The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)'s comms-based horizon scanning team doesn't predict what car we'll be driving in 30 years' time or what the climate will be like but it does 'horizon scan' up to 18 months ahead and uses what it finds in a practical way to influence immediate comms plans, inform future government policy decisions and evaluate its comms activity.
With Defra's wide remit ranging from animal and plant disease and flooding to food and farming, it is a challenge to predict what is going to happen next but Defra's approach involves gathering intelligence from a diverse range of sources including its own scientists, Europe, other government departments and agencies, research papers and external events.
Distilling this down to identify key items of interest to Defra and mapping them in a time line provides the evidence base to make predictions and plan effectively. These then feed into cross-government planning and Number 10.
But it is not just months ahead that Defra cares about; it is also immediate emerging issues that it identifies through its early warning system, a social media analytics service by Gorkana Group. This is used to keep Defra up to date with what people are saying within a wide range of social media about their key topic areas. The system alerts Defra to conversations when they are beyond the normal benchmark and facilitates preparation such as contacting stakeholders, engaging influencers or preparing media statements.
What people are saying on social media is also used to evaluate message translation and penetration because it is not just about volumes and spikes. Defra recognises the importance of influencers, trusted voices, the right channels and partnership work.
User-generated content creates a vast source of opinion, but social media are incredibly fast-paced. Online conversations about stories often peak in the morning, so sending out a traditional press release by lunchtime would be too late as the conversations can be over by then, as illustrated in the graph above. Getting press officers involved in real-time conversations has been much more successful.
Elayne Phillips, head of horizon scanning and planning at Defra, says: 'Our digital media team and individual press officers are always checking what’s around online and on social media, because they need to act quickly to be part of conversations and rebut inaccuracies. Combining their work with an evaluation of social analytics data and overlaying it with what we gather from other sources means we can prepare, react and predict.'
It is a comprehensive approach but simple and resource-light. It is about recognising that announcements that seem innocent in isolation may have a major impact when combined with other plans for the same time frame.
Traditional media may have their place but turning around a press release takes longer than responding to a tweet and Defra is keen to be part of open engagement about topics in its remit.
Armed with the right tools
Outcomes are more important than outputs, but the outputs are impressive - dashboards that are easy to digest and useful in practical application, predictions that enable changes to comms planning and management information that strengthens Defra's performance.
Defra has been recognised for its work in this area both within the Government and through the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC).