Future-proofing your communications team


Yesterday I was lucky enough to lead a workshop at #CommsAcad in Coventry, where local government and other public sector communicators had just finished the second of their three-day academy, sharing learning and ideas.

The workshop on future-proofing was one of five that formed part of a session on ‘Communicating in a digital world’, led by @darrencaveney and @danslee from @comms2point0.

The idea of the workshop was to look at how communications teams and communicators need to change over the next few years to adapt to the ever-changing world.

In the current climate communications teams are likely to get smaller, so what do they need to do to survive and thrive?

Forty people squashed into a small room to share issues and ideas on a topic that will probably be a source of debate for years to come. The short session did not come up with all the solutions, in fact there were more questions than answers, but here’s a flavour of some of the points discussed in the group and sub-groups.

Generalists v Specialists – will communicators all have to be generalists, or is there still room for specialists? Reduced funding and a greater range of tools at our disposal may necessitate this change, but could this mean communicators risk becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none?

Interestingly, 37 people regarded themselves as generalists, with only three describing themselves as specialists, all of whom worked in media relations.

Politicians v Residents – how do we reconcile what some politicians and senior officers want to communicate with what residents and communications teams want? These are often different things, but one group has the power of veto. Although it seems logical to concentrate on the channels most popular with residents, this isn’t always possible.

Traditional media isn’t dead – in spite of what some people might think, traditional channels are still alive. For example, readership of newspapers is going down but they still play a significant role.

Digital is important, but is there is a risk that an ’emperor’s new clothes’ factor is overplaying its importance? At the same time, there are still some people, including elected members, who are not engaging with digital channels.

In theory it should be easy to convince them of the merits of digital, but there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what makes ‘good digital’.

How do we prove our worth? – this is a tricky one, and yet this will become more important as times goes on. Do we measure impact, outputs, or outcomes, and which of these matter most?

Should communications teams have measures purely of their own work, or how their work contributes to wider council priorities and resident needs?

This is only a short summary of some of the issues raised, and I hope those who were there, others attending #CommsAcad, and anyone else interested will offer your views too, so over to you.

For my part, the big issues for me are Generalists v Specialists and how teams and individuals prove their worth.

Communications teams continually need to adapt to thrive, and this is more acute than ever. I think time is running out for people to have highly specialised roles, and that we’re moving toward more generic roles with communicators carrying out a wider range of functions.

I think person specifications and the type of people who make up teams will become more important than job descriptions. I blogged about this a few weeks ago so I won’t go over old ground, but the next inevitable restructure will be more important than ever.

In terms of proving our worth, I think there is still a long way to go, which concerns me. There has been a great deal of good work on evaluation, but the picture across the country still seems blurred.

There stills seems to be a stubborn refusal in some parts to let go of measuring local outputs by communications teams. Why do we still count news releases, and why in a multi-channel world do some teams still devote resources to media monitoring but don’t give the same attention to other channels?

And do these measures mean anything? Wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on council and community outcomes that communications activities contribute to eg the number of new foster parents recruited and allocated?

This seems both more meaningful and also shows how the communications team contributes to the council and community as a whole. Teams should not present themselves in isolation, they should be an integral part of the organisation.

The debate on future-proofing is in its infancy, and there are no easy answers. But we need to find them, so watch this space.