Where should they sit?

Yesterday Dave Briggs spotted that Stoke were looking for a new web editor, somebody to be ‘the councils (sic) on-line champion’. And they’re not alone in allocating a specific resource, Hull’s recent restructure included a new e-communications role with a similar brief. Both these roles are in Communications.

This prompted a discussion on Twitter (Storify here).

Brief conversations like these are one of the great side effects of using Twitter. But not everybody will see those tweets. So I thought I’d try to start capturing interesting exchanges in case there’s some value to those outside the conversation (the Alpha(Local)Gov post was originally prompted by something similar).

So what follows is my adding a bit of flesh to the opinions communicated in 140 characters. As you might have seen if you’ve looked at Storify, the discussion asked whether Communications is the right location for ‘social media’ (although neither role is Twitter Tsar).

First up the reasons why comms is the wrong place…

Cons?

Public sector comms teams receive their share of criticism around being focused on marketing, clinging onto a broadcast mentality and being risk averse in the name of reputation management. The conclusion is that such teams will never achieve the benefits that are obvious to the choir because these are alien cultures to the ones needed when encouraging listening and engagement.

Another criticism relates to the future of the web in an organisation. To be fit for purpose digital activity needs to be considered equal to the traditional, offline, access channels. In focusing on this issue as part of the debate on channel shift, SOCITM have called for the web to be embedded within customer services rather than placed into a Comms (or ICT) silo. After all, who is better equipped to answer queries or communicate information than those on the front-line?

Pros?

On the flip side you could argue that these roles have been created in comms teams because that’s a very logical place for them to be. Communications teams have historically been at the heart of their organisations for both internal and external purposes; they have cultivated relationships and have an appreciation of the council in macro rather than micro. As a result they are well situated to be the people providing the lead and the steer on a better use of the web.

And evidence suggests they already are providing that lead. Many, if not all, of those officers who are trailblazing and providing sparks of inspiration are drawn from Comms teams with successes that show it is possible to work in comms and not focus on broadcast or marketing.

It shouldn’t be a surprise! Although the web is clearly useful in giving cheaper transactions and providing clearer information it’s also a great opportunity to vocalise the often under appreciated narrative of the public sector. 24 hour experiments in Manchester and Walsall have used Twitter to paint their pictures and now Walsall100 will attempt to stand on the shoulders of many platforms to weave a richer tapestry. Story telling is a natural fit to the skills of a Communications team, would any of these have happened without their leadership?

Does it matter?

The jobs in Stoke and Hull could be important steps for these councils but the ambition could (should?) be that much of what those roles look like today are rendered obsolete. Success for these jobs would be making digital the default and embedding social media and web tools into service delivery across the organisation so that such discrete roles are no longer necessary.

In that world the reacting to customer service related queries via the relevant web channels becomes part and parcel of the job. Such operational activity is different to the strategic need these jobs are advertised to meet. In asking for an ‘on-line champion’ they’re looking for someone to build the necessary relationships and explore the possibilities with themto create a more future proofed and digitally effective organisation. They’re looking for a leader to facilitate culture change rather than simply someone who can tweet.

But that leadership will only be possible with the right mandate. It doesn’t matter where this job is located or how it is structured if what’s lurking behind the scenes are organisations committed to a marketing focused, broadcast heavy, tightly controlled digital presence. If they’re working for someone who is committed, supportive and enthused themselves then maybe these roles have a chance of putting the web at the heart of their organisations?

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...

  • Daniel Slee

    Cracking post. Cracking discussion. As a comms person myself you’ll be surprised to know I don’t go in for institutional comms kicking per se. Or rather, I do go in for kicking my fellow comms people who think it’s still 1985 and they have to manage the message.

    Do they hell.

    The comms person I aspire to be is someone who gets old media and can adjust to the two way street that social media can give. But most importantly, who likes to share the toys in the toy box too.

  • johnpopham

     I agree with Dan, this is a cracking post. But, there is a wider picture here. Yes, there is a role for a centralised social media presence for the authority, and whether that sits in Communications or Customer Services is an interesting debate. Perhaps the two functions are coming together and should be merged?

    The wider issue is about how people in public service generally use social media in their work. There are many more public servants who need to communicate with the public in their jobs than there are posts in Marketing or Customer Service units. These people need to use social media effectively, the people they deal with use it, and they expect social media to be one of  the channels through which public servants communicate with them. This is a big challenge for an organisation like a local authority, but it could be a bigger challenge to the individual employees themselves. Many struggle to find the right voice which blends their personality with an element of the corporate ethos. And many others are frustrated from even trying to do so by their employer’s restrictive policies.

    Public agencies (and others) need to see social media as the modern version of the telephone or the fax machine. You don’t have one person who makes all the authority’s telephone calls, and neither do you monitor every telephone conversation your employees make (or at least I hope you don’t). 

  • Andy Mabbett

    There really is no “one size fits all” answer. Whether the team driving (but not, please, owning) social media and relate changes belongs in comms, or customer support, or elsewhere depends very much on the culture of the organisation, and those sections of it, and the awareness of their respective managers to the change of  internal and external cultures involved.

    I’ve known of comms managers who didn’t know what RSS is; and customer services managers who believed social media was “not a priority”.