Imagine overseeing over 100 different Facebook pages and groups. Creating coherent digital footprint, instilling sense of cultural identity and executing digital communication strategy across different army forces, units and regiments. And doing all of this for UK’s Ministry of Defence.
Sounds challenging? Not when you talk to a catalyst, one that managed to overcome traditional ways of communicating and made British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air force one of the best government brands in digital space. When you talk to Pippa Norris.
Pippa Norris, Head of Online Engagement at UK’s Ministry of Defence has spent over 20 years in marketing and communications. After 10 years of high profile UK public sector digital campaigns, she joined MoD in 2006 to work on the British Army’s first digital communications strategy. Since 2007, Pippa runs MoD’s digital communications team and is responsible for strategic overview of social media channels and online engagement.
Pippa shared with us her thought and experience on…
…how it all began
It was an organic development. The absence of rules that said “you cannot use social media” meant there was scope to release pilot projects. The absence of having a social media strategy meant that that experimentation allowed us to try different channels, different techniques and ways of engaging with our audiences. Since then there has been a better awareness and understanding of why social media plays an important part.
…pitfalls to experimentation
The one thing Pippa wants to advocate is running small-scale pilots so that you are able to test techniques such as tone of voice, imagery, how you shape your content, how you promote it, identifying the kind of people who are going to be receptive of that, using research to back-up what you are doing, but also insuring that you use evaluation to learn from those pilots.
There have been couple of occasions when pilot projects at the British Army level or even MoD level just didn’t work, because the channel hasn’t had traction or we just needed to learn from the experience, but the risks are for you to calculate. For us, the risks were always reputational, information-risk, operational and personal security risks. But taking those into consideration I would say that we’re fairly sophisticated in how we operate now.
…integrated communications and picture-led content
For us, it’s very important to ensure that digital is truly integrated in everything that we do and starts right at the beginning of the planning process and right down to evaluation. There are many really good things out there. However, you need to consider what is it that you’re trying to achieve, establish your objectives, make sure it’s entirely integrated and then be very careful in how you understand and appreciate your audiences.
Pippa doesn’t advocate one over the other, in isolation, but she states that they must be used in concept with each other. MoD uses the big ones like Facebook, Twitter and blogs. She also predicts Pinterest is going to be really big and in fact anything that deals with pictures and videos. As we become more and more picture-led that there will be some wonderful opportunities to let the pictures tell the story.
…soldiers as bloggers
Pippa says blogging is entirely voluntary. It is by far much more effective to identify talented bloggers who like to tell stories, who like to be the journalists, and for them to have the privilege, an honor to do it, because for them it’s the joy… So the chances are you will get some really good consistent quality – material, but also the output will be more regular.
There is no greater way to tell a story than from a personal point of view because that’s where you get the greatest way of engagement, credibility and authenticity. It is much more exciting when the soldiers, sailors or the airmen who participated in particular operation talk about it from their own perspective – they were there so you can almost feel the grittiness of sand, taste the salt in the air – and that is by far the most powerful message for us.
…approach to content and engagement strategy
There are communicators from different areas of MoD and those people give a much more interesting, multidimensional way of telling our story. Nowadays, people have the opportunity to get really close up to the range of people who work in this organization and Pippa thinks it has made a significant contribution to improving public understanding of the different things that we do but also to get better support.
Social media is the way of the world. People consume information and content at their choice, and if I want them to consume my information, participate in the debate or discussion on channels of their choice, then I have to make sure that the content we produce is something they want to be part of, they want to share, like, maybe not even like but want to stimulate discussion and debate and so on.
For me, engagement is very important and sooner we embrace it and get our heads around how we can best use it to our advantage, the better. I don’t necessarily mean just for public affairs but also – employee engagement, customer relationship management, etc.
When we talk about producing the story, the guidelines for how those stories are shaped are formed in line with our understanding of what the audiences need.
Nevertheless, the stories need to be transparent, honest, direct and open. We have a code of conduct that we’re obliged to follow and I think if our audiences in the public domain see us skewing a story or a piece of content in favor of one blogger or another just because they hold a particular place in the blogosphere or they are generalists with a particular political view, then we would lose credibility very quickly.
…organization of community management
Scale is a significant issue. Community management is federated out across a range of administrators and practitioners who are responsible of managing a group of channels.
So for instance the Army will have a group of community managers and that is then federated downwards by regiment, by corps and so on and shared community of interests. The federated way means that we are able to share that responsibility but also provides me at s senior level a strategic overview as to how communities are being managed, how engagement is being handled and so on.
…safe and responsible use of social media
A couple of years ago, I executed a campaign Think before you share – series of short videos that encourage all members of the armed forces and civil servants working for the MOD to understand the tipping point between being safe and responsible and getting themselves into danger. That danger could be anything from breaching operational security to putting their own lives or even lives of those who love them at risk.
She adds that there is a very strong education and training program, which will never end because we have a responsibility to help our people understand how to use these channels safely and responsibly. It isn’t the channel that’s to be demonized but behavior and bad judgment.
…social media ninjas
Throughout organization, we have people who use social media at varying levels of sophistication. To support safe and responsible use of social media, I recruited a large group of what I call social media ninjas – it’s a badge of honor and more people they share their skills, understanding and experience with the better.
Ninjas are, essentially, military personnel across of whole organization anywhere in the world who will act as a mentor or coach to those who have crossed the line. The idea behind this is that it’s a really friendly word of advice and support when they see a soldier say something wrong on Facebook, Twitter and to help them understand what they need to do and how to go and remedy situation.
…handling potential media crises
We have processes in place for crisis management. But when we talk about social media, those processes simply need a greater agility, more dynamic reaction and short response time. It doesn’t really change how we provide lines in response to journalists, but what it does do is that we have to be more aware of the need to be fast and to respond quicker and that is a great opportunity to work closer with other colleagues at the press office and marketing department.
…social media monitoring
Pippa says that they don’t monitor every single conversation that goes on because the issue is one of scale. They monitor blogs, key influencers and bloggers who shape the way the world views MoD and our policies and activities.
Daily, I issue two reports that provide a summary of news and big events that are coming up and also news that we are not breaking out ourselves. Once a month, we do statistical insight report, which analyzes and provides insights into our key channels, identifies key stories that have been particularly discussed as well as other pieces of content that have acquired a greater level of engagement.
We’re at the beginning of the curve and I would say that we’re probably fairly up the way of the maturity cycle in how we are able to exploit social media for a wide range of communication, strategy and techniques. We are continually reminded that many of the channels we use are not accessible through MoD’s internal computer system so many of them will need to be accessed on personal devices which is pretty much in the keeping of the change of digital landscape – it’s mobile, it’s quick, it’s dynamic and if you want to keep pace and stay ahead of the communications game this is what we must do.