on digital comms for listening


by Jon King

Here’s a little story about holding your nerve.

Cornwall Council recently launched a comms campaign to support the adoption of a new, unified waste disposal contract.

Like my home patch of Shropshire, Cornwall has become a unitary authority and residents are watching to see the promised savings that rationalisation promised. You can read the Cornwall story on Matt Bond’s blog.

It certainly struck a chord with me as we’re consulting on another new way of working. It’s a planning and development process that began with parish councils talking to residents to identify parcels of land with development potential. The sites were assessed by our officers for their viability; we published the findings and then went out to wider consultation. And like Cornwall, we deployed social media.

And what happened? People used the Facebook page to vent their frustrations. They criticised the insufficient number of posters distributed to promote local meetings. They criticised the delay in providing additional information to help form a considered opinion and they suggested that we were censoring negative comments or worse still, taking them down.

Could we have sent out more posters? Yes. And we admitted as much on the Facebook page and promised to send out more.

Was there more information available? Yes. And we apologised for the delay in posting it up but did so shortly afterwards.

Did we censor or delete comments? No. We explained our terms & conditions whilst underlining our desire to have a free and wide ranging discussion on the process. And do you know what? That customer posted a public apology on the page for having made the accusation.

So, before you imagine the sky is falling in, it’s worth remembering a couple of home truths.

1 Some people are very passionate about local services. We may do hundreds of things for residents but some things are sacred; Waste disposal and Planning being right up there on the altar. So don’t be surprised if some people are vocal.

2 People are always saying bad things about the council; we just weren’t part of the conversation before. With social media, we can be active participants in it.

Instead of retreating into a bunker, we used customer criticism to refine the consultation process; customer insight for business improvement if you like.

Social media may seem like airing your dirty laundry in public but it can serve a much more positive purpose. The passion of our residents can be channelled and with prompt responses and honesty it can be converted into advocacy. People are now praising the public meetings we’re promoting and encouraging others to engage in the new planning process and they’re doing so on the same Facebook page where the criticism first appeared.

If you’re honest and you’re open and you’re willing to take constructive criticism and act on it and more importantly, you are willing to do those things in the public domain, social media are a friend not a threat and it can do wonders for your reputation.

Jon King is Senior eCommunications Officer at Shropshire Council

Read Jon’s blog