Content in Practice: Alanna Schulz from the City of Surrey

Collaboration is how to get an inclusive website for all citizens

  • By Blaine Kyllo
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  • Nov 28 2019
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  • Categories: Podcasts

On the Content in Practice podcast, Alanna Schulz (Twitter, LinkedIn) talks about challenges to creating and managing digital content for a modern multicultural city. Produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, theme music by Lee Rosevere.

A transcript of the podcast is below. Music used in this episode is from Jonah Dempcy’s The Insider project.

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Content in Practice: The content operations podcast is produced by Kathy Wagner and Blaine Kyllo, and presented by Content Strategy Inc. Theme music by Lee Rosevere, Happy Puppy Records.

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The City of Surrey is part of British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, a metropolis that also includes Vancouver, Burnaby, and Richmond. Like all modern municipalities, Surrey has a website and social media presence, and Alanna Schulz manages the team responsible for those things.

Over the past couple of years, Alanna’s team, which is part of the marketing and communications department at the City, has been shifting to an agency model where they are engaged by other city departments to create and maintain digital content. I asked her what that transition has been like.

Alanna Schulz: We have members of our team who are coming from private sector or because we’re working on other digital projects where you’re used to working with an agency where you know this person, this is your bucket of hours, this is what the client is asking for, what are their requirements and scoping it out. We approach communications as much as we can, like an agency in that way.

It’s the agency model but because the internal clients that we’re working with are also part of our broader Surrey team, the challenge is how do we ensure that when we’re working with our internal client they perceive us as an agency working to support them but also look at us as part of a team that’s helping them serve their goal for the same customer. So I think in terms of how a client might interact with an agency and have a certain expectation on how many revisions or “here’s our core requirement and what kind of content we want to see here”. I think in terms of that interaction, that’s the balance kind of comes in and where, how do you maintain that relationship of serving the internal client while the client is part of your team.

Blaine Kyllo: Within an agency world, often there is this notion that the customer gets what the customer wants, but that’s not necessarily, and especially in your context, that’s not necessarily the right answer.

Alanna: No. And so we always go back to . . . whenever we’re talking with the client, we go back and say, these are fantastic ideas. Let’s boil it down and go back to what our objectives are. What is the target? What, why did you, how did we get here? What, what’s the goal? Who’s your audience? So often it goes back to what are your requirements? And when you learn about your requirements and when you’re coming in with your communication plan, when you’re coming in with your technical specifications, then often we end up with different tactics than the client may have expected, but the execution ends up being so powerful that when that client has that experience once, the next time they come to work with us, that attitude is a lot more of, “Here’s the need that I have. Help me fix it or help me solve it; help me get there.”

So we’ve really focused on also thinking of the agency standpoint and when you’re marketing yourselves as here’s what our agency can offer you. We’ve been doing more intranet articles and some presentations within the organization just telling people, “This is how social works, this is what kind of content our audiences are looking for.” So in being more proactive in educating the organization about the strategies and about the principals and different, different approaches and then trying to train the organization to come to us with their problems and their hopes and their aspirations for their business and from there help work with us to build it out. So it’s changing that mindset and when they come to us as an agency, what are they coming to us with?

For Alanna’s team, the challenge has not just been to establish with other city departments a new approach to doing digital content, but also to instill in them the trust that her team are experts in creating that content.

Alanna: It’s been slow, but it’s one where we are also strategic in terms of where we know we can make the most impact. Where can we help the customers and help the business the most and that sweet spot where we can create these case studies, that when we have these business units who haven’t maybe worked with us before, that we can bring these case studies to them and say, “Here’s what we did.” Now you come to us and we’re ready to help you. So we’ve really, we’ve, in the last year or two, we’ve adopted the case study model and focusing on education and telling the organization what we can do and demonstrating that success to earn that credibility and to change, to influence the mentality that you have people – who have been in marketing for 20 years or you have designers who have worked with, you know, this scope of clients – here to serve you. So use them.

And from a city funding perspective, I think when you break it down, a website is often funded the way a pipe in a road is. It’s looking at the city website as a piece of city core infrastructure. So in terms of making sure that you have the right engineers to maintain that infrastructure within the city. It’s also looking at it from a similar perspective in the digital management space.

Of course, the other piece of that is getting the authority from the larger organization to take accountability for being the digital content experts.

Alanna: I think it goes back to the case studies and it goes back to the research and goes back to thinking about things from a more data-driven perspective. So in knowing that an organization is data-driven, that taking that idea away that content is subjective and looking at it from a data perspective in terms of, “You know, we have 6,000 pages on the website and maybe 40% of them have performed at this level for the last two years. Is this where we want to invest our time?”

So in telling the story with metrics has been helpful, in reaching out to the customers and our, and our audiences and making sure that we’re including those, that information when we’re presenting with leadership and when we’re talking with clients has been really helpful. Wherever we can in making, or helping the organization see that our decisions are objective, they aren’t subjective, has been really helpful in flipping that mindset, that content creating content is authoring.

Establishing the credibility and gaining the authority is part of the change that happens within organizations that are working to mature their content practices. The other important shift is in getting departments, that may be used to processes designed around more traditional print marketing and communications, to think about digital from the beginning.

Alanna: I think that’s one of the conversations that we end up having with clients is they’ll come and they’ll say, “Okay, so all of our communications is done, uh, now we’re ready for digital.” And so it’s educating them and stepping them back to say digital is part of a communications and it’s part of the space and thinking about it at the creation or research phase and not thinking of that division. I think it’s just, it’s a journey you take people on, that’s for sure.

Blaine: So that’s still an issue with it that people think that digital is something you do after all the other work is done.

Alanna: Yup. I think depending on how often people work with you or depending on what the scope of the project is, I think it’s thinking of it as an after-the-fact implementation. In terms of the larger scale projects, I think we see ourselves being involved a lot earlier. In terms of the smaller and more medium ones, that’s when where we definitely still are working with the organization to educate them on the fact of, think of us at that infancy stage and you working on building the digital communication capacity, not just within our team but within the organization and other communicators that are working within other business units as well.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to serve the needs of Surrey citizens. And through research, Surrey knows what its citizens are using the website for.

Alanna: The largely come to the website to do tasks. So they’re busy. They probably go to only a couple of pages on the site and they go to find out about property taxes or they come to pay a parking ticket or they come to learn about how to apply for a permit. So most of the time when they come for content, they’re coming to do something.

But cities need to share information with citizens that those people may not be looking for, and digital channels are ideal for that task. Alanna’s team takes a strategic approach to determining how best to deliver that content without getting in the way of what people want from those channels.

Alanna: That’s where we step back a little bit and think about digital content or web content being one piece of the bigger landscape. So we’ll look in and we’ll say, “Okay, why do you need this content? First off, what’s the business need? Or what’s the driver? And sometimes: are there audiences asking for this? Is there a bigger back context to this creation that we need to know about first?” And then making sure that we’re understanding from a website perspective, maybe we don’t need this context, but do we need this because it’s part of a bigger social campaign or news and updates that you’re focusing on a driver there.
So I think understanding of “why”.

Also when a client asks us for content, and just going back to the objectives, what, what do you hope to achieve with this content that this content? So if we look at our goals of raising awareness or encouraging engagement, what goal are you are you looking to achieve and what goal is your audience looking to achieve here? And I think that second question is one that people often aren’t asked. That’s also when these people settle to the reply with,”Oh, actually I don’t quite know who the audience might be for this one.” Or, “It’s everybody.”

So whenever we get to that point, because we’re going on that journey with the client, that’s when you can dig a little bit deeper and oftentimes the client will see it through that conversation, just being asked more questions. It’s earning that trust with the client is and building that relationship over time that they’ll allow you that space to dig a little bit more at. That’s been the part that we’ve worked on over the years that is allowed us that space. But it’s asking the why questions until you get to the root. Um, and then often the client can see it on their own.

Blaine: And I bet that’s a lovely opportunity.

Alanna: It’s fantastic.

The other balance that is always a hard one to get, but an important one to have is balancing that business need and remembering that the business need is ultimately founded by the audience need. And just flipping that paradigm of, you know, my bit like this business needs this content. It’s okay, which audience needs that content? One other thing that we need to explore more is how do we reach different audience bases and how do we, and knowing that Surrey is so multicultural and we have tons of people speaking languages other than English at home and lots of different cultures to celebrate. How do we also ensure that we’re creating content that meets all these diverse needs?

Surrey is an incredibly multicultural municipality. Many people who need to access information and services are communicating in other languages and come from different cultures. That is one reason that creating content using plain language principles is so important.

Alanna: I think the expectation that anybody would have for the government’s website is that they can access it and that information that they want is available to them. And so I think that’s where translation is always, you know, come into play for us, um, as being our key tool where if users need or prefer to access the site in a different language that it’s available to them. Some of the challenges that we have within that I think are also in just kind of understanding what technologies people use or what different tools people are employing for translation.

I think that’s an area where, you know, we need to dig a little bit more. In seeing that, you know, a large percentage of people don’t speak English at home. I think, you know, from that we don’t want to make an assumption that that means that they would prefer to access the site in a specific language. Like we need to understand more there, and in looking at the use of Google, it’s, it’s, you know, it’s not as high as we would expect in that area. But then we all know also know that there are other extensions that offer translation and maybe, you know, there’s preference there.

So in trying to figure out what research to take on and what data to look at to understand how we’re equipping the website with the technology to support that and also what kind of content and what we focus on when we’re developing a website to make sure it’s inclusive.

Blaine: Yeah. I mean it’s not practical to translate into all languages. What are some of the key languages that are in play?

Alanna: Punjabi is a huge one. We also see a Chinese and Korean are really highly spoken at home, but there are so many languages. Making sure that we’re connecting with key audiences, but also knowing that we want to be inclusive to everyone. Trying to kind of understand what is the need and what are the citizens’ expectations for what the government should deliver. When it comes to translation for example.

Like I think then that begs the question: if someone is reading in a different language and you’re offering a fully translated version, what kind of staff support do you have to answer to answer an email or a phone call with a question? If somebody calls, so we’d, you know, we do have services where, you know, somebody can call a phone number and, you know, get some city content translated into so many different languages. But I think it’s identifying what are the key areas and what’s the, what’s the expectation that we can have and how do we appropriately resource it?

Blaine: Communicating in plain language also makes it easier for automatic translation tools.

Alanna: Oh, definitely. And I think it’s whatever we can do to make it more accessible so it helps the tools and it also helps people who are maybe just learning to read in English or people with lower literacy or just everyone. And also thinking of the role that children may have within the home as well. And knowing that in some situations maybe the child is able, or the teenagers are able to read in English, whereas the parents might not have that ability. So they’ll say, can, you know, can you read this and can you translate this for me? Making sure that, you know, we’re enabling that to happen where we can.

I think plain language is the core part in making sure that people understand how things work and why things work the way they do. Because I think as soon as you, don’t use plain language, then you’re immediately creating that barrier to public participation. And also that barrier to raising awareness, which is like one of the huge goals that you’re trying to achieve. It’s a little bit tricky . . . Well, it’s a lot tricky, to communicate that with business units when you’re working with engineers and you’re working with planners and who are writing detailed reports and assessments to flip that around to focus on the audience and really help them see that it’s not taking away from the content or the message, it’s actually contributing to it and encouraging more involvement by being more accessible.

And I think it’s, it’s also, it’s not just translation. There’s culture in translation that I think any system is not going to get.

Blaine: Now it’s true that some content is easier to turn into plain language than others. Is there a particular type of content that you’ve had difficulty getting to that Grade 8 level?

Alanna: I think when we get to things like bylaws or we get to areas like permits where you’re explaining regulations. So the regulations are rooted in bylaws and the bylaws are often in very legal language. So I think in working with, not just the business unit, but also, you know, having close relationships with the privacy team and the legal team and you know, just workshopping it together and also learning about why is the language is the way it is. There is a certain core language that you can’t change, but you know, where can we simplify the content around it? Or where can we create additional content or visualizations like pictures or videos that may kind of help support that, where creating, adjusting into plain language is a little bit more difficult than, than other content.

As with so many other organizations, Alanna’s team always has more requests for content than they have time to fulfill. This is where a clear and consistent operating model and governance framework proves its value.

Blaine: Can you tell me a bit about how you balance resources and how you prioritize all of those requests?

Alanna: Web is just one channel. So we look at overall what are the different things that are coming down over the next quarter. Like the citywide goals that are coming through from leadership and making sure that we’re aware of those and tapping into the business units as early as we can so that we can make sure the teams are aware of, you know, here are the priority items which are going to take up a little bit more time. So let’s ensure that we’re prepared for that one. So I think it’s knowing what the organizational priority is that helps us determine our team one.

One of the interesting things that Alanna’s digital team has done is come up with a blended approach to authoring content.

Alanna: The team has built out a Sharepoint team site that the communications staff within the city all share. So we operate in a hybrid model. So within web team, within marketing there’s, and from the corporate team, we sit in one area, but then there’ll also be distributed authors or distributed communicators who sit within the business units. So some even sitting in arts centers and some sitting at museums or different locations. So we needed some online space that they could use. So we use a Sharepoint team site and we have a calendar where we’ll mark it campaign level one, two, three or four. So “one” knowing, “Okay, everybody get ready, it’s a big one.” All channels engaged and we’ll make sure that whenever possible communicators will upload their requests there.

Blaine: You’ve essentially created a great big editorial team out of all of these distributed authors. Do you evercome together to meet up and talk about what’s going on?

Alanna: We come together on, so it’s quite new. We’ve, I think we’ve had about three meetings at this point. So we come together on a quarterly basis. And so we use those meetings to talk about strategic decisions that we’re all kind of making as a team or ways to share successes or learnings that we can all kind of learn from. So there’ll be a presentation on, uh, from the major special events team on, you know, how they handle sponsorship and marketing and advertising. They’ll talk about their experience and their process and by everybody sharing their process and then tweaking the overall process we ended up coming up with – as a team – all those perceptions end up coming up with some shared way of approaching it.

Blaine: That seems incredibly valuable.

Alanna: I think it’s really inspiring because then you see and you look around the table and you find out how talented the organization is and within a distributed authoring system, you know, it can be a little bit tricky because you might, there’s definitely a risk of tunnel vision, uh, because you work with that business or you work on that portfolio so often. Or maybe sometimes you might have people who are more experienced in some channels and others. So I think over time it’s definitely growing to be a space where there’s the more thought leadership and kind of shared growth.

Blaine: This, this is all sounding a lot to me like an organization that is really maturing in its content strategy practice.

Alanna: I would say so I think the organization, uh, up until a couple of years ago or two or three years ago, we really focused on the challenges that in terms of what the customer was seeing and not reflecting so much about what was happening on the back end. And I think we also . . . you tend in a large organization, you tend to kind of think about, “Okay, well if these are organizations so big, how, how can we influence change and how can we grow? We’re one team within such a huge organization.” And I think because the organization is so focused on like relationships and growth, I think that culture has helped us. Just taking the time that’s really hard to take in terms of creating playbooks and stepping back and looking at your guidelines again. That’s definitely been the hardest part is carving out that time to go back to the roots. But that has also saved us time later on because we all have that shared understanding. So you don’t have this misalignment in what’s going out.

Blaine: So it’s not just maintaining the standards and guidelines in those tools that anchor your practice, but making sure that everybody remembers that they’re there.

Alanna: Yeah. Also being open to them changing because it’s digital and communications and it’s, it’s always evolving and there’s always different perspectives. And so I think having your playbooks and, but also taking a look at them every year or if somebody offers a suggestion on them, just, you know, being open to questioning it; having the team mentality of being wrong, of being okay with making mistakes I think has been really helpful.

Blaine: Okay. So you’ve made some great strides, some incredible shifts in how you do the operations within content. What’s left to do? What next to improve?

Alanna: I think what’s next to improve is our use of taxonomy. Taxonomy is a big one. And our trying to look at where we can leverage from a, just from a web standpoint and looking at how we can leverage automation and personalization. Exploring that has also been such a good reminder of whenever you think you know your audiences, dig a little more because you probably don’t. Um, and trying to, you know, make sure that if you’re going to have it automated, is it going to serve content that’s, you know, really helpful to the audience.That’s our next one. Our next phase.

Blaine: Not small challenges.

Alanna: No, not small challenges. Also, even from an asset management perspective, because webpages are so easy to see that you forget about the asset sometimes and then you go and in terms of educating and working with content authors on SEO and content creation and going back to the content models, but then you forget about documents and you forget about metadata and you connect taxonomies between documents and assets and digital content. I think that’s one area where we can definitely grow.