16 March 2013

Journalism Day

When invited by Dave Windass, leader of the FdA in Digital Media Journalism and BA (Hons) Journalism & Digital Media courses at Hull School of Art and Design to address a conference - Journalism Day - on the future of journalism some weeks ago, I thoughtlessly said 'yes'. I said yes because Dave's a really top bloke, and we try to support him when we can, because I'm mostly happy to help, and I assumed it was to be a low-key local affair.

Two days before the 'gig', I found out I was closing the show, and following Martin Bell, Alastair Brett (the former Legal Director of Times Newspaper Ltd) political journalist David Torrance, and BskyB's senior news editor Dave Betts, and frankly it all got a bit 'squeaky bum time', as I believe Manchester’s old people say.

So I did what I knew I had to do. Dressing it up as, 'Eddie's talk seeks to ask questions about the future of news, and to raise what he thinks might be the challenges for both local authorities and journalists in the modern world', I went for provocation and told 200 journalists that 'Public Relations Is Dead'. The first refuge of the scoundrel.

Oh, and - just for good measure - that newspapers are dead too. Or at least damned close to it.
I tried to be a bit more sophisticated than that. Whether I succeeded is perhaps a matter for those who were there, but the feedback was pretty good.

I started by suggesting that HMV, Blockbuster, and Jessop's did not go under because nobody wants music, movies or photos any more. They failed because a tipping point was reached as a critical number of customers - but not all - stopped wanting physical product and the shops became unsustainable.

Then I showed them this video

And because (in the same way) it won't take until the last person who has the Times ironed at breakfast to die,  for papers reach that same tipping point, I told them newspapers were dead too.

But I also said that there is probably a growing demand for news brands and journalism. Customers have online access to so much more than the one paper they used to buy each day, and use it.

I went on. What we increasingly know about customers is that few much care about The Council (capital T capital C) any more, if they ever did. They care about those parts of it that touch their lives; the road closure, the school closure, the theatre ticket, the bin collection. And I implied that may be true for news items too. Customers have become information nomads, choosing where to find out about and access services. And as more and more services are online they have become online nomads too. And that means we have to communicate and deliver services across those online choices.

I suggested that local government has to learn that the massive range of online tools that customers can use,  along with their own presence online, means that they are connected. Not just council to customers, but customers back to councils and to each other. All of it connected. The days when we could send a one-size-fits-all council 'magazine' have gone. Customers want granular. They want the information, news, service, and events that they are interested in; not an homogenous communications department idea of what they might want, or worse, should have.

And in that connected space, customers write back, and bite back, making us all accountable in a way we have to get used to, and learn to learn from. I talked about Julie Burchill, Jan Moir, the News Of The World, Urban Outfitters and Amazon and how the accountability that connectedness enables is as much an issue for news brands and journalists as for anyone else. It is not without its challenges - not least to ideas of freedom of expression, and whether we have a right not to be offended - but it is happening anyway.

And before I demanded they follow him on twitter, I talked about the changes in behaviour we need in our  communications teams, and quoted Dan Slee that …

"A press release is no longer your gateway to the media.

"A press release, web update, a picture of a nature reserve posted to Twitter on a mobile phone, a sharable Facebook image, a Soundcloud audio clip of a politician speaking or a LinkedIn group contribution from a named officer is. But the thing is. It’s not always all of those things. Knowing the landscape means knowing which will be relevant."

And I ended with my prediction of the future for journalism; that it will be fast, fast, fast; that stories are everywhere, not on a Press Release; that everyone can be a journalist (not necessarily a good one, but everyone can break stories and has the tools to publish); that journalists have become a brand in themselves; that  broadcast without response is dead; that there will be ever more accountable journalism, more easy disgust, more easy offence and that accountability is every organisation’s to handle, and that there are more easily targeted campaigns and more moral tensions. activism is clicktivism and that might mean more and more difficult challenges, to freedom of expression, politically unpopular views, financial security, even – when wrongly done - to personal safety.

And then, to end, I introduced them to Emer Coleman and read them two bits of her recent post:

"There are those who seek to uphold their own silos and empires even though they don’t face the electorate at the ballot box... Remember the scene when Morpheus offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill everything stays the same – if he takes the red pill (like Alice in Wonderland) he falls through the rabbit hole and sees things like they really are. We are at a juncture in society and technology where the system (and government) keep taking the blue pill struggling to deal with a new generation who swallowed the red one years ago" and:

"If I have to name a sector to whom I want to give a special shout out then it has to be to the journalists that I have worked with over the past year... They have been amazing critical friends. They have not offered an easy ride but they are not the stereotype of “gotcha” either. If the mantra of of Silicon Valley is “you have to collaborate to compete” then my mantra for government and media is that we have to “collaborate to comprehend”.

Then I finished with what I hoped was good advice. As well as suggesting they take the red pill, I went with a Facebook meme attributed to Gandhi, and with Emer. Like you do.

I told them I thought they should,

"Never apologize for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you're right and you know it, speak your mind. Speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.

"Be yourself. Collaborate to comprehend."

And they clapped and they were nice, and I left. But not before I got my photograph taken with Martin Bell, even though he did confess that he had not understood half of the words I'd used.

2 March 2013

Stop taking the pills - Some #CommsCamp13 thoughts (at great length)

I was 'nudged' recently by @Comms2Point0 to post my thoughts on #CommsCamp13, but as so often I found that talking about it was easier than writing it down.

I must apologise to people at work for the talking about it... And thank @danslee and @annkempster again for a very fine event.

But then, in a brilliant post today to mark an exit from government (into what will doubtless be an equally brilliant private sector career) @emercoleman said something which set me off; about public service systems taking the blue pill and those in them who take the red one.

I'm not much given to Matrix geekery. Those who were with me in a fantastic #commscamp13 final session, led by @curiousc, in a challenge to comms folk to see that they can too often be the blockers, will know I'm more of a Doctor Who fan.

(Excitingly, when suggesting that communications people need to become the voice of the customer and drive organisational learning, I actually got to say 'reverse the polarity of the neutron flow' in a public place. Yes, I know;  I'm pathetic.)

But Emer's idea of the 'juncture' at which we work seems spot on;

"... remember the scene when Morpheus offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill. If he takes the blue pill everything stays the same – if he takes the red pill (like Alice in Wonderland) he falls through the rabbit hole and sees things like they really are. We are at a juncture in society and technology where the system (and government) keep taking the blue pill..."

I'm finding blue pill dependency to be on the rise.

Behaviours (and for me, as I never seem to stop saying, it's always about the behaviours and not the shiny toys) seem increasingly to seek top down, controlling, non-consultative, 'manage the message', 'manage the media', "only answer if you have to" responses.

Those are the responses learned through so many tired decades of unlearning, disempowering public services, too often easily characterised as having no actual interest in the public being served. Years and years in which it was all about structures and hierarchies and the right to make decisions without challenge and you being bloody grateful for what you were given, and not having choices or complaints taken seriously and blah, blah, blah.

You know, there's a ton of academic research that says that in spite of the perception that the public sector is close to its customers... It just isn't.

And - to return to the task at hand - that all put me in mind of @nickkeane's 'theory' at my first #CommsCamp13 session: 'twitter is now useless', where more than one person expressed an almost sneering belief that, because customers use them to ask for stuff, management of organisations' twitter accounts "should 'just' be handed over to Customer Services".

Nick suggested that tools of engagement have altered customers' approaches to public services; have altered expectations of access and treatment and accountability. Customers expect to engage horizontally - directly with the CEO, ward councillor, or communications team; but they are still met by vertical hierarchies.

I'd reckon that the days when comms teams merely broadcast and didn't listen and respond; when complaints were left to rot at the office being complained about; when the journalist was the most important character in town because they could damage your reputation more than any individual customer; when elected representatives could fail to consult, or ban tweeting or filming in council meetings, and so many other of those old behaviours could be maintained... I'd reckon those days are gone.

And if anyone's still fighting that, I'd reckon it's only a matter of time before the customers change your mind.

They will expect a say in how we design public health responses; to be heard as we agree budgets; and to advise on how our services perform. And the tools will make sure they get it. Letter by letter, call by call, online petition by online petition, and - arguably - most powerfully and crucially, tweet by tweet; they will change the behaviours.

And so they should. When did we ever have the right to ignore complaints, to not answer questions, to fail to learn from customer experience, to meet and make decisions in private (saving the exemptions of the 1972 Local Government Act, natch) or to keep the spending figures away from a public whose services they actually are. When?

I think Nick's right. Emer too. At the risk of being a bit pretentious ("You, Eddie? Really?") the issue seems to be that decades-old, Weberian models of government are no longer fit for purpose. In a world with social media, Open Data and the looming possibility of instant reputation destruction by one aggrieved customer on twitter, the hierarchical responses have to change.

Tragically, the Francis report tells us that much more clearly than I could ever hope to. The not listening has to end. The not learning has to go. The behaviours have to change.

Not broadcasting, but representing and learning.

Not remote from the public, unfilmed and untweeted, but open and learning.

Not Press Releases, but consistent, equal approaches to communicating information which treat all stakeholders equally. Being human. And learning.

I'd reckon it's all customer services now.