Monday, May 16, 2016

Digital skills now essential across most government communications roles

Back in 2009 I predicted that government communications professionals only had about 10 years to gain social media skills or become unemployable.

At the time I received quite a bit of scoffing and pushback from senior communications professionals in government. They believed that digital wouldn't grow very fast and would remain a minor component in agency communications. I was told that I was "overblowing the value of social to government" and that their non-digital skills would remain valued for decades into the future.

I reiterated my prediction in 2014 - giving government communications professionals only five more years and broadening the prediction to digital communications skills.

This time the pushback was a lot less, though I still received comments from a few communications specialists. They told me that digital would remain a specialist area and that there would continue to be places across government for professional communicators who neither touched nor understood digital channels.

Recently I've been speaking with several recruiters in the government communications space and they're telling me my prediction was wrong - the change has happened faster than I had predicted.

They've told me that senior communications roles that don't require an understanding of digital or how to integrate digital with traditional communications channels in strategic ways, are now rare.

While digital specialists are still often grouped together in a specific 'Online' or 'Digital' team as a vertical area in communications, an understanding of digital is essential across all government communications officers - whether senior or junior.

As such I'm now calling it on this prediction - I was right about digital becoming an essential skill for communicators, but wrong about the timeframe, being too conservative in how long it would take agencies to embed digital at the heart of their communications. Rather than ten years, it took seven.

This clears the field for me to make a few new predictions.

For example, how long until other government professionals need to have strong digital skills to remain employable. For example I give HR officers two years, policy officers five years at most.

I also expect to see the slow death of dedicated Digital or Online Communications teams. These teams were originally created because digital was 'foreign' to most communicators. These teams required specialist skills and knowledge and, when originally created, worked at a different tempo to traditional communications teams.

However as digital skills become both universally held and required, Digital communication teams become unwanted bottlenecks, as they are split serving every other Comms team in an agency.

Also these teams remain unusual in that they are organised around a channel (online or digital) rather than around a functional goal - such as Corporate, Campaign or Internal communications. We saw the death of 'Television' and 'Radio' teams decades ago (yes they really existed). Even 'Print Publications' teams have disappeared in many agencies.

Therefore I expect to see the number of Digital communication teams slowly fall over the next ten years. They will be reabsorbed back into functional communications teams who now all possess the skills and knowledge that formerly was the domain of a few. Some specialist 'digital' roles will remain, but these will be connected to function, not channel - such as Engagement, Production, Analytics and Design.

So what does this mean if you are a digital communications specialist in government?

In my view you will have two choices.

Either become a hyperspecialist in a particular area of digital, such as analytics, engagement or crisis management, where specialist skills and experience will continue to be valued. You may end up becoming a freelancer, consultant or contractor, providing your expertise on-demand to agencies and other organisations where needed, or retain a role at a larger agency with limited opportunities for growth without stepping beyond your specialisation.

Or broaden your skills to become a strategic communications generalist, who can work across all communications mediums with a high degree of expertise and skill. These are the people who will be promoted in agencies and attract the best contracting and consulting rates, but there will be fierce competition as communications professionals from backgrounds other than digital compete for the same roles.

Time will tell if my new predictions are accurate, or if these changes occur faster or slower than I expect. What you can be sure of is that the communications landscape will continue to change.

Building skill in new mediums and platforms will not be wasted effort. Whereas standing still in the face of rapid change is always a risky proposition.

No comments:

Post a Comment