Are Comms the social media blockers? – In praise of Catherine Howe


Some thoughts from an awesomely amazing workshop with Catherine Howe of Public-i at Comms Camp earlier this year.

If you’re interested in public sector social and digital media, and are not following Catherine Howe of Public-i, please rectify this. No – really. Not following her is about as outrageous as not following Steph Gray of Helpful Technology in these fields. No, neither of them paid me to type this and no, I’m not due any contracts or commissions from them either. Some people are just that good in their fields that sometimes all you can do is sit back and admire – or point people towards them.

“Take me back – what was CommsCamp?”

I blogged about it here at the time – Puffles and I volunteered to help out too. Basically it was a big unConference gathering of anyone who was interested and passionate about local government social media. It ended up being heavily over-subscribed, so next year we’ll hopefully have an even bigger and better event! You’ll also note from that blogpost my first mention of Catherine’s masterclass.

“What did Catherine have to say that was so brilliant?”

She blogged about it here. Please read before continuing.

“Read it. Now what?”

No you haven’t. Please read it properly. She hosted a workshop that was all about unpicking the problems several of us seem to have had with press offices and communication teams. Catherine, who is doing a PhD in this field (the results of which I expect to be mind-blowing for the sector) took on a very awkward subject area and systematically deconstructed it in a manner where the real issues had nowhere to hide. Being able to do something like this in a very diplomatic manner takes a huge amount of skill and talent.

Are communications teams the blockers?

My instinctive reaction to that question (as far as local public sector institutions are concerned) has been “Yes”. The big issue being the fear of losing control of communications to other parts of the organisations. The other one is an inertia issue of social media being about communications, therefore it sits in the comms’ silo. The big barriers I’ve faced trying to build Teacambs – the Cambridge offshoot of the Whitehall Teacamp gatherings have in part included trying to convince communications teams that these gatherings are open to anyone in their organisation with an interest in public sector social media, not just people with the communications hat on.

Catherine’s workshop showed that the barriers are much deeper than one team

Rather than going through a “Why do we hate communications teams?” exercises, we started off brainstorming where all the barriers to uptake of social media may come from. Hence identifying human resources, legal teams, ICT teams and senior management was an eye-opener in itself. In part for me I’d always been aware of the barriers that these sides could throw up, but had never thought about exploring them in a systematic manner that Catherine took us through.

The way she led the next bit allowed us to identify a number of cross-cutting issues – ones that would not have been as visible or clear had we gone through each unit silo by silo. For example issues around data protection cover both legal and HR – as well as management. Getting something OK’d by legal and getting it OK’d by comms creates a time-delay that in a social media world may cause problems in terms of how you communicate – but then creates a resource problem if you want to go down the route of having every tweet OK’d by legal and comms. You can see the problem: it’s unsustainable.

Which moved us onto the next bit: If salami-slicing won’t work, you’ve got to rebuild your system in a manner that accounts for social media pressures

Which was the next bit – one that actually came out with more questions than answers – as it should have done. The reason being is that the way society is using social media is something that organisations are really struggling with. It genuinely is a societal change. I look at the way I interact with MPs on Twitter and compare it to how I tried to interact with politicians during my university days. (Days when emails were easily ignored). Just because your organisation is not using social media does not mean that social media users are not talking about you. Therefore how do you deal with it?

The lesson for senior managers is that they need to become familiar with at least the basics of social media (and the impact on organisations) in order to ask informed questions & take informed decisions. This ranges from who needs what skills sets to updating and monitoring corporate risk registers. How would your organisation deal with a social media firestorm that risks becoming a mainstream media firestorm?

One of the lessons for general staff is around skills: This could be in terms of upskilling – what are the new skills that you will need in a social media environment. Or – especially in the case of recent school leavers, how can you present and apply your social media skills to a work environment?

Communications teams as crisis managers

This was one of the points I took away from the session: with social media use, something is bound to go wrong. How do you manage and recover the situation?

This is where one of the new roles for communications teams is one of crisis management and recovery. Rather than having the traditional corporate communications teams of today, will we move towards a system of communications being centres of excellence within organisations – where individual teams go to communications teams for advice, rather than going to them to deliver the communications function of whatever piece of work that they are working on?

Food for thought.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s