HERE COMES EVERYBODY: What hyperlocal blogs will mean to Local Government

Pic credit:
TAL 09 Hyperlocal Unconference
Originally uploaded by willperrin
  
 There’s a tremendous scene tucked away in the extras of Armando Iounnucci’s excellent verge-of-war satire ‘In The Loop’.

Senior press officer Jamie McDonald, the angriest man in Scotland, is discussing his choice of film.

“‘There Will Be Blood,” he says. “Great title for a film. But you know what? There wasnae any blood.”

The idea of bloodless confrontation is one I can’t get away from after the excellent Talk About Local Unconference in Stoke-on-Trent.

Organised by @talkaboutlocal the project saw the cream of hyperlocal bloggers from across the country gather to plot, scheme and bounce ideas of each other.

It was fascinating stuff with some amazing things being done.

CONFRONTATION

So where does the confrontation come in?

If old media and social media are colliding then it’s at local government press offices that the front lines can be being drawn.

As newspapers close or scale back there is an overpowering feeling amongst residents of being left without a voice.

BLOG CASE STUDIES

Take the The Lichfield Blog. Founder and ex-journalist Ross Hawkes set it up in January 2009 when a fire engine went past his house prickng the curiosity of his wife.

“My wife said to me ‘I wonder where that’s going?’,” he told me. “I realised that there was no way of finding out anymore because local papers just aren’t there.”

Nine months on and his site now has 16,000 users a month while the incumbent newspaper The Lichfield Mercury has a print run of 60,000.

Then there’s http://www.wv11.co.uk – a hyperlocal for Wednesfield in Wolverhampton.

It was set up by two residents who wanted to make a difference and get a voice heard. Six weeks from launch they had 600 friends on Facebook.

All of a sudden the figures are stacking up.

It could be a town, a borough, a housing estate or even a tower block or two streets. Hyperlocal blogs are beginning to fill a gap. Too small for newspapers to compete with they are their worst nightmares.

Armed with a wordpress site and enthusiasm people can now have their say.

FRICTION

So where’s the friction?

Experienced press officers are used to dealing with trained reporters who know where the law is drawn.

They are often staffed by ex-reporters who earned their spurs the hard way.

Who are these bloggers, they say? Where’ve they come from? Why give them oxygen of publicity by dealing with them in an already busy day?

In Stoke, the Pits n Pots blog say they are not allowed near the press bench despite strong council coverage. It is said that the authority’s communications unit won’t speak to bloggers. At Talk About Local there was at times searing resentment at some press offices’ disregard of bloggers. At best it’s seen as unhelpful. At worst it’s deliberate.

Like them or not, many local government press officers do care passionately about their job and get very irritated when mis-truths and opinion get promoted as hard fact.

On the other side are bloggers, many who don’t have journalistic experience whose ignorance of media law could cost them their house. They care passionately about the place they live or work. That’s why they blog.

Let’s be quite clear here.

Bloggers and press officers are here to stay.

Does it have to lead to friction? Not necessarily. But while each side views the other with suspicion and at times hostility it’s hard to see a way through.

SO WHY SHOULD COUNCILS DEAL WITH BLOGGERS?

If a council’s reputation is being debated in a newspaper a good press officer is there.

If its being done through the letters page the press officer can take issue there.

Go where the debate is.

If that’s Facebook, Twitter or the comment boxes of a newspaper website or yes, a blog, go there.

An organisation’s reputation is increasingly what is being said about it online. So it makes no sense to bury heads in sand and pretend blogs will go away. They won’t.

FIVE THINGS A PRESS OFFICE CAN DO:

1. Treat them as journalists. Give them access to the same information. Coca Cola launched energy drink Relentless in part by explaining the product to bloggers first.

2. Put them on press release mailing lists. It’s not the Crown jewels. Its public information. Who knows? You may even correct misinformation at source.

3. Use blog comment boxes as a press officer. Say who you are and where you are from. Put the council’s position politely and link to further info where you can.

4. Accept not everything bloggers write is going to be favourable. And complain politely – and constructively – if things are wrong.

5. Respect what they do. More often than not they are residents who are articulating issues. Years ago, this was through letters pages. Now its online.

But it’s not all one way traffic. Like the best local newspaper Diamond wedding caption reveals, any relationship is a question of give and take.

FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR BLOGGERS:

1. Don’t be anonymous. If you have courage of your conviction put your name to what you do. You’ll find your voice getting heard far better.

2. Don’t be afraid to check stories. You’ve heard a new housing estate is being built on playing fields. Isn’t it better to confirm that first – if you can?

3. Respect press officers. They have a job to do too.

4. Be accurate. The same rules for newspapers apply to blogs.

5. Buy a copy of McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists. The best, most readable book on media law there is. If you are even halfway serious about blogging on issues that could be controversial buy it and put it next to your computer.  It tells you what’s legal and what is not.  It. Will. Save. Your. Life.

LINKS

The Lichfield Blog (lichfield, Staffordshire) http://thelichfieldblog.co.uk/

WV11 (Wednesfield, Wolverhampton)  http://www.wv11.co.uk/

Pits N Pots (Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire) http://pitsnpots.co.uk/

Talk About Local  http://talkaboutlocal.org/


20 Comments on “HERE COMES EVERYBODY: What hyperlocal blogs will mean to Local Government”

  1. Liz Azyan says:

    Hi Dan,

    What a brilliant post! There’s so much in there that people can learn and take away with them when a councils is wondering about ways to engage with either local bloggers or local community websites.

    There is a big problem here when the voice of truth can be a little bit too hard to handle. But in the end, we now live in a world where “what you don’t know, scares you” and I think this is the problem we are facing with today. Alot of councils still don’t understand that normal citizens who aren’t journalists or professionals in a certain field can have a say in just about anything. And the other thing some councils aren’t aware of is, those voices carries through a different dimension that exudes power and recognition that ppl are more comfortable to communicate with in their locality.

    If they start looking at it like Amazon or eBay, they will soon realize that this isn’t going to go away anytime soon and is here to stay. They will only continue to grow and gain even further recognition because ppl trust ppl who they don’t hide behind corporate names or institutions. The digital world has gotten more personal. Therefore councils have got to start getting more personal and bring down their barriers if they want to embrace this new wave of communication.

    I love all your steps/tips, it would be a great way to get the ball rolling!
    Great post! Looking forward to more in the near future!

    Liz xxx

  2. I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Council comms have to realise, just as many private sector companies have realised (not just Coke, loads of examples) that bloggers can be effective communicators, too.

    I do wonder about embargoes and when it’s appropriate to send bloggers press releases. Journos know that if the break embargo there are serious consequences, bloggers may not care. Can bloggers be on a secondary list? Can bloggers who develop a trust relationship be sent press releases in advance?

    I do think there are valid reasons for bloggers to be anonymous and still be an authentic and authoritative voice.

  3. […] HERE COMES EVERYBODY: What hyperlocal blogs will mean to Local Government « The Dan Slee Blog danslee.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/what-hyperlocal-blogs-mean-to-local-government – view page – cached A blog – mainly – about social media in PR and local government… these are my views alone — From the page […]

  4. scipmark says:

    magnificent – am abut to share this with the people I know who work in local government but don’t know what to ask their communications team to do for them…

  5. Mark Pack says:

    I sit on both sides of the fence really as I work in PR and when I get home I turn in to a blogger… Interestingly when I’ve run up press offices as a blogger, I found the people in them overall to be very decent in their attitudes towards bloggers.

    I suspect sometimes my query slips down the list of priorities, but that’s no different from what can happen to a journalist from a small newspaper when the Press Office also has several national journalists to deal with.

  6. Linda says:

    Hi Dan, I think you make some excellent points on both ‘sides’. I also think that things have changed and progressed so quickly that *anyone* advising others on how to do anything may have to adapt their advice as even more momentum grips social media/blogging etc.

    I know there are some people who will bristle at your advice to treat bloggers as journalists but I do think in some cases that is a sound approach, if you mean in terms of “treat them as seriously as you would a journalist.”

    Some bloggers are journalists, some want to be journalists, some don’t and some would rather poke their own eyes out than spend a single day in the pay of a “dead tree” publication.

    I think your advice for bloggers about learning law is key – but I don’t know how much this is heeded and I think that this can make marketing depts/press officers etc nervous, and rightly so.

    I recently wrote about a major UK holiday firm in our blog http://www.havealovelytime.com and some of the comments quickly caused me alarm as unsubstantiated claims about accommodation there were made.

    I removed the post and sought a right to reply from the company and will now add this before reposting. I can understand why marketeers would not want to engage with a blogger who didn’t feel bound in any way by laws of libel and defamation and in some cases may not be aware they are affected by them.

    In terms of whether it’s “worth” a PR dealing with bloggers overall, I think that yes of course it is, for me, it’s all about conversation. You can see some thoughts and comments on this here:

    http://www.gotyourhandsfull.com/2009/09/prs-targeting-bloggers-whats-the-point.html

    A major strength of bloggers as opposed to journalists is the the trust they have with their readers. Even though their reader numbers may never rival that of a newspaper (though in some cases this isn’t true!) they have established a connection with people who value their information and opinion.

    Because of this as a blogger it can then be frustrating when you have blogged about something for someone in a marketing dept to chase you up about your stats – they want to know how many people have read what you have written – but if only 100 have, these may be a powerful influence as they are reading stuff they are very interested in.

    Hope some of this makes sense, thanks for food for thought.

  7. Ken Eastwood says:

    Hello again Dan.

    This is a great read. We’re looking into how we can nurture and grow our local blogging community in Barnsley, recognising the role they could play. Thus far only a small number of local bloggers but we’re determined to help through social media cafes and other approaches aligned with our Digital Region and Totally Online Barnsley (TOBy) programmes.

    We have an occassionally hostile local press (I use the word occassionally as a precaution – I’m not in comms and haven’t read McNae’s book)! I recently noticed first hand how information I’d provided to a local Twitter follower appeared on his blog in a positive and fair way. The usefulness of that is apparent.

    I also noticed that the language used felt somewhat uncomfortable, the piece wasn’t written in a style that we’d have put out. On reflection that’s possibly another benefit – more likely to be well received and understood by the local community?

    All in all I’m convinced of the value of neighbourhood level blogging (hyperlocal – call it what you will). It’s well worth our time and effort engaging with that for comms. purposes but also to help our citizens develop new skills and hopefully go on to engage with and benefit from wider digital opportunities.

  8. There are a lot of really good points being made here, Dan,

    I can certainly understand – and agree with – your point to go where the debate is. Conversations are happening everywhere: not just the pub, not just in the newspaper.

    There are caveats, of course, to this. I’m thinking about the press officers’ time. From what I see, they are already run off their feet and heaping another responsibility – jumping from hyperlocal to hyperlocal to ensure that you voice is heard – will be difficult to maintain.

    If it can be done, though, it is a welcome move. We consume news in a very different way from ten years ago. I think hyperlocals are – on the whole – doing a great service for their communities.

  9. danslee says:

    Jayne, Ken, Linda, Ingrid, Liz, Mark and Mark,

    Thanks for the brilliant feedback. And from people who I admire online.

    It’s clear that the blogger – press office relationship is emerging.

    I’m absolutely convinced that there will be one whether each side of the divide likes it or not. The precise nature of that relationship is still being played out.

    The key thing for my local government colleagues to keep uppermost is this. Your council will be defined to a growing section of the community by the way it responds to people online. You can refuse to deal with bloggers if you wish. But ask yourself this question: ‘Would I ignore a newspaper on my patch?’

    If it’s a ‘yes’, are you really in the right job?

    If it’s ‘no’ then ask yourself why you are ignoring the online community.

    This is a brilliant post from Sarah Hartley (@foodiesarah on Twitter) who attended #tal09 wearing her Guardian journalist hat. It’s a piece that adds to the debate.

    http://sarahhartley.wordpress.com/2009/10/05/journalists-bloggers-citizens-who-are-these-people/#comment-953

    I’m also really interested in what bloggers make of this. In private I’ve had some really good chats with people on the subject. In particular, the subject of anonymity.

    More input here – or on Sarah’s blog – can only be good.

  10. […] HERE COMES EVERYBODY: What hyperlocal blogs will mean to Local Government « The Dan Slee Blog Like them or not, many local government press officers do care passionately about their job and get very irritated when mis-truths and opinion get promoted as hard fact. […]

  11. […] to explore some of the potential for hyperlocal bloggers that Dan looked at in his post about how local gov PR should deal with the movement. We talked about how newspapers were changing, or failing to change, in the face of online and our […]

  12. danslee says:

    The excellent Sarah Lay from Derbyshire has blogged about hyperlocals and local authorities. It’s well worth a read.

    http://www.sarahlay.com/2009/10/going-local/

  13. Just come across this excellent post Dan. It’ll be very useful to pass to the Comms team at my authority. Had a few interesting conversations with them in the last week or so about social media and hyperlocal and the shift from broadcast media.

  14. Steph says:

    Some great suggestions for Press officers and Bloggers alike – now if only W’ton CC press officer would get on board!!?
    😀

  15. […] the friction that’s happening in some places between local governments and local bloggers: What hyperlocal blogs will mean to Local Government. He offers lists of 5 things for govt. press people to do and 5 things for local bloggers to […]

  16. Tony says:

    Dan,

    Great post, great points! I certainly learned a few things from you following our conversation at the un-conference.

    I don’t dislike our local comms department or the head of comms. They are thoroughly nice people and we are always professional and respectful to each other and despite the frustration at our stalemate I wouldn’t want anyone to get the impression that we are at war.

    We get press releases from the comms dept at SOTCC but we don’t not get invited to press conferences/briefings. A typical example is the recent appointment of our new £195,000 per annum chief exec, everyone has had their interviews with him but we [after 4weeks of trying through the comms] have not.

    I hope things improve as sometimes it does put us out somewhat and prevents the balance that we would like to strike on our site.

    Anyway we won’t give up and will achieve what we can through negotiation rather than confrontation.

    After all these people are only doing their jobs and are following guidelines, the frustration is that, in our opinion, guidelines are…. well they are only just that…. guidelines!

  17. […] reminded of Dan Slee’s blog post from last year that talked about the relationship between local bloggers and local government. Though Dan is UK-based, what he writes rings true for local bloggers anywhere, I’d bet. […]

  18. Matt says:

    Hi Dan

    I’m glad this blog was retweeted of the back of #hyperwm. A lot of good sound advice was given, which I need to take on board.

    I had a run in with Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s PR head this week, but a polite email asking to remove a certain comment from a users comments, so this topic is very relevant to me.

    As it says in your post you don’t want to lose your house, especially over a comment that wasn’t your own, but a users of your site, who expressed a concern that a certain situation without knowing the law.

    To be fair, the wording that was asked to be removed, was proceeded to amounts to [removed], so it wasn’t an out and out accusation.

    But this is the sticky ground, the community blogger, especially if it’s an open community is more and more liable to be shut down, and it’s owner with best intentions left destitute.

    After my first encounter this week, I’m beginning to think is it worth the risk.

  19. […] 10 points I wrote then I still stand by. The full post is here. The edited highlights are boiled down to […]

  20. […] understand hyperlocal sites. These are often community-run sites for a street, an estate or a town. This is why they’re important for comms people. Here is where you can search for one near […]


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