Múirne Laffan’s Digital RTÉ: A Story Worth Telling

Múirne Laffan, Chief Digital Officer of RTÉ, talks to Dublin Commissioner for Startups, Niamh Bushnell about all things RTÉ.

This is a new role for you right?
Yes. I took on the role just before Christmas. The Digital team in RTÉ itself started four years ago, very much like a startup.

Why is that important?
It’s important because we were given the latitude. We experimented, we tried things out, we built products and services that sometimes met needs that hadn’t yet come forward. The digital team used to be standalone but has moved steadily to other parts of the organisation. The online news team, for example, is an integrated part of the newsroom. And the CDO role aims to drive the digital transformation even further within RTÉ.

That’s a big role.
Yes, it moves digital from a very standalone part of the organisation to its centre. The role is an important statement for RTÉ and its strategy to be a digital organisation.

The Player has become very popular. Is that because of the zeitgeist of our time?
It’s a combination of many things. It just celebrated its seventh birthday. We’ve had many iterations and extensions of it. It’s constantly being hacked and improved. We’re about to enter into a significant new build and redefinition of what it is. That was one of those products that when we built it, we weren’t sure what kind of commercial market there would be for it. We built it ourselves, very inexpensively, but it has come to be mainstream. It’s how some people watch TV now. The Player is the first time in my entire career that my mother understands what I do.

Is RTÉ still on a high after the 1916-2016 celebrations?
Absolutely. It was just phenomenal.

Tell me about the digital story there.
It is the story of a small, very creative team, which did an amazing job with building digital collections and putting content out there. There was one collection that was called “They Were There”. It consisted of a lot of really good interviews done in the 60s with witnesses, soldiers, relatives, and survivors. The team built an interactive map and plotted those interviews throughout the city. It was very clever, non-linear, digital storytelling using every piece of the content.

Were you surprised at the amount of engagements that you got out of that?
No.

You were expecting it?
No. We just weren’t sure. We did our best and put in a lot of effort because it’s a significant milestone in our history. We made all the 1916 TV material available around the world, using digital platforms to their best.

Which are RTÉ’s digital platforms?
We are responsible for a portfolio of products and services. We have RTÉ.ieRTÉ Player and RTÉ News Now app, which is one of the most heavily used news apps in this market. We also have a large international audience. GAAGO and the Player International are the two specific products that have been created to meet the needs of Irish abroad.

What’s been the biggest learning from that relationship with the GAA?
How willing the audience is to interact with us. We have had social media engagement with customers in 180 countries. The videos and the pictures that they send: from young kids to elderly people. They all use our services and see themselves as part of this community. The connection to Ireland, to home, is so strong.

So strong and so emotional.
Big time. The Irish identity is really strong. Sometimes I get overwhelmed about how noisy our footprint around the world is for such a small country and population. It’s something that we should all experiment with how to build on.

What’s your next big experiment Múirne?
We’re looking at a VR pilot this year, which we are pretty excited about. We are also rebuilding RTÉ.ie as well as the RTÉ Player. We want to understand our audience better, build direct connections with them, and create better audience engagement. We will also be moving on to lots of new platforms.

International platforms or established ones?
Last week GAAGO launched on Roku in the US, bringing Gaelic Games to millions of homes across the US.

That’s huge. You’re talking about re-engineering or re-inventing the player, but you’ve also been very involved in the revival of Dublin.ie so tell me all about that.
It’s part of a fascinating project to make Dublin a better place in which to live, work, learn, visit.

Including my role right?
Including, yes, the Dublin Commissioner for Startups. I think the reality is, there’s a lot of great stuff happening around Dublin, but it has been quite fragmented regarding its communication. What we wanted to do was find a way to bring it all together in one brand and cover everything from tourism to the startup scene and all in between. The tenant is that this is a world class, compact city, that is highly navigable where you can connect, do business, live, create and do lots of other things. We developed the brand Dublin.ie and launched it two months ago.

Super. It’s looking good; I love the logo and the branding so I think you’ve done a great job with this. You are a Dub, right?
I’m a Dub, yes.

Touching on startups, how can the community engage with RTÉ?
We are open to talking and working with startups and would like to find a way to materially support them. We have done some work with NewsWhip in the past. We would like to engage more with startups and do business with them.

You mean for you to be a client of theirs and them for you?
Yes. We have our eyes and ears open, and we do see it as a really important part of the economy. For that to work, though, they would have to have services that work with our businesses.

What is your advice to startups who are developing technologies in areas that are relevant to you?
I think the key thing is to be familiar with what we’re doing and then be very clear what the proposition is and how it helps us meet our needs. We try to sit down and talk with people who approach us and going forward we will create a more formal forum to make it more organised.

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