The declining fortunes of local media represents an unprecedented opportunity for local governments to step into the breach, set up a DIY Newsroom approach and go direct to residents with their message.
Today I learned of another “restructure” at one of Australia’s largest media chains, which is code for more staff redundancies and the lay-off of more journalists.
This spells another grim chapter for an already distressed traditional media.
In the regions, newspapers have greatly reduced the number of editorial staff, their circulation has plummeted and that has meant they have had to try to do more with less. The regional TV landscape is not pretty either.
When I was editor of a large regional daily newspaper several years ago, I had a staff of 80 full-time editorial employees. Today, there are less than 30 editorial staff.
Council insiders tell me that shrinking local media is making it harder for council messages to be heard.
Or, is it actually councils’ best-ever opportunity to engage with residents and ratepayers in new and profound ways by setting up a true DIY Newsroom?
That is right: if they were SMART, councils would see themselves as the primary destination and distributor of compelling, useful and relevant content for their local government constituents.
Despite the contribution local government makes to the public good, this is not reciprocated by a commensurate amount of public goodwill.
A few factors prevent councils from communicating to the level that occurs in the corporate sector.
One is the complexity of doing battle in the communications field. Yes, there are plenty more platforms and tools today but that has resulted in a cacophony of communications. Much of what comms teams do, unfortunately, is not targeted where it ought to be and hence communication efforts fall on deaf ears.
Also, resources is given as a reason why civic communications are not as sharp as they could be.
And one of the most limiting factors is how the council hierarchy can nobble best intentions. Council administrations and certainly their political arms, the elected councils, are notorious for subscribing to the “no news is good news” school of communications. This does not cut it today and represents a huge lost measurable opportunity.
The net impact is most of the great work that councils do never sees the light of day, with comms teams only empowered to distribute the dull and mundane.
So, despite the tremendous contribution that local government makes to the public good, this is not reciprocated by the generation of a commensurate amount of public goodwill.
This can be seen in the lack of trust some residents have in the system. On a grander scale, we see it as a lack of confidence we have as a society in government in general and in other institutions too. We have seen this play out in the most surreal way in American politics.
Can communications build a bridge to enhancing your position in the community? Heck, yeah.
But it takes a considered approach, a strong mandate given from the top of the organisation, and persistence at an operational level.
How do you go about this?
Well, here are five tips for starting out. I have drawn them from our SMART methodology (Strategy, Media, Action, Result, Team). There's additional tips summarised in the slide deck I embedded above:
At the most practical level, this means …
For you content jedis, that is video, mobile, data and SEO. Knowing the lie of the land today and looking to the horizon is critical to making informed decisions about how to best serve existing and potential audiences.
3. Create amazing content
Every local government area has an endless supply of story opportunities. When we go in to audit what content is available, our clients are surprised. Actually, amazed. And the golden rule: repurpose every piece of content for maximum impact.
4. Nurture content communities
This is about developing a close relationship with your community and micro-communities, which can be done smartly by following best-practice content distribution.
As an example, consider council-maintained gardens. How could you create a content community (newsletters, sharing of images across social media, promotion of events) around those council assets? Do that successfully and you have an instant new relationship with a group of residents that you might rarely engage with otherwise.
5. Be authentic
Yep, real news. If you want to step into the local news space, you need to build trust with your audience by producing compelling, relevant and useful information - not just spin for the mayor’s political purposes.
Relevancy is key. I am not suggesting for a moment that council comms staff start chasing ambulances. But think about council issues that have an impact on people’s lives.
Councils can be prone to taking a hands-off approach to controversial subject areas or only drop-in from time-to-time with official statements. Hey, next time, what about promoting that burning issue of the day, fostering or hosting the debate, and providing accurate information where required? Make the council news space a true village square. I dare you.
By setting up newsroom environments, councils can consistently better serve their citizens and masters, and make a real difference in their backyard.
AFL Media, based in Melbourne, is a perfect example of an organisation taking the principles and practices of a modern newsroom and applying them in a corporate and community sense. The AFL’s website has become a major source of news about the game -- during the footy season it is the number one sports website in Australia -- and has created its own content community. Not too long ago, everyone else ran the conversation for the sport.
But you do not have the resources of the AFL? That is true, but in a SMART way you can get results like never before and from within your capacity.
There are other moving parts to setting up a DIY Newsroom.
A key one is settling on your weapons of mass communication - that is, your content ecosystem. How will you deploy Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn for maximum impact? What is the place of print in your communications? Your website? One of the greatest but underused channels in local government is email newsletters.
I could have mentioned dashboards, content calendars, the rise and rise of mobile, technology solutions and the X-factor - the people who make all this stuff work. Suffice to say, if you just start thinking and acting like a newsroom, results will follow.
The media disruption occurring across the planet is disconcerting, particularly at a grassroots, community level where people are creatures of habit. As a long-time editor of numerous community titles, it pains me to see what has happened.
But councils are in a unique position to fill that void. By strategically and consistently providing a weekly diet of news and information, they will better serve their citizens and masters, and make a real difference in their backyard.
So who is game?
Stuart Howie is a Canberra-based communications consultant. He has worked with organisations, private and public, in Australia and New Zealand, helping them to discover, shape and tell their stories. He is the author of The DIY Newsroom, which won Social Media Book of the Year at the Australian Business Book Awards. Stuart has worked in media, publishing and communications for more than 30 years as an executive, editor and strategist.