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Is the digital team still needed in government communications?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Capability, Strategy

Graphic promoting the Modern Communications Operating Model,

Digital communications is constantly changing. From the steady introduction of new tools flooding the marketplace to studies on how new technologies change the way users consume information, communications professionals must ensure they remain at the forefront of the field.

As the head of the digital communications team, I have the challenge of ensuring the work that we do is relevant, effective and done well — all the time. And we’ve had to do this in an environment of constant change. We have been through a lot since I joined in late 2014: we are a smaller team, need to be more multi-skilled and flexible, and must be further integrated and embedded within the rest of the communications function. The GCS Modern Communications Operating Model (MCOM) makes this clear.

There is an unspoken fear from a lot of my colleagues in government about the state of the ‘traditional’ digital communications team. Some say our very existence is under threat because of the MCOM model. I have to say I disagree — the model is actually a catalyst for digital to play centre stage in government communications.

An opportunity, not a threat

Here are my 3 main thoughts on why I think the MCOM model is an opportunity, rather than a threat to digital communications teams:

1. You have an even more important role to play in getting your organisation to be more digital

The days where anything digital is done exclusively by the digital team is a thing of the past. Organisations need to use digital tools and commit to digital upskilling to be more effective in their work. Officials should have online listening as part of their policy-making toolkit, press officers should be using social media to engage with journalists, and marketing teams should be creating content for online channels to communicate campaign messages.

At BIS, we’ve:

  • been running ‘Digital in your day job’ sessions to colleagues across the department to facilitate open policy making
  • provided desk by desk training for press officers on online listening and content creation
  • supported marketing teams in ensuring campaign microsites meet users’ needs

We have made it our responsibility to raise the digital capability of the department. That’s why it’s been a major victory for the team when we secured senior endorsement of the Digital Capability Plan, our ambitious strategy to make BIS the most digital department in Whitehall.

But we have a lot more work to do. There are still colleagues who we need to convince about the benefits of online listening, how important engaging with stakeholders on social media is, and what digital channels are best to communicate specific messages. This is an ongoing challenge for all digital teams in government and will continue to be our priority in BIS this year.

2. You must widen your networks to be a true instrument of change and influence in your organisation

Networking with other digital and communications colleagues in government is a fantastic way to share best practice, learn what works and what doesn’t, and to pool resources and expertise. But as communicators we should go beyond what we know, what’s familiar.

Economist Theodore Levitt once said,

Creativity is thinking up new things. Innovation is doing new things.

If you only surround yourselves with those of similar backgrounds to you, you will only to do the same things, perhaps in a slightly different way. In a democratised and often devolved digital organisation, digital communications teams should more than just creative — we should be continuously innovating, creating and experimenting.

We should get involved in groups, attend conferences and subscribe to blogs outside of government — whether that’s being active on groups on LinkedIn or attending conferences and events organised by established thought leaders. I belong to J. Boye’s Digital Communications Group, where I learn about the latest digital marketing trends and get to hear about case studies on digital communications from professionals in the pharmaceutical, higher education, banking and charity sectors — information I would never have had access to otherwise. I also attend evening networking events and participate in free webinars to top up my skills and I encourage my team to seek the same opportunities. In turn they have brought back knowledge they have gathered from leading digital companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Google which we are now using in our everyday work.

To be truly effective in digital, you should have a natural curiosity and interest in technology and emerging trends in communications — beyond the hours of 9am to 5pm, and invest the time to learn new skills and interact with other digital professionals. The more we learn from those outside government, the more wide-ranging our advice will be to fellow communications colleagues, our peers across government — even to ministers.

3. Your team’s role is changing yet at the same time, it isn’t

Now that digital is more democratised and a shared skill across the organisation, some question the value of a digital team. Others argue it’s a redundant function — that digital is embedded and therefore ubiquitous and can be done by anyone. My experience tells me otherwise.

While CMS systems allow non-technical colleagues to publish content online without knowing the programming language behind a website, it takes skill to write in plain English or understand how the written word can be found by search engines. Anyone can be given access to Google Analytics, but it takes deep understanding of user journeys to make meaning behind the numbers, and provide the right recommendations to improve campaign goals. There may be free tools to create infographics, but it takes a good design eye to ensure the content communicates messages powerfully.

The trend I’m seeing is that digital is going back to its roots — as a group of professionals with the experience, skill, and specialist expertise to be able to provide the best advice, set and implement the highest standards and best practice in digital communications, and understand the barriers our colleagues face and help them overcome these.

As digital communications professionals, our challenge is to seek out and learn about the latest digital innovations, continue to test and experiment with emerging tools, and continuously evaluate our work — and use this knowledge to equip and empower our organisation to be more digital. This is where we can bring the true value of digital to life.

What trends are you finding in your area of work? Do share your thoughts by commenting below.

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