Back to the future?

On Friday my wife Eileen and I are off to the the Lowry to see Alexei Sayle.   Of course, Sayle was one of the new generation of politically correct “Alternative” comedians who came to prominence in the 1980s.

Which makes me wonder how much has changed since then?  In the 1980s we had a Conservative Government that was widely viewed as being out of touch with ordinary people. We also had an inexperienced Labour leader thought by many on his own side to be unelectable. So, no change there then!

What has certainly changed beyond recognition over the last 30 years is the media landscape. Just think about how different things were in those days.   

  • In the early 1980s we had just four TV channels to choose from.  Channel Four was the new kid on the block and breakfast TV was a new and strange concept. ITV  then had a federal structure which allowed it to produce a wealth of strong regional programming for local audiences. Cable and satellite television was the stuff of science fiction.   
  • Commercial radio was still finding its feet and was restricted to one station per city.  The combative Brian Redhead dominated Radio Four’s flagship Today programme. The DJs at “Wonderful Radio One” ruled the airways and had a public profile that only Premiership footballers today can rival.    
  • National newspapers sold in their hundreds of thousands while just about every town and city had an evening newspaper. Weekly local papers also thrived. People actually bought newspapers; they didn’t pick them up for free on buses and trains.  
  • Personal computer usage in the 1980s was restricted to a few students playing Pac-man and space invaders. The internet, emails and social networking were simply unheard of, while mobile phones were the size and weight of a telephone directory.

In those days it was a fairly simple task for public sector communicators to select which media to use to reach their intended audiences. Today the plethora of media platforms makes that task more complex. It is unquestionably a good thing that we can now get our messages out there with greater immediacy. It is also much now easier to target specific demographic groups.

One of the downsides is that the media no longer shows the same interest in local government that it did in the good old days. Today poor circulation figures and declining ad revenues mean that most local papers are working with just a small staff and they don’t have the resources to attend Council meetings or to scrutinise agenda papers looking for stories.

 So what platforms should public bodies be using today to communicate effectively and promptly with their key audiences?

The answer in my view is to take a “pick and mix” approach. Local newspaper readership may be declining, but these publications still have kudos in the local community and you neglect them at your peril. Many people, not just youngsters, get their information from social networking sites. The important thing is to think about how your target audiences like to receive their news and then use these channels to deliver your message in a format which people can easily digest.

Alex Aiken, the Government’s Director of Communications, caused a stir recently when he declared the press release to be dead. I don’t believe that it is dead. Like the media, it has simply evolved.

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