Local authorities and social media – the current picture


This is the first of a three part series of posts looking at use of social media in local government communications in 2008. More on Wednesday and Thursday.

Earlier this year I surveyed the current use of social media among local authorities in the UK. The work was part of the primary research for my Chartered Institute of Public Relations diploma.

The results give an interesting snapshot into current and future use of social media tools among local authority communications. Responses were received from communicators working in 61 councils, representing 13.8% of all 442 councils identified by the Local Government Association in England, Wales and Scotland.

Current local authority communications mix

The mix of communications channels in use in local government communications is dominated by traditional communications tools. The news release is ubiquitous in its use among respondents to the survey. Public meetings and paid-for advertising (including press, radio and outdoor) complete the five communications tools in most widespread use among local authorities in the UK:

Current local authority communications mix

The common element to these five most used tools is that they are pretty untargetted – delivering messages to significant groups of people rather than being able to be targetted to publics or homogenous market segments.

It’s interesting to note that these untargetted channels have been in use for an extended period of time in both the private and public sectors. Does this support the view that the public sector is slower to adopt new communications tools than the private sector as shown by the top tools currently in use?

Probably not. I’d see this as an oversimplification as it ignores the breadth of communications objectives held by local authorities. These include a requirement for communicating with all residents (whether as a single public or broken down into smaller publics within the overall population) about universal services, such as waste collection or highways, as well as communicating with targeted smaller publics about issues that are only relevant to that group, such as localised community safety messages or a planning application relevant to a particular neighbourhood.

This breadth of objectives means local authorities need a broader mix of communications tools, including a bias towards untargetted tools, that’s less likely to be required in the private sector where communications are typically more targetted towards specific publics (or market segments) to achieve specific commercial objectives.

These most commonly used channels are also all one-way in nature. They don’t generally lend themselves easily to delivery of a two-way communications campaign. The scale of use of one-way channels suggests to me that the “return path” for local authority communications is either seen as separate from the initial delivery path for the communication or non-existent.

Current use of social media

More than 50% of respondents are using blogs in their council communications and almost 40% are using podcasts.

I was surprised by this high level of adoption, especially given the apparent low level of visibility of usage among councils. That said the uses of social media I found in my survey includes use within organisations (internal communications) as well as for external communications.

It’s also worth noting the claimed frequency of use of these most used social media tools. Although more than 50% of communicators surveyed used blogs regularly, occasionally or rarely, just 22.4% of communicators used blogs regularly. Similarly almost 40% of communicators used podcasts as part of the communications mix regularly, occasionally or rarely, but only 6.6% of communicators were using them regularly.

Use of other social media tools, while less widespread, was more than I expected too. Social bookmarking sites and virtual worlds were the least used channels, reflecting a lack of understanding of these tools in a communications context and low use among practitioners surveyed.

Current and planned use of social media

Looking beyond the current usage of social media tools, my research shows a clear intention to increase usage of four types of social media tools within the next six months in local government communications:

  • Podcasts – 38.2% of councils plan to use in next six months
  • Video sharing websites (eg YouTube) -36.8% of councils plan to use in next six months
  • Blogs – 32.9% of councils plan to use in next six months
  • Social networking (eg Facebook, Myspace, Bebo) – 30.3% of councils plan to use in next six months

These specific social media tools are probably among the most widely known and used among UK internet users. This potentially explains why these tools are the ones that are planned to be used to the greatest extent in the next six months in local government marketing and public relations.

How does personal use affect professional use?

I thought it was worth looking at whether personal use among communicators correlates with use of the same social media tool in a professional capacity in a communications mix.

I used the survey data to evaluate the relationship between personal and professional use of the four social media tool types that are most commonly used at present; namely blogs, podcasts, content aggregators and social networks.

It gets a bit statistical here, but linear regression analysis showed only a weak correlation between personal and professional use for each tool.

However when you take a look at the data at an aggregated level (across all tools ignoring frequency of use, both personal and professional), the picture is clearer:

This shows that use of social media tools in a personal capacity does not appear to strongly influence whether such tools are used in a professional capacity as part of the communications mix.

However if communicators don’t use social media personally, it does make them much less likely to use social media as part of a council’s communications mix – 15% of respondents who don’t use social media tools personally use social media in their council’s communication mix, compared with 44% of respondents that do use social media tools personally.

Choice of communications channel

I also looked at which factors respondents considered were most and least influential in their choice of channels in their communication mix.

The most significant factors were “use of the channel among target audience” and the linked determinant of “appropriateness to my communications objectives” – both these factors were rated as very important by 65% or more of respondents. Cost was also cited as a very important factor by 40% of respondents:

  • Use of the channel among target audience – 72% rated as very important
  • Appropriateness to my communications objectives – 65% rated as very important
  • Cost – 40% rated as very important
  • Ease of access to appropriate technology – 27% rated as very important
  • Support from line manager – 27% rated as very important
  • Support from senior officers – 23% rated as very important
  • Reputational risk from critical coverage/responses – 21% rated as very important
  • Personal level of knowledge/experience of the channel – 16% rated as very important
  • Support from elected members – 15% rated as very important

This is the first of a three part series of posts looking at use of social media in local government communications in 2008. Tomorrow I’ll be looking at what this research means for social media in local government communications in the future.