Public meeting live on facebook

Dudley Castle

Dudley Castle

Bums on seats at public meetings can be a real challenge for any local authority.

Unless there is a big local issue to engage people, a date with local councillors in a community centre on a rainy Wednesday night can be a tough one to keep. Equally, people lead busy lives and a public meeting is one too many balls to juggle along with work, family commitments and Coronation Street.

So when Dudley Council came up with the concept of community forums, making it as easy as possible for people to get involved was a top priority. There’s 10 held at community centres and village halls across the borough every other month.

They reflect the council’s desire to become a “community council” and the authority is keen to build on local democracy and transparency and give people a greater say in how their council is run. After all, there are lots of stories to tell from the borough’s communities about the work people do, and there’re lots to let them know about how the council can help them continue that work.

Turn out is good, but how do you get more people interested without having to leave the house? Step forward the biggest social media tool on the planet.

The two thousand or so people who like our Dudley Borough Facebook page regularly share posts and let us know when we’ve got things right and, well, not so right. So we decided to use the platform to give people the opportunity to ask questions and raise issues, and discuss them with senior politicians, they were more than happy to take part. It’s a meeting of people and it’s in public, and the early response has been excellent.

The idea has also attracted regional, national and global praise from the media and communications professionals.

Armed with a coffee and a PC Councillor Pete Lowe, deputy leader of Dudley Council, sat for an hour discussing local issues and answering questions as they came in on the page. On the first one, we had over 1,000 post views and 17 individuals actively take part – more than any single attendance at a physical public community forum. Numbers have stayed steady ever since and the council has gained a real insight into what makes people tick and offered up useful pointers for people including how to access up to £5,000 in funding for community groups. Importantly, people have been able to do all this without leaving the house.

In more recent forums we’ve shared key messages and discussion topics on twitter as they crop up during the hour to widen the audience. The Facebook forum has also now been added as an official council meeting with Cllr Lowe and the communications and public affairs team tasked with maintaining and improving the way they work. The online session is held before each round of 10 forums covering the 24 wards of Dudley borough with the offer of further face to face discussion with elected members if they need it.

The key to their success is buy-in from senior politicians and a genuine desire to hear what people have to say. Luckily we have both in Dudley.

by

Chris Howes

Communications and Public Affairs Officer,

Dudley Council

You can follow and connect with Dudley via multiple channels:

Facebook

Twitter

YouTube

Flickr

LinkedIn

Photo Credit: ringsofsaturnrock via Compfight cc

Birmingham City Council on Google+

Back in 2011 I attended an LG Communications conference in Coventry where the subject of Google+ came up. It was suggested councils start a Google+ page so we at least had the name registered. So I returned to Brum and that’s what I did. And then, well not a lot really. I added content pretty much as and when I posted content on the corporate BCC facebook page. And the number of people adding us to circles increased to 145. In twelve months. Wow.

But I persevered. And then something happened which I didn’t expect. In March 2013 Google emailed me and asked if I really was Birmingham City Council on Google+. After I got up of the floor (this also happened when Facebook rang me up) I said yes and we arranged a conference call.

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Birmingham Pylon, Birmingham

It turned out Google were very interested in seeing if they could help us promote our page a little bit better and make us a good case study for local government. They started the process by verifying the account and giving me some tips on posting content. Then things started getting interesting.  A verified account is much easier to find on Google, it appears at the top right of the page when you Google search for BCC. This is great because not only is it very visible, it makes a great campaign box to promote key messages. And the number of people following us increased (a lot). 20,000 people had us in their circles by July and we have over 26,000 active users.

Unlike our Twitter and Facebook accounts which have a predominantly local audience, our Google+ page attracts worldwide followers. It’s an ideal tool for exporting the brand of Birmingham globally. I tend to post the same key messages as our other social media channels interspersed with more ‘touristy’ content of events and activities that promote Birmingham as a great 21st Century city.

Content that works really well tends to be images (no surprise there) and also webcasts of BCC Council meetings, which give an insight into mechanics of local government and promote democracy. Also issues that affect everybody, like public health and environmental issues get a lot of interest. It’ll be really interesting to see how the account develops over the next twelve months.

by Guy Evans

Social Media officer at Birmingham City Council

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Why hyperlocal blogs are important for local government?

Here’s an understatement if ever there was one: the media landscape in Britain has been undergoing a bit of a seismic shift this last few years.

Web 2.0 and the explosion in smartphone and mobile technology means people are accessing news and information in a myriad of new ways. And this technological revolution has seen more and more people creating their own content too.

Tools like Twitter, Audioboo, Facebook and YouTube, and blogging platforms such as WordPress, mean it’s never been easier for citizens to publish their own information – and to reach sizeable audiences.

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Market stall, Stone, Staffordshire

The growth of ‘hyperlocal blogs’ – local websites that focus on a particular city, town, village or other defined geographical area – has gone hand in hand with this technological revolution – and the decline of the traditional print media.

There are hundreds of hyperlocal sites of all shapes, sizes and motivations all over the country – take a look at http://openlylocal.com/hyperlocal_sites Dave Harte from Birmingham City University calculated in April 2012 that UK hyperlocal sites were publishing content once every two minutes (http://daveharte.com/social-media/hyperlocal-one-every-two-minutes).

Like many things digital, the West Midlands has a thriving hyperlocal scene. Sites like B31 Voices, Digbeth Is Good, WV11, Lichfield Live, Connect Cannock and many more are providing news and information to their readers and building large communities of interest. In fact, Birmingham has 28 hyperlocal sites, more than any other council area in the UK.

There are many ways in which local government should be engaging with hyperlocal media and tapping into its growing and engaged audience.

Here’s just one reason why it could be well worth its while.

Nesta’s Destination Local report this year into the demand for hyperlocal media in the UK found that 56% of people who use hyperlocal sites feel more informed about their local area.

However, 44% don’t feel that hyperlocal media allows them to have an influence over decisions that are made there.

I’m sure that local councils have a much higher figure for failing to actively involve citizens in decision making.

Is this an area where hyperlocal and local councils can work together?

by Jamie Summerfield,

Founder of a Little Bit of Stone hyperlocal website in Stone , Staffordshire. He is also a former local government press officer and is Staffordshire University journalism school’s hyperlocal website project manager.

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Using Twitter for a rural farm museum

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Acton Scott, Shropshire

Acton Scott Historic Working Farm, as indicated in the name, is a working farm museum set in the Shropshire Hills. It has recently been featured extensively on BBC TV’s Victorian Farm.  It is a significant tourist attraction for the area, a leisure facility for local people and an important educational resource with a vibrant and innovative learning programme.

Shropshire is still, primarily, a rural county and the museum seeks to celebrate the history of local agriculture and to work with partners to preserve some of the key skills which have shaped the local landscape and still contribute to the ‘sense of place’.

The museum has always provided opportunities for volunteers and student work placements and has worked with many groups supporting vulnerable people. It is therefore very much part of the local community.

The museum was fortunate to secure European and Heritage Lottery funding to invest in much- needed improvements on the site, enabling the museum to both meet visitor expectations and to provide new facilities e.g. better car parking, improved cafe, interpretation and learning resources.

These improvements were grounded on a dialogue with visitors, supported by offsite surveys in local towns. This is one part of a long established working practice which has seen the museum engage with audiences to communicate what it offers, to shape proposed developments from their comments and to find new partners to work with. We are also always learning from best practice elsewhere.

Social media is one tool to use. Twitter seemed to provide another means of developing a dialogue with existing and potential users, to function as a research tool, to learn more about local businesses in the area and to learn what is happening elsewhere that is relevant to us and to develop contacts with new people.  In this latter case, Twitter seemed to provide an efficient mechanism to target people – a rapier rather than a blunderbuss, after all, it was clear that access to a Twitter account can be as useful as having someone’s email address.

We wanted to convey something of what Acton Scott is about to people encountering our Twitter stream, to give people a feel for the place, as well as detail on what it offers and opportunities to be involved.

Acton Scott is a very welcoming place and to convey this, from time to time, we have used personal welcomes to people who follow us, based on a photograph of the place. The farm is very photogenic and a lot of activities take place; to this end the use of photographs are a regular feature of our posts.   Photographs have generated significant feedback.

Out of hours activity, when people are available to consider visits or activities, has proved valuable with a range of people engaging with the museum through Twitter.

We have also used the stream to talk about what is happening day by day, including early mornings and late at night, to give a sense of the day-long, year round nature of the place.  However,  rather than merely using Twitter  as another events promoter, to announce what is coming up,  we have used a range of resources to convey historical content.

As with all media channels, Twitter is an opportunity to capture people’s interest and to pass over information and learning snippets, hence Twitter also helps to deliver on the museum’s core objectives.

The 140 characters provides a framework which has worked well for  extracts from historic farm diaries or period references, with the selections chosen to link in with a contemporary issue, weather conditions or to an activity to which readers can relate.

When we can, we draw follower’s attention to related Twitter streams of local businesses, events or opportunities.  Twitter works well when it is used to comment on or cross-reference with web sites, blogs and other content, our own or those of other organisations.

I learned by doing, by monitoring people’s reactions and becoming gradually more confident in the tone and approach, the best times to post and above all to remember that it is ‘social’ and often it should be a dialogue.

Acton Scott is a special place with a strong sense of purpose and a clear identity. The Twitter stream aims to complement this, to reach out to and respond to people and organisations with a slightly lyrical tone, a stylistic envelope, for the key messages within.

This was written by a museum volunteer who works at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm.

 

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A WordPress blog to communicate weather service disruption

Every winter when the snow falls and temperatures drop we’re faced with the same problem – how to get information out to people quickly.

School closures, gritting, road closures and bin collections can all be hit and it seems people want information faster and faster. So, in 2012 we decided in-house to use WordPress to build a blog which could be updated in real time.

We created http://www.walsallweather.co.uk/

Here’s why I think it worked well.

Resident involvement. We have nearly 500 pictures on the site and almost all came from residents answering requests we made via Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. Pictures were credited linked. On the site’s busiest day we had 9,548 views with the residents gallery (1,065 views) coming only second to school closures with (1,717).

Social media drove traffic.When we didn’t use social media viewing figures dropped.  The importance of sharing the site on Facebook and Twitter can’t be stressed enough. Twice as much traffic came from Facebook than Twitter. Maybe that’s because more women and children are on it.

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Snow signpost, Walsall

Site layout and implementation. All new information was driven to top of site and easy to find. This is where the website and blog thing kicks in, as we had static information as on a traditional website – such as school closures – but the homepage was more like a blog with new information being constantly pushed to the top.

It was commentable. All resident’s comments positive and negative were published, and enquiries were dealt with by either Jo Stewart or by the council’s Streetpride. There were 329 comments made in all.

Flexibility. On days when not much information was coming through we would scan Twitter and Facebook to find out what people were looking for such as public transport disruptions and we’d add them to the site.

A simple straight forward name.  It does what it says on the tin and can be used in other extreme conditions such as rain or heatwaves because of its generic title. So, if we need it to allow public health to let people know what to do in a heatwave it’s already there.

Bloody hard work. We were there 24/7 and at times it was life consuming. Myself and Jo Stewart bore the brunt and anyone thinking of this needs to be aware it’s hard work.

 

by Helen Burrows,

Walsall Council

 

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Social media and elections

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Bench, Nuneaton

Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council’s Communications Team entered the social media world in 2009, initially with a Facebook page that only dipped its toe into the pool of potential with news bulletins, event details and occasional photograph uploads.  In early 2010 a Twitter account followed, but again very little initiative or time was given to maximising the potential, as the mentality at that point was ‘we should have a social networking presence because other authorities do’.

Later in 2010 we decided to look at ways of increasing our usage and so developed an initiative called Real Time Results which was simply a live update service from the local election count.  The launch of Real Time Results was supported by a communications strategy that included coverage in local media, our residents’ newsletter, online and through local Community Forum meetings. The campaign centred on the fact that although the vote count and some of the announcements would take place late at night and into the early hours of the morning, people could find out what was happening at the touch of a button- from the comfort of their bed, whilst at work, whilst out socialising or from the other side of the planet (we did have many ex-residents from across the world keeping up with the feed).  As well as offering a service to people who already follow politics we were also targeting a new younger demographic to try and get them interested in politics at the request of elected members and our Democratic Services team.

The delivery of the initiative itself was incredibly simple; a communications officer was present at the vote count armed with a Smartphone and would offer regular updates from the venue.  The brief was to include not only statistical and factual updates, but also photographs of candidates and observations of the atmosphere, as well as humours tweets, in order to keep our followers engaged.

The initiative was well received by service users and overnight increased our number of ‘followers’ and ‘friends’.  We have repeated the service at every vote-count since, the most recent being Warwickshire County Council’s election which took place in May 2013.

by Dan Coates,

Nuneaton and Bedworth District Council

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Challenges of digital communications at a district council

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Mews Kinver

Many more councils are realising the power of social media and embracing the new ways it gives them of communicating with residents.  Fantastic for those for larger councils, with their communications ‘teams’ able to share responsibility for monitoring multiple channels, but what about smaller councils who don’t have that luxury?

Communications in a small council has its challenges.  You are often the ‘one man band’, managing many different channels, offering advice on marketing, media, internal communications, websites and others.  Introducing new concepts like ‘live tweeting’ when it’s not something that has been done before can be difficult, especially when you don’t have a veritable army of communications colleagues at your back offering reassurance that yes, it will work, and yes, people will be interested.

So how does it work?  The answer is simple, and it lies in one of the main advantages of working in a smaller council—the direct, undiluted contact with services.

Take Baggeridge Country Park in South Staffordshire for example.  They have a Facebook page—updated by the service themselves—that contains everything you want to know about the park and its services.  Having a marketable product coupled with a genuine passion for the service has resulted in a successful and engaging social media presence.  How many people are interested in the first smooth newt to be found at the park?  The answer is a lot, judging by the 850+ likes the page has.  It’s a great example of how social media can really work on a smaller scale, for a smaller organisation and yet gain significant interest.

Currently, South Staffordshire Council has six Facebook pages, a Youtube channel, a Flickr account and a twitter account (@south_staffs).  While the communications officer oversees them, they are updated by a dedicated few personnel who are more involved, passionate and knowledgeable about the services they represent.

For many organisations social media can be seen as risky, scary even.  It’s not, and the more we can educate our colleagues about this and share what has worked well, the more they can embrace it and see the power it can have.  Success breeds success, after all.

Of course this doesn’t mean there should be a free-for-all, with every man and his dog having access to the corporate Twitter account, but there is a balance to be struck between reputation management, and educating, training and just plain allowing the services to get on with what they know best.

So yes, social media in a smaller council does have its challenges, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as effective, engaging ad interesting as that in a larger organisation.  We just need to allow it.

I see the peregrine falcon is back at Baggeridge, apparently.  It may be time for a visit.

by Gemma Styles,

South Staffordshire District Council

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Using social media on the frontline by a countryside officer

I started tweeting at work on March 21, 2011.  That’s 2 years, 1 month, 2 weeks and 4 days.  To be honest, I never thought that the @WalsallWildlife twitter feed would meet with the success that it has, and to this day I’m still convinced it’s more of a testament to just how much the people of the West Midlands love wildlife rather than anything that I’m doing in particular.

My aim was to emulate @HotelAlpha9 – a tweeting police officer providing a glimpse into life on the beat.  I wanted to give people a window into a day in the life of a Countryside Ranger, and to find a way to network with people at events, and to generally use social media as a way to engage people.

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Wildlife in Walsall

Generally speaking, through twitter and facebook, I can schedule and book events, surveys, projects and more, without ever needing to advertise, put up flyers or write press releases.   For example, I did a bat survey at Merrions Wood last week and had 15 volunteers show up to help!  On average, 50+ people attend each astronomy event we hold on Barr Beacon, and large-scale events like our annual Peregrine Watch day is attended by hundreds of people.

It also works as a direct-line for people wanting to report findings to our team, ask questions about upcoming events, and even just send in photos of their garden wildlife for identification.  Of course, the immediate access and response can sometimes blur the line between ‘work’ and ‘life’, so I still use my personal twitter account for general chit-chat that isn’t work related.  I have to enforce a few loose ‘rules’ on myself – one of which is to treat enquiries that come in via social media with as much weight as any letter, email or phone call from a member of the public.  As a council, we need to accept the fact that this is simply how an increasing number of people communicate now.

So does this mean the death of the press release?  Has video killed the radio star? Not yet at least.  I need to remain mindful that not everyone is social media savvy, and so for larger events I do go a bit ‘old school’, and especially for positive stories and achievements, which it’s great to share with the online AND offline wildlife fans out there.

 

by Morgan Bowers,

Countryside Officer for Walsall Council

 

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Moving social from broadcast to engaging

 

Up until the summer of 2012, Herefordshire Council had approached twitter as a broadcast and emergency messaging system. Tweets were sent automatically to a range of twitter accounts to issue alerts on school transport, gritting and general press releases.The Council also used Twitter around the jubilee and torch relay celebrations.

A new approach to social media started in August 2012 with a change in communications management.

A council Facebook page was created and the corporate comms unit managed this page and the corporate twitter account. The accounts are checked daily, questions were responded to promptly on the network. An acceptable use policy was published to allow effective moderation.

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Herefordshire countryside

Local social media users quickly noticed that the council was responding to messages. Initially many messages were hostile but the messaging soon evolved to a more normal range of questions, comments and chatter around council services.

A social media policy was prepared and even before this was adopted it provided a framework within which the council could develop new social network accounts. The Council now has thriving facebook pages for its museums, libraries and countryside services along with twitter accounts for those services and to support a sustainable transport initiative.

The most direct benefits the council has seen by embracing social media has been around emergency situations. During recent flooding, fire and snow events facebook and twitter have been the primary ways by which citizens have been kept informed of the latest developments.

The Council also engaged with social networks during its recent budget consultation process. Face-to-face “your community, your say” meetings were supplemented by online discussions on facebook. The council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for finance took part in a live twitter chat to discuss the budget proposals which was well received by local social media users. The councillors themselves found the speed and brevity of the medium to be a challenge but they are keen to develop their skills in this area.

The biggest shift within the council has been to consider online networks alongside other communities when planning consultation and communication activity. In April the council committed to a policy of digital by default and is working to ensure that online transactions are excellent and that information provision online is first class. The Council is also a partner with Gloucestershire County Council and BT in the Fastershire project which will bring broadband to every home in the county.

Working effectively on social media requires a shift in approach across the organisation and the council is open about the fact that it has just started shifting its approach.

 

by Ben Proctor,

Herefordshire County Council

 

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The benefits of open access to social media

 

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Coventry by air at night

At Coventry City Council we’re proud of our 28,700 “likes” of Facebook – followers built up over several years of hard work, careful messaging and judicious use of social media when it really matters (which turns out to be, of course, when you think your school might be closed because it’s snowing).

But we’re just as proud of the 426 likes for Coventry’s library and information page (just wish it was called something a little snappier), the 1,846 likes for Coombe Country Park and, even, the modest 53 likes for Coventry’s Lord Mayor page.

The communications team has little to do with these pages, although we helped set up a few of them and gave some colleagues quick practical tips to get started. Others simply appeared, as have a myriad of Twitter accounts across the Council. It’s an important sign that our employees are confident enough about what they want to say and passionate enough about the work they do to engage directly with residents.

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Transport Museum, Coventry

It’s born, in part, from a sensible approach to access to social and digital media adopted by the organisation. Employees can use the internet for personal use for up to two hours a week. So, seeing someone use Facebook on their work PC isn’t (necessarily) a disciplinary offence.

And while we have the usual IT issues of any large public organisation (some old PCs mean not much point in playing YouTube unless you’re a lip reader, IT security blocks websites it doesn’t like the look of in an entirely random way), we also have an IT team that, in the main, absolutely gets the importance of social media. So, when we uncover blocks to decent access for all they can find  a solution that will work for most of us.

Most importantly of all, we have a Chief Executive – Martin Reeves – who tweets, blogs and understands social media as well as his communications team. It’s a pretty tired cliché to say it all starts at the top, but there’s no doubt that Martin’s championing of social media has made a big difference.

In an age when honest conversations about the challenges we face are more important than ever, being sensible about social media and the role it can play has to be the right way to go. There’s a lot more to do in Coventry, but we’ve made a decent start.

by Fran Collingham,

Coventry City Council

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