COMMS BLOG: Creating an organisation that’s digitally fit for purpose in 2021

This blog will be split into three useful parts; post-COVID recovery and the media landscape, best practice tips for a digital newsroom and questions to ask yourself before you procure media training for senior management, to ensure it fits the bigger picture.

First off, what has COVID taught you?

You can work from home, you can use Zoom competently and generally get the job done, but we miss our colleagues. Apart from the challenges of COVID meaning that the other 23 big risks to your business haven’t gone away, they’ve just been parked, how do things sit strategically with the organisation now?

Are you communicating more directly with your audiences better than ever, or have some of them been forgotten about in the maelstrom? The media landscape shifted in a way unimaginable just over a year ago, and as we know, crisis always creates opportunity.

Right now, COVID-recovery means thinking about how you address communications across the organisation in a post-COVID world. This period is a Zeitgeist for working arrangements, so perhaps alongside, it should accelerate a strategic mission to update, upgrade, upskill and digitalise your own communication methods.

My personal media experiment earlier in 2021, (to test my training methods during lockdown), provided radio and TV coverage on BBC and ITV news with a story of my own. The big takeaway was owning the story and shooting it all myself for both outlets, (see blog here:

In higher education, there’s much to reflect on in the last year and we advise that a lessons-learned exercise takes place in every institution. This included students claiming their unique experience for their, (often), first time living away from home, was robbed in favour of online learning: and we know from reports, it was a challenge for lecturers and students alike. 

Other issues with which universities have had to grapple, from rent fees, to security around accommodation, (some students being told to isolate, others being ‘fenced in’), how universities retain under-graduates, or communicate plans for managing mental wellbeing, while attracting foreign students to the UK, will be critical post-COVID.

It suggests there’s lots to do on the comms front, doesn’t it? Not sticking your head up above the proverbial parapet won’t influence any perceptions for the better, if you’re not part of the conversation. Especially after the year we’ve all had. I’d say the public will have higher expectations of our communications, because we’ve just done it for real in a crisis.

Ask yourself:

What conversations do we want to have?

How do we communicate during an incident?

What is this organisation trying to say?

Who’s best placed to say it and do I trust them to open their mouth?

Do we email press releases? Why?

When was the last time we filmed a piece for social or the mainstream media?

Have we ever used a ‘facebook live’ to reach customers/audiences?

Who else in the organisation tells our story best?

Trust and reputation are key drivers among CEOs in trying to further their strategic aims. How you reach out to people during the covid recovery will set the tone for your relationship in the coming years.

Creating a digital newsroom in 2021

You need to be planning now for proactive engagement for the months ahead if you aren’t already.

An awful lot of organisations are reactive and not proactive in their messaging, PR and media handling. It gives a sense that they’re hiding, not transparent and tends to result in them getting vilified by the public, customers and media when it suits those groups to do so, i.e., when service levels fall short, or an incident makes the media.

How can this be turned around strategically?

How do we get people to listen to our story?

What about press releases with our great internal stories?

Remember! ‘The media’ isn’t linear anymore. Guests literally ‘appear’ on the radio now as video content accompanies radio interviews, TV clips are used on radio, social and online, and newspapers/trade press demand Zoom recorded interviews to upload video clips to their websites. Media convergence has been the buzzword for a considerable time, but often, organisations still think in linear terms. Educate your SMT to move away from these old formats.

Tellingly, mainstream media outlets account for roughly half of the daily news mix. Ofcom’s latest news survey shows 45% of all adults get their news from social media, and while news outlets are all over social, it indicates where you should also be disseminating your messages – directly to your audiences and free from editing, filtering or ‘soundbite selection’.

So why are traditional PR approaches losing out? The problem is 9 out of 10 written press releases are deleted and consigned to junk. Again, many organisations have teams of comms professionals churning out press releases on stories that nobody really cares about. In the post-COVID zeitgeist, be honest internally about this. Make your stories people-relevant.

Some of your stories lend themselves better to a newspaper article, so written releases have a place. However, newspapers are digital organisations which need video content for online, therefore your written work should ideally be illustrated with the moving image. Film what’s going on and write about it. Or when posting a film on social, use the written press release to promote the film content.

What do you need to get set up as a digitally relevant organisation?

Firstly, you need an internal communications strategy that results in your frontline staff talking to your comms teams and feeding back great stories, experiences and case studies to pitch and celebrate. Or something that went wrong that you have fixed.

Next, you need to have comms/PR/marketing represented at SMT level for the strategic decision making, respected by the board and not an operational after-thought. If this isn’t the case, mark it down as an organisational risk issue. (seriously: top-down autocratic management from a comms perspective is dangerous. It’s no good having a CEO who says, “tell comms to put that out.”) Think about how your organisation functions and try to get some support from on-high to address it. Everyone needs to work smarter in a post-COVID world.

Pull together a communications plan with an adjoining crisis comms one for risk issues. Plot out what stories you’d like to be talking about over the rest of the year. Gain senior management buy-in. Now you can get a digital newsroom going with the executive jigsaw pieces in place to support it, and an internal staff communications set-up to feed your news machine.

Up-skilling / developing in-house skills

Ask yourself, do you have in-house digital skills to write, create, film, edit and distribute interesting content? If not, train and upskill appropriate team members to become video-journalists. It’s time to move your team away from only writing potentially passe press releases and into the world of video and audio content production and newsgathering. You are potentially missing so much opportunity without this capability.

Do you have senior people with expertise in the organisation that you’d like to use in telling the stories, presenting or narrating the films or leading a podcast? Great. But are they a bit verbose, a bit flat or don’t really get the media thing? Don’t worry, get them trained too: of course, we can help support all of this. 

Setting up and running your digital newsroom for external comms

Real-world media newsrooms have seen a huge decline in journalists and editors. Decision making power in news has shifted from human editors to algorithms, creating a new paradigm in what determines the news that people see online. The UK’s 300+ community radio stations have local impact, but are run with volunteers and few resources. They will happily take your audio in many circumstances.

Where people are still involved in selecting stories for publication, (and those diminishing journalists/editors are outnumbered by PR people in the UK by a radio of 4:1), it’s more important than ever to send crisp, usable copy with good quality pictures and video to make your story ‘sing’ in a multimedia/multi-platform environment. Yes, you’re right. You and your team need to do the journalist’s job for them!

Operationally, think about senior comms people managing the process of your own newsgathering function, in the way a news editor would. Have a monthly planning grid for the stories, releases, planned media interviews and plot how much is reactive and how much proactive.

The route to operating an effective digital newsroom of your own, is using a dual path approach.

Firstly, reactive: your media relations officers still working those relationships with journalists and accommodating interviews and mainstreams media appearances.

Secondly: your in-house digital team producing proactive content for a range of channels, including social. That may sound obvious, but the material can’t just be noise, celebration of staff achievements or ‘throwing mud at a wall’. Apply some news journalism principles gained from your past experience or from a media training seminar and make sure everything that goes out is relevant, timely and informative. 

You’ll soon see how proactive media directed at targeted audiences helps to shift perception and understanding about what you do and increases engagement. For example, NHS hospital trusts who were sending out educational video posts during lockdown on Facebook, saw huge levels of shares and engagement.

You can manage this whole process through media intelligence platforms such as Gorkana, there are others - I’m not endorsing any single one.

Crucially though, journalists like to have digital material that they can access swiftly without having to chase you. It’s another barrier to getting your story used, so make it easy for them. Have an out of hours/weekends spokesperson grid. Being available is critical for media interviews, especially during an incident. Use Mentor’s TRUTH test to check you have a story at all.

Even post-COVID, many interviews are likely to be done down-the-line, using Zoom and the like. Are your key spokespeople properly set up for this at home?

Do they have a professional looking, media-friendly corner of their home with a laptop at eye level? A pull up banner, (not fake digital background!), and well-lit area?

Some questions to consider

A few things you and the SMT might consider before booking any media training.

Latest Ofcom research shows 45% of adults get their news from social media, suggesting that owning the narrative with your own digital audio and video content should be part of the mix, when thinking about media training.

What’s the strategic purpose and end game in using our spokespeople?

Is it for a specific event or announcement of some findings?

How many people do you need trained? Is that for external mainstream media?

Now that many people work from home – is the organisation crisis resilient? Do you need to re-visit policies relating to risk issues management?

Most interviews during the pandemic are conducted remotely – are your spokespeople properly set up for this at home?

What about your really good talkers who don’t cope well under pressure in, say BBC interviews, but might be great on an in-house podcast, short video for social?

Are social videos and your other channels part of this strategy?

What about social media coaching for relevant parties to ensure a consistent tone of voice across all channels?

Finally, there’s a saying which goes: ‘If you do what you’ve always done – you’ll get what you’ve always got.’ 

Dave Mason

Mentor Training, 2021