OPEN UP: What steps to make Facebook public groups more open will mean for public sector comms

When Mark Zuckerburg stood up seven months ago and promised nice new shiny toys for Facebook groups people paid attention.

One of the biggest shiniest toys is about to drop and its worth being on your radar

You probably know you can have two basic types of Facebook groups. Closed and open.

You have to be a member of a closed groups to see what people are talking about and be able to post in them yourself. Eighty per cent of community groups are closed,

Then you’ve got open groups where anyone can see what’s being debated.

As part of the change, groups that are open will allow people aren’t members of the group to comment and take part. How will they find them? You’ll see in your own timeline content from groups you aren’t a member of.


Because the algorithm will point things your way based on the things you talk about and like.

So, if you talk about the Boothen End at Stoke City there’s a chance you’ll see something from an open Stoke City Facebook group where people are talking about how great the Boothen End was.

This video explains it…

You may have heard me banging on about the importance of local community Facebook groups.

Giving open Facebook groups even more reach makes them even more influential in the community. It makes them even more attractive places to post content.

That’s important.

LONG READ: Celebrating the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group and its 5,000 amazing members

Of all the things I’ve helped build online the one that has given me most joy is this… a walled garden for public sector comms people.

It’s called the Public Sector Comms Headspace and it’s a Facebook group that’s reached its 5,000th member.

Built through word-of-mouth it makes me smile and teaches me something new daily

There’s no membership fee, no charges and no adverts to watch. Its value is the generosity of those who contribute to it

On the one level, the group can be judged by statistics but it’s more than that.

What the numbers say

The Headspace group insights over the past 28 days show an incredible 400 posts in the last 28 days, an astounding 4,785 comments and a staggering 17,648 interactions.

On any given day over the past 28 days, a minimum of 3,000 people directly engage with it rising to 4,400 on a busy day. That’s 88 per cent.

I’m going to push the boat out and say this is the most engaging and engaged corner of the internet concerned with PR and communications public sector or otherwise.

Group insights are handy

One good thing about Facebook is the piles of insights.

As an admin, I can tell you that Thursday 7pm is the busiest time of the week.

All this points to why we’ve run Zoom chats with topics around that time over the summer. Promote within the group and chat across on the video conferencing platform,.

What the group posts

When I first set-up the group, I thought shared links would work best. Actually that’s not been the case. Navigating across to the group writing this, I can see the topics.

Anybody here from the North East to share lockdown comms assets?

I’m just looking to pick peoples brains about social media scheduling services.

Another accessibility question: footnotes in accessible PDF documents for web. How are you fixing these please?

Hello everyone, seeking some info from anyone who is using WhatsApp groups.

It’s a typical spread and it makes me think of when I first started using social media and found fellow-travellers.

Social PR has changed

The social web of today is a different place to when I started in 2008. Then, Twitter connected PR people to share ideas. That’s evolved. There’s still a PR community there but people are far more guarded, there’s more selling and there’s a lack of new voices.

The drift from public spaces to private isn’t something new. The Headspace group and other Facebook groups are absolutely an example of this shift. Where do I get most value? From closed Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

It would not be an overstatement to say this group makes me a better communicator. And on days when I think I hate my job, this group makes me realise that I don’t, I love it… people in this group just get it.

Sara Hamilton, Headspace member.

Why a Facebook group?

Four years ago, I set the group up as an experiment to learn how groups work. It took two minutes to set up. At first, it was bringing people I liked from Twitter to a safer space. But it quickly became a space for others.

If you want an online community to grow you need to wake up in the morning wondering how you can make it grow that day. Encouraging others and encouraging discussion. This isn’t about the you, it’s about the us.

Have some ground rules. Nothing too overbearing. Chatham House rule. Don’t share outside the group without permission and not to poke fun at the bad because tomorrow it might be you. That’s actually been quite handy. If people are feeling bad because something they’ve been involved with has gone wrong, the last thing you need are your peers mocking you.

Support is the key.

So to is a range of job titles. If you work in the public sector you can come in. So, we have a range from marketing, IT, consultation assistants, officers, managers ands heads of comms.

Not being alone

When I started out in comms I was in a team of one with major imposter syndrome and no time to get formal training. The Headspace group was a lifesaver, allowing me to test ideas and ask questions, borrow concepts, and through that learn the language and develop myself.

In addition it was – and still is – a place where I know I am not alone.

Will Lodge, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

The enduring value has been for people after a bad day or when they’re struggling to come and realise there’s other people.

One early example stays with me.

Without naming names, a member had had a bad day and had been told by someone senior that what was wanted was a logo and not just any old logo. They weanted a logo of a butterfly made with human ears.

Like some Vietnam-era war crime the proposed logo was shared to a gasp of astonishment. But where the value came was in the replies. A set of suggested strategies emerged to deal with the problem without resorting to hard liquor or a handgun. The advice was made. The ear logo was averted.

I knew the group would work.

On adding dog and cat pictures

Style points have evolved. It’s okay to ask a fairly run-of-the-mill question so long as you add a picture of an animal.

Like this pic of Christina Staniforth’s dog Alfie.

Would you just look at that doggo.

‘A professional lifeline’

I love headspace because it’s a truly welcoming, non judgemental space. Very practical, genuinely supportive and a professional lifeline for me, as a sole comms worker in a multi disciplinary team. Seek and you shall find.

– Leanne Hughes, Public Sector Comms Headspace member.

A lot of the questions posed in the group are routine. That’s fine. Asking where the artwork can be found for a national campaign is may not move the innovation dial but if it means saving half an hour of faff then its worthwhile.

In an era of lockdown, remote working being alone together has value and I’m glad that the regular questions get asked as well as the big picture ones.

As an admin get help

As an admin, you’re a gatekeeper. It’s up to you who to let into the group. You set the rules and you have to allow each one in.

Because we limit the group to in-house public sector people we check everyone’s credentials online. A quarter of those who ask don’t get in.

At the height of Cummings going to Barnard Castle things got quite tense. We switched to a process where we had to approve posts. This had the added benefit of allowing us to weed out the duplicate posts.

David Grindlay is also an admin. His enthusiasm and energy has played a massive role.

Over the past three years I am gobsmacked at how helpful, friendly and downright lovely a Facebook group can be (based on the usual mix you get). Now at 5000 connected folk, we are the equivalent of a small town – and the best thing is, you all made it the success it is. Thanks for that (and please use the files section and the search function X.)

David Grindlay, Public Sector Comms Headspace co-admin

In the four years of the group, I can count on the fingers of one hand we’ve had to make decisive. Bear in mind the tens of thousands of posts that’s not such a bad return.

Share the disasters

Years ago, someone bold at a conference presented all that went wrong with her project rather than the glossy version. It was bold, fun and the audience learned lots. I’ve never seen that approach again in public.

The walled garden of the Headspace group has encouraged people to open up in a more trusting environment.

I really like the way the people generously share good practice, as well as triumphs and disasters. It’s a great space to get advice, support, acknowledgment and a have a wee rant in a safe supportive space. It’s a home of best practice and best pals…Life without Headspace would be a dull, less informed and a more frustrated place.

Jane Stork, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

Get different perspectives

The strength of a team can be people pulling together but its weakness can be everyone does things the same way.

The value of a broad group has been to get diofferent perspectives whether that be from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, the USA or New Zealand.

Or from people who don’t work directly in comms.

What I get from being a member of Headspace? Context and perspective and lots of funny jokes, and grammar pedantry. My role is a strange one, for someone mostly in IT, and it is good to be among people who also have a corporate-wide ambit, an ambition to be recognised as “professional”, but who have to battle to have their contributions valued, accepted and NOT undermined (deliberately or otherwise.

Sweyn Hunter, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

Share to save time

Back when social media was knew there’s a perception that it is a one-way street of timewasting. Sometimes that view persists. But by asking a question of a group it is possible to get an answer that will trim hours and days off your to-do list.

I’ve found it hugely helpful to have access to Devon’s accessibility content, which has saved us a massive amount of work. We’ve been able to re-purpose the content to fit and haven’t needed to re-invent the wheel. It’s helped us come on leaps and bounds with our guidance for staff, which we were struggling to find time for.

John Day, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

The group is one of my go-to places online when I need advice, information and support from fellow public sector comms pros. Whether I’m just looking for sympathy or a fully-fledged strategic response, there’s usually someone in the community of brilliant, dedicated, underappreciated and often very funny people who is more than willing to help.

Mark Roberts, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

Understanding, camaraderie, friendship and excellent advice and information. Feeling good or bad – the group is there for you.

Kate Pratt, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

Thank you to everyone who has posted, shared and liked anything in the group over the last five years. My self and David Grindlay think you are brilliant.

GROUP BOOST: Why you need to think differently about Facebook groups

8560618867_833556324a_bSomething rather marvellous happened on the train this morning.

Free coffee? WiFi that worked? No, I found that Facebook groups now have insights. Lots of them. And yes, I do know being the grinning man in the carriage sounds a bit sad. But bear with me.

Why is this marvellous? Because it shows that Facebook is taking them more seriously and if you haven’t already it is time to sit up and take notice.

As is reported, Mark Zuckerburg sees groups as central to the future of the platform. Why? They can offer more meaningful interactions. He’s right.

What are Facebook groups and why should you care?

Groups have long been a Cinderella corner of Facebook. Anyone can start a group. They’re a lot more democratic than pages. They are rallying points around a common theme. A village. A town. A football club. They can be big or small. There is a simple guide here.

Importantly, they don’t yet suffer from Facebook zero. You also get to see posts in chronological order.

You should care because they are quietly being used more and more by people. In my experience, an average sized borough of 250,000 can expect to have 2,000 Facebook groups and pages. That’s a serious set of numbers. I’ve blogged on this before.

What do the Facebook group analytics look like?

Data tracks back up to 60 days and logs new members, top contributors, comments, posts and reactions. The Public Sector Facebook Group that I started earlier in the year shows, for example, a staggering 7,500 interactions in the last 28 days.


Sure, they’re not as advanced as pages. You don’t get a age group breakdown. But you do find out what day of the week is busiest. For my group? 9pm on a Wednesday.


What groups are you in?

There’s a good chance you’ll be in a Facebook group. Me? I’m in a number. A Stone Roses fan group, one for the area I live, a Down’s Syndrome support group that my brother runs, a virtual reality video group, a freelance PR ghroup and others.


But what can communicators do with groups?

All this got me thinking. The trajectory of Facebook is projected to carry on rising with 41.3 million UK users by 2021. And with groups playing a key role they need to be taken as seriously as a press release or Facebook advertising.

  1. Community groups and pages

If you want to reach a sub-set of a community there is now a chance that a Facebook group is the best way to reach them. If you are in Birmingham and want to reach Poles this Facebook group may be part of the solution, for example. Similarly, local history and heritage in Telford have a group with 19,000 members. Those two are not one offs. The country is criss-crossed with groups around sub-areas.

You’re too busy to talk to all of them? Sure. I get that. But if you have content you want to put before one of these communities suddenly they are relevant.

  1. A support group

The Brain Tumour Charity have three Facebook groups depending on what you need. There’s a general one, one for parents and one for carers. What the organisation are doing is providing a space for people to talk and standing back. They don’t drive the content. People do.

  1. As a way of connecting the team

Facebook Workplace is coming down the track. This is the platform’s way of creating a company-wide way of talking to each other. For non-profits it is free but at $3 per user per month I’m not sure that the Public Sector can stretch to that. Actually, I am sure. It can’t. But re-creating the groups feature amongst a team on a project or a comms team may be useful.

  1. As a way of consulting

Sometimes, we need to listen to what people are saying. This may be to better shape a scheme or see what people think about budget cuts. If there is already a forum for this, then use that. If there isn’t, and if it can be updated regularly a group may be a way to keep people informed.

A different mindset

Fundamentally, Facebook groups are people coming together to talk about a common interest.  That’s different to the traditional comms method of broadcasting. They’re not recepticles for all your content. They are about building a relationship with the group admin and the people in the group.

A different approach

Cumbria County Council have made friends with the admin of a group with 100,000 members and invite him to post content on their behalf. Tom Gannon has blogged on the subject here. This is brilliant. This is the way to go. A decent number like that has clear scale. But there will be times when you need to reach new mums, residents on an estate or the Polish community.

Nobody expects you to know all the 2,000 groups and pages in your area. But you can start by knowing the big ones and by making a search every time you post content.

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