The future of comms in local government

The Local by Social online conference (various levels of sign-up required) is turning out to be a bit of a triumph. Yesterday saw some fascinating discussions about various elements of technology (mostly web) enabled change. Well done Ingrid (and team)!

One was superbly facilitated by Walsall Council’s Dan Slee, who ran discussion on the subject of where communications in local government is likely to be headed.

I came fairly late to the party, and my point was that it’s probably less important for people in comms to consider how they fulfil their current role in a web 2.0 age, rather than to think about how the internet disrupts their entire way of working, and that a back to basics, “what are we here for?” type discussion is probably needed.

I’ve pasted in my comment below, it should still make sense despite being ripped out of context.

Perhaps in this – extremely interesting and thought provoking – thread, we are asking the wrong question.

Maybe the question should be “What is the point of the council communications team?”

Here’s what I mean: framing the discussion around social media and whatever comes after it may not be entirely helpful in this instance. I suspect that the real changes that affect the way organisations communicate are longer term and wider ranging.

It’s clear that advances in technology are changing both the information that people are consuming, and the way that they consume it.

The internet – and I use that word deliberately – is the force that is behind this change, and it has both been a long time coming and been going on for a long time, before Facebook, blogging and even the web itself.

If the internet does one thing, it reduces the cost of delivery of information to zero. That has profound consequences which are now starting to be realised. Any organisation, or role, that is based on the delivery of information (and I would argue that comms is one such role) needs to have a real think about a) what it actually wants to achieve; and then b) figure out the processes and tools to make that happen.

Take the newspaper, TV and music industries – probably the three hit most hard by the effects of the internet. All of those three industries failed to realise in time what business they were in. The newspapers thought they were about news; the TV stations about making television programmes; and the music industry about making music.

Nope. They were all in the logistics business. The value they added was in delivering content to people, whether on paper, through the telly or on CD.

If you listen to the bleating of the record labels, you’d actually think that nobody made any music before they came around, and certainly that no poor, suffering musician made any money. In fact, there was a BBC interview with Mick Jagger recently where he pointed out that, other than a few years in the late 1970s, the Stones haven’t made a penny personally from any of their records – all their income was from concerts and merchandising. In other words, if we cut out the record labels, as the internet allows us to do, nobody but the record labels suffer.

Anyway, I digressed a bit there. But the point remains: what business are you in? What are you trying to achieve?

I honestly don’t know – maybe that’s because I never worked in comms… is it something about managing the organisation’s reputation?

In the past (and probably the present) comms departments controlled messages, fed stories to local papers, got councillors on the radio and local TV and that sort of thing.

But how can they continue to do that when they are no longer faced by a couple of newspapers, one TV channel and a handful of radio stations, rather hundreds of blogs, locally or nationally, YouTube users who can put video up at the drop of a hat, people armed with mobile phones, throwing up audio online – all of whom potentially have audiences way in advance of those traditional mediums.

How can comms teams do that job when every member of staff also has access to these tools, and every councillor too?

So what, now, is the purpose of the comms guys? Why does a council need a comms department at all? Figure that one out, and I would imagine everything else will just drop into place.

The death of crowd control

James Gardner:

The point,  of course, is that if the central thinking is that communications are about crowd control, then organisations are really forcing the many-to-many communication outside their organisation. Although I don’t think we are about crowd control at the department, the fact that we don’t have our new communications channels yet has already resulted in crowds forming beyond the firewall. Imagine the circumstance when new channels, far being lacking, aren’t even allowed.

My conclusion, based on this, is that crowd control is pretty much dead. And that centralised command-and-control will soon follow.

Bookmarks for September 20th through October 1st

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for August 11th through August 18th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for June 17th through July 3rd

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Bookmarks for June 3rd through June 7th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

See, local gov *can* do Facebook

One of the highlights of last Wednesday’s LGComms event was hearing about Coventry City Council‘s Facebook page.

Coventry on Facebook

If you click to see the larger image, you’ll notice that the page has 11,321 fans (as at the time of writing).


Remarkable stuff. As I wrote, quite a while ago now, it’s tricky to use Facebook when you are the sort of organisation nobody loves to love. Who wants to be a fan of their local authority? No-one I know.

How did Ally Hook and colleagues manage this feat? Pretty simple. It’s not the Council’s FB page…it’s the city’s. Tapping into civic pride is a great way of getting people to engage. Using your Facebook page to provide up to date information on weather related issues during snowpocalypse probably helps too.

In other words:

  • be relevant: don’t try and get people to want to join a weird club for the council, tap into what people want to belong to
  • be useful: use the space in a way that actually benefits people, rather than as just another comms channel

Facebook will continue to be incredibly useful for those wishing to engage with citizens. It’s where the people are, and the numbers keep growing. Just because it has been around for a while shouldn’t mean us social media geeks look down on it. Is it time you took another look at Facebook?

Government 2010


Government 2010 looks like it will be a lot of fun.

It’s a conference about the future of government:

Government 2010 is about improved government communications and more rapid delivery of services to citizens via the web, and web-enabled channels.

It also features some people I really respect on the speaker list:

…amongst a host of others.

Another great thing about this conference is the lengths they are going to to make it accessible – including the live streaming. Having a company like Switch New Media involved certainly helps – their streaming of Aprils Digital Inclusion conference was superb. As I can’t make it, I will certainly be making the most of this live feed.

Getting noticed: The Five Step Programme

The second Wednesday guest post! Thanks to Sarah for this great post – if you’d like to contribute, just email me – and being called Sarah isn’t necessarily a requirement!

Online communication isn’t always taken seriously. It’s a nice to have on top of offline work or something organisations have been told to do. It isn’t necessarily considered a channel in its own right. And those that work online aren’t always respected in terms of their skills, their knowledge or the value they can bring.

Convincing others of your worth within an organisation is sometimes a bigger hurdle than convincing them of the value of online communications.

So, how to go about raising your profile and getting social media offerings to the table? I’ve worked up a list of five approaches. This list isn’t exhaustive. I’d like to hear people argue against or add their own take and experience.

1. Passion

Fall in love with online but don’t be blind to limitations and suitability. Talk to anyone who will listen about the possibilities but respect their concerns. Be able to explain why you are passionate about online – have examples of where social media has helped improve life, improved efficiency (internally or for citizens) or has saved money (pick according to your audience). Be savvy and believe in what you’re trying to get others to see the value of. And while being a geek is something to be cherished try to remember than social media is about being social so get out there and talk!

2. Persuasion

You may be the only person that believes that online communication, social media and digital engagement has an important part in your organisation. This can lead to frustration, doubts about your sanity and a relentless need to persuade others to listen to your suggestions. A good way to get people to listen to you is to listen to them – why don’t they value / understand / like online? Once you understand where they are coming from you can work out how best to showcase options to them. They still might not be sold but at the very least they will be more aware of what social media is (and probably think you’re a decent, reasonable sort as well).

3. Persistence

Things move slowly in the public sector, and social media is developing fast. Be the middle ground between the need to develop strategy, policy, protocol and being left behind because by the time you get to the dock that particular online ship has sailed.
Just because the answer is no today doesn’t mean the answer will be no tomorrow. Keep making suggestions, keep listening to the concerns around the use of social media, keep trying out ideas. Just keep on keeping on.

4. Private sector attitude

If you believe you could lose your customers to a competitor you’ll try harder to be the first with innovation and the best with services. We’re all citizens as well as public sector employees so what use of social media would make your personal dealings with the council easier? What would your neighbour, your mum, your friends find more useful. In the private sector you need to get the edge on your competitors and by having this attitude in the public sector you’ll get closer to delivering above and beyond what is expected and be able to prove why what you’re doing is of value to the organisation.

5. Play, practice, prove

Alright, that’s not one but three things. I really mean knowing what you’re talking about. Being passionate and persuasive will come more naturally if you use and know social media. The Internet is a playground so don’t be afraid to try out new platforms and ideas. Get to know other people in the sector and find out what they’re doing, share your ideas and experience with them. Collectively we can be more innovative and efficient than working in silos. And gather your evidence. Know how many people are online and using social media, know the demographics of different platforms, know how far you reach with online communications, know what your citizens think of what you’re doing. Know which tool to use for which job.

So, what do others think? Anyone used a different approach or mix in order to get word out about what they can do for the organisation with social media?

Sarah Lay blogs at, works in online communications for Derbyshire County Council (who don’t necessarily share her views) and is studying for a Masters in eCommunications, concentrating on local government use of social media. She is also the organiser of the first social media cafe for Derby and Derbyshire. If you live or work in the area and are interested in online communications and social media come along to meet others – find out more and join the group.

Is your organisation an Apple or a Google?

Nice post from Steve Rubel, comparing the approach taken by two hugely innovative companies to engaging with their customers:

Google isn’t exactly known as the most transparent company in the world, but they’re light years ahead of Apple – a company that in some ways they share a kinship with when it comes to their reputation for innovation. Apple (or for that matter any big company) can learn a lot about radical transparency, customer service and PR from Google, even though they’re hardly perfect here.

The post is worth reading in full as Rubel analyses some of the good stuff that Google does (open about improvements to their products and lots of blogs) – and compares it to the lack of such activity by Apple.

I dare say that many public sector organisations are behind even Apple in this regard. Would you even want to be as open as Google about this sort of stuff? My view would be yes, but I would imagine that the idea would scare a lot of folk to death!