Specialist or generalist? Digital comms in 2012

Ann Kempster kicked off a really interesting debate over on her blog this week with a post titled And or neither nor: press and digital in 2012 [to be fair the title is the only clumsy bit of the piece!].

The post and the comments [so nice to see comments really being used to expand on the topic – seems so rare these days!] discuss how best to integrate digital into an active press team and whether we have reached the point yet where digital skills are just part and parcel of the job or is there still a role for specialists taking care of that side of things.

In this age of ‘digital by default’ it is an interesting topic and there really are some insightful comments covering all sides of the debate. The role of the Press Office in Departments and local government is clearly well established and was already challenging in a pre-digital age so there is some reluctance in some quarters it seems to take on this extra responsibility – even if it is becoming harder and harder to ignore.

In my little corner of NDPB-land it all tends to have a slightly different tone. The largest Press team I have ever worked with is three people (that is now) so I tend to always think in terms of Communications teams rather than just one [very busy] corner of things.

I was lucky enough to spend many years working for an organisation that was ‘digital by default’ years before Martha even considered dipping her toes into civil servant infested waters and have also worked in teams where ‘digital’ & in particular social media was seen as something of a fad that got in the way and would blow over. I know which one I preferred 🙂

The very nature of JISC [at the time] meant we were encouraged to experiment and the team embraced a pretty strong ‘digital first’ ethos across the board. I was very much a cheerleader for the possibilities of social media at the time but the way it got embedded into so many aspects of communications back then and then evolved over the years into the amazing portfolio of outputs they have today had nothing to do with me and everything to do with a team of people willing to take a bit of a leap and challenge the traditional boundaries of their roles.

Currently I find myself for an organisation slowly starting to engage more through digital and we are doing it in an integrated way. It isn’t my little digital team leading the charge – we are supportive and making sure guidance, tools and platforms are available to use – rather the drive is coming from editorial and policy people. It can be slow going as by nature we are a risk averse organisation but I think the fact it isn’t my lone voice calling for change has made the case stronger. The fact we are far from an early adopter also means lessons are there to be learned from and as always I’m thankful by how willing people are to share those lessons.

I guess what I am getting at is that where I have seen it work best is where thinking about digital isn’t the preserve of one or two people but rather is spread amongst the majority and the web/digital team does what it can to facilitate this and make sure getting on-board is as frictionless as possible.


This takes time – even in smaller organisations – and it is important to remain patient, identify supporters and pick your battles. The recent BIS Digital Day was an inspired idea for spreading the digital world and encouraging people throughout the organisation to think about digital in a different context. With the work from GDS filtering through to the bosses and initiatives like that at BIS empowering the ‘grassroots’ then the cultural changes many of us have sought for so long finally have a chance..


4 responses to “Specialist or generalist? Digital comms in 2012”

  1. its not like I can really type at the best of times 🙂 Just can’t get left hand near the keyboard without the cast mashing all the keys!

  2. Nice insight Matt, and thank you for the reference to our Digital Day. I think you make an important point about time. I don’t think change can happen overnight – for some individuals and teams it may well do, and that’s great, but if it doesn’t then there’s a role for all of us in digital teams to manage that transition and facilitate skills development and enthusiasm – to generate that will require different approaches for different people.

  3. I used to find the pace of change very frustrating when it came to digital in the public sector as I saw it making an impact everywhere else – I even left for a bit and joined a start-up – but these days I’m all about ‘baby steps’. It is about building momentum and capacity these days I think – for me anyway.

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