Future Shock: How does communications adapt to survive?

Picture via Wikimedia CommonsThe communications profession is locked in an existential crisis of what it calls itself, what it’s for and what it needs to be.

Comms soothsayers are asking whether PR is dead, or if traditional disciplines of public relations, marketing and advertising are converging (together with digital, customer services, data, insight and research, engagement and consultation, you name it).

This is driven by technology – web, smartphones, data and social media – but other factors, too – social, political, economical and cultural. The old certainties have evaporated and we exist in a new chaos that can feel both terrifying and thrilling at the same time.

All this PR philosophising can feel pretty self-absorbed and navel-gazing. Who really cares anyway? But for the inquisitive communicator it’s also hard to resist. I’m finding myself consumed by Big Questions about why we as comms professionals are here.

Of course, the scary elephant in the room question is would we be missed if we weren’t? This hit me like a brick when I heard Dave Briggs say it at last year’s Commscamp unconference for public sector PR and digital people.

I remember it seeming to stun the room into a momentary realisation of their own professional mortality. People were dumbstruck. ‘What if he’s right?’

Are we really necessary? It’s a question we need to ask ourselves – and those we’re here to serve. PR people have a tendency to be convinced of their own indispensibility but complain that bosses don’t always share their view or ‘get’ what they do.

But rather than from a starting point of self-preservation (‘how does comms change so that it is still relevant and needed?’) we should start with asking ‘what do our customers need?’ and then ‘How can communications help?’.

The challenge for comms is to properly measure and then show how it provides good and added value by achieving real outcomes. In other words, how it changes things and gets things done – not just how it makes you look, gets you in or keeps you out of the media.

I don’t for a second believe that organisations no longer need comms specialists. Neither do I agree with Robert Phillips‘ attention-grabbing assertion that PR is Dead – and am not 100% convinced he does. Rather, I agree with his proposed cure but not his diagnosis. Or make that patient.

It’s not public relations as a profession (and I’d dispute his view that it is not one) that is dead. It’s that the old ‘PR’ (pee-arr) of spin, bullshit, obfuscation, message management and media relations is dead. Public relations has already moved on. It’s just not moving fast enough – at least not in all places at the same pace.

What we need now is what Phillips calls progressive communications.

This is one area where I feel the UK public sector is ahead of the corporate private sector. It’s central government that’s leading the way through the drive for perpetual improvement, transformation and measurement of the Government Commuications Service (GCS).

The GCS has just published a new document, The Future of Public Sector Communications, a project which shaped the thinking behind the new Government Communications Plan.

The executive summary includes some pretty stark headlines that public sector communicators should sit up and take note of – or at least engage with and debate:

  • The pace of technological change will only quicken
  • Public service communications must adapt or become obsolete
  • Future communications will be about science, not art

It would be Luddite or deluded to contest the first two. But I disagree with the third – we can and should have both. At least in terms of the content we create and share we need beauty as well as information; emotions as well as pure usefulness.

The paper echoes some of Phillips’ thinking around a new model of Public Leadership (‘activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first’), such as that ‘communication must be built around the citizen’ and ‘build a network of third party groups to amplify messages.’

Local public service communicators need to follow this lead and set their own, if they are not already. Sadly, I fear we lag behind. But we shouldn’t. What local government does and the role it plays in people’s everyday lives – from housing to road safety, social care to waste management, child safeguarding to environmental protection – is too important for that.

I would dearly love to see a ‘Local’ Government Communications Service, with a shared set of performance standards, evaluation frameworks and a programme for continuous professional development, challenge and innovation.

There are pockets of great work but our communities deserve the best to be spread around and shared. While areas differ geographically and demographically, councils up and down the land largely do the same things and run the same kinds of campaigns to achieve the same broad objectives. We’re not in competition, so let’s encourage each other and share the best of what we do.

I plan to come back to how I think local government communications, specifically, needs to radically change to adapt to this new chaos.

Self-enquiry and criticism is right and necessary for innovation and change. But, sometimes I also wish we’d just get over ourselves, shut up and get on with doing it. Don’t you?

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