Talk to anyone who uses it and the answer is often the same. “Bloody London Midland. Late again. Only their @londonmidland has told me why. In a human voice. So I can’t quite bring myself to hate them.”
There are lessons there for all of us.
When local government started to use the social web it needed to buy into the idea that this was going to be two-way and a place where people ask questions. We can’t just tell people the latest announcement. People aren’t waiting for us to post them links to a press release. They want a place where they’ll be listened to about potholes, bin collections and things that matter to them, too. Maybe then they’ll wear some of the things we’d really love it if they listened to.
It’s a measure how things have become mainstream when questions via Twitter get plugged into customer services too.
Vodaphone UK emerged in a recent Socialbakers study as the most connected with almost of 80 per cent of incoming tweets answered. When the channel was established it was primarily a customer services tool, the company say.
Jan Rezab, Socialbakers CEO, says Vodafone UK is particularly well set up for social customer service because it applied itself to the format early on by structuring up its internal trained team to handle queries.
Rezab says: “Brands should apply themselves, it’s more authentic when it’s a trained employee of the organisation answering your queries. Companies have to be ready – and it’s actually cheaper to reply to questions via Twitter than it is a phone call.”
That’s not to say that social should only be customer services. Or comms. If people are talking or asking questions then local government needs to be there too.
The ‘why bother?’ question
If you’re asking why bother have a customer services team at all you’re the absolute last person to think about the social customer services stream. If you think that people should be helped in the channel that works best for them you’re onto something. Once, all customer services used to happen by letter. Then the telephone was invented. And email. We responded to them because that’s where people wanted to be helped. In short, we remembered that we are here to serve. Not the other way round. It’s been five years since local government started to use it. There’s at least 10 million UK users. It’s a good way to respond to issues in public to show that you are listening and also give out answers to a large audience that may need them too. In short you are being more responsive, more relevant and dammit, more helpful too.
The preparing to do it…
Have a dedicated customer services Twitter. Yes, I know your organisation probably has at least one already. But plan with scale in mind. You may be answering three or four a day now. But once your generic enquries email was doing that too. Just as you have different email accounts for different things you need different social accounts for different things too.
It should say when it’ll be monitored. 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday is fine so long as you make that clear. You’ll get more brownie points dealing with things out-of-hours but sometimes this just ain’t possible.
It should be staffed by real people. It should be authentic. Human. It should talk about the weather if it’s raining cats and dogs. That’s fine.
It should speak human. It should talk in a recognizably human way. Like real people do. It shouldn’t talk in jargon.
The actually doing it…
Start the day with a tweet from a real person. Close it the same way, too. Train operator London Midland do this beautifully.
Good afternoon, it’s Fi signing in for the rest of the day. Let me know if you have any queries (rail related!)
— London Midland (@LondonMidland) June 1, 2013
Acknowledge the query. People don’t expect fully formed answers within the hour to complex problems. They know life isn’t always like that. But they do want to know you are on the case. The tweet that says: ‘Thanks for your tweet. Will find out for you’ is fine in the short term.
Get back in 24 hours or less. And make a point of saying this on your Twitter bio.
Have a few people trained up. Not just one.
Never argue with an idiot, is what my Uncle Keith once told me. How right he was. How much of a web visionary he was, too. If you can help then help but if people shout, swear or troll you are probably better off spending your time answering other queries. Michael Grimes of the Citizenship Foundation’s seminal blogger engagement guide works well.
When in doubt think what you’d do if this conversation was taking place on the telephone. Which, when you think about it, is a lot more tricky than Twitter. You have to talk to people directly in real time. How tricky is that?
Use the channel as two way. Getting a flood of telephone calls about bin collections? Maybe a Twitter update and a piece on the website can help.
The working out if you are doing it right…
In short, you’ll find this out if people are asking you questions.
But yes, you can evaluate it. Don’t bother too much with follower numbers although that’s always nice. Keep a log on how many queries you dealt with each week. Then work out how much they would have cost you to deal with using other routes. The SOCITM stats for avoidable contact can help with this.For face-to-face it’s £10.53, for telephone it is £3.39, while post costs £12.10 and web just 8p.
Report the stats and the successes back far and wide. A satisfied customer is worth shouting about.
Creative commons credits
Helping hand http://www.flickr.com/photos/9729909@N07/4970060350/
The @soldieruk Twitter aims to set out military best practice for social media use both for the job but also in military personnel’s private life.
Part teacher and part digital Military Policeman the account also taps people on the shoulder to let them know they’ve strayed across the line.
It’s also fascinating to watch how they strike the balance between adopting a voice that’s somewhere between the parade ground and the water cooler. A retro profile pic and reminders that ‘careless tweets sink ships’ does this rather well.
There are more than 200,000 British servicemen and women. There’s no way the digital genie can be put back into the bottle and it’s clear that social poses a real danger to the MOD as well as opportunity. It’s not just the giving away of troop movements that’s an issue. It’s the personal data that can put individual service personnel in harms way too. The murder of a soldier in Woolwich shows this.
When one serviceman tweeted about the far right English Defence League they were met with this from @soldierUK.
@exsacerdotal The views of the EDL, (like any extremist motivated group) are contrary to the core ethos & values of the UK Armed Forces.
— SoldierUK (@SoldierUK) June 2, 2013
There’s also more general messages too…
Are you running a Mil WAGs Facebook group? Think about making it a closed group and verifying members. #BeSafeOnline
— Roger Noduff (@Walter_Mitty007) May 31, 2013
In addition, there is general advice on how to use social media and to stay safe online. It’ll be interesting to see how the account pans out. Certainly, by embracing digital the MOD stand a far better chance of knowing the risks, pitfalls and opportunities. But with so many accounts to keep an eye on is just one team enough?
There will be some excellent speakers and there will I’m sure be much to learn. You can take a look at the line up from May 21 to 23 via a pdf here. The line-up is not available in a more a ccessible format, I’m afraid.
Last year, there was the profoundly depressing experience of a panel on social media being glibly introduced with the words: “There’s only two things wrong with social media. It’s not social and it’s not media.”
Thankfully, the person who uttered these words has since spoken of his sea change in attitude. There’s also a lot of digital on the agenda. There’s even an unconference slot with Lloyd Davis on Thursday afternoon which should be interesting.
Is traditional comms dead?
There’s also a Think Tank discussion I’ll be chairing on The Digital Debate: Is Traditional Comms Dead? That takes place at 6.30pm on Tuesday May 21. On the panel will be Eddie Coates-Madden of Hull City Council,
Eddie Coates-Madden, Assistant Head
of Service: Communications and Marketing, Hull City
Council, Gavin Sheppard, The Media Trust and Sara
Moseley, Cardiff University
Kuku Club, Park Plaza Hotel
With that in mind here’s five links that may fire some thought. See? I’ve even highlighted some key points to save you the bother.
Are comms the blockers?
Catherine Howe, of Public i wrote a useful summary of the commscamp unconference session in Birmingham asking if comms team are the single biggest block on good social media un local government.You can read the full text of her post here.
I think we have to conclude that communications are often blockers to social media activity but that they have good as well as bad reasons for acting this way. As the use of social media becomes more entrenched then I would speculate that this will become increasingly a question of organisational leadership rather than any specific practitioner groups and that it will be important to start discussing where that leadership should come from. If we want to start to see social media operating outside of comms then arguably that leadership needs to be external as well. The question of being good organisational customers of digital projects will perhaps be the next challenge we have to collectively face in taking some of the excellent best practice we see around us into more mainstream use and out of the ambit of a single team.
In defence of the press release
Local government press officer Kam Mistry wrote a defence of the pr here sparked by a different debate at commscamp in Birmingham earlier this year.
When you dissect it, you realise that the press release is a fantastic form of communication. You grab someone’s attention with a good headline, they then read your first paragraph and, assuming it’s still interesting, will continue to read the rest of it and then publish it. I suppose it’s a bit like the mating game – initial attraction, stimulate interest, maintain interest and then… oh dear this is turning into a Swiss Toni metaphor.
Yes, the press and media are having to evolve but they will be there for many years to come. Newspapers – in print and electronic forms – will continue to be key channels for effective communication and we really should not see them, or press releases, as anachronisms.
Put it this way. First there was radio and then television came along. Have we all thrown away our radios?
PR is dead and so are newspapers
Eddie Coates-Madden is part of the LGComms panel and wrote this on the challenge that traditional pr and newspapers face and a presentation he gave:
And I ended with my prediction of the future for journalism; that it will be fast, fast, fast; that stories are everywhere, not on a Press Release; that everyone can be a journalist (not necessarily a good one, but everyone can break stories and has the tools to publish); that journalists have become a brand in themselves; that broadcast without response is dead; that there will be ever more accountable journalism, more easy disgust, more easy offence and that accountability is every organisation’s to handle, and that there are more easily targeted campaigns and more moral tensions. activism is clicktivism and that might mean more and more difficult challenges, to freedom of expression, politically unpopular views, financial security, even – when wrongly done – to personal safety.
Death to the campaign!
Jim Garrow works in public health in Philladelphia. He writes a blog and updates it prodigiously. He has the uncanny ability to nail things. This post may be uncomfortable – nay challenging – reading for comms people at LGComms. But that’s why you should read it. He argues that campaigns are counter-productive and switching things on and off don’t work with people.
First, it assumes that our audience is there, available, placid and interested, during the time we decide they should hear our messages. If they are otherwise ready to lose weight, or set up a communications plan, or change the batteries in their smoke detectors, except for some family crisis that happens during our predefined “campaign time,” then they don’t get the message that they need to change their behavior. (This is a HUGE reason I despise days, weeks and months that celebrate or raise awareness for something; what, tuberculosis doesn’t matter the other 364 days of the year?
The other reason only communicating through campaigns is harmful is, in my estimation, infinitely worse. Say your timing works out and you get lucky and actually find someone who was patiently waiting for your message. Not only that, but the message is specifically tailored to the group she self-identifies with (because you’re still marketing to audiences and not everyone), and she takes action on it. She’s moved from Contemplation to Preparation based solely on your messaging. Congratulations! But, what happens when you end your campaign? Specifically, what happens to this wonderful person that you’ve prepped to be ready to move forward and actually change her behavior? Does she not move to the Action stage? Does she resent your messaging for leaving her hanging, alone? Is she willing to wait another year for you to become interested in her problem again? Will she even listen next time?
Creative commons credits
A couple of years ago that’s what the former Liverpool manager told Liverpool City Council in 140 characters.
Chances are they’d already been out treating the roads but without regular updates nobody would have know.
Looking out of the window in January 2013 as snow falls after 24-hours of snowmaggedon warnings it’s s different story. There’s real time updates on Twitter, Facebook and in some cases rolling blogs too like at Walsall Council and Norfolk Council. That’s great to see.
It was a different case back in 2009 for local government when some leftfield councils – including Derbyshire, Walsall, Kirklees and others – boldly decided to use Twitter to tell people they were going out. I wrote about it here in early 2010.
Things stepped up a gear in 2011 when the excellent Geoff Coleman came up with the idea of getting councils across the West Midlands to tweet grit alerts using the #wmgrit hashtag so people could see the state of things across the region.
Taking a look at the stream in full effect this morning there’s messages of support being tweeted and a tweetreach stat that paints an impressive picture.
Stourbridge Town center has been gritted by @dudleymbc with men n shuvel! well done! town centre snow free to walk around #stourbridgesnow— Dave Baker (@The_Grim_Weeder) January 18, 2013Of course, audience stats aren’t the be all and end all as we know but 134,000 people potentially seeing what is happening on the roads is quite powerful.
Seeing a tweet or update land in your inbox or sail by helps. It saves people ringing up an engineer and asking for information and can even in passing can see that local government is doing stuff for them.
That doesn’t mean sweetless and light has broken out. People still complain they didn’t get their street treated. Or have a pop because they didn’t see a gritter go by. But that’s just it. They’re not shouting into the void anymore and the council can hear and respond.
But as much as I love the grit and winter disruption alerts I don’t think this is the last word. This should be a first word. But we should now be looking to see how else these real time alerts could work.
The digital landscape has evolved since 2009. Much has changed. This stuff is no longer revolutionary. It’s mainstream and being taken seriously. The LGA and DCLG have this month signed off the localgov digital group to try and innovate and share best practice. That’s rather good.
So after grit, what’s next?
As dull as unexciting as it may sound, something around bin reminders delivered in the evening by email or Twitter or by another means would be a rather handy piece of communications.
Any other ideas?
Or maybe you’d have it covered if there’s an explosion in a quiet street?
For the most part public sector communications can be pretty difficult. But with more than 500 deaths a year in fires in the UK there’s something uniquely challenging about handling the comms for a fire and rescue service. Especially at a time of tighter budgets.
How digital channels have utterly transformed communications is something that absolutely fascinates me. Forget six hours until the press conference. It’s now six minutes until the first tweet from an eyewitness and six hours until the first Facebook page set-up by residents.
You simply have to have social media in your emergency plan. It’s something I’ve written about before.
A few weeks back I was asked to speak at a FirePRO event in Manchester put together by the Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue. It was a rather useful event that gave an insight into the challenges. You can read the Storify the excellent Sam Thomas here. http://storify.com/samontheweb/fire-service-communicators.
Multi-agency use of digital media in a crisis
There’s a few small scale examples that have helped my thinking in Walsall. There’s the excellent use of social media by West Midlands Police and West Midlands Fire Service. It works because people on the ground have been given permission to tweet. So, when there’s an emergency there’s a network of people on the ground who can create an authoratative voice.
The approach in Walsall amongst police, council and other areas is simple. In a crisis, if it’s a police thing others with retweet. If it’s a council thing, others will share it.
The example of the Pheasey floods where 150 homes were flooded is an example of this. The presentation takes you through some of the tweets from that day.
Here’s 12 things that struck me.
1. There’s some cracking examples of social media case studies. It’s at the sharp end and an ability to use different channels is essential.
2. In an emergency the first pictures will come from a resident. The Shaw gas explosion wiped out one house and damaged others. The first image didn’t come the day after in the evening paper. It came within minutes from a resident posting to Twitter.
3. Having a presence on Twitter helps get the message out in real time. Tweet within minutes and you’ll create an authoritative voice that people can home in on.
4. In an emergency think like a journalist. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue sourced stories and content in the days after the explosion. The evacuated pets return. Families return.
5. In an emergency the traditional sign-off is dead. Greater Manchester Fire & Rescue kept partners up to speed but such was the speed that they needed to respond far quicker than waiting for sign-off from everyone concerned. The leisurely approach to news is over. Minutes count.
6. In a fatality put the organisation first and not the news media. When two firefighters died at a fire in Southampton Hampshire Fire & Rescue made a conscious decision to think about what they released. They decided to consider the needs of the dead employee’s work mates first. Then the needs of the organisation. Then the Press. That’s an important decision to make.
7. In a fatality put internal comms first. I’m massively impressed at the way Hampshire Fire & Rescure kept staff informed with things like daily updates from the inquest. That involved two comms officers rotating their coverage in the court.
8. There’s a need to have hard news skills in fire comms teams. Death sells. Death makes the media interested. To have the knowledge of how the media works and will react is an essential skill in this life threatening area of comms.
9. There’s a need to have digital skills in fire comms teams. With the changing news cycle social media is massively important.
10. Google hangouts are rather good. The line to Hampshire worked rather well.
11. Communications should be a job for specialists. It wasn’t an issue mentioned here but there’s a pressure in other parts of the country to create desk jobs for firefighters. Like PR. Or to make the cuts away from fire stations. Like in PR. But this is a fundamental mistake born from not knowing the value of proper communications. That’s actually an internal comms challenge for the whole of public sector communications.
12. It’s not just hard news. Much of the day-to-day centres around asking people to take greater care and not set fire to things. Digital communications can only be vital for this.
Hats off to speakers Bridget Aherne from Greater Manchester, Rachel Stanley and Dave Thackeray from Hampshire, Stuart Jackson and Paul Williams of Ice Creates and to Shelley Wright and Sam Thomas and her team for putting on an excellent event. There’s a seperate blog post about the Ice Creates work alone.
Books on climbing? Yes. Books from self-styled social media ninjas? no thank you.
One of a few that stands like a shining beacon is the excellent ‘Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do’ by Euan Semple.
I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve recommended this hardback work to. Even if you don’t go out and buy it you can take something from the title.
One of the reasons why I’m rather keen on it is that it strikes a chord with some of the work we’ve done.
One example that Semple comes up with is ‘Trojan mice.’
In other words, in an organisation do lots of little things to see where they end up and if they work without shouting about them to the world. Or senior management. He writes:
“Conventional initiatives are like the more familiar Trojan Horse. Big, lumbering, slow moving. It takes a lot of people to move it and it is very hard to get it to change direction without a lot of effort.
“As we deployed low cost small tools and kicked off little initiatives at the BBC we began to describe our approach as deploying Trojan Mice, a metaphor borrowed from British consultant Peter Fryer.
“Set up small, unobtrusive inexpensive and autonomous tools and practices set them running and cajole and nudge them until they begin to work out where to go and why.”
It’s an approach that in spirit chimes with Dave Briggs’ line about JFDI – Just Flipping Do It.
Thinking back, some of the things I’ve done have worked well. Others haven’t. None of them we’ve made a big noise about from the word go.
Of course, there is the argument from some PR people that everything – Trojan Mice and otherwise – has to be linked up to a campaign with objectives, key messages and things to measure. I’m just not so sure about this. This feels like trad comms sellotaping itself to the new stuff and forgets that fact that to make this new stuff work you have to embrace the fact it’s a conversation.
With Trojan mice you can make some mistakes. Do five things. If two work, tell your bosses’ boss about them and see how you can nurture them elsewhere. Even the quiet failures you can learn things from.
Creative commons credits:
Twice in the last few weeks that’s happened to me.
Firstly, at Digital Futures in Shrewsbury Futuregov’s excellent Carrie Bishop spoke of using ‘just enough of the internet’ to get something done. That feels such a perfectly weighted, perfectly observed comment to make from someone who can comfortably grandstand by talking shiny tech.
Secondly, Coventry City Council’s Martin Reeves at the 10 by 10 WM event in Coventry.
The chief executive popped in to deliver a 15-minute speech to those that had gathered. We’d just finished hearing 10 examples of really good innovation across the region and were feeling just a little bit pleased with ourselves. There’s some really good things happening in the region and I’m really proud to be part of that.
“You are doing great things,” Martin said. “But I’ve just spent a few days locked away with other chief executives to discuss things that face us. Not once. Not once was social media mentioned in that time.”
The fact that Martin, who is one of a growing handful of chief executives who tweet, was telling us this was significant. Martin is an advocate. He’s a believer.
“How do you need to change that?” he asked us. “Stop being evangelists. Stop talking about the technology. Talk about the solutions. Talk about the solutions that may just have social media as part of it. Then you’ll get people listening.”
It’s a brilliantly clear, well thought through approach to take.
If there’s one thing that social media people are is passionate evangelists. Sometimes that passion comes from a belief that if only others could share this vision then the world will be a better place. The reality is that some people just don’t think that.
It’s not the shiny technology that matters to most people.
How do countryside people find better ways to connect? By having a ranger like Morgan Bowers on Twitter. How do we dispell rumours in a crisis? By using Twitter alongside people like the police. How do we stop people thinking we don’t grit? We tell them on Twitter.
But that hits one of the great conundrums about social media for an organisation. Organisations use it to get real life results. They want ticket sales or units shifted. But social media is a conversation. If you use it well you’ll use it with a human face and with a human voice.
So, maybe we need to be two things.
We must talk with a human voice when using technology to those outside the organisation.
We must talk solutions to those within.
What was it? It was a chance to see what local government did over a 24-hour period.
A load of unglamorous unheralded tasks across the 700 services that your council does to help improve people’s lives.
A total of 10,161 tweets reached a potential audience of 768,227 people, according to organisers the Local Government Association.
And 3,967 accounts tweeted or retweeted the updates. That’s a large set of figures.
Hats off to Sarah Jennings and the Local Government Association team for attempting to herd cats and encouraging people to take part in the event.
It goes without saying that the snippets of stories that emerge point to why things like this work.
The officer talking about the public art in Walsall or the barking dogs being investigated.
Tales like this is beauty of campaigns like #ourday.
It’s a model that does work.
— Surrey News (@SurreyNews) September 25, 2012
Our bulky waste team picked up items no longer wanted by an elderly lady in Lavender Grove: a fridge, 2 TVs, a table and a VCR #OurDay
— Hackney Living (@hackneyliving) September 27, 2012
— BCC Env. Health (@envhealthbham) September 27, 2012
— Ben Berry(@cllrbenberry) September 27, 2012
— Redcar & Cleveland (@RedcarCleveland) September 27, 2012
— Daniel Carins (@dancarins) September 27, 2012
— Jo miller (@jomillerdonny) September 27, 2012
But what next?
Back in March 2010 at Walsall Council we staged Walsall 24 an idea we shamelessly borrowed from the inspirational GMP 24 which saw every call logged to Greater Manchester Police’s call centre.
It was fun, inspiring and brilliant to do and we learned loads.
But it dawned on us that actually, this is how it should be everyday. If we’re doing good things then we should tell people in a variety of channels.
It’s public relations that’s taken out of the pr department. Or comms that can be done by non-comms.
Because stories from the frontline handcrafted and authentic are like bullets of gold in telling the local government story.
Making the most of a Twitter 24
The big lesson we learned in Walsall was that things like this shatter glass ceilings.
This is the important bit.
Take screen shots of what you’ve done. Print them out. Circulate them. Turn them into posters. Put them where people can see.
Add them to your intranet.
That piece of praise for the parks department that came back from a resident? Tell parks.
That shot of the roadmending machine out and about? Put it on the noticeboard in the Town Hall.
By taking things offline we can show the benefits of using digital communications to people who may never have thought that this is for them.
I bet that’s what the real legacy of #ourday will be if you’re careful.
Wouldn’t it be good if…
Next time we did this there are lots more of the difficult stuff to cover. The social care people, the binmen, the teachers and the housing staff.
And wouldn’t it be good if there was a single issue – as well as everything – to focus on too. Whether that be signing people up to a library. Or doing a specific task.
But maybe more important than that is the fact that it starts conversations and makes local government appear what it can be best. Human.
Creative commons credit
Urban initiatives http://www.flickr.com/photos/watchlooksee/4525612637/sizes/l/
Just lately I came across a rather magnificent link to the MOD’s digital guidelines.
As a starting point for beginners or for the more advanced they’re pretty handy. The US Army Social Media handbook has been around for a while and it’s good to get a British perspective too.
What do they offer?
Well, it’s basically a pretty robust framework that strikes the balance between common sense security and telling stories. Frontline staff are encouraged to go via the chain of command to tell their stories.
As the introduction says:
UK Service and Ministry of Defence personnel are permitted to make full use of social media (such as social networking sites, blogs and other internet self-publishing), but must:
- Follow the same high standards of conduct and behaviour online as would be expected elsewhere;
- Always maintain personal, information and operational security, and be careful about the information you share online;
- Get authorisation from your chain of command when appropriate, and seek advice from your chain of command if unsure.
There’s some interesting social media presences that have grown over the past few years.
The UK Forces Afghanistan Facebook page has more than 12,000 likes and has a social approach with shots of servicemen and women. There’s a big input from families which is interesting to see. The feel is upbeat and focussed on the safety of the soldiers, sailors and airmen. The cover shot of a soldier waving to the Afghan passing by is unmistakably hearts and minds territory.
A rather good Flickr page Defence Images gives a feed for shots with creative commons licences for re-use.
The Ministry of Defence blog is a useful round-up of links as well as news updates. It also covers the deaths of service personnel.
There are two voices that come through the MOD social media pages. First is servicemen and women themselves. Second are their families. This is less of a forum to debate and question the rough edges and controversy of war and it feels like a deliberate decision for this. But as a means for the MOD to talk to people direct this is an interesting resource that will only grow.
Of course, the great thing for those in the public sector is that the fact that they are doing it at all is a battering ram to break down barriers. After all, if the Army are doing it sensibly and with rewards where’s the risk?