We're always keen to get fresh perspectives, case studies and ideas. And it's good to look beyond the UK too. So here's a new guest post from the Netherlands.
by David Kok
It’s the beginning of a new year. A time to look forward and set goals for the coming year (if you already did, you might like to change them after reading this blog :-)
It’s 2016 and a lot of local governments appear to think that it’s still 1996. What changes should they realize to get into the 21th century by the end of this year (or century)? Based on my personal experience at local governments in the Netherlands, studies on how cities use social media (UK 2013, around the world 2012) and various interesting books and other literature, I see three major changes local governments must make...
1. Find the human dimension in your communication (make it personal)
2. Dare to experiment! The future is now
3. Professionalise your organisation
In this article I will describe these three changes. But, in the end, everything starts with the word 'ambition'. Do we strive for a 9 or are we happy with a 6? Do we think we’re a 9, where someone else just believes we are a 7? Five years ago very few municipalities had a Twitter account, and those who did, had often written in there bio "don’t ask us questions here!" At the end of 2015 a lot of municipalities know what webcare is and follow their accounts in a more professional way, showing that governments can grow. But is our ambition to organize webcare, or do we strive to be social businesses in full potential? Do we recognize all of the potential of new media to be in contact with our citizens and do we use these media and other media in their full potential and coherence? That is the ambition that I have in mind in this article: how can governments get social (businesses).
Change 1: Find the human dimension in your communication (make it personal)
It goes without saying that the world is digitized. We should recognize however that this digitalisation cannot work without a little help from humans. As Steven van Belleghem so rightly states in his book When digital Becomes human: computers can resolve much, but people add emotion, the human dimension. In the relationship between society and people this emotion can help governments to get closer to their inhabitants.
But human emotion only works when you understand the way people want to communicate. Communication departments “used to create content in a place where people went to consume content passively. Now they have to create content in places where people want to consume content where they can share, comment, engage, praise and complain” (Dan Slee, Comms2point0). This leads to the fact that governments are feeling (or somewhere start to feel) the pressure to enter into a dialogue with their citizens. This demands sensitivity, reciprocity and instant response. People do not just want a reaction, they want it now. The speed that previously would be qualified as crisis communication, is normal today.
We can also see that people want to be addressed as an individual. Empathy plays an essential role, especially in a world where “getting information off the internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant” (quote: Mitchel Kapor). The point is that municipalities must recognize the contribution of citizens and understand their emotions. Therefore communication must get personal to be relevant! The inability to engage in this dialogue and the lack of personal communication overall in the past years, has meant that many people no longer participate (among other reasons of course). The key to changing this is the insight that "(conflicting) opinions" aren’t the problem, but the way local governments communicate about them. Local governments need to take ‘conversational responsibility’.
This means that communication not only must become more human and more personal but also must be real! Being real means consistent and authentic. In the human dimension being real is essential. A lot of citizens distrust local governments, stating that they never do what they promise. Governments don’t need to be ‘the nice guy’, but must communicate in an open and motivated manor.
Sally-Anne Watts, head of communications, Northampton General Hospital NHS Trust has a nice new year resolution: “remember at all times the fundamental foundations of effective communications – why/who/what/when/where/how much? Don’t be what my old mum would have called ‘fur coat, but no knickers.” Be true to your message, be real, be human and be personal!
Change 2: dare to experiment! The future is now
In this disruptive radical chaotic society we all need to develop the skills to deal with the unknown and the ability to realize that ‘not knowing’ is knowledge as well. So that’s the most important thing we have to understand: we will have to learn, reflect and develop continuously.
The Internet of Things
Something (local) governments in the Netherlands are strangers with, is the Internet of Things. Estimations suggest that by 2020 the number of connected devices on the planet could reach as many as 50 billion. The question is: what can governments do with this? We need to experiment with connected devices. "To do this, organisations must become adaptable enterprises, capable of rapidly building and evolving applications in response to new customer and market needs.” (source: The top 5 digital business trends for 2016). Governments need an Internet of Things strategy, according to Dan Lohrmann, Chief strategist & chief security officer at Security Mentor Inc. In his blog he quotes Prime Minister David Cameron: “It is clear that we live in a world of permanent technological revolution. Countries like the UK will only succeed if we show a relentless drive for leadership and innovation. […] The Internet of Things is a transformative development. Technologies that could allow literally billions of everyday objects to communicate with each other over the Internet have enormous potential to change all of our lives….”
Build on moving ground
The field of (strategic) communication is nowadays like building on moving ground. Change is the only constant, the future is now (or was yesterday). It requires consistency from a long-term vision but also needs a continuous dexterity and flexibility to anticipate this changing environment. In fashionable terms: we need an agile government and adaptive, innovative public servants who see beyond the routine.
Betteke van Ruler, emeritus professor at the University of Amsterdam, writes the following about this matter: "The traditional (five year) communication plan doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. These plans predetermine what result you are going to achieve and what actions you must perform to achieve that result. Changing conditions, or different results from your actions, lead to the point where you have to admit that your goals weren’t realistic, your target audiences did not add up or that you didn’t choose the right strategy, the right actions, or the right message. Finding the human dimension in your communication means that you must continually check the needs of the society and be flexible enough to deal with this in your communication strategy: building on moving ground.
Find pioneers and create speedboats for them
To be able to build on moving ground, you need people who aren’t afraid to lead the way: pioneers. They are the early adaptors and have the courage to experiment (think outside the square box). They see the gaps in the old system and want to dive into these gaps to explore the possibilities and opportunities in this “space in between” the old and the new. A lot of governments need to cut budgets, but they need to create budget to help these pioneers to explore this space in between.
These pioneers should be accommodated in speedboats. Menno Lanting describes this metaphor in his book Oil tankers and speedboats: “Speedboats are proactive, agile, look outside themselves, are connected to a network, bring added value to the customer, citizen or co-worker, and never stop learning. This is in stark contrast to professionals and organisations who remain firmly anchored in the age of industry, they are the oil tankers”. I think governmental organisations can easily be described as oil tankers. The pioneers are allowed to experiment and to find the gaps in the old system and hack into them. Solutions are not cast in stone, but remain liquid so that the innovation can benefit from practical experience. Proven solutions can then be transferred into the oil tanker making it a new ‘anchor’.
Change 3: professionalise your organisation
To realize the first two changes, governmental organisations need to professionalise some departments. They need to learn to know their customer, change the way they communicate in campaigns and create new job titles.
Know your customer (don’t be afraid)
In the Netherlands I see a lot of ‘fear of the citizen': colleagues are scared to pick up the phone or speak to someone, because maybe they are going to ask a question you don’t have the answer to (or spend a day or two to find it). It seems like a lot of civil servants don’t work for the citizens anymore, but for the people who are in charge (the elected). I think civil servants must therefore be trained in their contact with citizens. What better way to train them, is to let them work at the customer care department for a day or two? It’s all about the ‘customer’ (citizens)!
And because it’s all about the citizens, governments need to professionalise their webcare. Webcare isn’t just about answering questions through social media! It’s about social care: help people who need help, have insight in the online (and offline) activities, your followers and hot topics. Let your managers and elected officials know what happens in your city and how they can react to it. Social care isn’t only the Customer Care department, it’s every single professional, who needs to know what happens in his own network!
At this time Twitter it is still the most widely used webcare channel. In the coming years especially WhatsApp will play an important role in the webcare. The use of this channel will take great leaps and webcare adapts to that. Does your city allows citizens to contact you through WhatsApp already?
Professionalise your campaigns
Today’s communication is about dialogue. Governmental campaigns are still far too traditional and one way orientated. Municipalities linger in their familiar recipe: a campaign idea, cross-media smeared on billboards, radio, print and online. This doesn’t work anymore. As Dan Slee states: “be content creators. Not a press officer or a press office. Provide content in the right way at the right time to the right people. […] Understand the variety of channels there are and know how to create content for them. And by the way, cut and pasting the same content in six channels doesn’t work”.
Campaigning must be reversed. It must attempt to influence and reach to relevant one-on-one communication. This results in campaigns that do not require attention, but deserve attention. And in this new world it must be mobile first. It should be searchable, snackable and shareable. Video is playing an increasingly important role. And not just video, but personalised videos (the human dimension).
New job titles
Finding the human dimension and professionalising the organisation require new job titles. Communication isn’t about writing a press release anymore. As stated in the previous paragraph, it’s thinking about the right channel and the right message. It’s thinking in stories. Stories worth sharing. Snackable, shareable content. Governments need to stop bothering citizens with things they don’t want / need to know. Give them meaningful, personalized, content that makes them happy. With stories that touch them. Because it solves a problem for them. Because it sweetens their lives. Because it teaches them something or inspires. Or simply because it makes them laugh. So you can involve them in what the city does. And yes, I believe governments can teach, inspire, sweeten and entertain!
To create stories and to know how to share these, governments need journalists to write them, a CEO (Chief Engagement Officer) to pick up signals, to listen and engage and community managers to share and organize off- and online meetings. With people inside the organisation and with the citizens.
The three changes that I outline in this article are of course complementary and strongly related to each other. The mission for government is to become social businesses, therefore all civil servants need to think social. Offline and online. Civil servants need to understand that all communication is personal these days. It’s faster than the pigeon, faster than a letter and even faster than an e-mail (which in the beginning you could ignore for at least two days). If you don’t react within a day, which is already slow, don’t react at all. Think about your conversational responsibility, keep up with your network.
This requires governments to experiment more, because they will have to learn how this future today works. Trying new things. By using opportunities as the Internet of Things, by putting pioneers in speedboats, and by learning how to build on moving ground.
Within the civil service organisations this means that old things should be revamped and professionalised. Municipalities should look for new forms of campaigning, webcare should be professionalised and civil servants need training to learn to communicate. Finally, the socialisation also asks for new job titles within the municipal organisations.
To conclude with the words of Bob the Builder: "Can we make it? Yes we can "After Lofty says," I think so, yes ... ".
David Kok is social media manager for the council of the city of Almere (next to the city of Amsterdam) in the Netherlands. He is responsible for every communication surrounding the council with specific attention of bringing the citizens of Almere closer to the political process.