Is social media a revolution in local government communications?

Is social media a revolution in local government communications?

I’m presenting tomorrow at the Public Sector Forums web event in Manchester – it’s a really interesting line-up of speakers and I’m looking forward to learning a lot from hearing and discussing with speakers and delegates alike.

If you can’t be there you can still follow and participate online using the website (@psfbuzz on Twitter). It’ll be interesting to see how this Dave Briggs-powered approach to social reporting works alongside a more traditional conference setting – I’ve got my Flip video camera and Sony pocket audio recorder with me in case the opportunity to use them arises.

My talk is on social media – a revolution in local government communications.

I’ll be looking at some of our experience in Medway and discussing how significant the adoption of social media is for the business of communicating in a council.

But perhaps that’s the wrong title – as I think social media is only part of the changing environment that local government is communicating in.

The decline and shift online of local newspapers as the traditional tool for local government communications, the growth of hyperlocal websites, declining trust in institutions and institutional figures are just a few of the other factors contributing to these changes.

This multidimensional changing communications environment demands new skills from council communicators – we need to develop skills that allow us to bridge the historic divides between media relations, marketing and consultation – using these tools in a blended way to deliver properly integrated communication and consultation campaigns.

Council communicators also need to have the full range of digital tools at their disposal – that means being skilled and knowledgeable in the use of social media services as part of the communications mix, as well as effective deployment of digital marketing tools like email marketing.

This need for a wider, more blended skill set probably extends into the roles that exist within a typical public sector communications team and who does what. I lose count of the number of times that we have had to work out who should handle a particular aspect of a communications issue that has come from social media – whether it’s an emerging issue picked up by monitoring or social media relations – we’ve had to work out as we went along who within the team or within the broader organisation who is best placed to deal with it.

That’s something that’s manageable at the moment given the relatively low volume of that kind of interactions, but soon we’ll have to have a more formalised way to integrate communications work coming from social media into the team’s roles and responsibilities.

The general trend in councils is towards a more centralised approach to communications, and that seems like a good first step. As part of this many councils are also creating dedicated digital (and in a few cases social media) roles which also helps – although I do think there’s a difference in skillset at the moment that needs recognising between digital marketers and digital PR people in the way they approach social media (and for the record, I think the PR-led approach is more effective).

There’s also an impact on council policies and protocols that needs addressing. My research last year showed a high proportion of councils barring access to many social media sites, which strikes me as a very short-sighted move, but points to a sense that social media tools being perceived as a distraction rather than a means to engage with residents.

But HR and IT policies need to be flexible enough to allow officers to use these tools appropriately and effectively in the course of their job, while retaining appropriate safeguards for the reputation of the organisation. Most councils operate a form of media protocol that prevents most officers from talking directly with the media – should this approach translate to social media, or is a more permissive approach required?

I think the communicators (and sometimes other social media evangelists) also have a role in educating their organisations about social media. I’ve been presenting regularly to officers and members about what social media means for a council – and it’s been really useful in raising awareness of social media as being more than just geeky types watching YouTube in their bedrooms.

Having social media explained properly helps people see the links between their service, social media and the community – and that can only be a powerful catalyst for councils to be more effective in delivering services for local residents.


I work with technology-centric businesses as an interim Chief Operating Officer (COO), consultant and advisor. I created the B3 framework® for scaling technology businesses and I write a newsletter called Build for leaders who are building brilliant companies.