When your organisation is on the receiving end of a bit of satire there’s a temptation to take the whole thing very seriously. This post emphasises the importance, and benefits, of having a sense of humour.
By Adam Keating and Michael Sargood
When the Southend News Network (SNN), a satirical (they don’t really like spoof) website launched in October, it was quickly picked up by a few local councillors, senior officers and our team. Initial stories raised a chuckle internally, and whilst we agreed to ‘keep an eye’ on it to see how it developed, and try to work out the brains behind the operation, we did not in all honesty think it would last that long. “They can’t keep this up!” we thought.
But when the stories continued to flow on a regular basis and we learnt that our customer services centre was getting calls – some of them rather angry - about ‘news’ read on SNN (needing a council license to trick or treat was particularly ‘unpopular’), we knew that we could no longer dismiss or ignore it.
With Facebook growth that a council of our size could only dream of (over 8,000 likes in four months) and local residents really engaging with the site and enjoying it, it was clear that something had to be done. But what?
We had seen the consequences when other parties, their pride perhaps injured by being parodied publicly, had reacted heavy-handedly resulting in all-round condemnation from SNN’s burgeoning fan base, who bemoaned perceived aggression and lack of humour. Indeed certain reactions to stories were probably harming reputations more than the stories themselves.
So this was the challenge before us: Could we turn tap into the popularity of this site and somehow respond with positive engagement instead of self-destructive enragement?
We thought we could. There were no big meetings, no reports to senior officers for approval for what we would do (of course we kept them informed though), just good old fashioned engagement and reputational/relationship management: an approach we would take with any local community group or local news site.
Fortunately we communication types generally have a sense of humour and a fairly quick wit. So it came naturally for our team to engage as humans with SNN, taking the gentle jibes about council bureaucrats and red tape in good humour. We dipped our toes in lightly to start with and quickly realised that we could talk to a great number of local people, directing them to factual information on our online channels and responding to some of the natural criticism that comes your way when you suddenly appear on a Facebook discussion.
We came up with the idea of starting the hashtag #TroofBehindTheSpoof, keeping an eye on the SNN website and Facebook and linking their made-up stories with our real ones – simple really, but perhaps not an approach that everyone would be comfortable with.
This prompted an approach from SNN for an interview, which we declined, but suggested the ‘Chief Reporter’ come in for a chat with us. This turned into a jovial but productive hour over a cup of coffee when he revealed his main ire is aimed at the local media. He is not anti-council or anti-Southend, he claimed, he is just having a bit of fun. We told him we were treating him like any other media outlet and he was delighted, prompting an SNN story, an SNN Fact Sheet and the BBC News story that you may have seen recently. He also agreed to keep us informed of stories he was writing about the council, to give us a chance to prepare factual information and warn our customer services team!
We would be lying if we said we did not have a hot sweat when we saw the SNN story and photo released. “What have we done and should we have done it?” sprang to mind along with “will there be a P45 on our desks tomorrow?”. But we knew we had done the right thing to engage and the feedback has so far been overwhelmingly positive – from peers in the industry, to senior managers, councillors and the media themselves.
Most importantly, and aside from the fun it is engaging with an outlet that is a bit different, we can evaluate the success. The stats at the moment make the case compelling. In the first seven days following the meeting we increased our Faceboook likes by 311% and boosted our reach by 239%. In the three weeks since, we have gained over 300 Facebook likes, a rise of just under 50%. Engagement is also rocketing, with more local people than ever commenting on posts, messaging us and sharing our content with their friends.
So for us, aside from approaching it in a fun and human way, it was about three important things:
- Reputational management – putting facts across and defending ourselves where necessary
- Engagement – we saw a big opportunity to reach out and engage in conversation with an audience we did not have a relationship with
- Building our social media profile – with our council magazine set to be a victim of shrinking budgets, we need to build our online community, and this gave us the ideal opportunity to do that
Thanks for reading, we hope that you have found this useful – we are off to read the latest story about the council advising pet owners to microchip their fish…..
Adam Keating and Michael Sargood are Senior Media Relations Advisors for Southend-on-Sea Borough Council
image via Flickr creative commons