Are Comms the blockers?

Better late than never?  Here is a rather delayed writeup of a session I facilitated at CommsCamp……

Ok then, slightly provocative title but it did get people’s attention. The question I put to the group was about the fact that, within the wider organisation, communications are often seen as the blocker with respect to social media take up – and I thought it would be interesting to explore whether or not this was a valid complaint. I was keen to look at the difference between good and bad blocking and also to see how people felt about the fact that engagement and communication are increasingly being seen as the same thing.

The first port of call for the discussion was looking at whether there were in fact alternative culprits – is someone else the blocker with communications getting the blame? We looked at four other areas:

  • Human Resources: There was a consensus about the fact that often problems with social media use are in fact more appropriately addressed as performance management issues. There are two aspects to this; one is the need to ensure that managers are able to interpret social media activity and the other is the question as to whether we should ensure that communication goals are encapsulated in everyone’s performance criteria.
  • Legal: It seemed as if in main issue with legal was a mythical one – people thought there were legal issues where none existed – a kind of legislative bogeyman. Where there were legal issues were around things like standing orders and this is where the problem is more likely to be political rather than practical.
  • ICT: Yup – really no good answer on this one as ICT clearly are often a blocker. These objections seem to be in the area of security which really needs to be a management rather than a technical debate but in their defence ICT blocks seemed to often reflect legitimate infrastructure concerns. Tied up within this however were some comments that I think relate to the gap in technical knowledge between ICT and the rest of the organisation which I think needs more exploring – we all need to be better ‘customers’ of our ICT teams.
  • “Management”: There were many complaints about ‘management’ – some of them were backed up with examples but others were admitted to be really a reflection of a lack of organisational confidence than actual management blocks. What was clear in the debate was the continued patchiness of the understanding of social media and inconsistent integration of this with management practice. This relates to the customer point above so will probably get its own separate blog post at some point.

This point about confidence connected us to the meat of the debate because the group did recognise a number of issues and discussed ways in which communications did act as a block for good and bad reasons:

  • The lack of a business case for lack of a better word: No amount of social media evangelism will convince some people and this is not necessarily a bad thing. As the use of social media becomes more and more established within organisations then the benefits should become increasingly well understood. More innovative uses will always require something of a leap of faith but were we are replicating good practice from other places the evidence should be there.
  • The lack of resource: This really boils down to the finite limits of resource in local government and indeed all parts of the public sector and a need to acknowledge that at some point adding something new will require stopping something old. This relates to the point about confidence and evidence – are we ready to stop resources flowing to something else in favour of them flowing towards social media?s
  • Vanity publishing requests: Many of the practitioners in the room rolled their eyes at the number of times they had been asked to support vanity publishing from individuals rather than something that required communication support. In my mind this connects to the Networked Councillor work and how we help Members really get to grips with social media systematically
  • Pace / Demand: There were some real concerns voiced about letting the genie out of the bottle – once a social media projects established then it has the potential to become a resource drain. It was generally agreed that this wasn’t a good reason not to do something but is a realistic response to resource constraint. The response to this was discussed as a combination of thinking about what to remove at the same time as adding new work but more radically to consider service redesign to incorporate social media and digital technologies. This is the point at which the group entered something of a loop – see below
  • Inertia: In some cases it was acknowledged that it was simple inertia and a lack of desire/need to change that was slowing up adoption
  • Loss of control: Loss of control wasn’t simply a concern about content, it was also a concern about resource (see above), process and also I think a fear of the unknown of embarking on projects in an environment that changes rapidly and unexpectedly

The final point raised in terms of objectives was the absence of a home or a specific brief for social media. In a number of cases there was no specific named responsibility for social media within the organisation. This was acknowledged as something which could be seen both positively or negatively but it was clear that at a certain point of adoption lack of clarity about ownership of social media meant that it was difficult to overcome blocks and problems as there was no obvious authority to appeal to.

Having been through the ways in which projects get blocked we turned to discussing ways to address this and move things forward.

The service redesign loop mentioned above was a big part of this discussion – it was acknowledged that at some point social media (and other digital networked technologies) would need to be ‘mainstreamed’ but there were concerns about colleagues skills and ability to take these on. This is a tricky one – clearly there are professional communications folks have skills and experience which is not necessarily going to be present outside of those teams. However it can also be argued that communications is not all about the professional practice and that social media is closer to the skill level needed to communicate in any job rather than tied up in a profession. The question is how to break the impasse and my personal view is that this needs strong leadership and a commitment to co-design of services involving all relevant groups inside and outside of the organisation. So much of this is about going beyond framing social media as just another communication channel. In accepting is ability to drive wider behavioural and process change we need to also accept that its more complete scope is beyond the remit of just the communications teams.

That being said, there was a well argued challenge from the group asking what are the other professions are doing to address the increased use of social media and its effect on their professional practice? There seems to be a gap with respect to professional frameworks and impacts, for example, on what it means to carry out planning consultations in a digital networked society, that leaves the communications teams currently filling a gap in other practitioners professional standards. I’d like to have a discussion about this at the next LocalGovCamp if anyone is interested.

Beyond what was discussed as the current state of play, looking forward social media clearly creates some interesting challenges /questions specifically for communications specialists and we only started to pose rather than answer these:

  • How do we create a robust evidence base that means we don’t have to keep having the same discussions again and again?
  • Should everyone be responsible for reputation management?
  • What does a multi voice brand look like?
  • How do we ensure that all staff share the organisational values and understand that our brand is our message

These questions require us to look beyond the immediate and horizon scan to some extent – to be more confident in our approach to social media in order to explore the opportunities rather than simply focusing on the risks.

We didn’t have time to poke these questions in much detail so I hope to come back to them again (perhaps next year!) but I think it was interesting how difficult it will be to take these next steps without some kind of organisational debate about the nature of the relationship that it wants with the public and also the role which elected representatives will play in this.

Interestingly the group concluded that as communication experts their role may well develop into becoming the voice of the public – a switch from talking to listening and while this conclusion is I think evidenced from the discussion I think it needs to be considered alongside the role of the elected representative in this mix. This connection is perhaps a result of the parallel networked councillor work which has been occupying my thinking recently.

The most fundamental question for organisations might turn out to be a discussion about how open they want to be with the public and whether their goals are simply communication or a more fundamental shift towards collaboration or co-production.

What is the point?
I think the discussion was valuable for those of us there and hopefully this write up is useful. As ever with a good session there are more questions than answers but that perhaps reflects the fact that the group were very much focused on the future. I think we have to conclude that communications are often blockers to social media activity but that they have good as well as bad reasons for acting this way. As the use of social media becomes more entrenched then I would speculate that this will become increasingly a question of organisational leadership rather than any specific practitioner groups and that it will be important to start discussing where that leadership should come from. If we want to start to see social media operating outside of comms then arguably that leadership needs to be external as well.  The question of being good organisational customers of digital projects will perhaps be the next challenge we have to collectively face in taking some of the excellent best practice we see around us into more mainstream use and out of the ambit of a single team.

Please shout if you were there and disagree with my conclusions here!


  1. Andrew Fisher

    May 6, 2013 at 10:01 am

    An interesting and accurate read. From a policing perspective there is are clear inconsistencies. Risk is a big issue and there are organisations unwilling to devolve the use of social media to the front line for fear of reputation damage. The lack of leadership at a strategic level (ACPO and Force) is not helping this issue. Coupled with the fact that policing often uses SM to tell (communicate) rather than listen (engage) is failing to maximise potential. Like many police related issues, SM comes to the fore in times of crisis. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the flexibility of SM and how it can support organisation mission as well as style. There has to be a role for The College of Policing as part of their ‘evidence based learning’ process.

  2. tomsprints

    May 6, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    The truth is that in many local authorities, “comms” have appeared to be the blockers, but the reasons will vary. There is one possible constant, however. Anyone who has ever worked close to local authority politics and politicians will know that they are much of the time quite paranoid about matters of reputation. Almost every comms team will at some time have had to deal with the vexed issue of whether they are the comms team for the local authority or the comms team for the ruling political party. I have seen this managed in several ways, though most often just by the ruse of the same people writing press releases etc to be issued on different headed paper.

    Social media was seen (falsely in my view) as a challenge to the relationship between politicians and the media team in the local authority, and seen as a way that reputation could be damaged, without the comms team having become involved as a filter in any way. I say “falsely” because they never, of course, monitored or edited e-mails, telephone calls or letters. It was seen as taking comms into an area where, unlike with press releases to newspapers, rebuttals and comment would be pretty instant. Which politician like his spin to be challenged at all, much less almost by return?

    The compromise tends to have been that comms people set themselves up, with or without HR involvement, as arbiters of who could or could not be permitted to use social media. Typically, a person, team or function would need to prove to the satisfaction off the comms team that they had an audience relevant to social media use, and that they were competent to handle those interactions – as if that wasn’t, in most cases, what they had been doing for years. Such regimes live under various names and guises, as “permission-based” systems. By creating hoops to be jumped thorough and retaining an occasionally tourniquet-like finger on the pulse, it is little wonder that in many places, comms teams gained a reputation for looking like blockers.

  3. Pingback: Are Comms the social media blockers? – In praise of Catherine Howe | A dragon's best friend |

  4. Dan Slee

    May 19, 2013 at 7:32 am

    Excellent stuff, Catherine.

    Picking up on Tom’s point about hoops to be jumped through. Personally, I’ve not problem with hoops to be jumped through. We jump through a hoop to get an email address or a phone set-up. We don’t get, like, really cross at people about this. Those hoops are there partly to see if there’s a use of those channels.

    Rather than go on a rant about what irritates me personally about comms blocking – and there is lots – here’s a list of what there should be:

    1) Comms should put its hand up and say they’ll be responsible for this social media stuff for the organisation. But they’ll share the sweets. They’ll let others play. They’ll hold the door open wherever they can.

    2) There should be one individual in an organisation who puts their hand up and says ‘I’ll be responsible for the digital communications.’ That’s training, supporting, approving, the big picture stuff and horizon scanning. I’ve heard the line that if you have one of these everyone will chuck their stuff to them and they’ll be the one doing it. The line goes that this should everyone’s responsibility. I agree. It should. In theory. But in practice I’ve been at many water coolers in local government and not many people are getting really excited about a barcamp they’ve just been to, Google hangouts and some kind of data visualisation tool. Most people are not geeks so you need a Chief Geek to find out what’s possible.

    3) You also need some kind of internal informal network to share best practice, ideas and support. So it’s also about horizontal stuff not just top down edicts from the council’s social media champ.

    All of this is perfectly do-able given the right conditions.


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