Somewhere in my attic, buried under all the baby toys and junk, there’s a signed letter from David Miliband thanking me for building his blog. It was the first one by a Cabinet Minister, started on his own initiative at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, managed by me under the wing of Edward Venning. It felt like the start of something big and, to my delight, it followed Miliband’s career to Defra then FCO, leaving a trail of blog love (of varying duration) in his wake.
So why has it taken me* until now to launch a blog for BIS?
Well, various reasons.
- You can lead a horse to water
But you can’t make it blog. Finding a minister who wants a blog is easy. Securing time in his or her diary to write, dictate or even approve posts less so. Getting them to commit to regular posts and engage in the comments is practically impossible. And if you do find one, you’ve then got to convince his or her private office to help too. After Miliband left ODPM/CLG, we flogged at least one such thirsty horse pointlessly to death and I’ve no intention of doing that again.
- Corporate blogs can be deadly It’s hard to be interesting and manage reputation at the same time. Clearance can squeeze all that is good about a blog post dry. Arguably Ministers are the people least able to say something fresh, because anything in their name can and will be construed as policy no matter what disclaimers you wrap around it. That’s not to say it can’t work – just that the constraints make something already difficult, harder. Small wonder our focus has been on enabling specialist, topical conversations instead.
- These things take time
Truly, it is a massive timesink. Once that machine starts churning you’ve got to keep feeding it and feeding it with choice cuts of prime blog meat. People have quite reasonable doubts whether doing so will get the best return for their scarce time. If the audience is small, was all that effort worth it? If the audience is big, who is going to read and respond to all those comments? Not me, says everyone in unison.
- It still feels – actually is – a bit risky You’d be amazed at just how much buy-in there isn’t to opening up discussions on all but the nichest of niche topics on a government department’s own website. The spectre of the diary story or front page PR own-goal is ever present, and very real; the frustration for authors of unanswered comments even presenter and realer.
- It, and I, feel a bit older (possibly wiser) I don’t subscribe to any of that blogging is dead nonsense but it’s certainly true that the game has changed. Comments on posts (that once great measure of success and motivational aid to the blogger) are on the wane thanks to Twitter and Facebook, and the idea of trying to attract an audience to your site to engage with you feels archaic rather than talking to people on the blogs and sites where they already hang out.
With all that in mind, though, the benefits (I won’t regale you with those) of corporate blogging far outstrip the drawbacks and we found ourselves in something of a perfect storm of late.
Convergence towards a single BIS domain meant we needed to move some existing blogs around. Some thorny communications challenges galvanised interest in unmediated, owned channels. An appetite for raising the profile of Ministers with stakeholders gave us the opening to pitch the blog. And a supportive senior manager and some hard-to-keep-up-with Joneses helped seal the deal.
Plus we’re doing things differently. This isn’t a Vince Cable blog. This is a shared, BIS blog, where we aim to bring together many voices – ministers, guests, policymakers – to get feedback, explain how their work fits together and helps BIS deliver economic growth. That should go a long way to minimising dependency on busy Ministers, keeping it interesting, and spreading the support effort (and benefits and learning!) around different teams.
For now it’s a quiet launch. There are creases to iron out. We’ll give it our best shot and see how it goes.
And in case you are wondering, we might well follow Stephen and Jimmy’s lead in using this for official digital team blogging, which would pose interesting questions for me about what I write about here instead of there.
*It was barely me at all. I just said yes, sent some emails and made nit-picking comments. Credit belongs to Paul Melhuish and Rhys Stacker before him for warming up Ministers, press and private offices, and fighting for it to happen; Jenny Poole, Steph The Excellent and Paul Hosking for the tech, creative and ideas; plus a bunch of forward-thinking press officers, SpAds and senior communications colleagues for seeing the light.