Reaching council residents with social media

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Here’s an article I wrote for the CIPR‘s Profile magazine on local government and social media – it was published in the February/March 2009 issue which is being delivered to members at the moment:

“Not only is it the future, its the here and now” is how Dominic Campbell, MD of FutureGov, describes social media. Whether councils like it or not, their publics are already interacting with each other using a wide range of social media tools. Now is the time for local government to start using social media as an integral part of the communications mix.

Earlier this year I undertook research to understand more about the use of social media in local government communications. The results showed an encouraging number of councils already using some form of social media in their communications. Blogs and podcasts were the most commonly used social media tools, with around 22% of councils using blogs and 7% using podcasts regularly in their communications. However more than 15% of councils had no plans at all to use social media in their communications mix.

The vast majority of UK councils still rely on a traditional communications mix based on media relations and paid-for advertising. The former relies on traditional media outlets with declining audiences, while effective advertising campaigns for councils are expensive and can struggle to deliver messages to increasingly marketing-savvy audiences.

In light of this, social media tools including blogs, podcasts and social networks present a real opportunity for local government communications.

Dave Briggs
, independent public sector social media consultant, sees social media in local government communications as “a remarkable opportunity to tell an authority’s story direct to the people in a really authentic way, which encourages conversation and feedback”.

Indeed the groups that are already using social media most heavily are the young people that councils struggle to engage effectively – Ofcom research shows that 54% of 18 to 24 year olds have a profile on a social network and actively use social networks regularly.

There’s also real value in social media as a consultation tool for local government. Councils have a duty to consult their residents on key policy issues, yet many are still tied to traditional methods of consultation such as questionnaires and public meetings. While these tools are effective in reaching a proportion of residents, it’s often a similar group of politically-engaged residents that responds to them each time.

The government’s “Communities in control: real people, real power” white paper seeks to enhance the ability of communities to influence the delivery of local services more strongly and increase participation in local democracy.

It wants to “help citizens to get involved when they want to on their own terms” – for a significant group of residents this means engaging with them using social media tools where they spend hours engaging with others online every day.

There’s also strong evidence from Local Government Association and IPSOS Mori that residents who are well informed about council services are more satisfied with them.

Social media provides platforms for communicating with younger, more technologically able residents. Councils can start using social media to engage younger residents in local democracy and services to help increase satisfaction rates among young people.

As the concept of place shaping grows in local public service the communications challenge changes. Place shaping means councils need to work better with their local public sector partners, ensuring they deliver services people want to make their area somewhere people like living. This increased focus on a place instead of the organisations providing services provides another opportunity for social media in communications.

Barnet Council has launched a website called whereilive.org. The site allows residents to speak out about their experience of living in Barnet. The site is closely integrated with image sharing website Flickr, video website YouTube and allows users to post content and stories. As well as providing an insight into residents’ priorities and concerns, it encourages residents to engage with the local council in a new and different way.

Dominic Campbell, one of the key players behind the site, sees the value of the site as providing “great opportunities for us to have conversations that matter with our residents and start to use the information to better shape the organisation in line with the needs and aspirations of those residents”.

While Barnet’s website is a large community-wide initiative, many other councils have tried out social media on a smaller scale.

Back in 2006 Medway Council launched the UK’s first podcast from a local authority. We published the half-hour Mixit podcasts each month until mid-2007. The shows were produced in-house by communicators working closely with the council’s youth service and a group of young people. The budget was less than £200 and the podcasts were produced using normal desktop PCs and freely available audio editing software.

Our aim for Mixit podcast was to create a two-way channel for communicating with young people in Medway and learn more about how to use podcasting in the communications mix. The shows were typically downloaded 360-400 times in the four weeks after they were published and were well received by young people.

Introducing a new communications tool always has its challenges. Research has shown that a lack of understanding of social media, both among council communicators and IT departments, is a key barrier to it being used more in council communications. How often are blogs or social networks seen as a risk rather than an opportunity in the minds of senior officers or politicians in local government?

To counter this it’s important to present a balanced case for using social media in communications by highlighting both the benefits and risks of the approach. Think about how these risks can be managed. Often other organisations and companies using social media have worked out how to do this.

At first glance the low cost of social media can be appealing to local government communicators. Many of the tools are free to users and councils can rapidly start using them with few barriers to entry.

However there are often hidden costs to using social media tools effectively – comment moderation or content creation are two of the areas where the amount of staff time required is underestimated.

The first step many communications practitioners take into social media is to get involved personally. Research shows a clear correlation between councils that use social media in their communications and personal use of social media by communications professionals.

Using social media personally helps communicators understand the basics of social media and become familiar with the etiquette of social media tools. Why not set up Google Alerts to track web and blog activity relating to your area or read blogs relevant to your area or professional interests?

It’s also worth familiarising yourself with the written and unwritten rules around social media. CIPR has social media guidelines and a code of conduct – keep to these and make sure you don’t forget the normal codes and protocols for local government publicity apply as much online as they do offline too.

Once you’re comfortable with the social media scene, think about how your organisation can engage with what’s happening already in social media. Don’t assume that you need to create your own blog, podcast or social network to use social media.

Barnet Council has identified local bloggers and encourages them to contact it with their concerns and problems. This approach seems to be working in turning potential online critics into social media advocates for the council.

Social media is changing the communications landscape in which local government communicators work. To be effective with reaching the broad populations that local government serves, councils need to understand and communicate through social media with the same level of professionalism as they currently manage traditional media relations.

8 Comments on “Reaching council residents with social media”

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  2. Mike Amos-Simpson

    Interesting read 🙂 I’m definitely in favour of encouraging local authorities (and other services) to make better use of the web. At the same time though I think the debate tends to be in extremes – either “your site should be all about social media, social networks”, or at the other end…. well not very much!

    Particularly with regard to young people I think there’s a tendency to assume that if you get yourself on a social network you’re sure to engage with young people. But if 50% are active on networks, its also worth considering that there may be other places where you can reach them in much larger numbers (on and offline). There’s also the noise factor on social networks and a question of the level of investment vs the return you can get if you’re trying to either engage or target a message through them.

    It would be good to hear much more about practical examples of how services are using the web effectively (taking into account the necessary investment), and a little less of “social media is great” (which of course it is, but maybe not for all!)

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  8. Natasha

    Hi Simon,

    Very interesting article you have here, im looking at it as im actually in my 3rd year at University in the process of writing my Dissertation “How local governments use social media to communicate” can you suggest any good sources that includes theory or statistics on the subject?

    Thank you

    Natasha

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