Social media - the present of public communications

With the role of digital technology increasing across all UK sectors, local government has, in some ways, some catching up to do. Government Business looks at the importance of public sector communications and how best to implement a strategic digital approach

Recent reports show that internet usage, for so long the hobby of technology experts and computer professionals, continues to grow, with the UK public’s reliance on it strengthening at a quickening pace. According to the Public Policy Exchange, 88 per cent of adults are accessing the internet, with Ofcom suggesting that 80 per cent of adults own a smartphone, and while it serves a significant role in many vocations, the use of social media interestingly accounts for half of the quoted usage.

The assumption, albeit now an outdated assumption, is that social media is the toy of the younger generation and that it can act as more of a hindrance than a help, with many local authority personnel remaining unsure of its use and potential benefits. However, social media can act as a personal tool for local government and public sector organisations, allowing them to maintain an easy to manage and ongoing dialogue with their customers - informing them of any relevant information they need to know in a medium that is easy to access and digest. The platform allows authorities to share ideas, promote new services, provide service updates and gain valuable feedback.

On the reverse, social media is now the inbound operational channel of choice for many members of the public wishing to hold public bodies to account. According to Comms2point0, 54 per cent of adults are now using social media, with that figure expected to keep rising, and those with an opinion, whether it be positive or negative, are likely to register it on social media. For example, a local road that is ridden with potholes and uneven surfaces would have merited a letter to the local authority 20 years ago, taking a number of days to arrive in the post, a number of days before it is read and acted upon, and a number of days before a reply is returned. Nowadays, a quick photo of the road and a post uploaded onto Facebook or Twitter can take less than a minute, and as that post is public, a response is also expected to be quicker as well.

From communication to conversation

In December 2015, global accountancy and business advisory firm BDO released its report WhatsApp-ening in #LocalGov Social Media, which analysed the social media activity of local government. It found that 74 per cent of local authorities have a high appetite to develop or maintain a strong social media presence, and that 71 per cent believe that social media represents an opportunity to make savings, indicating that it is still a key tool in delivering efficiencies especially with local authorities facing further cuts.

The report is now already over a year old, and the pace of change in technology must be accounted for. Even so, discussing the social media channels being used, BDO reported that councils were using more ‘traditional’ social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Public Service Intelligence analysis found in 2015 that 416 out of 433 local authorities, representing 96 per cent, have active official twitter accounts and 89 per cent of councils advertise social media accounts on their home page. Additionally, Instagram became the fastest growing platform for local authorities, with more than a third of councils using the photo sharing platform - a figure that has likely increased throughout 2016 and the start of 2017. The Local Government Association sum ups the importance of a strong social media strategy, saying that it ‘needs to be used strategically to ensure good engagement with residents, better customer service, and wider sharing of information on the services most important to customers’.

Andy Mahon, head of Local Government at BDO, made a very important distinction in his analysis of the report in which he said that local authorities were making great progress in moving from ‘communication’ to conversation’, and it is this distinction that best paints the picture of growth in local authority communications teams over the last few years. There is still large importance attached to communicating news and relevant information to residents, but it now equally important for communications channels to become even more two way, with authorities receiving feedback, complaints, concerns and suggestions from residents through its communications teams. Last Summer, Calderdale Council became the first council to provide 24/7 web based support for customers, meaning thats its residents can contact its customer care advisers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, through the council’s Live Chat web messenger service.

The basic principle of effective communications is trust. As Warwickshire County Council explained in its Marketing and Communications Strategy for 2014-2018, customers ‘must be able to trust not just what we tell them but that we will engage with them and place them at the core of our thinking’. Recent LGA polling shows that 46 per cent of people are satisfied with the level of engagement their council offers, emphasising the good correlation between engagement and trust.

Not a silver bullet
A strong social media strategy or campaign, as seen by the NHS Blood and Transplant Missing Type campaign, which witnessed 24,000 people across England to sign up to give blood, is not however always the solution to the problem. Although social media has changed the way in which we communicate, and often forms that first communication channel, it is wise to remember the success and importance of traditional communications and PR strategies.

Effective use of email, current and content-fuelled websites, print newsletter distributions and media relations are all intrinsic to expressing a corporate identity. Social media can also be extremely time consuming when used inappropriately or ineffectively. It should aid current communications and not detract away from them. Local authority public relations, expressed through communications, is a balancing act - between council and resident, between digital and personal and between accessibility and authority. There is no doubt that it is effective, but how effective remains to be seen. Councils need to be even more confident to embrace new social media channels and keep pace with the digital revolution. Developing a social media strategy, as part of or separate to a wider communications and public relations strategy, is key to maximising potential impact of a council’s digital communications offering.

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