It was a pleasure to speak today at the LGCommunications #CommsAcad as part of a panel on the changing local media landscape. Held in the ultra grand surroundings of St George’s Hall in Liverpool this was the first time I’ve spoken on digital since I left local government back in June.

As a personal public speaking challenge, and by coming at digital from just one angle, there was lots for me to love about this – but I’ll keep that reflection for another time and focus instead on some notes about what I said.

The panel was chaired by Nick Golding, editor of the Local Government Chronicle and I was alongside Maria Breslin, Digital Editor at the Liverpool Echo and Ryan Kowo from the Streetlife app. We all spoke about how we see the role of local government press officers and communications professionals changing as part of the new media landscape, and for me that meant speaking a little more generally about how local government should be doing digital (to paraphrase, the time for hesitation is through, we can’t keep thinking about digital – let’s get on with it now).

For you see all communications and communicators should now be digital – they should be equipped with the skills and knowledge to work to the demands of digital, often as the primary channel. But digital is not purely communications – it is also customer service, it is IT and technology, it is behaviour and analytics, it is marketing and product / service development. It is a whole load of skills that traditionally a press officer wouldn’t have needed in their day-to-day work, or would have been spread between people when teams were bigger. No more – each digital professional needs a range of these skills and a network that allows them to learn and share with those who complement their skills.

Human networks and connections are more important than ever to the modern local government communicator. In the same way that once relationships were formed with the journalists on the beat now that network needs to go direct to communities and individual influencers too. You need to be trusted, authentic and as an organisation very much a part of communities, not a cautious Authority presiding over information. You need to get people what they need, in the way they need it – drawing on those age old skills of cutting through complexity, being creative in design of the messaging, getting people answers to the questions they ask or haven’t thought to yet.

As you talk and listen to so many throughout your organisation and in the communities surrounding it this makes you perfectly placed to form the networks you need, to connect the dots between disparate parts of the communities you serve. It puts you in a great place to lobby your organisation to build digital services in the right way for people, based on their behaviour, their need and the desire they haven’t yet vocalised. But you’re not the only one – work with colleagues in other areas facing similar opportunities and challenges – customer service, IT, services themselves. Together you can form a strong team and begin to make digital not just a project or the loose remit of a single team, but something the council *is*, from the inside out and back again.

In communications – just like in the building of the digital services themselves – I advised to always look for the simplicity, to understand that people will not confine themselves to a single channel no matter how hard you want to shift them to do so, and to make less assumptions and test and analyse everything.

I spoke of how it is important to find the granular stories or communicate about individual digital services, rather than the organisation or the website as a whole. If you have mapped your influencers, crafted your content for the right channel for where they are, then you’re in a great place to get your messages straight to the people who need to know and let them amplify it for you. That might be the local press, but it may be an individual or community. Increasingly you are a publisher as much as a press office.

I mentioned that during my time at Nottinghamshire County Council, leading Digital First, it was our approach rather than the technology that was innovative and ultimately a great part of the success. We worked openly, we used open technology, we formed multi-disciplinary teams, we built digital services and designed for digital as a primary channel. There is much more detail about what we did on the project blog, still available here: http://digitalfirstnotts.wordpress.com.

I didn’t have time to yarn too long on how digital has changed our lives but I mentioned how far we have come in a relatively short time. I spoke of how I’d told my 10-year-old son’s class that in the 1960s, the decade they are studying, you would only be able to hear pop music once a week, for one hour on one radio station then watched their jaws drop as they tried to comprehend this exotic and terrifying past where their choices were made by someone else and media wasn’t on demand and streaming 24 hours a day. I spoke too of how 16 years ago as a student journalist in Liverpool I’d written my dissertation on whether the Internet would destroy local newspapers (answer at the time was ‘not completely, it will evolve them’). And I mentioned the many ways in which digital technology is part of our every day and the huge industry it has already disrupted – your Kodak, your Blockbuster, your Uber and AirBnB.

Digital is here – it is much bigger than you as a communicator but your role in transforming the local government organisation for which you work is vital. Look again at the skills you already have, refocus, learn, collaborate, share. And remember – you are part of the way digital will revolutionise local government but you are not alone in the task.

Thanks to LGCommunications for inviting me to speak – you can find them here.

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I am a freelance digital content strategist, journalist and editor – you can hire me to help your organisation do digital – get in touch here or find out more about me and connect on LinkedIn. You can also find me on Twitter or drop me an email.

Original source – Sarah Lay

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