Or ‘The future of journalism: How do government press offices evolve alongside journalism?’

This session was led by Eve Shuttleworth from the Ministry of Justice and was a great example of how an unconference can work; someone tweets a comment from an early session, leads to back channel chat, session suggested and duly added to the agenda.

The session looked at how journalism and traditional media had changed in recent times; newspaper sales declining, the number of journalists reducing but the set of skills they needed increasing. There was a lot of talk about how journalists in traditional media where increasingly becoming ‘content producers’ gathering information across a number of channels to form their story.

In some ways this lower resource in the newsroom has made a press officers life easier. as one person in the room put it: “Make a journalist’s life easier and they’ll bite your hand off.” I spoke about how increasing the amount and type of content we offered online for local elections 2009 had meant fewer enquiries into our press office on results day – the media took what they needed from what we’d already published.

A lot of the group expressed concern about journalists taking whatever they were fed without any other source being examined. Much of the time press releases were issued verbatim in the media and if any analysis was presented this was increasingly an opposing view rather than actual critical analysis. The group discussed how this shift in role for journalists, forced because of the decline in traditional media, was leading to a hole where the fourth estate used to be.

Or is it? Or are we just seeing traditional media failing in this role but haven’t noticed that there may be a movement coming along to take up the mantel. Hyperlocal blogging and citizen journalism are on the rise. They may not yet have the maturity in reporting that  media journalism does but in some areas they are just as, or even more, interested in what the press office can supply.

So how do press officers treat ‘new media’ journalists? Well, there is no consistent approach. Some provide information and answer queries on the same footing as they do for other news organisations, others see bloggers as amateurs and tend to forget they’re there.

The view that citizens shouldn’t be treated as journalists was put forward and in most cases this is true; the voice in a press release is different in tone (and rightly so) from that used in web content and different again from that when responding or communicating through social media channels. However, the hyperlocal blogger, slips somewhere between journalist and citizen and a press officer needs to build them into their contacts and speak with them in the right voice for them.

Communicating outside of the sphere of established media contacts seemed to be a sticking point for some press officers – not necessarily because they didn’t want to but because they didn’t know how. We heard from Neil Franklin of the importance of responding in a timely fashion in social media channels and from Alistair Smith on knowing when and where to respond. The flow chart to help make response decisions, by Michael Grimes, was also shared with the group.

The biggest sticking point though was attributing responses – should it be done in a personal name or could it be done under the banner of the organisation? There were some well-founded fears from press officers about putting their own name against responses or profiles. Also the issue of sign-off on communications was raised – a system which doesn’t lend itself to fast responses. Sharon O’Dea – who also blogged about this session – suggested ‘presumed competence’ may be one way round this.

There was no answers to where the future of journalism lies or what this will really mean to us as communicators. However, this session gave clear examples of how government press officers need to start developing their skills to keep pace with journalism, and the communication needs of citizens, right now.

Communication teams need a mix of skills – media liaison, listening, monitoring, responding. They need to be as comfortable creating ‘complete’ packages across channels suitable for the media or citizen consumption and they need to be aware of the benefits and potential pitfalls of communicating on the social web. And beyond this they need the support of senior management to allow them to evolve, quickly, in this way.

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