists that I know pay much heed to a press release. They want the data, their questions answered and an honest exchange - the same as citizens should expect when they engage with the state. The shift from broadcast to engagement is not new - it just takes time for bureaucracies to adapt. We hope that the publication of our Social Media Guidance for Civil Servants will help support this shift as it encourages all who want to engage to do so - widening the channels of debate from the command and control models usually enjoyed by traditional press offices.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmer Coleman

Hi Emer

Thanks for your comments.

The GDS is doing good work in this area.

Your later comment that the Social Media Guidance

encourages all who want to engage to do so
raises the question of whether we will compel public employees to engage.

At some point?

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Proctor

Excellent work, Ben. Thank you for letting us post it on this blog.

It raises some really important questions. Yes, we need to change. No, it won't come overnight but yes, we need to start thinking about it far more seriously.

I'm absolutely for publishing more open data but I think we're years away from this being anything other than a very niche activity indeed. No doubt the internet as a whole was pretty niche once, too. Now it's everywhere but I think open data will only get really mainstream when someone comes up with idiot proof tools that someone like my Dad would use. I love the passion of the open data community. I despair at their inability by and large to connect with people outside their silo.

You are absolutely right that there's a need for smart communications people in the post-press office era.

They'll be teachers, story tellers, coaches, mentors and fire fighters sharing the sweets so others can tell their stories and telling the organisations tailored for a fragmented media that will look nothing like it does today.

That can see like a scary prospect. Particularly if that happens overnight. I can't help but think that it'll be a lot more gradual.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Slee

Good post BEN

I made these suggestions to Birmingham City Counil comms team a few years ago - before they set up the newsroom blog

http://podnosh.com/blog/2009/05/15/my-old-thoughts-on-birmingham-city-councils-newsroom-consultation/

I still think council comms is prone to see comms through the lens of old media habits and structures. The mores of journalism is still used and dominant. So at the moment they might be starting to use the tools of the future, but mostly in the language and manners of the past

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Booth

@Nick

Story of my life.

I reach the cutting edge to find that Nick Booth was there 3 (3!..?) years before me. :-)

they might be starting to use the tools of the future, but mostly in the language and manners of the past

Twas ever thus

@Dan

I think we could still be years away from making open data useable. But unless publishing it becomes the norm and relying on it to tell stories is how public bodies think about this stuff we'll never get there.

Getting carried away with the em tags there.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Proctor

Hi Ben,

Great post. So pleased to see the discussion I inadvertantly kicked off really taking off!

I agree with the general premise of your piece and think it is a great roadmap for moving forward. I think I tend to agree with Dan's points around data being quite niche still, certainly to your average citizen - I would doubt many would even know what this is still. And that is where the role of comms person comes in - and by comms I do mean wider than just press. As Emer says, it's about a deeper engagement rather than a traditional broadcast role of the traditional press officer/journalist relationship. And this is where the more forward thinking comms professional comes in - we need to push and cajole the rest of the team down this path to the future.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnn K

Thanks for commenting Ann.

As you say you started this off. And it's worth remembering that we probably could not have had this debate in this way a few years ago. We did not have the tools or the networks to make it happen.

There has been a largely positive response to the general thrust of this argument.

I'm not sure that would be shared by comms professionals who are not engaged in digital comms...

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Proctor

@ben

Sorry - I came across a bit tossy there. It's getting listened to that counts and the tech has changed quite a lot in three years.

July 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNick Booth

Really enjoyed your post Ben, and it has certainly prompted a great deal of discussion, which is the whole point of comms2point0 (it's also received a stack of hits, by the way)

I'm with you about 75% of the way and, like Emer, I love the line "Not reducing journalists’ access just raising everyone else’s" We'll certainly need an incredibly strong argument like this to 'sell' such radical leaps.

Where I have some concerns is that many comms people I talk to (and I'm certain you have found this in your own consultancy travels) say that it is simply not possible to rely upon some local media to report fairly and accurately. Now you could argue - does this matter? I think it does.

It's absolutely right that the media should hold organisations to account in a professional manner but equally we - through our press offices (or whatever else we call them in the future as they evolve) need to retain the ability to hold them to account too. We've all been on the end of nonsense reporting. If we scrap press offices, I fear we'll lose this (admittedly relatively minor) tool in our communications armouries.

Conversely, in the days of massively reduced comms budgets and, for some, literally no key printed materials with which to communicate with customers, newspapers (especially the remaining free sheets) are excellent channels for sharing service information and events at no cost. If we were to shed all aspects of traditional press offices we would struggle to maximise this opportunity, which is important for those customers we know are not engaging and communicating digitally.

But as I say, I am with you on much of this and it would appear that many others are too.


(p.s. trust that @podnosh to have suggested this ages ago, clever wotsit)

Darren

July 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterDarren Caveney

Hi Ben,

A great post and I agree with much of what is said here.

However a couple of points i just wanted to make:

1. Journalists often get what you call a 'superior service' because they have access to media that can spread important messages to a large amount of people very quickly. In certain circumstances this can be vital.

2. This 'digital space' you describe, if not desgined correctly could exclude the many thousands of low income families, elederly people and those living in rural areas, who rely on public services the most, as they struggle to access high speed broadband, twitter, blogs, youtube etc or do not have the skills to use them.

These are just two points that came to mind as I read your excellent piece.

I say again though, alot of what you say makes a great deal of sense and thanks for the post!

July 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKurt

Hi Ben

Coming a little late to this but I'd also echo the positive comments of others on your refresging and thought-provoking post.

My own view for a while has been that public sector comms people need to detach ourselves from our old-fashioned fixation with traditional media relations and the traditional local media changes and in some cases disappears and to instead focus on direct communication with local people. I agree with Darren about the unreliability of local media to be balanced and fair and the need to be able to hold them to account too.

Of course, this is the way we've been moving with social media, but this is far from a silver bullet for public sector comms. Here in Dorset we created a partnership online newsroom (www.dorsetforyou.com/news) a couple of years ago with the principle that the traditional media could 'self serve' while giving the public the same access to council news unfiltered by the media. We planned to bolster the stream of news releases with audio snippets, video footage and more. However, with the various pressures on our reduced teams this potential has not been realised as yet.

From our perspective there remain big obstacles to moving to primarily or solely digital modes of communication as large sections of our population continue to have little or no access to a good internet connection. Superfast broadband is in the pipeline (pardon the pun) but for many people, they still want to receive their information in a paper format. Consultation results show our council newspaper continues to be a popular source of information on services and I am glad we are continuing to publish it, albeit it at a reduced frequency.

I am sure comms people around the country arev experiencing a similar story of large chunks of their geographical areas losing their trdational local media coverage through local papers dying or being merged and radio and TV stations covering ever wider regions. In Dorset, the emergence of hyperlocal blogs, citizen journalism and do-it-yourself freesheets has been slower than elsewhere but there are promising signs. As a comms office - and yes, an ex journalist (magazine not news) - I want to continue to support both types while ensuring we can get messages and information to the public directly, quickly and openly without compromising our reputation.

So what I guess I'm saying is that in some cases we're not quite ready for revolution and it's going to a case of evolution - though hopefully faster than the Darwinian variety.

Mike

July 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike Carhart-Harris

Post in haste, repent spelling mistakes at leisure. Try this one instead:

Hi Ben

Coming a little late to this but I'd also echo the positive comments of others on your refreshing and thought-provoking post.

My own view for a while has been that we public sector comms people need to detach ourselves from our old-fashioned fixation with traditional media relations as traditional local media changes and in some cases disappears and to instead focus on direct communication with local people. I agree with Darren about the unreliability of local media to be balanced and fair and the need to be able to hold them to account too.

Of course, this is the way we've been moving with social media, but this is far from a silver bullet for public sector comms. Here in Dorset we created a partnership online newsroom (www.dorsetforyou.com/news) a couple of years ago with the principle that the traditional media could 'self serve' while giving the public the same access to council news unfiltered by the media. We planned to bolster the stream of news releases with audio snippets, video footage and more. However, with the various pressures on our reduced teams this potential has not been realised as yet.

From our perspective there remain big obstacles to moving to primarily or solely digital modes of communication, as large sections of our population continue to have little or no access to a good internet connection. Superfast broadband is in the pipeline (pardon the pun) but for many people, they still want to receive their information in a paper format. Consultation results show our council newspaper continues to be a popular source of information about council services and I am glad we are continuing to publish it, albeit it at a reduced frequency.

I am sure comms people around the country are experiencing a similar story with large chunks of their geographical areas losing their tradtional local media coverage through local papers dying or being merged and radio and TV stations covering ever wider regions. In Dorset, the emergence of hyperlocal blogs, citizen journalism and do-it-yourself freesheets has been slower than elsewhere but there are promising signs. As a comms officer - and yes, an ex-journalist (magazine not news) - I want to continue to support both types while ensuring we can get our messages and information to the public directly, quickly and openly without compromising our reputation.

So what I guess I'm saying is that in some cases we're not quite ready for revolution and it's going to be a case of evolution - though hopefully faster than the Darwinian variety.

Mike

July 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike Carhart-Harris

Just catching up with some of these comments. Thanks to everyone for engaging.

@nick
You are a digital hero.

@darren
I'm pretty sure that neither the council nor the local media are based placed to judge whether the media are reporting fairly and accurately. This is a decision for the wider community. The more data they have to base this judgement upon the better.

It has not been my experience (dating back to before the www) that local general media are very effective ways to transmit specific pieces of information. So I have always found that though you can generate a general buzz around an event through the local paper but you need get the info about where and when to them in other ways. But that's just me.

@Kurt
Ah public safety communications. There's another blog post there. In fact I plan to do something on that. I'm not sure whether I agree or not...

I agree that there are equity and access issues with digital but they didn't suddenly appear with digital. Even in the glory days of local papers lots of people didn't read them. Even those that did might not have been interested in the stories about the council.

But pushing something out on facebook because that's what we always do is just as unsatisfactory as shovelling out a press release. On one level I think this is a call for effective, well planned and dynamic corporate communications.

I had a twitter chat with @johnshewell which I think may be relevant here. http://storify.com/likeaword/twitter-chat-over-the-future-of-press-offices

Which leads me on to

@Mike

There are some interesting strategic conundrums here. People prefer to receive paper information but this is expensive. Maybe the Council should incentivise them onto cheaper media? (maybe not). With central government moving to “digital by default” what does this mean for rural connectivity? Deliver offline until the network catches up? Deliver low bandwidth online? Bridge the gap with telecottages? Encourage innovation like this project in Herefordshire http://www.allpaybroadband.com/ ?

July 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Proctor

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