DISINFORMATION: Yet again, the Royal British Legion nail it

A quick post about online rumour.

Every year, conspiracy theorists darkly allege that poppiers won’t be sold in your town because of them Muslims.

Every year a few days ahead of them the Royal British Legion put out a post that shoots it down.

Quite brilliantly, they add the take-down as text in an image but they also repeat it in body text.

Cunningly, this allows for people to download the image and post it as a meme response on Facebook threads the Royal British Legion will never see.

You can also see the admin for the RBL engage with people in the comments section which is brilliant.

COVID COMMS #29: People are getting bored of repeated messages… so how do we now communicate them?

I’ve been feeling for a while that regular COVID-19 messaging has been failing so I’ve analysed more than Facebook 450 posts to see what the answer is.

Back in March 2020, sharing Government-approved content was the best way.

Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS worked. But they’ve been changed.

But six months on with a second wave upon us, the world has changed, trust has changed and how people are consuming content has changed.

So, how the public sector responds needs to change too.

Think of it like the Michael Caine film ‘Zulu’. Surrounded by the enemy they battled at Rorke’s Drift against a first wave. For the second wave, they knew they had to adapt. So they used nightfall to pull off a cunning plan with mealie bags and hidden firing steps.

Now, of course, a pandemic is not a film. But the idea of being adaptable is a sign of good leadership that works well.

So, I’ve looked at the data

To test this thesis I looked at how COVID-19 comms was performing on Facebook in the Black Country in the West Midlands where I live. I looked at 20 of the most recent posts in 22 Facebook groups to see what was cutting through. That’s more than 400 seperate posts.

Why Facebook? Because, in the UK, 43 million people use it and the battle will be won or lost on Facebook.

Why Facebook groups? Because it’s how people in the community are using the platform and how Facebook itself encourages you to use it.

I also looked at Facebook pages in the four Black Country boroughs that belonged to councils and hospital trusts. That includes Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverehampton and Walsall.

TLDR, what did I find?

Bad news.

  • Tried and tested in-house designed content is no longer cutting through.
  • Views are getting more polarised. Mask wearers are either doing the right thing or sheeple whop can’t think for themselves. People who won’t comply are either lazy Karens or freethinking citizens and there’s not that much middle ground.

Here’s the good news.

  • What is cutting through is content from local media and video with local health people delivering a local version of the national message. Pat on the back for media relations.
  • And memes. They’re cutting through, too.

In a nutshell, if the public sector does what it did in March when the crisis first emerged it will fail.


Facebook is one of many channels but it is the largest in the UK. You can lose the war on Facebook but you won’t win it on Facebook alone. But I’m confidant there may be transferable lessons.

Good news: for the big announcement people will look to the council Facebook page

When extra measures were introduced in Wolverhampton, people went to the Wolverhampton Council page to find out the detail. Using the metric of sharing, 1,600 shared the council post that spelt out what that meant for the city.

That was the most shared content across the region.

Bad news: routine calls to action artwork are failing to cut through

We’ve all seen the content.

Six months ago it was Government, stay alert messaging and now its more likely to be in-house designed versions of the same messages. Handy assets created centrally to work from Lands End to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Six months on and that style of content is no longer cutting through. Indeed, by posting it it dangerously gives the impression of effective communication.

Across the four Black Country council and NHS pages there were 16 COVID-19 posts across a 48-hour period. Fourteen of them were shared a combined 19 times. That’s not a good return on more than 166,000 page likes.

A locally-made video of medics cut through

The only content that cut through in the snapshot I looked at was an impressive video of three local voices talking about the continuing dangers of COVID-19.

The three consultants were clear of the dangers it posed.

This was pro-actively shared by the Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust comms team onto their page and then into community Facebook groups. This helped clock-up an impressive 109 shares when posted direct to the NHS page and an additional 595 when shared directly by Sandwell Council.

That’s a stand-out example.

However, points off for not adding subtitles. It means that you miss out on the 80 per cent who watch video without sound.

Yes, COVID-19 is being talked about in groups

Analysis of the Facebook groups showed 63 per cent of them were talking about COVID-19.

Of those conversations, almost half were sparked by links to mainstream news sites includiong Birmingham Live, Express & Star and BBC. That’s 44 per cent.

Once again, traditional media at a time of crisis is where people are heading for corroborated information.

Almost 20 per cent of Facebook group COVID-19 posts were debate started by people writing their own content. Fourteen per cent were video and 14 per cent were memes.

Just eight per cent were links to public sector pages.

The only conclusion of this is that corporate Facebook pages on their own are not reaching people in the busy Parish pumps that are community Facebook groups.

Fig 1: Types of COVID-19 content in community Facebook groups

Memes substitute debate

Surprisingly, memes were a significant part of the landscape.

Rather than type out a reasoned argument, people are turning to memes they most identify with. That’s good news and bad news. Bad news, anti-vaxxers are finding this as a way of landing their message and they don’t care so much about accessibility guidelines.

Memes are often witty takes on popular culture. They take elements of what we know and then subvert them.

The public sector hasn’t even got out of the starting blocks on creating content that will work here.

On the one hand with memes, the canny use of NHS branding and colours.

There’s a part of me that would dearly love to see an NHS Trust post this meme as is. Honestly. I’d love it. But this may be a step too far. But I think we should all start thinking of more direct language instead of the passive. The time for a Dad’s Army Sergeant Wilson approach of ‘I say, would you mind awfully?’ feels as though its past.

But on the other hand, some people are trying to play down the pandemic.

The sharing of anti-mask, anti-vaxx material is loud and widespread. It taps into general dissatisfaction and tries to exploit it.

So what can you do?

Get your own stats

Take a quick look at your Facebook insights to see what’s working and what isn’t. Remember, its not an admission of failure. It’s a sign of success that you want to refine what you are doing. Keep that insight cloe. It’ll be your weapon as you explain your shift in approach.

Human stories on video

Yes, I know its more faff but time spent on telling a local human story is time well spent. The Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Hospital Trust video with medical experts is great. The gold standard that everyomne should aim at is St Helens Council’s video of a man who has lost his Dad asking people to just play their part.

In the film, Paddy, who looks in his late 30s, talks about losing his Dad Bernard. He gives a St Helens context by introducing the fact he is from Thatto Heath, his Dad worked at Pilks for 36-years and was a member of Thatto Heath Crusaders.

Backed by cutaways of Bernard with his family and friends the film really works.

Now THIS is the kind of thing that works. Huge props to Bernard’s family and to the St Helens Council commas team. The 185 shares on the council site comfortably beats the next most popular COVID-19 content.

Why does it work?

It’s not Boris telling you, someone in London or even someone from public health at the council. It’s Paddy who you may know from school or work.

It’s also the right side of Facebook’s algorithm. It’s video. It’s likely to be liked by friends and family and it tells a story.

Counter anti-vaxx discussion on your thread

Facebook is a pretty toxic place to go right now. But you need to point people away from Karen on Facebook towards public health and NHS.

More media relations

Talk to the journalists who are left to see what content works for them.

Create memes that fight fire with fire

I absolutely approve of Birmingham City Council’s more direct approach which uses Birmingham’s bull emblem.

It’s time to be bold. Bolder than this, even.

Take your content to where the eyeballs are

As Sandwell’s NHS shows, pro-actively placing content in community groups where people can see it is a good idea. It means people will see it. That means investing in relationships with Facebook group admins and yes, that will take time, no there’s no shortcuts and yes, it will bring dividends.

I’ve said this so often.

But there is the evidence.

Don’t just look at Facebook

Human stories, firm rebuttals and a change of approach is what’s needed on Facebook. But if 20 to 29 year olds are the demographic who is seeing the biggest rise in COVID-19 then go chase them where they hang out. That’s instagram, YouTube and maybe some Snapchat.

30 days of human comms #71: Harper’s drawing on the side of the NHS Logistics lorry

If you are looking to thank NHS staff of course a child’s drawing does it.

Well done NHS Supply Chain and young Harper.

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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.

DIGITAL VIEW: No,TikTok ads aren’t a shortcut to reach young people and crack a new platform

“We’re trying to get our heads around TikTok,” someone asked the other day. “Wouldn’t it be far simpler to advertise to reach an audience?

On the face of its a really straight forward potentially bright idea.

TikTok is hot with more than 11 milliuon UK users and mainly from the hard-to-reach U24 demographic.

Can’t you just get your credit card out and magic yourself in front of an audience?

For the purposes of reaching a younger audience in a local lockdown it feels like a magic bullet.

But I wouldn’t for these reasons

Until you’ve got to know your platform you don’t really know what good content looks like. Like chucking cash at a badly designed pdf, anything you did put money behind you may well be wasting.

Not only that, in summer 2020 TikTok advertising is very high level. You can have the UK. You can even have Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland or England. But you can’t select your town, city or borough.

If you’re a national agency that becomes an option. If you’re Birmingham City Council it doesn’t.

For TikTok, get to know the platform

If you are sold on TikTok then spend time with the platform to see how it works so you can create something of value. Then create something of value.

Or you can advertise on YouTube

There is more than one route up the mountain. If you are trying to find a younger demographic you may want to advertise via YouTube instead.

You can select the geographic location.

And you can sort out the demographic.


Picture credit: Flickr / Documerica.

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30 days of human comms #70: The Barnsley Council films to encourage blokes to open up #alrightpal

It’s rare when there’s a sweet spot of things that I believe work in good communications.

Sometimes, if you work hard you can find one thing and if you’re lucky two.

Barnsley Council’s film to highlight male suicide has four.

It has a human voice. The subject of the video is human. He’s a bloke who looks mid-50s. He feels like the target audience. People in their 50s because he is one of them.

It has a human delivery. There’s something about poetry that gets to the awkward heart of the subject matter that blokes find it hard to open up to each other about the struggles they face. It’s important that they do. So the considered lines of a poem work where an interview may not. It’s also really personal.

It has a regional voice. The Barnsley accent will work best in Barnsley. Your own community’s voice will where you are.

It has subtitles. With September 23 closing in on us, tighter legislation comes into force for the public sector. You’ll need by law to subtitle and yet a substantial number of public sector videos still don’t. Yet, 80 per cent of people watch video without sound. It’s not just deaf people you’re excluding. It’s hearing people, too.

You can watch the video parts one and two here.

Normally, I’d argue against splitting two videos into two posts. There’s something about this that works. You reach the end of part one and you’re intrigued to see what happens next. The pal the narrator is talking about isn’t there. What’s happened? Is he dead? Is he living his life? It makes you keep watching.

For me, spoken word poetry is a really underused thing. The Manchester bombing and the poem that became totemic proved the power of words.

It has a local voice so it dips around issues of trust with Westminster and with politicians.

If I was working in the Black Country I’d be talking to Black Country poets about how they could articulate a truth that needed articulating. This BBC Radio 4 documentary shows that.

Meg Howlett and the rest of the team at Barnsley Council need to make some space on their mantelpieces for the awards they deserve to win for this.

CHANGED TRENDS: As we’ve moved out of lockdown in 2020 how we’re using the media has changed again

The only constant is that things are ever changing.

As communicators, we need to be alive to this fact, try to map it, respond to it and most importantly of all explain to the organisation why we recommend what we recommend.

Short term, by all means do something because someone important demands it.

Long term, you keep your job by navigating the organisation through the ice field maze of changing landscapes.

Nothing proves this fact more than the data that has been mapped through 2020. Chief cartographers of this change has been Ofcom. They are the communicators friend.

I’ve gone through two recent publications. Firstly, the week 20 Ofcom COVID-19 research and also the COVID-19 interactive consumption and attitudes data.

Do a little dance, TikTok has landed and WhatsApp is huge

One thing that emerged from #commscampstayshome is that people have twigged that TikTok has become a thing. But they’re baffled by it. Hiding behind the fact no-one senior has asked for it yet isn’t the best strategy. The data would suggest that more time is spent getting used to it and working out how to use it.

Last last year, TikTok admitted to 3.2 million UK users but this is now 11.8 million.

Facebook still leads the way with 43 million users although frustratingly, this combines Messenger in the figures. Also frustrating is that YouTube isn’t counted as a social platform but I’d expect it to be used by around 44 million. That would put WhatsApp on third with 30.2 million is and Instagram on 28.2 million fourth.

Twitter is down on 25.1 million. For me, this is further evidence that posting to Twitter isn’t reaching everyone. Its star wanes.

People spend the longest time on YouTube and then Facebook

I’m ignoring that Ofcom don’t class YouTube along with other social channels when it comes to time spent. It knocks the others out of the park.

Time spent on apps in the UK, summer 2020

YouTube 48 minutes

Facebook and Messenger 25 minutes

TikTok 19 minutes

Snapchat 11 minutes

WhatsApp 6 minutes

Pinterest 6 minutes

Instagram 6 minutes

Twitter 5 minutes

Video use remains up

Lockdown saw people spending more time at home and looking for ways to entertain themselves.

The amount of time spent on video went up by 90 minutes a day to 6 hours and 25 minutes in April. It has fallen back but stays at pre-lockdown levels.

Radio use has stayed constant

For over 24s listening to the radio hasn’t changed much despite the loss of lengthy commutes when radio has provided traffic jam company. A total of 70 per cent listen to the radio in the summer a loss of just one per cent compared to pre-lockdown levels.

However, under 24s have departed to audio books and YouTube. with 27 per cent listening a fall of almost a fifth.

As a communicator, if you’re trying to reach over 55s then radio remains a good way.

Podcasts listening has levelled out

Data shows 16.1 per cent listen to podcasts over the summer which is an increase of 0.1 per cent. Younger people have steered away from them while over 24s have increased listening.

BBC for the win for COVID-19 information

The BBC was top of the pile as a destination for pandemic information with 82 per cent getting information from this route.

So, in other words, if you’re trying to communicate local lockdown or other COVID-19 messages having the BBC on your side would be a really good idea.

Picture credit: Flickr / Documerica.

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ONLINE: The purpose of commscamp has changed and I couldn’t be happier

I’m writing this the morning after commscampstayshome with a cup of tea breathing a sigh of relief and reflecting.

This event was an attempt to run an online unconference using tech that would be new to all 170 ticket holders.

Broadly, I think it worked and for that I can only thank all those who came and who sponsored.

There were teething problems but I had lightbulb moments and could see Eureka moments happen with some attendees.

Consider this as a bit of a brain dump.

Pick the tech

It wouldn’t have worked without a steer towards Qiqochat from Lloyd Davis. It’s a platform that works with Zoom but allows one big room and then break-out rooms. Crucially, attendees can navigate between rooms themselves. That’s a gamechanger. Thanks, Lloyd.

Don’t burn the nice people out

All day online? Too much. Two half days feels right as did the social the night before. But absolutely run it in office hours. This should be part of the job.

Get the IT back-up

We had a man who made the thing work. Orkney Council IT whizz Sweyn Hunter has spent the last 10-years wishing events would be online so he could more easily go to them. He helped trial this idea with Islandcamp in 2012. He tweaked our platform and made it worked. Vitally, he was onhand the day before and on the day to sort tech queries.

Trust the process

The idea of an unconference is very simple. It uses open space principles. In a nutshell, the agenda gets chosen on the day by attendees. It sounds crackpot right up until the point where you see it in action. Then it becomes intoxicating.

It basically means you can respond to a fast-moving landscape and try and crack today’s problems rather than listen to someone talk about a problem from six months ago with five minutes for questions.

If you trust the process, it works. It just does. It’s so liberating to see that’s the case online as well as offline.

The need for commscamp has changed

When we started commscamp in 2013 it was in the spirit of optimism that saw people come together to work out how that social media can be a force for good.

That’s still the case. 

For me, the purpose for commscamp has changed. It is now a place for people working in isolation to come together to make some sense of a landscape spinning out of control.

What people were doing before lockdown isn’t what they’re doing after four weeks of lockdown and isn’t what people are doing today. 

The answer is not to wait to be spoon-fed but to be active in sorting out a solution. Active too in seeking out those who have made a start.


Thank you to my fellow organisers Kate Vogelsang, David Grindlay, Emma Rodgers, Arlene McKay, Kate Bentham, Sweyn Hunter and Bridget Aherne and our lovely sponsors.

But thank you most of all to those who came and made the thing fly.

DIGITAL SKILL: Understanding algorithms? That’s a comms job

Here’s a short blog about the exam fiasco.

Hundreds of thousands of children were given marked-down ‘A’ level exam results based on what emerged as a flawed algorithm.

More were due to get similarly marked down GCSE results until a Government u-turn scrapping this approach.

One thing strikes me as this self-inflicted reputational napalm strike.

Rather than say all algorithms are bad the exam fiasco shows we need to spend more time understanding what goes into them so they can be better shaped.

We do it for text. We’ll need to do it for AI.

Welcome to the late 20th century, comms.

COVID COMMS #28: The surprising influence of newspaper content in Facebook groups

It’s July and there’s the threat of a local lockdown in parts of the Black Country borough of Sandwell.

Urgent action has been taken with Sandwell Council leading the charge for people to take extra precautions.

There’s a range of channels to get the message out but how is this playing out on Facebook?

One Saturday morning I mapped the first 10 pieces of content in 10 different Facebook groups across the borough.

It starts on Sandwell Council’s Facebook

As the decision gets made by the public health the council posts to their page with 39,000 likes – that’s notionally 11.9 per cent of the borough population.

The visuals are eyecatching, chime with the national pandemic campaign but crucially are different. They stand out as being Sandwell.

Text heavy they carry the Sandwell Council logo and have four key bullet point calls to action.

There’s 1,600 shares of this update and another 800 of the change to the header image with identical information.

Okay, so sit back and wait?

But what was the penetration across Facebook?

The role of Facebook groups

I’ve blogged before on the important role of Facebook groups. Almost 70 per cent of the population are using Facebook and 50 per cent of the population are using closed groups whether they be groups, Messenger or Whatsapp groups.

In short, groups are where people are in the community.

For this post, I chose 10 groups at random with a combined membership of more than 65,000 – that’s twice the council’s corporate page. It’s an area I know well. I live nearby and for 10 years worked as a reporter in the borough.

Fig 1 Sandwell Council Facebook page followers v population

Like every public sector organisation they’re faced with a gap between their page and the rest of the Facebook-consuming public. One way they can fill this gap is by creating shareable content that then can connect with people in groups.

Did that happen here? Let’s see.

The role of Facebook groups spreading pandemic information

So, how was the news landing with people in Facebook groups?

I went and counted.

And yes, there was the council content being shared.

But also push back in some quarters. The council-critical I Live in West Bromwich group admin surprisingly criticised the posting of the public health message.

And of course, there was comments claiming people were asleep and just blindly following the media.

So, should the public sector be scared off by criticism and misinformation? Absolutely not. The fact its there makes the need to be in those spaces even more important. It’s clear that for important matters people are willing to share the messages.

But local news media

What really caught my eye is news media’s very deliberate use of Facebook groups to share their content. The Facebook group is now the newspaper street corner seller and media companies know this. So, BBC local democracy reporters are often in groups and sharing their news.

Here’s one shared by a resident

Overall, what were the figures?

Logging the first 10 posts served across 10 Sandwell Facebook groups 35 per cent of them was COVID-19 related. Unsurprising as the borough was in the news. But what surprised me was that most of the discussion wasn’t instigated by members themselves at all. Just 4 per cent was started by residents.

Instead, the posts and the discussion that followed were prompted by sharing public sector content (8 per cent of all posts) and above all local media (15 per cent). Alternative media and national media were neck-and-neck at 4 per cent each.

So, having sharable content means that people will start a conversation on the topic you’ve posted about.

Fig 2 COVID-19 Posts in Sandwell Facebook groups

The remarkable role of news media in community groups

It surprised me, but in this pandemic snapshot local media is playing the most important role in the debate. Almost half of all content on the topic comes from news media. The Express & Star and Birmingham Mail – latterly Birmingham Live – are big in the region.

But thinking about it, this chimes with national data that says people are more trusting of news brands in the unfolding emergency.

But the single most important take away is that content is a conversation generator. Without the content your message is unlikely to be shared. By all means make your own but in the pandemic this data shows a revival in the fortunes of the local journalist.

Ironically, this media revival is taking place against a backdrop of job cuts in journalism,.