And or neither nor: press and digital in 2012

I attended a fab off-grid get-together this afternoon of a mix of digital and press folk in government today. Very honoured to have been included.

We looked at what is working well, what isn’t and what the perfect future might look like. A lot of interesting discussions and models for the future. Really got my brain buzzing on a Friday afternoon….

What is the perfect model?

Traditional press officers and digital teams sitting seperately fighting their continual battles?

One team – press and digital sitting together?

An embedded digital comms person sitting within a press team – basically with the comms person doing it all?

Or a truly digital press office – press officers using the tools themselves, embedding social media/digital in the planning/grid process as a matter of normality?

My view

To me the only answer is a truly digital press office.

Yes, this means both sides ‘giving up’ things and press office redefining itself; digital teams letting go of the reins a bit.

Much of the discussion from press staff focussed on digital being an ‘extra’, and ‘on top of’ their day job. I just fundamentally don’t see it this way and I felt a lot of resistance from press officers on this.

Its not one plus one. It’s more of a substitution/finding the right fit of channels.  It’s not about extra/more work, its about appropriate channels. Journalists are on Twitter and they blog, they monitor, and listen.  THEY are used to this, this is now an acceptable, expected way for them to communicate. So if a phone call is better, do that….if a flat press release is the right thing, do that.  But it isn’t about column inches and coverage in the same way. Engage, discuss, question. Look for reach and impact.

I don’t see how a modern press function can operate in isolation, not taking up modern communication methods and solely relying on press cuttings and column inches. The world just does not operate this way anymore. We all need to be able to operate across comms disciplines. That goes for digital too – we need to grasp marketing and press and internal comms.

Other counter-arguments were put – ‘but sometimes Twitter isn’t the best way to have off the record discussions’. So, easy, don’t – pick up the phone. But it’s not either/or. It is *fundamentally* about the right channel. A mix of channels, making it easier for everyone involved – national journalists, specialist media, the public/s.

I’m not expecting press officers to be digital experts. I’m not expecting digital experts to be press experts. We’ve both got lots to learn and share with each other. There is a role for the more technical digital role, but I do expect the press office to be able to easily monitor, engage and evaluate basics via the general social channels on hand.

A bugbear


We seem to be soooooooooo hung up on Twitter as the be all and end all. But as I said above, we need to consider all channels. What is appropriate for the situation?

(and I’ve done it myself in this post…apologies.)

Sneaky tip

The team that supports GCN is currently rewriting the comms core skills framework that sits alongside PSG.

In the past this framework has been very light on digital and digital skills were not really deeply embedded in other comms disciplines as ‘essential’.

This is about to change. We now have a firm drive in government for digital by default.  W now have the Government Digital Service; and the head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, tweetingblogging and looking at engaging even more broadly. We have new social media guidelines empowering all staff to get involved and a push to open up IT systems to allow all this.

Digital skills will be embedded in *all* comms disciplines – marketing, internal comms and especially press office. More will be released on this in late July. So if you think that digital/social media is just a fluffy extra thing that a few people do, forget it. We all have to do this….

28 thoughts on “And or neither nor: press and digital in 2012

  1. Ann,

    This is great stuff.

    I’d have loved to have been at this meeting. It’s a subject very, very, very close to my heart.

    In many ways, I’m fortunate to be in local government at Walsall Council in a small, adaptable team with a head of comms who really gets it.

    I can’t help but think that the digital and the traditional comms teams should be one and the same. It makes no sense for the left and right hands to be doing things often in isolation. At best, there’s the danger of not much co-ordination. And at worst, a bit like a press office version of an unco-ordinated pantomime horse.

    If you had the skills united in a team you could plan a campaign that was maybe print + web + maybe a bit of marketing + radio & TV + social media.

    In an ideal world, we’d have comms people just as good at the digital as they are at the old media. But the ideal world rarely happens. The telephone was invented in the 19th century. It’s a comms channel. But some people hate using it. That’s just life.

    Let’s not forget that old media remains important. But while it used to be the only show in town that’s changing.

    So, how do you blend the two?

    I used to think that you probably shouldn’t have dedicated social media – or digital comms – officers. But not everyone is as happy at embracing digital as they maybe should be. I’ve reached the conclusion that every team needs someone who specialises in social media on condition that it’s their remit to both horizon scan for innovation and best practice AND they share the sweets too. Not just in passing on skills to comms people but to people in the frontline who are often an untapped source of trust, enthusiasm and good content.

    Part of this dedicated role needs to be winning the internal argument. Yes, we may have permission to tweet but you need to be passing back the success stories and the stats to an internal audience. That includes, in local government, officers and elected members and I’d guess in central government that would be civil servants and Ministers.

    All in this transition between tradtional comms and digital comms that’s a full time job for a good while yet, that is…

    • Absolutely agree with your third-to-last (pre-penultimate?) paragraph – you’ve described the model we are advocating and experimenting with. Not one which will be around forever, but certainly at the moment, the idea that people with experience in one area of comms can simply deliver using these new channels that are emerging and evolving almost over night is I think a bit of a pipe dream – to say nothing of expecting a heck of a lot of people!

  2. Ann
    Great post. Picking up on the points made by Julia and Dan re the transition between “Traditional” and “Digital” communications I would use the example of the camera. Nobody says “digital camera” anymore because its implicit. That’s where we need to get with government communications – where there is no distinction between digital and other forms. However, the problem is not technology, its cultural. Compare the “defensive lines” approach that traditional communication people take to press queries to the “engagement” model that those in digital communications take. In the digital communications world it’s not them and us – it’s about us and us.

    I have built relationships with journalists over many years on social media. I don’t just talk to them to answer press queries I ask their opinion about things, I seek their advice, I share their work on Twitter, I point to good things that they write. So if they ask me something about Government Digital Service, I can’t just suddenly step back and start composing “defensive lines” because they expect to be able to have a conversation with me.

    In the end its about the nature of our relationships and we develop these to further understanding about the complexities of working in government. To give an example Charlotte Henry who is a young journalist and blogger wrote a piece for her blog Digital Politico on our recently launched Social Media Guidance for Civil Servants.

    I ReTweeted her Tweet with a link to the piece. She immediately responded to me with a thanks asking did I think her article was balanced and fair and did it capture the issues? I replied “yes” and asked if she would like to visit GDS to have a look around and have a coffee and a chat. She will be visiting us in the next week or two. I look forward to building a relationship with Charlotte, gaining a better understanding of her interests so that I can focus my efforts on ensuring she gets content from GDS that is of interest to her. So its about people and relationships in the end. The channels are only the channels.

  3. Must say this is really good stuff.

    Picking up on the digital camera analogy, it’s certainly true that people just don’t refer to a ‘digital’ camera these days. They’re just cameras. That’s the place we need to aim at with the merged traditional and digital comms team.

    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.

    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.

    But let’s be honest, there’s many skills of traditional comms that will still be needed for quite some kind to come. There are some reporters I’m happy to build a relationship on or offline. There are others I simply wouldn’t trust. But that’s nothing new.

    Have to say that the complex palette of change, innovation and retaining skills is why I find working in communications as it evolves at a frantic pace endlessly interesting.

  4. I just want to add something about expectations.

    Personally, I still suspect there is an element of fear combining with the ‘not enough time’ defense here. Age UK published a wonderful report last year explaining the common barriers to tech take up in the over 50’s but I remain determinedly unconvinced by anyone trying to persuade me these feelings suddenly tick into existence on a 50th birthday and that prior to this we are a nation of ‘digital natives’. The report is here.

    Therefore I don’t have expectations of anyone’s ability except where their communication skills or PR skills are concerned – if you are employed in one of those teams I simply expect you to be excellent as I’ve yet to meet anyone in local or central who wasn’t. I don’t expect excellence yet in an area which is relatively new, However, to continue the digital camera analogy, I do expect an ability to point and click. We all ask others to take pics of us with our cameras – and we explain which button to press. Simplicity.

    Removing the complexity from social media is as simple – just talk on it. Just like you would to your colleague or boss or mother, mind, but just talk on it. Share interesting stuff, learn stuff, read stuff, ask questions. Point and click.

    The other commonly rolled out defense is ‘but there’s no one there’. Which is interesting because in the PR & comms game, it seems to me it’s more who’s there, and their influence over their own networks rather than how many are there. I often trot out the example of a road closure in my old Borough. Woman sat on a bus not going anywhere, didn’t know why. We used Twitter and Facebook to get the message out. She read the message, said thanks, passed the message on to all the other passengers. Who perhaps passed it on to other friends they were trying to meet on other buses and so…digital networks do not exclude physical networks. They mesh. If you’re missing from one, ultimately, you’re not coming at people from all angles – and isn’t ‘nudge’ theory ultimately about that?

  5. Really interesting blog post Ann.

    Imagine the resistance you would experience if you asked a room full of digital people to deal with the press on top of their day-to-day duties!

    I’m not sure the notion of a digital press office will be realised for a good few years, and I’m actually really sympathetic to protests about this being ‘extra’.

    Of course press officers, and all communications people should have a good working knowledge of digital, and yes, in an ideal world I guess our comms team would be made up of incredible beings who were able to simultaneously work on all disciplines.

    But the world isn’t like this, which is why I like the idea of specialists working really closely together – in this scenario, with embedded digital people working in a press office, as I did at the Home office.

    And I know there are v compelling arguments about why everyone, policy officials included, should be social media savvy and be using tools to engage and listen.

    But the political and cultural reality of the organisations we work in is that the press office traditional function of focusing energy on the front page of daily newspapers isn’t going to change any time soon.

    So I think we should retain specialisms and work more closely together, focusing on what unites us.

    And going back to my first point, digital people could maybe think about what they can learn from the press function, because you never really see skills exchange moving that way – I haven’t anyway.

    • Great counter argument – thanks! I would argue that we need to work to change the culture that demands cuttings and column inches and looks beyond this. Its not going to happen over night and its harder to show as it is more subtle, but I think it links to what Lou is talking about by referencing nudge theory.

      And I love your last point – yes, I think us non-press types have lots to learn:

      * a greater small ‘p’ political awareness (and a bit ‘P’) as well
      * a ‘news sense’
      * a stronger policy knowledge
      * close ties/building solid relationships with ministers to sell digital – we need to be each others cheerleaders.

    • It happens. Our team is a mix of digital savvy and traditional comms and the skills exchange is going both ways, believe me. I sometimes think each learning curve is as steep – but that perhaps the digital people trying to learn trad comms stuff just sit and listen and absorb to learn where as the other way, some action is required to learn.

  6. I like this discussion, but it feels very institutional. I know that you’re trying to re-design institutions from within, and that’s hard, but forgive me if I come it at from a different angle.

    We’re all moving from a One-Way, One-to-Many, model, to a Two-Way, Many-to-Many model, Like cars instead of trains. PR and Comms used to be about gatekeepers talking to gatekeepers – cultivating relations with journalists and crafting press releases they would appreciate. This still matters – but the walls have fallen down, so nobody has to use the gates if they don’t want to. Limited control, limited exclusivity, and you might not be preferred or trusted. Worrying.

    Communications professionals have, historically, been professional writers, but now, they need to be professional listeners as well. And the unit of work has changed. Newspapers go to press, but they update their websites throughout the day. Bloggers break stories. Mainstream media outlets pick up rumours from Twitter. Woe betide the press officer that misses a phone call.

    So yes, I agree, have one team. And because it’s Two-Way and Many-to-Many, we have to re-think how communications relates to engagement. Before the web, engagement was the goal you aimed for and communication was how you tried to achieve it. Nowadays, it’s less like kicking a penalty, and more like throwing the ball in at a line-out. (Other sports metaphors are available.) You have to think about all the other people who are going to touch it.

    • great comment Gordon – thanks! I agree.

      We’re living/working through an interesting cross-roads (collision?) of traditional and new. Its fascinating as we all to navigate our way through it. To our kids (metaphorical kids) this whole debate will be unbelievable!

  7. Pingback: Embedding digital thinking in the press office and beyond | Minerva’s pencil case

  8. Gillian’s comment above captures what I tried to write here the other day but gave up trying to word. Press Officers work in a world, and to a time-horizon, that’s quite a long way from the ones traditionally inhabited by digital or marketing comms people. That’s not to say that smarter (online and offline) PR, social media monitoring and community management couldn’t benefit media relations work, but ultimately skilled specialists working together is the best model for it I’ve seen in central government.

    I think your point about news sense is spot on too, Ann. We try and get people in GCN courses to think about what’s ‘remarkable’ about their campaign, and to think creatively about how to get digital conversations started. That’s the difference between worthy but ultimately niche engagement, and potentially something much more interesting.

    • Steph – thanks for the comment.

      It’s this almost obscured, separate world that press lives in that the rest of us outside of it, need to understand more of – this is where the sharing comes in. And to be fair, vice versa…)

      And I think we need to think how we market/target the the courses you are talking about, which I know well :)

      I hope it’s not coming across that I *don’t* think there is progress. I do think there is much. As ever, I’m writing from a perfect world scenario….

      We do have lots to be proud of so far….

      But as Gordon said above, it’s about a switch from broadcast to engagement/conversations. Which is a bit change for lots.

  9. Hi Ann,

    This is the kind of thoughtful conversation about the evolution of marketing and public relations skill we could really do with a lot more of. Thank you Ann for opening up some of the deeper issues about these stocks in trade with this post.

    And marketing and public relations skill are stocks in trade, quite fixed and delineated in nature, while we’re moving to flows of information as the sources of future value. So essentially, what is need is a new professional way of working because the old boundaries and mindsets no longer apply.

    This is something I think has been too long been left as an issue silently in the corner by marketers, perhaps for fear of becoming redundant, while people get on with evangelising about the thrill of the new around social media. And yet, if we really do want to effect real change, fundamental shifts in the nature and definition of digital marketing and public relations skill and how to develop new capabilities in people is something that has to be address.

    I agree with Emer the problem is cultural i.e. when the rapid acquisition of new skills is a priority and social business ends up addressing the nature personal and professional interaction at a fairly profound level, not many organisations are actively fostering e.g. a learning culture, the scope to iterate (and sometime fail) in public, or have a strong sense of a rallying and cohesive identity through which to develop social media and leadership skills and capabilities.

    The debate and conversation here is a great way to start opening up these opportunities. I hope many organisations take note of what you’ve started with this thread because the implications are tremendous.

    Yes it’s about he marketing messages being remarkable, the cultures that produce them have to support that, too.

  10. Great post and really interesting comments.

    One of the interesting things about this discourse is that it assumes a role for a professional team to mediate organisation’s relationships with the media. Now I’m a PR professional so I’m not going to write that role off in a hurry but surely it is useful to explore the possibility at least as a thought experiment.

    If you were building a brand new organisation would you necessarily include a press office? And if you did how would you expect that service to enhance to deliver improved outcomes?

    My view is that if you were starting with a blank sheet of paper you would create a team at the heart of the organisation to provide leadership around communication issues, to inspire and support staff within the organisation, to provide counsel to senior decision makers but not to directly mediate between the organisation and stakeholders.

    And, in my fantasy world, that team would be multi-skilled and certainly would have a set of skills around digital tech.

    I can’t foresee a medium-term scenario in which a traditional press office remains viable.

    It’s not just about digital.

    We also have the Leveson Enquiry. Whatever he says seems likely to have far-reaching consequences for press offices across the public sector.

    • Yeah, maybe, Ben ;-)

      Quite a lot of the time, Press Offices aren’t gatekeepers of communication out of the organisation, but co-ordinators of Communication, i.e. the official line. Without offending Press Officers, a lot of what they do is providing a premium enquiry service for a special customer group in a hurry – professional journalists – as well as a risk management service for elected politicians who as human beings are quite capable of causing confusion and embarrassment by saying conflicting things when they don’t actually disagree. That sounds awful, but the reality in central government at least is more about avoiding cockup than perpetuating conspiracy.

      I think social media, like the phone, gives more people more channels to communicate day to day, and quite rightly so – Press Officers are surely part of that. But if there’s a medium-term future for Press Offices, it’s in continuing to try and make coherent the different voices in and across diverse organisations and enable professional Communications.

      • Hi Steph. I find mysefl saying yes but…

        Let’s unpick some of that. Maintaining the official line has to change in a distributed organisation. My local paper already gets lots of news in brief from the twitter account of a neighbourhood policing team. If the organisation wants to maintain an official line, it has to make sure that the PCSO behind the account buys into the line. This is all to the good and press officer skills will be important to make that happen but it’s more about internal leadership.

        Press offices do deliver a premium enquiry service for journalists because journalists are special. News media are an important part of holding the powerful to account and influencing the views of stakeholders. But the open data agenda changes the context here too. Press officers need to shift from managing access to the data. To just explaining the data. And if journalists don’t need to ask for the data, press officers need to work harder to add value to the story.

        I absolutely agree that there is a role for corporate communicators in making coherent the different voices across organisations. Core press officer skills like copywriting, a news sense and an ability to tell a story will be important in that. But they won’t be sufficient on their own.

  11. Pingback: TRADITIONAL DIGITAL: What comms teams should look like in 2012 « The Dan Slee Blog

  12. Pingback: Specialist or generalist? Digital comms in 2012 | Digital by Default

  13. Here in 2012, I think it is unreasonable of a professional press officer to say ‘I’m no good at social media, I’ll leave it to the experts’.

    Social media is not an optional add-on, it is a core part of the modern press officer’s job.

  14. “this is not the answer you are looking for”

    A really fascinating conversation…

    I’ve not really got any insights or great analogies like others above – more an observation.

    No one really knows what will happen and for different organisations the look of this will be different whilst they find the right balance and what that balance is will be driven by the appetite of the organisation to embrace a more social way of being. So I totally agree it is a cultural issue.

    But this means that there is no right answer – there will be as many answers as there are cultures and each in there own way will work in the way they are intended…rightly or wrongly in some peoples eyes.

    I think Ben’s point about starting again from a blank piece of paper is important to remember if those who have the opportunity to rethink their service or organisation, which i suspect many will do over the coming years in various forms. What is the purpose and value of the service should determine the right approach.

    The best thing we can do collectively is to keep having these conversations and providing opportunities for discussion to evolve…somewhere in all of that, people will find the answer they are looking for..

  15. I blogged about press offices in the era of social media at on the back of the workshop I hosted at UKGovCamp2012.

    Given my policy background, I’m surprised there’s been little mention of what the press office/policy teams relationship is going to become. I (provocatively) put the case at UKGC12 that press offices (but not press officers) in their current function would become obsolete as individuals and organisations start using social media to interact with policy officials directly rather than through the filter of a press office.

    The demands of the media cycle means that for the mainstream print and broadcast press, the ‘lines to take’ model suffice. But in the blurred line between ordinary member of the public and expert trade press you have the expert independent blogger with cult following. How do institutions handle such people? Essentially these people can be a policy official’s worst nightmare (and a transparency campaigner’s best friend – depending on which way you look at it!)

    One thing for sure: Burying heads in the sand is not the answer. The case study of the Tomorrow’s People charity is an interesting example of this – see my blogpost at

    Finally, there is the corporate communications challenge of managing and co-ordinating an increasingly diverse set of communications channels in what are becoming increasingly complex policy areas. This is particularly a problem where a policy area cuts across more than one department. How do you begin to manage something like that?

  16. An excellent and welcome piece and some interesting discussion.

    I won’t go far on this – as colleagues of mine have said, the model is sound (but few people “are there yet”, there are resource and attitude hurdles to be overcome). There are skills issues too – a “digital comms person” (see below…) should logically be competent at basic multimedia – cropping, uploading photos, simple editing/uploading of video – yet few are.

    Beyond that, though, from my (relatively narrow) perspective a couple of points.

    I have a little list of “banned words” (classics like “portal” which tend to mean whatever the author wants them to, and where no two people are likely to agree).

    Two of them are relevant – “digital” and “social media” (which tends to mean “broadcasting via Twitter” but *should* mean a variety of forms of online engagement – forums, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc etc). So – care needed about how both words are used, and what they are intended, and taken, to mean. “Digital”, in particular, seems a bit “all things to all people”…

    I’m nervous at how you and others have described a “digital comms person”. I’d agree with what I think is intended – but I think there’s a risk of a wedge being driven between the “proactive comms” (press office, online engagement, PR if you like) and what I still regard as the “engine room” – website management, making sure that information supporting a policy, an announcement – is of high quality, customer-friendly, properly organised, navigated etc, and available at the right time. Those are traditional “webby” skills – and I can’t see “digital comms” as you’ve described it expecting to, or the right place, to tackle some of these things.

    So I think one issue that continues to need work – and I can’t see a GOV.UK world changing this – is the relationship between the “front end” and the “back end”. I can’t see that addressed specifically in your piece or the comments. My own view is that the functions – and the skills – are separate; but need to be closely linked and coordinated in both directions: customer interactions should inform website content, and effective website content should be a “given” in support of all comms.

    So – a “digital comms” person – how does this relate to management of websites?

  17. Pingback: Teacamp 5 July: Digitising press office » teacamp

  18. Really interesting discussion, we are going to carry it on face to face at teacamp this Thursday 5 July Department for Education, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Cabinet Office will share experiences with us.

    If anyone else has an experience in or outside government you can share, let me know and will give you a short slot to share your experience before the main discussion.

    You can contact me on @teacamplondon or

    Teacamp is 4pm – 6pm Thu 5 Jul – just turn up, no need to book, at Cafe Zest, 2nd floor, House of Fraser, Victoria St, London, SW1E 6QX. More info at

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