Whisper it softly but there are a few communications officers who reckon that you can’t manage the message. We’ve believed it for some time though others still cling, forlornly to the sinking raft. No matter how positive you are when the journalist rings, the odds are that the headline is going to be a negative one.
The time spent slaving over a laptop on a deftly nuanced missive, extolling the virtues of the new arrangements for the collection of recyclable waste can never be reclaimed when the heavy hand of the sub-editor turns your good news story into a damning headline of council bungling. It’s a thankless task trying to communicate the work of a local authority but communicate we must. In the present climate it’s more important than ever to explain what we do and why we do it. So where are we going wrong?
Effective communications are about more than simply protecting the reputation of an organisation. Reduced budgets require us to be more efficient and to find ways to reduce the inevitable pressure on frontline services, and communications can play a vital role.
The prolonged period of re-organisation and budgetary constraint has occurred alongside a communication revolution; the advent of social media. Social media were treated with an air of suspicion in many quarters but some saw a real opportunity. Traditional marketing channels like press and print are hit-and-miss and costly. Social media channels are free to establish. We can track and measure and quantify in an instant and with a degree of detail that traditional media can never match. And they allow us to be the voice of authority in the online realm.
At Shropshire Council as in Birmingham, we created our own online newsroom and pointed the press and the public towards it. When we post a story the free platform we use (WordPress) automatically generates a tweet to the six-thousand plus people who follow us. We can still be held to account by the media, as we should be, but we print the details of a story online first. At least that way the debate is an informed one.
More people now access the Internet via a mobile device than by a PC and channels like Twitter and Facebook have the capacity to drive people towards web content with a single click. Two years ago, in a week-long Twitter campaign called ‘Shrop360’, we increased traffic to our web content by 27% for the duration, and so we know it works.
Advocacy is the new marketing. Ask any major commercial organisation and they’ll tell you that peer-to-peer recommendation trumps adverts every time. You can tell everyone that your new online transaction system is ‘easy-to-use’ and ‘fast’ but it’s far more effective if a customer says so. Two hours into Shrop360 and a customer tweeted:
“Very informative but a waste of money”
Moments later, a member of the public tweeted:
“If it’s that informative, how can it be a waste of money?”
Followed by another contributor who pointed out:
“Last time I checked, Twitter was free.”
So, two for and one against and we didn’t have to lift a finger in our defence.
We tackled planning on Facebook and not surprisingly, reactionary voices spoke up, just like they do in public meetings. But now it was different. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) said:
“We don’t need any more houses or facilities in our village. We like it the way it is.”
But now we heard another voice:
“Stop talking about affordable housing and hurry up and build some. Families are being separated because the youngsters can’t afford the inflated house prices.”
With social media, it isn’t exclusively the loudest voice that gets heard. We’ve all got difficult decisions to make and demonstrating that it isn’t a one-sided argument is invaluable.
Once you’ve created a following for your accounts, think “avoidable contact”. Choose the top ten things a service gets phone calls about and tweet them out before the phone even rings.
Is this starting to make sense now?
I’m not pretending that social media are the magic bullet but enough evidence now exists to suggest that no local authority can afford to ignore them. And you ignore them at your cost.
ex Shropshire Council employee
Jon blogs here