it started with a tweet...

by Matt Bond

At Cornwall Council we were gently nudged into using social media by some forward thinking Members and keen amateurs in the comms team.

Step forward @CllrAWallis, @CllrJeremyRowe, @RobNolanTruro, @SteveDouble and @alexfolkes, Cornwall Council’s self-styled ‘twitter gang’. When they first started tweeting from meetings, it’s fair to say that its potential as a groundbreaking communication channel between the Council and the public took us by surprise.

They were met with some resistance, and a front page splash in the local paper about this - dubbed Twittergate – heralded a new era where we all started to take Twitter and social media far more seriously. Importantly, instead of being nervous of it, we started to realise the benefits it could bring.
Watching from the wings were three amateur social media users – me, @hanlrees and @_jasonwilliams. We saw an opportunity to bring social media into the comms arsenal and set about capitalising on the interest created by twittergate.  We already had a twitter presence that used an RSS feed of press releases and had a few hundred followers but didn’t follow many and Jason kept on top of the odd query that came in as and when it happened.

The three of us set about following a few more people, retweeting interesting content and interacting more with the public , Members and the media. The interest started to grow – quickly.

Cornwall‘s rurality means the internet is a communications lifeline for those who are geographically isolated. High levels of interaction with our website is testament to this.  

Conversations started internally about how we could give these web visitors better access to the democratic process, and naturally the webcasting of meetings came to the fore. By September 2010 we had an agreement in place to webcast all major meetings until April 2013 (via Public-i).  We’ll talk to you about webcasting another time, it’s a subject in itself, but where twitter was concerned this really opened up what we were doing and pushed us further. We introduced the #CCwebcast hashtag, which was embraced by those engaging with the live feed and conversations started happening where the public could talk to us, the Members and the media about what was being discussed. Exciting, yes. Scary, definitely. Social media is all about being brave. We’ve made mistakes – nothing earth shattering I am glad to say but we’ve been picked up on comments we have made.  Sometimes you have to know when to just watch and let the discussion continue without you.  

Crisis communications is where twitter can really come to the fore.  We recently won a CIPR Crisis Comms award for our response to the severe flooding in November 2010 which saw hundreds of homes affected. The award was for the blend of communications used  - something we stand firmly by – but one of the jewels in the campaign was Jason setting up #CCflood to encourage information, updates, send links to our online information packs and keep everyone informed as to what was happening.  We used this again during the severe snow with #CCsnow and found the public really engaged with it, telling us about gritted and non gritted roads, where had problems and traffic and where accidents had happened.

One of the best pieces of advice we have followed is about making your corporate twitter voice ‘human’. The debate goes round and round as to whether individual tweeters on a corporate account should identify themselves, but we passionately believe in just giving CC our personality! Those of us that tweet are of a similar age and sociable persuasion. We know and love twitter and how people interact, so as CC, that’s how we talk to people. It makes a difference, so try it.  People respond really well, even if we can’t make their problem go away completely. They love to know someone’s listening.

We are always looking for ways to develop what we do and listen to what others have tried and found successful. We’re extending permissions to other services using our Social Media Policy and Passport.  We’re working on a Social Media Hamper (we are bored of toolkits) to give people the tools to get on and do it themselves.

As we’ve developed twitter, the RSS feed of press releases has started to jar when mixed in with our human tweets. We are working on @CCnewsfeed to be purely RSS (yet to launch), and then working with the media team they will pick out just a few key stories to tweet in a more engaging way on the main @cornwallcouncil feed.  It’s more ‘brave new world’ for us, we’ve got no idea if it will work but if you don’t try, you won’t know.  We’ve just been noted in Better Connected 2012 for our innovation in including residents in discussions by using hashtags to promote webcasts, so we must be doing something right.

Matt Bond is Communications Specialist at Cornwall Council

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