COVID COMMS #28: The surprising influence of newspaper content in Facebook groups

It’s July and there’s the threat of a local lockdown in parts of the Black Country borough of Sandwell.

Urgent action has been taken with Sandwell Council leading the charge for people to take extra precautions.

There’s a range of channels to get the message out but how is this playing out on Facebook?

One Saturday morning I mapped the first 10 pieces of content in 10 different Facebook groups across the borough.

It starts on Sandwell Council’s Facebook

As the decision gets made by the public health the council posts to their page with 39,000 likes – that’s notionally 11.9 per cent of the borough population.

The visuals are eyecatching, chime with the national pandemic campaign but crucially are different. They stand out as being Sandwell.

Text heavy they carry the Sandwell Council logo and have four key bullet point calls to action.

There’s 1,600 shares of this update and another 800 of the change to the header image with identical information.

Okay, so sit back and wait?

But what was the penetration across Facebook?

The role of Facebook groups

I’ve blogged before on the important role of Facebook groups. Almost 70 per cent of the population are using Facebook and 50 per cent of the population are using closed groups whether they be groups, Messenger or Whatsapp groups.

In short, groups are where people are in the community.

For this post, I chose 10 groups at random with a combined membership of more than 65,000 – that’s twice the council’s corporate page. It’s an area I know well. I live nearby and for 10 years worked as a reporter in the borough.

Fig 1 Sandwell Council Facebook page followers v population

Like every public sector organisation they’re faced with a gap between their page and the rest of the Facebook-consuming public. One way they can fill this gap is by creating shareable content that then can connect with people in groups.

Did that happen here? Let’s see.

The role of Facebook groups spreading pandemic information

So, how was the news landing with people in Facebook groups?

I went and counted.

And yes, there was the council content being shared.

But also push back in some quarters. The council-critical I Live in West Bromwich group admin surprisingly criticised the posting of the public health message.

And of course, there was comments claiming people were asleep and just blindly following the media.

So, should the public sector be scared off by criticism and misinformation? Absolutely not. The fact its there makes the need to be in those spaces even more important. It’s clear that for important matters people are willing to share the messages.

But local news media

What really caught my eye is news media’s very deliberate use of Facebook groups to share their content. The Facebook group is now the newspaper street corner seller and media companies know this. So, BBC local democracy reporters are often in groups and sharing their news.

Here’s one shared by a resident

Overall, what were the figures?

Logging the first 10 posts served across 10 Sandwell Facebook groups 35 per cent of them was COVID-19 related. Unsurprising as the borough was in the news. But what surprised me was that most of the discussion wasn’t instigated by members themselves at all. Just 4 per cent was started by residents.

Instead, the posts and the discussion that followed were prompted by sharing public sector content (8 per cent of all posts) and above all local media (15 per cent). Alternative media and national media were neck-and-neck at 4 per cent each.

So, having sharable content means that people will start a conversation on the topic you’ve posted about.

Fig 2 COVID-19 Posts in Sandwell Facebook groups

The remarkable role of news media in community groups

It surprised me, but in this pandemic snapshot local media is playing the most important role in the debate. Almost half of all content on the topic comes from news media. The Express & Star and Birmingham Mail – latterly Birmingham Live – are big in the region.

But thinking about it, this chimes with national data that says people are more trusting of news brands in the unfolding emergency.

But the single most important take away is that content is a conversation generator. Without the content your message is unlikely to be shared. By all means make your own but in the pandemic this data shows a revival in the fortunes of the local journalist.

Ironically, this media revival is taking place against a backdrop of job cuts in journalism,.

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