We've had Beast from the East parts I and II. There are forecasts there is part III and IV to follow. Here's what one comms person learned about communicating really well.
by Albert Freeman
We are always under pressure as local government communicators, with many demands on our time. But paradoxically I have found that my stress levels actually seem to be more manageable during extreme weather events when there is greater urgency to our communications. It might be partly because the urgency of our work during such episodes means that I can temporarily stop fretting about everything else – it can all wait.
We had a number of successes and things to learn from during the heavy snow of February and March 2018.
We use GovDelivery for our public emails. Our extreme weather emails were particularly effective during this recent episode of heavy snow. I had only recently added extreme weather as a new subscription topic, and we hadn’t yet sent any emails to the thousand subscribers who had so far signed up for those emails. But when the Beast from the East reached us on 26 February, we started sending emails at least once a day, and promoted these emails heavily across our website, on social media, and to subscribers of some of our other topics.
In the five days between 26 February and 3 March, we gained over 6,000 new subscribers to our extreme weather emails, and in a week we had 16,000 new subscriptions to topics across our whole account. At one point I found myself transfixed watching the subscriber numbers go up by the minute.
The daily emails we sent during that period included the latest information about delayed bin collections and other council service disruptions, gritting, advice on helping vulnerable people, and photos of staff or other local people working hard to help others. Those emails had an average open rate of 68%, compared to an account average of 38% this year to date.
Facebook was another particularly useful channel for communicating with local people during the snow. We took a similar approach with our Facebook content as with the content we shared by email. The photos of local people and council staff helping out went down particularly well, as did the advice on helping others and, of course, gritting and bins. One post about how we would catch up with missed bin collections was shared over 2,200 times and reached 180,000 people without us spending a penny on it. We did pay a small amount (less than £50 during the whole week) to promote some of our other posts to local people.
The frequency of our Facebook posts was greater than normal that week. Our general rule on Facebook is the less is more, but during extreme weather, it does seem that people, and the Facebook algorithm, forgive more posts.
Speaking of the Facebook algorithm, if reactions, comments and shares are what the updated algorithm rewards, we nailed it that week. We had over 10,000 reactions comments and shares during the week beginning 26 February, more than 12 times as much engagement as the previous week.
Google Analytics insights from our website, plus insights from social media and GovDelivery helped us to learn which information people were looking for, and what information they most valued. This helped prioritise which information to repeat. For example, our tweets about support for rough sleepers had high levels of engagement. So we repeated these tweets, and included this information in every subsequent email bulletin that week. On average 18 people were housed by the service each night during the week of heavy snow, more than twice the average number on a normal cold night (eight).
We had photos and videos sent to us to use of staff out at work, from wardens helping people get about to home care assistants visiting people in their homes, as well as local residents getting involved to clear snow. Illustrating these human stories on social media and in our emails helped to demonstrate some of the less visible yet vital work a local authority does at a time when missed bin collections and road conditions seem to be the main council services people are aware of and talk about. As well as content sent to us by staff, I was pleased by how much content we received from residents, such as photos of our gritters.
One of our learning points has been that council staff who regularly see local people during severe weather, such as wardens, bin collection teams and care workers, can help to let people know about the communications we offer. So we have begun distributing more promo cards for our email subscriptions for staff to give out.
While naturally not all local residents were happy or complimentary about service disruptions, we did receive a lot of kind messages of thanks that week. Some of those messages came via our website, and others via social media. I particularly like this one, sent to us as a private message on Instagram after a local resident spotted our bin men out in the heavy snow:
“Your guys are brilliant. I haven’t dared drive down this road all week! I think your publicity this week has been amazing and I hope all your staff get reward and recognition.”
I’ve seen countless examples of other local government comms teams doing brilliant things during the recent cold weather, and lots of things I’ve seen that we can learn from for next time. While there are some things we have identified that we could have communicated in better ways, I am rather proud of what we achieved, how everyone in our team played to their strengths, and we engaged a large number of local people in meaningful ways.
Now, having said all that, can we have spring please?
Albert Freeman is digital comms and marketing specialist at Bradford Council.