FACING UP: Twelve ways local government can use Facebook

Amazingly, there are two and a half times as many people in the UK registered on Facebook than buy a daily paper. 

That’s a 29 million versus 12 million split. Even more astonishing is how poor local government is at connecting with its residents and what meagre resources it devotes to it.It’s an after thought when it should be part of what we do.

Look around for really good case studies and you start to struggle. Yes, there’s Coventry City Council’s logo-free Facebook pagewith 19,000 followers. That aside it’s slim pickings.

Should local government use Facebook?

Absolutely. I’ve blogged before on how to see how many Facebook-registered people there are in your area. You can read it here. Using Facebook is a way of sending relevant contentinto people’s streams. They may not buy a newspaper. A regular Facebook user may check the site two or three times a day to see what’s new.

Why wouldn’t you want to make contact like this?

1. Because lots of people use it.
2. Because Facebook is the world’s 4th largest site in the world.
3. Because if that’s people’s platform of choice then we should stop thinking it’s still 1985 and talk to people right there.

There’s two ways to use it.

One is to build things and hope people come. The other is to go out and talk to people on Facebook pages and groups they’ve created themselves. That’s something that the public sector is astonishingly bad at.

Aside from Al Smith’s poston how he used his own profile to talk to people campaigning to save the Cooperage pub in Newcastle-upon-Tyne there’s not much out there.

How do you get started?

Organisations are generally driven by carrot and stick to take out a Facebook page. You’ll need a personal profile to do this. That’s simple to create. Once you’ve create the page you can invite your friends and colleagues to ‘like’ it. Once they do that you can selectively grant admin rights to other specific individuals. The stick? If you don’t create a page and create a profile instead you run the risk of getting shut down for violating terms and conditions.

That’s never good.

The carrot? As an admin they’ll give you a barrage of stats on how many page impressions you’ll have, how many people you have ‘liking’ it, where they are from. It’s all good stuff. But it’s the easiest thing in the world to take out a Facebook page. It’s much harderto use it constructively. Poor use and you’ll do damage to your reputation.

There are three things you’ll need to remember creating a Facebook page

1. Create several admins so you can share the burden.
2. Update two or three times a day and no more. People get a bit fed-up of lots of noise.
3. If people post a question or a comment, try get back as quickly as possible.Within 24 hours at most. Live with criticism. Don’t delete it but do so if people shout and swear.

But that’s the brass tacks. What about the ways to use Facebook? Should you look outside the public sector for what works? Definitely.

Should there just be one Facebook page in your organisation?

It’s a regular question and often posed by comms people more keen on keeping control of the message than actually communicating.

Please don’t do this. Please.

There are 700 services provided by local government. People are busy. Think about you. Do you want to hear about all of them? Probably not. When you are looking for a leisure event do you google it? Probably. So do so with Facebook. Yes, have a central page. But also have one for a library. Or for a museum too. Or a festival.

TWELVE ways to use Facebook

1. The Tumbleweed Anti-Social Broadcast Page.

You think Facebook is important. You don’t know why. You create something, put the logo on your website and flyers and then every now and then you post a link to a press release. You’ll ignore comments. Then you sit back and wonder why it’s not working. We’ve all seen it. Don’t do it.

Think about how you’ll make it work before you create anything.

2. The Good Corporate Page.

Ally Hook at Coventry City Council wrote the rule book on this. She created a Facebook page called simply ‘Coventry’ with a nice picture of the city. Why? Because people would be happier signing up to the place where they live over the institution that governs it.

It’s the model we shamelessly copied at Walsall Council for Our Walsall which you can see here.

Worcester City Council have 4,000 likes and follow the Coventry model. It’s really rather good.The content is lively too. A picture taken from the Cathedral spire the day before was posted generating 34 comments. That’s good stuff.

The City of Manor, Texas takes a more formal approach but images, warnings, links and the freedom for people to post on the wall makes this an engaging place.

Size does not matter. Shrewsbury Town Council has a Facebook page with regular content.

But let’s not just look at local government. Whatever you may think of global politics, the US Marines have 1.5 million people liking their page. Bite size updates make it work. They make use of YouTube content really well. You can find their page here.

3. The Page Where They Want You To Just Connect

Coca Cola plough massive resources into social media. Their Facebook page is ‘liked’ by 33.6 million people. They don’t bombard people with messages to buy the stuff. They allow people to talk about the stuff. It was actually created by fans and became the official page when Coke woke up to its success.

On the HP Sauce page , the discussion is brown sauce or not on a sausage sandwich. They just want to connect for fun and from that more interesting things can happen .

4. The Page That Consults People

When Iceland decided to re-write their constitution they turned to Facebook. They could have posted a link to a huge downloadable document that only policy wonks would have read. They didn’t. Instead they asked simple bite size questions so people could spare a few minutes to answer. More than 4,400 have signed up to give feedback. In a country of 250,000 that’s good going. You can follow it here. You can read more here.

5. The Page For a Venue

Walsall in the West Midlands has a 200-year-old heritage of leather working. The Queen’s saddles are made there and dozens of companies can still be found that rely on it. There is a community of people who follow We Love Walsall Leather Museum and the Facebook page targets them specifically. Pictures, events and other chatty updates are posted.

The Library of Birmingham from Birmingham City Council have an engaging Facebook presence with YouTube clips and other content. All the more impressive is that it doesn’t open until 2013.

Tintagel Castle, an English Heritage property, shows how a venue can work on Facebook. More than 700 like it and get updates on what is going on. They also ran a Facebook-only competition to allow people to post ideas on what they’d like to do with private access. The most likes won the access.

6. The Page For Countryside

National Parks across Britain are excellent at this. For example, the I Love the Lake District National Park site sends you updates on what to look out for and user generated shots. It has a human touch and content that appeals. Especially when you’ve just been stuck in commuter traffic.

Stirling Council have adopted this tack too. Their page highlights work they do on their patch

7. The Page For A Service Area

Museums, countryside and libraries can pull this off. Just about. Otherwise the danger can be a watered down thing. There are more than 500 following Derbyshire libraries 

In the US in Virginia, Fairfax County’s Public Schools have a whopping 20,000 people liking it. That’s an immense number. This is the equivalent of an education department having a Facebook profile. It works too. There are daily updates and – get this – updates in the holidays too. You can see it here.

8. The Page That’s Actually A Corporate Website

The Mayor of Takeo got fed-up at people leaving anonymous feedback. So fed-up he moved his council’s entire website to Facebook.

Naoyuki Miyaguchi, a city spokesman, said: “There were some doubts at first when we were thinking of changing to Facebook because it could only be accessed by those who had an account. For this reason, there was some opposition as it would limit access to city information for some citizens. But since we were considering the shift, Facebook changed its rules to make pages viewable to anybody, and from that point on it was a go.”

Over 6,500 people like the page from 50,000 residents. US local government blogger Ari Herzog has written a fine post on it here. 

Is that a bit extreme? Darn right. You’re at risk of Facebook taking down your site and losing piles of data. But it’ll be interesting to see how it goes.

9. The Page To Report Stuff

Lothian and Borders police want to use the popularity of Facebook to encourage people to report crime via an ad. Anonymously if they so wish.
In the US, an app is being used in Burleson, Texas where residents can report non-emergency issues. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

10. The Page Designed Around the User (Not the Service Area)

Lots of web presences are built around the service area. Not the user. That can be daft. Who wants to ‘like’ Street Scene?

This is the thinking behind Shropshire Family Info from Shropshire County Council. Put updates in the one place for parents and carers. It really is that simple and hats off to them. You can see it here.

As an experiment in this area myself and one of our marketing officers at Walsall Council Ian Morton-Jones have started the page We Love Walsall Children’s Events. This is to be a place for parents to follow to get updates that can help keep their children busy in the holidays. It may be museums, libraries, events or countryside. If there is relevant information it gets posted here. That’s the theory, anyway. It’s here.

11. The Page For An Individual

Walsall Council countryside ranger Morgan Bowers has been updating Facebook alongside Twitter and Flickr for more than six months. It’s a way of putting a human face on a service.

12. The Page For An Event

The one-off event can work well. Stirling Council’s Off The Page Festival celebrates their sixth annual event..

An extension of this is a Facebook page for events as a whole. This is what Gedling Borough Council do. They’re from Nottinghamshire.

So what does it all mean?

The good thing about all this is that we’ve only just started and the really useful ways to use Facebook are emerging from bright people within service areas themselves. That’s only something that should be encouraged.

Big thank you to the following who suggested pages for this blog: Corrine Douglas, Kim Stephens, James Hall, Justin Griggs, Kate Bentham, Peter Cruickshank, Steph Thorpe and Asset Transfer Unit.

Join the Conversation


  1. Hi Dan

    At Croydon we set up a facebook page two weeks ago – http://www.facebook.com/supportcroydon in order to communicate more directly with residents after the civil unrest. The page has been a success and has driven visitors to information on our main website and other channels (twitter/email newsletters). This has been our first step into facebook (although we have been active on twitter for some time now) and are so far pleased with the results.


    1. That’s brilliant, Tom and a cracking example of how you can use Facebook. Just think how long it would have taken you in the very olden days to commission an external website for the same purpose…

  2. Great article Dan, states a real case for better use in the public sector of such a vast social network.

    An authentic Facebook page is key, subscribers need to feel valued for visiting it, a sense of community goes a long way. Another fact to bear in mind is the number one reason for people logging into Facebook is to look at photos…pictures are bound to draw people to your page.

    The one stumbling block for me is the restricted access to social media sites local authorities give to their own employees in the office, not sure what your thoughts are on this?

    1. Thanks, Tony. You are dead right about pictures. They work really well but that shouldn’t be a surprise. When I was a reporter I was always slightly resentful that a well crafted story sat on the page exactly like a poorly written one. Wheras a great picture speaks volumes and says 1,000 words…

    1. That’s just it. You don’t have to be a massive fan of Facebook to realise it’s a good channel to communicate with people. I’m more at home on Twitter than anywhere – I’m @danslee by the way – but you can just see how good pages work. Often that’s by ripping up the rule book. Look at Coca Cola. Theirs wasn’t even built by someone in-house.

  3. Be interested to hear your comments on our Geology Matters Facebook page. Current admins work in our local Black Country museums but we want to open it up to anyone with an interest in geology.

  4. Came across this through a tweet by @johnpopham.
    This is very helpful even well outside the local govt. sphere. I am just launching the ‘corporate’ FB page for a rural church & community-focused national charity and you’ve provided some very useful pointers and – more important – concrete examples.

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