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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Thanks for this, Steph. The discussion looks like a very relevant and timely one for everyone who works in a press office. It’s absolutely clear that the ground under our feet is changing. It doesn’t always feel like it but when you think about where we were five years ago it’s the equaivalent to a massive shift.

Press offices were built to deal with the press and it’s a sad fact that many just haven’t grasped that they need to change and evolve.

Sounds like a really good discussion is on the cards through #nhssm…

Thanks Dan. I guess my heretical question is: how bad would it be if they don’t?

If a government department press office spends the next three years doing the regular stuff they’ve been doing most of the time, putting out releases and picking up the phone to half a dozen national correspondents, will ministers, journalists or the public be less satisfied with the result?

The concept of modernised media relations doesn’t have to revolve around a digital press office or social media newsroom where press officers need to create their own videos. It’s more about understanding the changing editorial requirements of national, regional and vertical trade media. The traditional news cycle is different, there are better ways of pitching that ‘hard to place’ story, data journalism means stories can be constructed and discovered in new ways. Journalist’s social profiles can give insight into what they are working on. These are just some of the ways that press officers have to change working practices today – and some are time savers.

Thanks for helping spread the word about #nhssm
One of the things that I think needs to be improved is the way in which media coverage is evaluated. Despite dwindling circulations the big broadsheets and high profile TV slots are still considered to be the most effective media channels. Is this really the case? I don’t know. Maybe we’ll all start to find out.

Good point, Tim. I think Press Offices (and PR clients) often stop at ‘achieving coverage’ with some brave souls measuring ‘positive/negative coverage’. The counting of column inches as a metric is still alive and well I think.

Still, having said that, I suspect the goal for much of what Press Offices do is about achieving background awareness and a benign media environment in which other things can happen – policies implemented, Ministers’ reputations built etc. Digital is quite good at doing some of those other, more targetted things which require response and relationship-building, but maybe less good at the – literally – broadcast things?

Great comment Stuart. I suspect we’re on the same page here – there’s clearly change afoot, there’s great stuff that can be done, and there’s an opportunity to use digital to connect PROs/Press Officers and journalists in new ways.

Interesting post Steph.

I’m someone who’s gone from press office to dedicated digital team and back to press office. Despite my best intentions, I’ve basically reverted to using the phone and email as my primary tools to communicate with journalists.

I think a large part of a PRs job is giving journalists the information in the format they want. Press notices or statements copied into the body of an email (one less click than an attached word document) are still the way to go for many of them.

The demand from media for SMNRs, video clips or podcasts just isn’t there yet. And in the cases where they do use multimedia in their stories (I’m thinking the Tele or the Guardian), they have in-house teams to create this content.

(Having said this, if journalists began to demand more multimedia content, I’d be the first to start offering it to them.)

Where digital has been very useful is in the intelligence gathering and building relationships. Twitter is invaluable in following journalists and getting a sense of who they are and what they are interested in. It makes my calls to them more targeted and, hopefully, more useful for both of us.

Using dashboards to monitor online discussions and breaking news is also invaluable. I’d probably say this is the most significant and measurable advantage of incorporating digital into a press office.

Hi Steph, very good post and I think you’re right: press officers shouldn’t be expected to deliver all that multimedia content – and I’d also agree that a new breed of communications professionals will emerge. But what I think we’re heading towards is press officers as facilitators and orchestrators rather than solely as communicators – because, increasingly, we’ll see organisations (both public and private) who are just full of communicators. Press officers may still have a focus on the big beasts (the larger media orgs) but will have the skills to transmit good communication throughout their organisations. In other words, I think they’ll be passing on those skills – setting up and using an RSS reader, handling a Flip camera, etc – but also helping to set the message, advising on interviews and all the more traditional stuff.

All this will be driven by three things you’ve picked up on: the growing panoply of voices, the dwindling resource and the fact that increasingly individuals in organisations are using social media to communicate as part of their jobs anyway. I guess what I’m saying is: yes, it’s slower but probably more momentous!