At tea camp last week, we re-visited the topic of a digital press office.

Stephen Hale has published an excellent overview of the session with his thoughts in a bit more detail, but for those who want the flavour of what others said – read on. The session consisted of six planned lightning talks, and one which was added at the last minute!

Fist up, Lloyd Davis, first digital press officer in government – who reminded us about just how far things have evolved in a short time. He worked in Ministry of Justice in 2008, on a short project to explore what might be possible. Back then Number 10 had just launched their site on WordPress, and people were questioning use of twitter and YouTube. Obama visited and Lloyd live streamed from mobile phone. Lots of people saw all this as bizarre, but, gradually, started to look at how these tools could be used to build better relationships, in particular with journalists. He devised template for social media release, which it was thought might replace press releases. Main issues then were around press officers wanting to retain anonymity. They didn’t like the disruption of the relationship between individuals and journalists. There were fears about copyright. And other fears this was just a fad, why learn? it wasn’t going to stay around and wasn’t the kind of thing professional press officers should be doing.

Next on was Anthony Simon, head of digital at Number 10, who was accompanied by Alan Ross: a press officer. They have worked to break down barriers between traditional worlds of digital and press.
Alan started on this path back in 2010 in Home Office. He soon realised it wasn’t about a few tools, but about a change of attitude and approach . Press teams needed to be aware of immediacy, of opportunities for two way conversation social media offered. He introduced the idea of every comms plan having a digital element. Cuts meeting had a slot to cover what was going on online. He did a weekly report with stats to show range of coverage. Experimented with rebuttals, where initially people said don’t worry, no one is talking about this…… meaning nothing was appearing in mainstream press. Not realising that the story was out there, and actually there was a whole lot of blog and twitter traffic about it, none of which had the HO line.
At No 10, besides the main account, they also set up No 10 press, to engage directly with the media. They live tweet events, and PMQs. Current plans include encouraging press colleagues to be more creative about visits, making most of opportunities rich media offers. They use
Use twitter alongside traditional channels, but as amplifier, eg when contacting a broadcaster or journalist, besides direct sharing of lines and content, ask they retweet.
Anthony emphasised that the main thing is to look at capabilities: explore what are you trying to do, and then it’s up to departments as to how they configure themselves to reach those goals. Some separate teams work well, sometimes having a digital enthusiast embedded is needed to change the approach. Need both skill sets, they should complement each other.

Penny Fox and Verity Hanbrook from Defra followed. Penny is deputy head of news and digital, Verity is senior media officer – in a merged team. Don’t have either a press office or digital team, or marketing team etc.
Change has been about who is actually spoken to, press used to be extremely precious, only spoke to journalists. But gradually started to use tools, published own press content, eg news and speeches. Opened twitter account. Biggest step change was around badger cull. Did realise what the chatter was going to be, so got three cleared lines which they punted out all day on all channels. Got mixed reactions, but showed ministers and colleagues that level of engagement was possible, and had more benefits than risks.
All communications team have digital as part of core objectives. No longer have strategic comms team or marketing, so now have to work with a very mixed team. Planning always done with expert advice. Verity often involved as a supporter, encourage people to think of wide range of ways of reaching audiences, and first step is to think through who those audiences are!
Individuals encouraged to take a human approach, if one of the biggest detractors gets on a hobby horse, reason with them directly, has been shown to work.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and then evaluate. Once something does work well, create a process, or how to note, because then people feel more comfortable and confident.

Christine from Food Standards Agency talked about how they managed to kill, or at least tame the press release.
Digital and press have always worked closely together, but process was a bit crazy. Press would draft press release, editors would write news, press release cleared, web story not. So, as they worked together, the content and story was the same – potential confusion for recipients, definite duplication of effort. What is now produced is hosted as a news story, but shared in the same way a press release would have been, and also in many more channels. People are encouraged to think beyond the format, sometimes experts do YouTube or podcast interviews. Team work out how to share content that would traditionally just have been packaged for journalists and making it clear to all those interested in the topic.

Lizzie Bell from DfE was originally a press officer, moved to digital role around three years ago. She sits next to press office, but not integrated. One challenge is time, getting press officers off busy press desk even to do training is a challenge. Churn is a problem, have trained many who have left. Don’t always recognise the specialist skills that individuals have. People who can film and edit can’t always write, people who can write great speech can’t boil it down to 140 characters.
Why is this feeling such a big challenge? Lots of digital change happening across other bits of the dept, so why so different in news?
Press office is essentially about a private relationship with journalists, then about broadcast. Digital is about conversations, public, responding, continuous and sustained interaction.
She echoed Allan Ross. Need to stop just tacking social on to the end of news. Lots of examples in traditional media where news teams are gaining new skills to produce YouTube ready content and produce content specifically for digital news, recognising it is different from print proposition.
Better not to make digitising press offices sound like a massive shopping list of additional things for them to do, need to start thinking differently.

Stephen Hale from Department of Health has, as mentioned above, blogged his points eloquently – he both agreed and disagreed with Lizzie.
For me, the key paragraphs were:
“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.”

As also mentioned above, there was a late arrival tagged onto the end of the planned speakers: Betony Kelly, now at BIS, but spoke at teacamp a while ago when she was in her previous digital role, at a Bank. She was invited to share her thoughts now she is inside the civil service.
Her final thoughts on the press/digital question were that press officers really need to be left to get on with it, they will find their level and way of being effective. Just as you don’t put all your senior people in front of broadcasters, some people you just shouldn’t force.
Best to keep exploring: keep investigating what works, showcase and celebrate and evaluate it.

The first question was about the relationship between policy people and press: what about a specialist niche blogger with large followers, do press engage, or leave it to policy specialists?
I recognised lots of the responses that followed, as they are familiar in relation to the work I’m now doing around DFID’s digital strategy, as a lot of the work we grandly label as capability building, is really just supporting people to investigate their own digital environments, sharing the tools used to monitor, evaluate, and curate information. They will get to know their stakeholders, build networks – and possibly even other parts of the business will be able to use those networks to communicate too. Their skills will include knowing when you can respond to an expert in your field, and when to ask others to advise or support.

And PS, I haven’t forgotten my promise to report on the open data session from activate….. that will follow.