Digital communications can be a leap of faith to communications people. But once you make that leap it starts to make powerful sense. Here are some tips to help you no matter where you are on your journey.
by Ross Wigham
1. Try to think customer not corporate. This sounds pretty obvious doesn’t it but for too long we were focusing on what the council wanted to tell people, rather than thinking about the conversations that we should be having. Social media for councils and the whole public sector is a real game changer when it comes to engagement and that starting point should be thinking about the stuff residents want to talk to us about. It’s meant to be a conversation, so make sure you’re listening as well as talking. From a population of 300,000 we’ve now got more than 26,000 people signed up to our networks, despite being a predominantly rural area.
2. Use the right language. God knows that in the public sector we are probably guilty of creating some of the most mind bending management double speak out there. For every well written report or consultation there’s a ‘holistic governance’ or ‘outcome-based learning environment’ thrown in there to confuse people. Our job as communicators is to help weed this out and social media gives us the ultimate tool to do that. With limited characters and the staccato nature of conversations online you really need to make sure you’re speaking the right language. In short, say what you mean in the right tone for your audience.
3. Get your policy right. Policies and the exciting online world probably don’t sit well together in the same sentence, but it’s vital that you come up with a set of guidelines about how the organisation will use social media. For a public sector body it’s so important to decide on a strategy and nail down who in the organisation is allowed to use and monitor this technology. Secondly and more importantly you need to decide how you will respond and when. We adapted something from a blog-guide used by the US air force that really helped with our approach.
4. Put social media right at the heart of your comms work. It’s not something that should be an afterthought and you need to be talking about social media at the very highest level. For me this is quickly becoming the most important and effective channel for talking to local people. You should be talking about how you will use them in every communications conversation you have. It has helped us reach more people, improve our reputation and save money over the past three years.
5. Exploit the power of reach. We’re one of the largest, most rural English counties running all the way from Tyneside right up to Scotland. To give you an idea of the scale of our operations we have more than 3,000 miles of road – which is like driving from Newcastle to New York. It takes 8 local papers to cover this patch but relevant, timely information can be sent in seconds at the touch of a button. Social media can also act as the eyes and ears of your organisation because your people can’t be everywhere.
6. Get sharing. We’ve found Facebook in particular a great place to share things with our residents. When we asked them to send us photos that we could use for free in our publicity and marketing material we got more than 700 images in the first couple of weeks. We’ve also opened things up to people, based on what they’ve asked us. For example we put every food outlet’s environmental health results live on Facebook so that people could check standards before they ate out. Conversely, make sure your posts help you find out what people think about things. It can provide vital intelligence and a channel for consultation that’s free.
7. A vital tool in Emergencies. Unfortunately we’ve had our share of those in the past few years including 30 plus days of snow (twice), major flooding and the Raoul Moat incident. Our efforts only really started paying off after we launched our winter alerts scheme and once people realised they could get reliable news quickly – and on the move – they signed up by the thousand. It proved a fantastic real time information source about what was happening across the county.
8. Work with your friends. Working with local partners can add loads more value for the public. We teamed up with schools, colleges, the emergency services and bus companies to help get key messages out there during the bad weather. People don’t tend to be interested in how we organise ourselves in the public sector, they just want the right information from their local area.
9. Build a community, save yourself work. Most of the time people just want answers to simple questions and social media provides a great tool to do this. We’ve found that our community can sometimes step in and help us and our customers get the right answers. During the extreme weather the online community were able to answer each other’s questions and resolve loads of problems without the council or the media needing to get involved. We witnessed some fantastic mobile conversations between bus commuters who were able to advise each other of things like the best route in snow or where to catch an alternative lift home.
10. Keep scanning the horizon. Make sure you’re always looking out for the next big thing and following how online trends are changing. The idea of social media is here to stay but I’m not convinced what’s popular now will still be popular in the future.
Ross Wigham is head of communications at Northumberland County Council. He blogged this first here.