I need to start with a confession which is hardly unique among journalists. When I was a young gun reporter and then worked on news desks around the country my attitude towards PR people was one of tolerance and something verging on pity.
Those poor schmucks, I thought, working for The Man and guarding secrets, while I performed a terrier-like public duty hunting down truth and corruption and being “at the heart of the community!”
Ha, pitiable fools! And they’ve probably got PR or, worse, marketing qualifications too…which as anyone knows means nothing when measured against an NCTJ badge.
I exaggerate, but not much.
Today, five years after my last foray into print media, I’m sitting in a local government communications department working as a “content creative”. It’s the kind of job title I’d probably have sneered at back then…but it succinctly summarises my role. I’m to be creative, and produce content, which tells the story of the council I work for, in ways that its residents and partners get to hear.
I’ve become one of “those schmucks” – and it’s not taken long for that early 90s naivety to be turned.
My enthusiasm for investigative journalism remains undimmed; I recognise and support that a good journalist can cut through waffle and data to get to the heart of a story; that newspapers can truly operate at the heart of the community they serve if they choose to, standing up for the unheard and the underdog against the powerful.
Councils need scrutiny, just as any organisations who hold power and money need it. So don’t confuse me with an anti-press naysayer.
But what I do see is that times are changing.
Over the past month or so I’ve spent time discovering what is described as “a community of practice”. This describes a gathering place for people with a common identity or skill, who come together to share advice and information, to judge and be judged.
I chose to seek out a community relevant to my new job – public sector communicators.
I did so in in part to engage with and tap into the knowledge and experience of new peers in councils across the UK to help me do my job better.
But I was also keen to test this idea: that the democracy deficit caused by the decline of traditional ‘legacy’ media is leaving opportunities for others to fill the gap.
I’m especially interested in whether public sector organisations are going to wilfully or inadvertently fill that gap by creating engaging and interesting content and reaching bigger audiences than ever.
The place I have spent most of my time hanging out and seeking views is a closed Facebook group. Entry is by virtue of being a public sector communicator currently working.
On the topic of whether councils need newspapers: the guy who set up the closed group puts it thus: “It’s no longer necessary to go through the priesthood of journalists to reach residents.”
And this, from the Local Government Association:
“Local government is already the most efficient, transparent and trusted part of the public sector.”
An Ipsos MORI poll, commissioned by the New Local Government Network (NLGN) in 2013, found that 79% of voters trust local councils to make important decisions about the future of local services.
So are councils stepping up to fill the gap? And should they?
And if they do, will newspaper publishers cry foul and demand intervention, in the way they have done with the BBC over its burgeoning website audiences?
Newspapers are in a battle for survival – but in public sector communicators they face a pretty formidable group of people who can be their ally or a tough competitor.
This has proved a popular topic, with lots of examples quoted about poor journalism, reporters with a sense of entitlement way above their actual ability to influence people, and acts not far short of betrayal. As it’s a closed group and space for people to speak without fear or favour, I won’t share comments here.
I’ve also found people desperate to defend journalists – many in public sector comms were once in those shoes, as was I.
This isn’t all I’ve discovered. I’ve also found new ways of thinking, shortcuts and quick wins, great tools and software…all thanks to a generous community of people who do not jealously guard their positives or disguise their negatives, but openly encourage and share.
My posts and queries have been wide-ranging; none have been treated with derision, all have triggered engagement and comments.
Thankfully among the advice seeking there is humour and brevity, like this one:
“Social media post of the day “Do I need a licence to keep a goat in my garden’. Still, I got to use Twitter’s new goat emoji in my reply, and now I know about goat keeping.”
What else have I been up to in order to extend my interactions with a community of practice? I’ve also updated my LinkedIn profile, posted and shared my blogs and others, and begun to engage with public sector communicators and those researching #mojo.
On Twitter I’ve followed new groups of people and engaged directly with them to seek advice and share experiences.
I also intend to attend conferences and events within the public sector communications community, while also continuing to produce news stories independently for Birmingham Eastside (if only to remind myself of the difference of being an embedded press officer and an independent journalist and to make sure I don’t confuse the two).