Sunday, August 17, 2008

Spinning the Web

What does it take to run a modern government p.r. and media relations operation?

Ric Cantrell, chief deputy of the Utah state Senate, offered his take last month during a panel I moderated at the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual meeting in New Orleans. Ric spoke in detail about how emerging technologies are changing the way lawmakers in his state communicate with each other, with politically engaged citizens and, more than anything, with the media. From an always-on webcam in Senate President John Valentine's office to frequent Twitter "tweets" and mobile text messages sent during the legislative session, new tools are quickly replacing the traditional ways of reaching out.

Nothing told that story better than this somewhat blurry camera phone image of a white board in Ric's office, which shows a checklist that guided him and his staff when setting up news conferences....

You can click on the image above to enlarge it, but here's the full list, reprinted in order:

That's right: The venerable old news release is just a maybe -- and only after the event has already been blogged, text messaged, streamed and podcast.

Whether huge numbers of citizens or reporters are yet logging on for all of this online information is beside the point. Making legislative events and information available in so many formats is a step toward more accessible, on-demand government.

Ric's emphasis on transparency made me think about the Reichstag Building, home to Germany's parliament, or Bundestag. Lawmakers meet in the Berlin building's airy plenary chamber, with floor-to-celing windowed walls and a 70-foot high dome of glass and mirrors overheard (right). The Reichstag Building was closed as the country's parliamentary meeting place in 1933 by an arson blaze that gave the Nazi party its opportunity to suspend most civil liberties. Renovated and reopened in 1999, the Reichstag's new see-through halls of power are an intentional reminder of the importance of open deliberation and decision-making -- whether the public is paying attention or not.

Ric's work in Salt Lake City sends the same message to citizens and government leaders alike -- just by new means.

(Ric Cantrell was one of three speakers at our NCSL panel, "A New Life for Online Government." Here's the video of our 90-minute session in the Windows Media video format -- with an unfortunate audio glitch in the recording during the introductions. Ric speaks right after my extended intro. Following Ric's talk about p.r. 2.0, Alabama Homeland Security Director Jim Walker talked about his state's impressive "Virtual Alabama" project and TheSLAgency's Leigh Rowan spoke about public sector uses of virtual worlds, such as Second Life.)


Katie said...

Great post Mark! I'm interested in all these efforts by government to connect with constituencies using digital media. And thanks for linking the video. In the UK, the central government has created a digital swat team of strategists to advise their Central Office of Information (COI - which advises all the different government agencies)on integrating web, mobile and social media into their comms campaigns. Nick Jones, the director of interactives services at COI told the UK New Media Age this week ( "Social media for government is here, it's arrived, we know it can deliver value. But it's messy."

June Carter Peep said...

I agree and don't agree. Depends on what you're using the press release for. If you're announcing a press conference, no -- do it with email, blog, etc.

If you're summarizing an event or introduction of legislation, etc., the press release is a great way to reveal as many details as possible in an organized manner. I once had a boss who encouraged writing lengthly press releases with as much information because a lot of times that's the only thing reporters or staffers have time to look at.

Who has time to track down all the damn twitters and emails and blog entries associated with an event? Webcasts are great. But try reviewing them after the event is over. It's PAINFUL.

A PR also can serve as an historical document after the Webcasts expire or you redesign the blog. Incorporating the blog entries, twitters, Web clips etc with the PR in a package is probably the best course of action. The PR is not dead. It has just changed.

Mark said...

Katie: Funny you should mention the UK effort. I used the "Show Us a Better Way" initiative ( as an example in my opening remarks at that same NCSL panel. I described it as a government version of

And thank you for your comment, too, June. My Twitter post was probably more flippant or rhetorical than I meant it to be. I don't think news releases are dead -- although some of the poorly crafted and misdirected ones I get everyday make me wish they were. But it's interesting that the folks in Utah consider them a "maybe" now that they have other ways they think are more effective for getting their message out.

I think your point about the legacy value of news releases is very valid too. Archived releases often come in very handy in my reporting.