Notes on a social media briefing

Last week I had an opportunity to speak to a group of professionals who work with local government about social media. The group had varying knowledge and interest about social media, were of varying ages and organisational hierarchical levels (from a CEO to graduate trainee) but the group was almost exclusively made up of people who have experience working inside bureaucratic organisations, namely local government and universities. Because of the variety of people in the audience I decided it was best not to prepare something prescriptive like slides but to approach the session as an interactive surgery though I did offer to take questions in advance if they would need some research. I got two advance requests: show good examples of local government using social media and discuss how to manage online communities on top of the day job (we ran out of time to really address this.) Both of these are among the most common issues I’m asked to discuss in briefing sessions with regard to public sector use of social media (some others being ‘What is the point?’, ‘What will be the return on investment?’ and, exhaustingly and usually with a not-funny-anymore tone of self depreciation, ‘Why do I want to know what you had for breakfast?’) so I was glad to prepare some things in advance that I knew would probably be of interest to the wider group. The purpose of this blog post is for me to be able to reflect on my conversation and be reasonably convinced I didn’t make a total jerk of myself and to share with you what I feel are common issues, discussions, challenges and attitudes in the local government around use of social media for customer interaction. So if you’re getting prepared for a similar briefing you can take a leaf from my book- or not- in preparation.


Good use of social media by local government (by no means comprehensive)

I’d been asked to prepare examples before the talk and even though I have my favourites I know my best practice examples are not the end all. So a few days ahead of the session I put the question out to Twitter: ‘Which local authority do you think is smashing it on social media and why?’ I got only two responses (is it my network or are there not really any good examples?), one of which was a plea to share any info I get back and the other was a shout out for Fife on Twitter.


Fife Council on Twitter- Fife’s account, not unusually, is managed by Communications with no hands on from Customer Services even though the account fields enquiries from customers. More unusually a CRM- Lagan- is used to record customer contact. My tweeps heralded Fife’s swift and helpful responses (apparently mainly through a man called John) so it went forward as good practice. I did, however, use Fife as an example of where I think most social media management is in Scottish local authorities- with Comms- which I don’t think it is as useful as it could be to citizens, mainly because it means back office probably isn’t streamlined what with a Comms Officer acting as a middleman between service reps and the public and because it’ll most likely produce sanitised messages. Having said all that I discovered during my briefing session that they were using @FCQuestion that afternoon to field questions about under occupancy charges from welfare reform. From what I could see, until last week, that account had not been used since last October so all evidence points to a PR exercise in the run up to panic stations on April 1st when bedroom tax kicks in. But it’s not a bad idea if it can be resourced and in fact they let tweeters know the questions they asked will be added to their welfare reform FAQs on their website which is a great representation of closing the circle between web and social media.


Birmingham Newsroom - Birmingham is on fire when it comes to local government use of social media and web. Birmingham Newsroom is incredible because it aims to cut out answering calls to journos and issuing oh so outdated press releases by proactively and transparently publishing its news via web and social media. It also allows for a level playing ground when presenting council news to citizens and journalists. It’s a no brainer for communicators in any organisation- be honest, quick and digital for the best chance to control your message and cut down on unnecessary staff costs answering the phone to the hack writing for the local paper most people don’t read anymore anyway.


Someone from the audience contributed information about work being done by Carse of Gowrie Sustainability Group using open source systems Open Street Map, Ushahidi and Quantum GIS to allow citizens to help the Sustainability Group map the enormous network of man made drainage ditches in the area, some of which are nearly 300 years old. Since some of the ditches have fallen into disrepair or are not suitable for coping with modern demands, they have contributed to recent devastating flooding in the area. By allowing citizens to use mobile and web to contribute to mapping the ditch locations and states of disrepair the local authority can help prevent flooding in the future.


Lincolnshire County Council on Vine- This is the only example I know of a UK local government using Vine. Like muck off a shovel Lincolnshire took to Vine not long after it launched to promote its local sexual health services around Valentine’s Day. Well done.


Coventry City Council on Twitter- I picked up on a conversation in Knowledge Hub on a fantastic blog post about applying cognitive biases to planning use of social media when a management trainee, whose first placement at Coventry has been in the contact centre, commented on the post. Coventry’s use of Twitter over recent snowy periods, especially with regard to school closures, may, they think, be responsible for what they perceive as a drop in phone calls to the contact centre and a huge increase in followers. I got pretty excited about this because it’s someone sitting in a council contact centre connecting to its social media and noticing a drop in calls. But here’s the rub: notice the fluffy language I used above. Most of us can only ever really report a feeling or suspicion about the impact of social media use on services or inbound contact or customer behaviour. In my opinion that’s not because dashboards or monitoring tools are lacking, it’s because evidencing impact of web and social media is a long game- too long for traditional reporting expectations- and it would be hard work to start what with the spaghetti back end of a large organisation. Because we can’t demonstrate ROI from the beginning of a social media project the resource will most likely not be given so something like measuring the long term impact of web and social media won’t happen officially. So I hope Coventry keeps an eye on this for the benefit of us all.


New York Public Library on Pinterest- Ok, this is playing fast and loose with the term ‘local government’ but NYPL examples can be applied to our libraries which are managed by local government. NYPL blows me away with its use of digital and its bravery in not just embracing but bear hugging disruptive technology. Their Pinterest is a joy to behold. Besides their online book groups, online service to chat live with a librarian, vast digital archives and more the one thing that sticks out in my mind as a smart and ballsy move is to display, upon searching their catalogue for a book to borrow, where the book you’re looking for can be purchased online. I know it’s counterintuitive but just think about it for a minute. It’s genius and, according to one NYPL rep, they just want people to read- it doesn’t matter that on occasion customers buy from someone instead of rent from them.


NASA Tournament Lab (crowdsourcing information)- Again, I’m playing fast and loose with ‘local government’ but as a US federal government arm we can use our imaginations when thinking about examples we can learn from. NASA has recognised the immense pools of information held by members of the public or professional laypeople that could help them fill gaps in knowledge, meet deadlines and watch their positive results shoot through the roof. Watch a video about the programme on the grow social media marketing website.


I didn’t have time to mention


ThisIsVT on Twitter- Vermont’s tourism arm took a leaf from @Sweden’s book and turns their Twitter account over to a different citizen every week. Again, ballsy but really powerful and popular. What is there to lose?


Issues raised at the briefing

I could have probably mapped how the conversation would go before the meeting started and I would have been pretty spot on. From my experience talking to a mixed hierarchical group from bureaucratic organisations has the risk averse more senior people putting forward hypotheticals that are shrouded in negativity and the more junior people challenging the negativity or considering out loud how something new might work. So here are a few things that came up:


  • Someone made a great point that public services are increasingly being hit by funding cuts and the immediacy of contact through social media could mask or misrepresent that, for example, the complaint made won’t actually be dealt with for two weeks. My response was that if interaction via social media was widened out to a larger council staff group than just Communications (where arguably the majority if council social media is managed) we could move away from stiff ‘Your complaint has been logged and will be addressed by the appropriate officer in due course’ to a more real and honest response reflecting the actual service thus managing expectation and gaining some respect. This led to the ubiquitous….


  • Not all staff can be trusted communicating with customers online. This was raised by someone who used to manage council customer services and explained that in her time she had heard some customer service officers dealing with people in such a way she could not risk letting them loose on social media. I responded by saying that, unlike a phone call or an evening meeting in the church hall, social media and web can offer a full record of what went down and something concrete to apologise for/to if needed. That is a good thing. What I also thought was: what on Earth is that kind of person doing dealing with customers anyway? Just because a new customer contact platform is available doesn’t mean you let all and sundry on it and it definitely doesn’t mean the management responsibility of a rogue customer service officer is different. At the end of the day it’s about trusting your staff and where you can’t you manage well. Nothing to do with a new communication tool.


  • Social listening generated an interesting conversation. Whether you’re manually gathering social media sentiment or using an automated tool, social listening can augment traditional surveys (see Pew Reseach Centre’s year long study on Twitter opinions vs general public opinion), give live indications of feelings around an issue, etc. It could also do wonders for reputation management and stifling rumour and misinformation. Unfortunately I don’t know of any council leveraging public online conversation but maybe it’s because of the reasons put forward by my more pessimistic brethren in the room. Those reasons could be:

- Information gathered via social media could be perceived by members of the public as a reason they get inferior customer service in the future. For example if Jane Public moans on Twitter about the new rubbish collection service, that information could be used (or perceived by her as being used) for any poor service from the council in the future. My response to this was thank goodness councils are too unorganised on the back end to actually do this. But do you think this is an actual risk?

- Opinions expressed on social media may not be valid or credible. I responded by admitting that its likely an opinion expressed on social media is either of a very satisfied or a very dissatisfied person but it’s not useful to dismiss the opinion out of hand. In addition, how can this relevancy question be applied to traditional customers surveys? Can’t you ask the same question of both methods? If your customer speaks you should listen and then apply context, right?

- Does a public sector body have the right to be ‘spying’ on customers? My response was that most social media accounts are public and so why shouldn’t local government listen like any pharmaceutical company watching the public talk about its latest drug treatment or tracking the spread of flu? Anyone disagree?


  • Another ubiquitous one: Why would someone use social media to report a broken street lamp or a pothole instead of just picking up the phone or using email? Well, if you’re asking that question then you probably wouldn’t be using social media to report something. But I would. And this is important for us social media and web champions to remember: social media and web should augment your other communication and interaction methods until such time we are all digital. But it’s also important for naysayers to step back and recognise a disruptive technology before its organisation is left in the dust and throws money at a problem it has little chance of fixing retrospectively. Use of digital ways in to councils is growing and is indeed being pushed by central governments so it behooves local government to pay attention, get some balls and try stuff out. A majority won’t but where there is a minority we need to learn from them and use their examples to help bolster business cases and research.

If anyone wants to try stuff out, work on business cases or do some research get in touch and let’s do some actual work that will help us fight the good fight.

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(This has been cross-posted from the Scottish Public Sector Digital Group blog .) ...


Michael MacAuley 9 Years Ago
Great post Leah with some very good points. I guess the conclusion could be that Social Media is not just for Comms but for helping deliver services where appropriate across an organisation. Distributed contact with customers has always been accepted in delivering services. Why is it not the same here? Thanks
Former Member 9 Years Ago
Excellent Post Leah! I am also looking at how we can embrace not just social media but also Social IT to enhance offering to staff and members within Parliament. I recently visited the South West Trains control room in Waterloo and had a very interesting, open and frank conversation with their Customer Experience manager and a couple of their 'tweeters'. I was very interested that they (the tweeters) didnt have a script and were 'trusted' to tweet using their own style and words, so reading your comment above about not all staff can be trusted to communicate is a real issue in the public sector. SWTrains did not use the service at all to promote tickets, special deals or any sales type information. They used twitter purely to notify followers about services, irrepective of whether they were running on time, delayed or cancelled. I was very impressed with their small team (6) who work on a 24/7 rota as they cover the entire South West circuit. One thing I would say is that Social Media is not all about the comms team - it needs to encompass the people who work operationally as it has to be a monitored quick response activity.
Former Member 9 Years Ago
Leah thanks for this summary and the links, I think these are some really interesting discussion points.
Leah Lockhart 9 Years Ago
Thanks for stopping by to comment, Michael and Denise! The trust issue comes up all the time and although I respect that some people have anxiety about their staff using social media, I think it often reveals an issue that is much deeper and has nothing much to do with communicating online. I think it does help to point out that staff are allowed to attend public meetings and answer phones on behalf of their organisation and their words are not approved or checked over before they come out of their mouths. So what's the deal with online conversations? There is another issue about communications from public bodies being very formal and that isn't going to cut the mustard for folk much longer. It's outdated and increasingly appears defensive and suspicious. Where there is the ability to allow practitioners to share real front line information why isn't it being taken advantage of? The South West Neighbourhood Team at Edinburgh Council is allowing Environmental Warden trainee Anne to blog about her training as she goes along. Excellent. Not only are we allowed to see the real people in the council but Anne's learning how to blog (I think the upskilling opportunities in councils allowing staff to use social media is often overlooked.) It's great to hear about what South West Trains are doing and that they don't assume their staff will go rogue the minute they have access to a Twitter account! Well done them. Let's hope others will come on board by looking at examples like SWTrains. I would love to hear how you get on with social business/social IT inside Parliament, Denise. There's a big lag in uptake up here with social enterprise solutions- which is good news for Knowledge Hub actually!
Former Member 9 Years Ago
Very interesting blog post, thanks for sharing.
Former Member 9 Years Ago
Fab post Leah and all too true... using social media not only opens up the doors for transparancy but really is a 'no brainer' for saving money. There will always be people who use a phone and want to talk to someone personally and that is okay, but consider, half of the UK have a Facebook account and almost as much a Twitter account. The use of social media by the public speaks for itself really and what more evidence is needed for making good use of a money saving communication tool. Shouldn't those who use the services or want to contact an organisation about something be able to do so by the means that they choose? As a very long time user of e-communication tools I find it hard to swallow that in the 21st century some people are still cautious about using social media to it's full potential. It should be embraced for what it can offer as an opportunity to communicate with customers / clients and as with everything else in life, it will not be perfect for everyone but can add a rich resource for many beneficial means of communication and research. We should all be shouting from the rooftops about all the benefits it is bringing to an organisation. Rant over!
Ciaran Murdoch 9 Years Ago
"Spying" is a naughty word that's gotten people into trouble in the past. That said, I'm of the opinion that all Local Government services should be keeping an eye on what's being said about them. This can help them target particular issues. Reporting issues is an interesting one. I'm very much in favour of it as it's quick and easy for customers. However, what's the back end process like? I'm going to guess in most cases this is creating a lot of work. If someone fills in an online form then it's job done. If they report via twitter then someone is having to feed this info into a CRM. If it's comms dealing with twitter then they need to send the tweet over to the customer service team. Then there's the scenarios where more info is's all a bit messy and most Local Authorities aren't prepared for this.
Leah Lockhart 9 Years Ago
Ciaran and Marion I totally agree! You're right, Marion, that social media won't be the perfect solution for everyone but it needs to be brought into the fold as another way customers want to contact us and talk to us. I'm also baffled about the level of risk aversion preventing good and increased business use but then again bureaucratic organisations are not known for their forward thinking and willingness to embrace new and disruptive technologies. In the private sector this spells big trouble (HMV is a recent reminder) but maybe councils think they're not going anywhere so why do anything new? Or could some of the inactivity be down to what Ciaran's talking about- back end processes? It's not unheard of for councils to open customer facing social media up with little thought as to what they hope to achieve, how they will monitor, how they will be integrated into business and how accounts will be managed long term over changing landscapes. Or, on the flipside, accounts are so over planned with layers of approval chains that nothing works well. You're right, Ciaran, that most councils are not prepared for handling customer contact via social media but the private sector is full of working examples or processes councils can learn from but they usually involve dedicated resource or new technology, neither of which are getting much love in public sector right now.