This post has been a long time coming, but that’s probably a good thing. Way back in the summer, we had an interesting debate at work which spilled out onto Twitter with some great results. It was called “The Comms Question” and was looking at the issues related to communicating via social media.
Here’s some examples of the questions we were asking:
- Should social media accounts be personal, professional or corporate? Should they be a mixture of all three? If they are a mix, can this distort the message?
- If people use personal accounts, is there a danger of contacts leaving with the staff or people misrepresenting the company?
- Who, in a public sector organisation, engages with twitter on an official basis? The comms team? The managers? The frontline workers?
- For Twitter or facebook engagement to truly take place the conversation is important. Can this conversation take place with a comms team, rather than a subject specialist?
No doubt these questions will continue to promote debate, and I don’t intend to answer them, if that is indeed possible, in this blog post. Instead, I want to focus on the last two of those questions, in relation to local government.
Traditionally, the comms team has been about communicating to the people via the media. Most comms teams are made up of former journalists, PR professionals and assistants keen to learn that apparently glamourous world of PR.
However, social media presents an interesting question. For the first time, PR teams are having to deal directly with the most volatile and disruptive audience of all – the electorate. This is a different ball game. The electorate cannot get “off the record” briefings, will not also respond with the professionalism you’d except (and sometimes even get) from the media. The electorate do not always want to know about the latest initiative and do want an answer, not a statement.
During the snowy weather, I contacted a local council via twitter with a question around gritting. They didn’t respond to the tweets (presumably they were using twitter as a top down tool rather than the conversational tool that it should be) so I contacted an individual at the council directly. They were far more helpful but were only able to send me a statement from highways. Having worked in Comms, I understand that this is the best they could do and I’m not blaming the comms team for that…but I’m also aware that the average citizen is going to respond differently, feeling ignored and blanked out. This, I realised, means social media isn’t just about maintaining a conversation…its about a relationship.
Council community workers (and by this I include arts workers, youth workers and anyone in the business of engaging with communities) will know that there’s often a conflict of interest in their work. On the one hand, they are representing the council, something that gives them a bit of credibility and gives them the security and terms and conditions that working for a council gives you (and despite the current climate, council work is still more secure than charity work, in my opinion). On the other hand, there are many in the community, particularly those who are disengaged, who are suspicious of the council, who prefer not to know where you’re from. One of the skills in council community engagement is ensuring people take up council services, without the corporate feel. There’s a way of talking to people, interacting with people, being patient but firm with people that’s really a skill thats honed by community workers over a large period of time. Almost without fail, community workers are passionate about subjects such as equality, satisfying the often peculiar demands of random strangers and generally helping the world be a better place. So, why aren’t community workers in the comms team dealing with this?
The problem comes two fold. Firstly, community workers are often still very much about face-to-face….and long may that continue. Community workers often see social media as something they use at home, outside their work remit. This is a shame, as, in my experience, one of their greatest talents is translating everyday people skills to professional practice. Secondly, community workers’ passions for society are not always conducive with the council’s vision. Community workers are more often than not about the people rather than the politics.
What we need is a dialogue, a conversation between the front line officers and the comms team. We needs comms managers that understand the important skills community workers have in terms of communications. We need community workers who understand the importance that message and corporate reputation play in running a local authority. Then we can start a more meaningful conversation and maybe even get to know our audience.
Social media is a great way to interact and councils are now starting to embrace the tool. Some have even got as far as the conversation. Now it’s time to look at the language.