a lesson from parliament: blogs and forums matter

Chances are as a public sector organisation you have content. Masses of it. The trick is to know how to shape the content to get it out.

by Dan Slee

So, there I am looking out of the window at Big Ben and I'm recalling a punch-up that took place in Walsall four years ago.

It was a right hum-dinger of a scrap. An epic barney. It took place at the first Hyperwm at a session between bloggers and press officers to work out what that relationship should look like.

In the blue corner, bloggers thought there was no point in talking to press officers as they'd 'all be out of jobs soon.'

In the red corner, press officers thought there was no point in talking to bloggers as they 'weren't real journalists.'

Of course, it wasn't an actual punch-up four years ago. Yes, it got heated. But it finished off by the realisation that if both sides if they talked to each other both would benefit. The key to it all? Content. Talk to people and find out what kind of content people now want. Then supply it.

What prompted the flashback? Two people talking at an event called #Parliteacamp at Portcullis House opposite Big Ben and Parliament. Having that conversation was a government digital officer and a representative from a major web forum used by hundreds of thousands of people.

The forum would only charge for government to host a Q&A, right?

Well, it would if it was a marketing thing with some budget attached. But it would be really quite interested in doing it free if there was real value to the forum's members. Not only that but the reciprocal SEO-boost of link sharing may make it happen.

As they talked there was a lightbulb moment of realisation that one party had content and the other had an audience. Not all of it was going to be of use. But some would be. In order to find out what was interesting a conversation needs to take place.

That took me back to the argument in Walsall four years ago.

Why should conversation should shape content?

Of course, it was all so easy 10 years ago. An organisation would produce a press release and everyone would lap it up, right? But times change. A press release is content shaped for printed newspapers. Expecting them to work on the web is like putting a square peg in a round hole.

What works on the web? Rich content that people like clicking and exploring. Audio. Video. An infographic. A hosted Q&A. Data, maybe. But there is no golden bullets. What work may be all, some or none of them. The real gem for me at #Parliteacamp was the the conversation between the government digital officer and the web forum. Firstly, the realisation that not everything will be of interest. Secondly, a conversation between the two parties can help pick out which content will work.  

So, the moral for the comms person is still the value on personal relationships. And understanding channels. And creating content in different channels.

Why should we be bothered about bloggers and forums?

The case can be summed up in one word: numbers.

People are using them. Take the town of Brownhills in Walsall in the West Midlands. The Brownhills Bob blog had 58 posts last month drawing 60,000 page views. What works? Pictures, youtube clips, cut and pasted press releases even. They are sometimes critical of the council and sometimes not.

The figure outguns my old newspaper the Express & Star which has 17 stories on its website tagged with 'Brownhills' and an unknown number of views for the stories. I'm not sure how that compares with the print edition as I don't see the newspaper. However, not everything that goes into the print edition goes online.

You can absolutely have a debate about the respective quality of those news stories. One is shaped by journalists and the other by a passionate resident. But the loop returns to numbers and that Brownhills Bob is part of the media landscape in Walsall. The loop also returns to the sage universal advice to comms people of 'go to where people are' whether that's a radio phone in, a newspaper, a website or a Facebook page.

Not all bloggers are as engaging as Bob but if you don't test the water you'll never know. 

So, how do you find bloggers who may be interested in what you are doing? icerocket.com and openlylocal.

Nationally, you can look at forums like The Student Room, mumsnet or moneysavingexpert who have big national audiences around a topic.

What is #Parliteacamp?

Good people at the UK Parliament are looking to engage with people outside better. This was a session to help them understand to a large part how they can reach out to people using the web and the social web.

Parliament are sat on a rich goldmine of content. Hansard transcripts. Video of debates in the House of Commons, House of Lord's and select committees. Then there's the reams produced as whitepapers, green papers and a whole load of other reports. Indeed back in 2009, the House of Lords was told that it was 'morally and ethically wrong' for such content not to be made freely available.  It also was told that a two way discussion was essential. A head of digital, as recommended by MySociety this year looks likely to drive this through.

They are doing some good work through the Twitter UKParlOutreach where they encourage Q&As, discussion and live tweeting. It would be great to see them look at the numbers of people reached and engaged with. That seems to me to be a really useful metric.

And the moment when it really gets interesting is when questions from social media get asked in realtime.

The Speaker selecting a question at Prime Ministers' Question Time from Twitter? Or at a select committee? 

It's starting to happen in local government.

That would be true engagement.

Dan Slee is co-founder of comms2point0.

Picture credit.

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