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Should we digitise press office?

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I did my best to answer this question at teacamp yesterday.

the audience at teacamp

Digitising press offices is a perennial subject for these kinds of gatherings. It's been a popular session at teacamp before, and is a regular subject for blogs by the government digerati.

I worry that it's a slightly unhealthy obsession amongst the government digital community though, and I sometimes think we just need to get over it and worry about something else instead. After all, I doubt that press officers agonise quite so much about how they might share their media relations skills with their digital colleagues.

But there are lots of people thinking about this and doing some great work to try things out and test new ways of working, establishing new conventions for government communications work in the process.

Before I spoke yesterday, I enjoyed hearing from Lloyd about the challenge of being the first digital press officer, how Anthony and Allan are developing digital capability at No 10, how Penny and Verity are integrating digital engagement into their press work at Defra, how Christina has all but eliminated the press release as a format at the Food Standards Agency. And I particularly enjoyed Lizzy's call for a revolution, and Betony's rallying call.

It's a subject we've thought quite a lot about in the Department of Health during my time. Only last Friday the digital team at the department ran a workshop for our press colleagues. We spent 2 hours with 15 press officers talking about the kinds of day-to-day digital skills that a press officer in the department might put to use. We talked about using simple and practical digital tools and techniques to:

  • monitor online conversations in order to better plan press work
  • broadcast messages, adding colour, richness and depth to announcements
  • track and understand the impact of press work

It seemed to go pretty well, I think it was useful, and it's something we'll repeat. But it's not a new idea. It's the latest in a long line of ruses to help digitise parts of the department's media relations operation.

All communications professionals working in government today need to understand how internet culture has changed the communications landscape, and that it's probably not possible to do effective government communications work any more if we have too narrow a definition of "media".

The DH press team run a very effective operation already of course. They are a crack team of media relations experts running an incredibly busy press office.

They are increasingly digital too. They have to be. Our press officers need to understand that online campaign groups can mobilise hundreds of thousands of people overnight in opposition to government policy, and how we might respond, because this is mainstream media today.

DH press officers do understand the communications landscape. They are generally pretty digitally savvy, and they are certainly able to manage their own professional development to develop the new skills they might need to do their jobs.

Press offices do need to get digital. Some press offices may need to accelerate the process of digitising while others have already transformed. But I don't think the digital community need to take full responsibility for this process. We should own the overall strategy, offer advice, coach, cajole, run workshops and provide guidance. But, with a little bit of help, press officers - like other groups of our colleagues - will digitise themselves, because they will have to in order to do their jobs effectively.

Digital people should have confidence in the things that they do to provide real value to their organisation beyond the news agenda, which might mean running sustained digital engagement, developing policy engagement campaigns, product development and channel management, and all the other things that good digital people do.

So I think the answer to the question "should we digitise press office?" is probably "no", if the "we" in the question is the teams of digital people in government. Press offices should certainly become more digital. We just don't need to do it all for them. Press offices will become as digital as press offices need to be.

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