what should the blogger - press officer relationship look like?

by Dan Slee

So what should the press officer vs blogger relationship look like in 2012? Feisty? Full of bile? Or just a bit more mature?

In 2009 at the stormy Talk About Local's TAL09 in Stoke-on-Trent I couldn't finish a sentence in a room full of hyperlocal bloggers without a barrage of hostility.

In 2010, at Hyper WM in Walsall it kicked off when the topic was tackled at a packed session. But some beginings of common understanding emerged.

In 2012 the latest bout of this question was at TAL12 in Birmingham organised by Talk About Local and attended by hyperlocal news gatherers across Britain. 

What's a hyperlocal blog? It’s a news site set up with free web tools for a village, a town or even an estate. There's a wikipedia definition here.

The Thriller in Manilla? Nope. This was the Scrum in Brum. But amazingly, there was none of the falling out of previous occasions. That's not to say there's some big differences knocking around between the parties.

There still are. But the session drew more common ground than expected.

It feels like we're moving in some quarters to a more mature relationship.

Councils have a job to do.

So do hyperlocal bloggers.

Sometimes both sides will fall out.

But like next door neighbours forced to share the same landing there's now more of a tactical acknowledgement of each other.

For local government press officers, to ignore a hyperlocal blog on their patch is as silly as ignoring a radio station, a residents' group or a newspaper. They're one of many places where people get news.

Trouble can sometimes bring silver linings. In Wolverhampton, the council resolutely ignored their bloggers until riots came and they saw the value of extra channels who were often suprisingly busy and supportive. The WV11 blog Facebook page drew an audience of 200,000 in seven days as they shot down rumours with the help of police.

Today, Wolverhampton City Council's digital comms is something to aspire to and hats off to them for taking the leap. 

Here's 15 things that struck me on the blogger - press officer relationship:

1. Hyperlocal bloggers have a place in the media landscape. That's not going to change. Newspapers are closing. There are fewer journalists about. There are less editorial staff with the time to devote to Parish pump news or cover council meetings. But there is still a desire to see such issues covered.

2. Hyperlocal bloggers have better technology. Many councils are hampered by corporate IT systems and can't turn information around as fast as technology enables them. The local government website that only updates twice a day exists. 

3. Putting a blogger on a mailing list is just a start. Sure, bloggers will be keen to see what the council is saying. Plugging bloggers into the loop may help explode a few rumours, for starters. But the press release is tailored for the press. Not the web. Comms teams need to re-think how they tell their story. It's something Adrian Short has covered before.

4. There needs to be tailored content. The embeddable YouTube clip or the Audioboo may be part of the solution. But actually, wouldn't it be an idea to see what bloggers actually want by surveying them?

5. Spin died a long time ago. It's an increasingly mythical half brick to throw at press officers. As a journalist covering by-elections in the late 90s I saw spin at first hand and in full effect demonstrated by party political press officers. Glance at the output of most local government press teams centres around a fair chunk of promoting leisure activities like concerts and events. It's not the West Wing.

6. Should press officers speak to anonymous bloggers? It was interesting to hear that bloggers at TAL 12 themselves believe that local government should be open and accountable. So should they be, they accept, if they get things wrong. Most press officers can live with criticism of their organisation if it's accurate. They won't if it's not. 

7. A telephone number and an email address can establish a blogger's credentials. Most inaccuracies between a press officer and reporter are resolved with a one-to-one chat. It's an issue based on personal capital. There's give and take. That's something the TAL 12 recognised should happen with hyperlocal bloggers too.

8. A hyperlocal bloggers should shout LOUDLY about their webstats. Numbers convince comms people. We like to tell a story to as many people as possible. If the Ventnor Blog is getting 45,000 unique users a month - a staggering figure - it should be on the masthead and emailed to a whole range of people every week along with some links including councillors and press officers. Shout about it. It also helps comms people appreciate the changing landscape.

9. A Hyperlocal Alliance may help build credibility. But it might not. The new venture by the highly respected and excellent Philip John of Lichfield Live sees a coming together of bloggers and a code to aspire to. Personally, I'd be tempted to see that as a way of building credibility. But I can see the counter argument that one rogue bad apple could spoil it for others. 

10. Hyperlocal bloggers could do with a back channel and a policy for complaints. It's a way to build relationships and to avoid needless public spats. That's not to say public spats won't still happen. If the Oatcake fanzine put together by Stoke City supporters prints a phone number and an email address and has done since 1988 that's something to aspire to.

11. Not all hyperlocal blogs are good. There are some belters across the country. Some are pretty hopeless. Just because one on your patch isn’t much cop don’t think they’ll all be that way.  

12. Metadata will be the comms person's best friend. What's metadata? It's searchable tags added when an item is posted online. They help people search for items via search engines and on your site. Post some content about Oxdown Primary school in Oxdown getting a new classroom? Add the tags Oxdown, Oxdown Primary, education, schools, classroom, Cllr Biggs and the Oxdown West ward. Two minutes of tagging can lead to thousands more people finding it. We need to do this with press office content first. But also on committee papers issued by the authority. Planning applications too.

13. Comms people need digital press offices. If we need metadata and tags we need channels that can cope with this. That often means a microsite. Kudos to places like Birmingham City Council and Shropshire Council for building bespoke online press centres. That's where we all seed to go (see point 12 'metadata' and 2 'bloggers have better technology.'

14. Bloggers won't react like a journalist to a complaint. Of all the areas that worry me the one area where we haven't really got a handle on - on either side - is the complaint. In short, this is the time when someone writes something inaccurate. But I can't help thinking the way round it is the same way that it is with reporters and press officers. It's personal relationships and when there is no relationship it can easily turn sour.

15. The war is over. The debate about whether or not local government press officers should talk to hyperlocal blogs is long finished. It's more a debate about how both sides talk to each other.

Useful links

Talk About Local. A website for the network that supports hyperlocal blogs.

Openly Local. A searchable register of blogs.

Dead badgers and council press officers. A 2010 blog by Mike Rawlins of Pits n Pots on the blogger - press officer relationship.

A policy on journalists and bloggers by Wolverhampton Homes

Audioboo with Nick Booth of Podnosh and Kate Hughes of Wolverhampton Homes on hyperlocal bloggers.

Some examples of hyperlocal blogs

The Ventnor Blog serving the Isle of Wight.

WV11.co.uk serves the Wednesfield area of Wolverhampton.

The Bloxwich Telegraph covers Bloxwich in Walsall.

Pits n Pots covers Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire.

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