TAL 09 Hyperlocal Unconference
Senior press officer Jamie McDonald, the angriest man in Scotland, is discussing his choice of film.
“‘There Will Be Blood,” he says. “Great title for a film. But you know what? There wasnae any blood.”
The idea of bloodless confrontation is one I can’t get away from after the excellent Talk About Local Unconference in Stoke-on-Trent.
Organised by @talkaboutlocal the project saw the cream of hyperlocal bloggers from across the country gather to plot, scheme and bounce ideas of each other.
It was fascinating stuff with some amazing things being done.
So where does the confrontation come in?
If old media and social media are colliding then it’s at local government press offices that the front lines can be being drawn.
As newspapers close or scale back there is an overpowering feeling amongst residents of being left without a voice.
BLOG CASE STUDIES
Take the The Lichfield Blog. Founder and ex-journalist Ross Hawkes set it up in January 2009 when a fire engine went past his house prickng the curiosity of his wife.
“My wife said to me ‘I wonder where that’s going?’,” he told me. “I realised that there was no way of finding out anymore because local papers just aren’t there.”
Nine months on and his site now has 16,000 users a month while the incumbent newspaper The Lichfield Mercury has a print run of 60,000.
Then there’s http://www.wv11.co.uk – a hyperlocal for Wednesfield in Wolverhampton.
It was set up by two residents who wanted to make a difference and get a voice heard. Six weeks from launch they had 600 friends on Facebook.
All of a sudden the figures are stacking up.
It could be a town, a borough, a housing estate or even a tower block or two streets. Hyperlocal blogs are beginning to fill a gap. Too small for newspapers to compete with they are their worst nightmares.
Armed with a wordpress site and enthusiasm people can now have their say.
So where’s the friction?
Experienced press officers are used to dealing with trained reporters who know where the law is drawn.
They are often staffed by ex-reporters who earned their spurs the hard way.
Who are these bloggers, they say? Where’ve they come from? Why give them oxygen of publicity by dealing with them in an already busy day?
In Stoke, the Pits n Pots blog say they are not allowed near the press bench despite strong council coverage. It is said that the authority’s communications unit won’t speak to bloggers. At Talk About Local there was at times searing resentment at some press offices’ disregard of bloggers. At best it’s seen as unhelpful. At worst it’s deliberate.
Like them or not, many local government press officers do care passionately about their job and get very irritated when mis-truths and opinion get promoted as hard fact.
On the other side are bloggers, many who don’t have journalistic experience whose ignorance of media law could cost them their house. They care passionately about the place they live or work. That’s why they blog.
Let’s be quite clear here.
Bloggers and press officers are here to stay.
Does it have to lead to friction? Not necessarily. But while each side views the other with suspicion and at times hostility it’s hard to see a way through.
SO WHY SHOULD COUNCILS DEAL WITH BLOGGERS?
If a council’s reputation is being debated in a newspaper a good press officer is there.
If its being done through the letters page the press officer can take issue there.
Go where the debate is.
If that’s Facebook, Twitter or the comment boxes of a newspaper website or yes, a blog, go there.
An organisation’s reputation is increasingly what is being said about it online. So it makes no sense to bury heads in sand and pretend blogs will go away. They won’t.
FIVE THINGS A PRESS OFFICE CAN DO:
1. Treat them as journalists. Give them access to the same information. Coca Cola launched energy drink Relentless in part by explaining the product to bloggers first.
2. Put them on press release mailing lists. It’s not the Crown jewels. Its public information. Who knows? You may even correct misinformation at source.
3. Use blog comment boxes as a press officer. Say who you are and where you are from. Put the council’s position politely and link to further info where you can.
4. Accept not everything bloggers write is going to be favourable. And complain politely – and constructively – if things are wrong.
5. Respect what they do. More often than not they are residents who are articulating issues. Years ago, this was through letters pages. Now its online.
But it’s not all one way traffic. Like the best local newspaper Diamond wedding caption reveals, any relationship is a question of give and take.
FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR BLOGGERS:
1. Don’t be anonymous. If you have courage of your conviction put your name to what you do. You’ll find your voice getting heard far better.
2. Don’t be afraid to check stories. You’ve heard a new housing estate is being built on playing fields. Isn’t it better to confirm that first – if you can?
3. Respect press officers. They have a job to do too.
4. Be accurate. The same rules for newspapers apply to blogs.
5. Buy a copy of McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists. The best, most readable book on media law there is. If you are even halfway serious about blogging on issues that could be controversial buy it and put it next to your computer. It tells you what’s legal and what is not. It. Will. Save. Your. Life.
The Lichfield Blog (lichfield, Staffordshire) http://thelichfieldblog.co.uk/
WV11 (Wednesfield, Wolverhampton) http://www.wv11.co.uk/
Pits N Pots (Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire) http://pitsnpots.co.uk/
Talk About Local http://talkaboutlocal.org/