You know the good thing about listening to different voices? Sometimes you get a different perspective.
That’s certainly true of Adrian Short, a web developer, who has written two excellent posts that comms people really do need to read. The first How to Fix Council News you can read here. It deals with a frustration that very few councils do council news on the web terribly well.
At best it’s a cut and pasted press release.
The second piece from Adrian is a 12 commandments for council news. It’s good thought provoking stuff and like the first post I don’t agree with all of it there’s enough there to think and reflect about.
Here are a few extracts:
Too long, too dull and far too pleased with itself. Little more than an exercise in vanity publishing. Irrelevant to the vast majority of people.
What’s this? 400 words on a benefit fraud case that didn’t even result in a prison sentence, complete with lengthy quotations from the magistrate and the lead councillor.
Now here’s 700 words on an upgrade to the council’s IT system that won’t be noticed by a single resident.
Sadly this useful information is presented, like the rest, in a turgid press release style. Residents are asked to plough through a huge slab of words that’s hard to scan for the essential details. The text is laden with contrived quotations from people no-one knows that rarely do anything more than state the obvious. It finishes without a call to action. It’s a wonder that anyone bothers at all.
There’s more points in the second blog post of commandments:
News is for residents. Press releases are for journalists. Thou shalt mark the distinction and honour it in all thy labours.
Thy reader is not an Editor and does not require his Notes. Likewise, his news shalt end when it ends, not when he espies “ENDS”.
Every comms person should read this stuff. Even if you don’t agree with all of it, it’ll make you think.
What is true is that council news is often steeped in the traditions of print. Many press officers a drawn from newspapers which makes sense as for decades newspapers and the council newsletter have been a prime source of information. The press release is tailored for the newspaper. It has a snappy intro, a quote from the relevant elected member and notes for editors. For newspapers it works. For the web, less so.
What’s needed is one approach for print, a different approach for the web and a different approach for each social media platform.
News is print + web + social media. Each of these needs a different voice.
Trying to bolt one format onto each of those doesn’t work.
So, how long before someone gets hired for their Twitter skills alone rather than their ability to write a press release?
Like a wild flower seed a good idea can take root in unexpected places, grow and get better.
One such idea is the idea of using Twitter to tweet in real time what local government is up to.
Starting with snow, ice and grit alerts in 2009 the approach went stellar in 2010 when Greater Manchester Police tweeted calls it recieved.
As a local government approach, Walsall 24 saw a 24 hour snapshot of what local government does from crossing patrols, complaints about rats as big as badgers to missing people reported to social care staff at 1am.
As proud as I am to be involved with that project, we always hoped that a little further down the track that idea would be eclipsed by something far more impressive.
With practically the whole of Scottish local government coming together to live tweet what it does that moment looks to arrived. And then some.
A total of 28 of 32 local councils in Scotland are taking part from noon on Tuesday September 27. You can read about it here.
It’s a fantastic achievement just to reach the start line and yet to me this is no surprise. There are some hugely talented people in Scotland. I met some of them on a trip to an LG Comms seminar in Dalkeith near Edinburgh earlier this year.
It’ll be good to see how the Scottish Twitter 24 event develops. That hashtag for that is #whatwedo.
It’s also brilliant to see Bracknell Forest Council in Southern England look to stage a 24 hour event using 140 character updates. On Monday September 26 using the hashtag #yourbfc for Your Bracknell Forest Council. The single council approach definitely still works and the benefits both internally and for Bracknell residents in knowing more about what their council does will be worth it. You can read more here.
Should real time Twitter only be used on large scale 24 hour events? Hell, no although there’s a place for it. I’m convinced the approach can work on a smaller level and become part of the comms mix routinely. In other words, it can become something that’s part of everyday use.
For example, if you’re looking to explain a new traffic scheme, yes write the press release but also walk the route with the engineers, tweet in real time and take pictures or video footage to help explain the project.
Curating and storing
The one thing I’d always suggest would be to find a way to store and preserve some of the content.
There was some recent research that showed the lifespan of a tweet to be three hours. Something like Storify can preserve what you’ve produced as well as allowing non-Twitter users to see what you’re up to. This is a Storify from Walsall 100.
Some other useful linked social events
Water Aid 24 Saw a water charity span the globe from Australia to Zambia over a 24 hour period to tweet from the frontline as well as from its support centres. It’s something I blogged about before. The press release is here. The piece in Brand Republic is here.
Shropshire 360 Saw Shropshire County Council tweet over the course of a week focussing on different areas of what it does every day. Press release.
Mole Vale District Council during #molevalley15 became the first district council to use the linked social approach and tweeted day-to-day tasks. They reached 3,000 people against a following list of 300: Press release.
RSPCA the animal charity staged a 24 hour Twitter #rspca247 event to highlight the day-to-day tasks it does. Sky News.
Fire, storm, pestilence or just a burst water main, in an emergency local government can swing into action.
In the UK it’s known as emergency planning and in the US emergency management. Whichever part of the world you are in it’s the part of the public sector that has plans for every eventuality.
For a comms person, it’s often only when there’s a problem you’ll speak to the emergency planners. Don’t let that happe n. Make a pact with yourself. Go and speak to them as soon as you can and sort out what to do with social media. Here is why.
At localgovcamp in Birmingham this year Ben Proctor, who runs the Like A Word consultancy, ran an excellent session on emergency planning and the social web. It’s something he writes about well too. His blog is well worth a look.
Catherine Howe, who does things with Public I, made the closing but clear point: “Whatever you do put social media in your emergency plan.”
Of course, I reflected smugly, my council has. There’s 3,000 people following the our corporate Twitter stream. What could go wrong?
Overnight there had been a minor incident that I’d missed on my Blackberry which had ran flat. Thankfully, it wasn’t more serious. But it showed very clearly where we’re blindsided.
If only comms people have the keys to the Facebook and Twitter things can easily fall down. What’s the answer? Go to where the audience is. Give them access to the corporate account. They’re generally very sensible people and know what to say. If the situation develops you can always step in.
So, what sort of role does social media play in an emergency?
In a true disaster the web falls down before SMS. But people are instinctively running to it.
A tornado in Joplin – In in the Mid West US town when a milewide tornado struck, the community rallied by building their own space on the web. At first this was to search for missing people and then as the disaster turned to recovery it charted that phase too. The moral? People have the tools like this or this community Facebook page to build things for themselves. They’re not waiting for the council to do it. They just will.
The EDL in Birmingham – When the far right English Defence League first rallied they used Twitter to spread misinformation. The police monitored by were powerless. Third time they came they had an officer monitoring Twitter, Mark Payne checking each claim and then re-butting within minutes point by point.
Facebook in Queensland – When floods struck 3,000 comments a day were posted on the Queensland Police site. It took a 24-hour effort to monitor, explain and rebuff wild rumour.
The report into the Queendsland event singled out social media as part of a range of channels to take action with. Ben Proctor has blogged on it here. A key finding is to talk, prepare and practice. That’s as just as much relevant to comms people as anyone.
“As it may be possible for the public to post information directly to an official social media site there are concerns that a member of the public may post false information. For example, inaccurate information was posted on the Western Downs Regional Facebook page. However, where there are enough staff to monitor content social media can be a useful tool to respond to rumours in the community.”
Seven things comms people need to know
1. Share the keys – Give emergency planning an awareness of what social media is, encourage them to monitor and respond and give them the keys to the corporate feeds.
2. You can’t control the message – As if the main message of our times is needed to be repeated.
3. There’s a shorter turn around time to respond – Speed may be of the essence.
4. It’s not just about social media – It’s one channel of several. Important and growing but don’t think that everyone will be on Facebook.
5. It’s good for combating rumours – As a comms person that can save yourself time.
6. Journalists will follow and like – You can save time and effort by creating channels of communications.
7. If the balloon goes up it’ll take resources – Social media is free is a bit of a myth. The platform is free. The time spent to manage it, listen and update isn’t. The lessons of Queensland are that it can take up resources. But you do get valuable return on investment for doing so. Regular monitoring when there is a crisis is absolutely critical. Don’t link to a press release and forget about it.
The only difference between a stumbling block, a barrier and a stepping stone is the way you use them, apparently.
There were a lot of stumbling blocks talked about at localgovcamp in Birmingham. Many such obstacles were were from corporate comms. They were the corporate branded elephant in the room.
Heard the one about the comms team’s response to snow? Instand updates via facebook or Twitter? Nope. Book a half page advert in the local paper?
Oh, how we laughed. As a comms person myself it was more a case of nervous laughter.
I believe strongly that there’s an argument for having a light touch on the tiller from enabling comms people.
When you put online and offline channels together they can be incredibly powerful. You’re delivering a similar message on the platform people want using the language of the platform.
But then again, if you’re reading this on Facebook or Twitter you already know this even if you haven’t admitted it out loud.
So, what’s localgovcamp?
It’s an event that saw more than 100 people giving up their free time on a Saturday to help make their corner of local government bloom a little more. It’s Glastonbury for local government geeks. There was web people, open data people, comms people, hyperlocal bloggers and even an engineer.
Attending the first event at Fazeley Studios two years ago changed the way I think about my job. I’ve heard the same said from others too. It’s been brilliant seeing the light bulbs going on above people attending their first ever localgovcamp.
Two years ago one of the main frustrations was some IT people who were keeping the social web in lockdown. Many, but not all, think progress ended with the Commodore 64. Of course, it goes without saying that the IT people I work with are all hugely helpful and forward thinking.
That battle to use social media seems to have be getting won. Slowly in places but the it’s irreverable. The battle now is with unenlightened comms people and it’s a subject I keep returning to.
For people in a PR job it’s about waking up. For those not in PR it’s about helping wake them up. And yourself and colleagues while you’re at it.
So, because I can’t write a blog post without a heap of links, here’s a heap of links to help those who don’t get it wake up…
A heap of links…
Whats the role for local government comms and social media?
But it seems fair pointing out to people they’re sleepwalking to irrelevance to point them in the right direction.
Here are some pointers to equip you as a comms person — or a press officer for the 21st century when there are fewer presses. I’m no expert. Every day is a school day. But what I can say is that the best learning for a comms person isn’t within an organisation or a college that teaches HND in Geek – although Birmingham City University is doing brilliant things – it’s actually to experiment yourself and learn from what others are doing.
Just starting out…
Firstly, don’t panic. You can’t know it all straight away. In fact, you can’t know it all. Learn one thing at a time. One step at a time. There are some useful people who can come in and give you a headstart. Helpful Technology, Nick Booth or Andy Mabett are all good people. Cold calling emails that promise the earth probably aren’t going to always deliver. If you’re doing this as a solo mission there’s plenty of resources.
As a starting point, watch the YouTube clip Shift Happens. It’s a cracking piece that while slightly old is still relevant. It sets out the pace of change. You can see it here.
Watch the Simply Zesty clip on where UK social media is in 2010. There’s some good stats. See the link here.
Read a landmark text. Clay Shirky’s ‘Here Comes Everybody’ is a brilliant book that sets out how social media can work.
Set aside time every week to read blogs. There’s a stack of good learning from innovators across the field. Have a look at those of my blogroll and also at Public Sector Bloggers. It doesn’t matter if they’re not comms people. There’s good learning all over.
Map your media landscape. Work out how many papers get sold on your patch. Then compare that with how many people are on Facebook. There’s an easy-to-follow way you can do that right here. It’s something I bang on about but it’s worth doing.
Sign up for mashable.com. It’s a social media news website that looks for things so you don’t have to. Don’t be put off by the geekiness of some of the headlines. There’ll be things there that are relevant.
Get a Twitter account. Yes, you may have scoffed about it being ‘Twatter’ and it being full of people talking about their breakfast. It’s actually a brilliant way to connect with people. Here’s a piece that helps explain it.
If you’ve got a Twitter account, follow some good people. Ones that share links can be a real help. @pubsecbloggers is one that pulls public sector blogs in one place. Other good ones for comms people include people who aren’t all comms people: @dominiccampbell, @davebriggs, @ingridk, @adrielhampton, @simonwakeman and @pigsonthewing. I’m on Twitter as @danslee. Have a look at who I’m following for some suggestions.
Get a Facebook account. If half the population are on its useful to know how they work.
One of the great things about a bright idea is that someone comes along, innovates and makes it even better.
Last year Greater Manchester Police had the bright idea of tweeting all the calls they had in a 24 hour period for #gmp24.
At Walsall Council we picked up the ball and hooked up 18 Twitter accounts to tweet what an average local government day looked like for #walsall24.
The linked social approach went global with a 24 hour event that reached a potential audience of more than a million people.
Water Aid 24 was a worldwide operation realtime stories were posted from across the world moving from Australia to Nepal to Africa and South America.
It’s amazing the stories that were told. Here is a few:
On the blog, Slus Simba, Papua New Guinea, on the Water Aid blog wrote about his pride in encouraging people to build life saving water toilets.
In Nicaragua, Mishel, aged 15, has to collect water herself and walk home with it. We get to see a twitpic of her.
In Mozambique, taps were installed at two primary schools while in Britain, the routine back office functions were tweeted.
In Nepal, only 203 of 3,915 villages have been declared ‘open defecation free.’
In Timor Leste, Jose ‘Rui’ de Oliveira Pires drives an hour by motorbike every day to remote villages to carry out work.
In Liberia, it takes two days to travel 300 miles. Roads as well as water is needed.
It’s the bringing together of those stories that build a picture of work going on around the globe.
It brings the fact that people die from water borne disease right home to your smart phone. The subtle message is this: give us the means to act and we’ll do it for you.
But the YouTube clip recorded for Glastonbury that’s embedded above also helps deliver the message in a fun, accessible way.
There’s a few things I love about this:
It thinks big. It brings together a variety of voices to tell a louder story and it uses the real time approach that is uniquely powerful. There is a stronger connection made in real time by a message delivered with a picture.
But the campaign does not stay onTwitter. It’s on the Water Aid blog, YouTube on their website and is communicated through the traditional means through press release to the media. It’s brilliant stuff and shows how social media and traditional routes can work hand-in-hand.
It’s amazing communications people are walking towards irrelevance but have not yet woken up.
In 2011 people get their information through a range of places.
Twitter broke the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. For some peoplem, it was Gary Neville’s Twitter stream that did it.
Closer to home, for the first time I found out the reason for a blocked road near my house via social media. That’s a personal tipping point.
But what of communications units?
They’re tackling the 21st century media landscape with a 20th century set-up. They’re geared to print when the world is turning to digital. It’s still what the local paper says that drives the agenda despite the paper being read by a minority. They’re a voice. But they’re one of several.
It’s now about doing both. Really well and getting to that point really, really quickly.
Here’s a quick history lesson.
Typesetters were once the kings of their craft using hard won skills to play a key role in delivering the news.
Computers came along and soon it was easy to replicate what they did.
Almost overnight generations of hard learned skills were irrelevant.
Once, having the skills to deal with media queries and to shape messages for print were all important.
But the media landscape has changed.
Newspaper sales are collapsing around us. People who read at least one a day fell from 26.7 million to 21.7 million from 1992 to 2006.
Best estimates in 2011 are that 12 million local and national newspapers are sold every day. A further three million like the Metro are given away every day in the UK.
Facebook is the fourth biggest website in the world for news.
By 2013, smartphones are predicted to be the first point of contact with the internet overtaking PCs.
85 per cent of the UK population in summer 2010 was online.
Of those, 29 million had visited a social site in ther past month.
If you’re starting out there’s a great YouTube clip from Simply Zesty that’s a good starting point. The link is here.
Stop and think.
Where are people getting their information? Where do you get your information?
Then think how much time do traditional communications units and press offices devote to print media.
How much time is spent on digital platforms?
Are we really spending time going out onto Facebook to tackle issues where they arise? Or are we – at best – waiting for them to come to our corporate page? If we have one, that is.
Too many communications units have got the balance wrong putting scarce resources into print with little if any for digital.
But by doing so they’re becoming more irrelevant with every passing day and comms people with them.
This isn’t an argument for stopping writing press releases overnight. It’s more about recalibrating and getting the balance right.
Right now, it’s the press release, the photocall – where news photographers or photography budgets – AND the digital channels too.
My grandpa was a headteacher in the Lake District. He refused to have a telephone in the house because people he didn’t have the time to answer it. Many comms units are backing off from truly embracing digital for the same reason. They think they’ll be inundated, that the world will end and they don’t know where to start.
But digital is the one thing that will keep them relevant.
A couple of times recently I’ve been at events where trad comms people have been in the majority. You could almost touch the fear of change. The digital disasters and ‘what if scenarios’ were being trotted out. You could practically see the wagon train forming a circle.
It’s fine to keep the trad comms skills for the while. But press officers and marketing people need to learn new skills too if they’re not to become the typesetters of their generation.
A transport officer recently asked me if comms people would be irrelevant in 10 years time when we all have Facebook streams and officer Twitter accounts or presences on platforms that have yet to be even start-ups.
It’s a fair question.
As things stand, yes.
But as professionals who can help deliver a message through different channels, not at all if we evolve to meet them. That means new skills but most important of all the time and space to deploy them.
Here are five things a trad comms person needs to know:
Without learning new skills you’re unemployable. Interviewing skills, drawing-up a release, a campaign and dealing with the old media are still good basics to have. But without the digital strings to your bow how are you going to talk to the Facebook generation? Social media is not a silver bullet. But it’s a bullet you’ll need in your next job.
It’s not scary. Honest. The fact that you can deliver a message via print and radio means you are halfway there. Surely, you’d like to reach as many people as possible? Once you grasp the basics the door will open and you’ll find whole new vistas of possibility opening up.
It’s easy to get started. Do things under your own steam first to learn how platforms work. The lessons you’ll learn blogging about cake will come in handy further down the track. There’s also a wealth of learning out there on blogs, at mashable,com and places like the LGiD’s Communities of Practice forum.
There’s no such thing as a social media expert. We’re all learning. All of us. Every day is a school day and chances are the things you’ll do will be pioneering because social media hasn’t been around that long.
It’s web 2.0, baby. It’s a new way of doing things. People expect a two way conversation not someone broadcasting at them.
All these things so many people are already taking for granted.