This month I got to go to Dublin to talk to some great people from Dublin City Council who are looking, like we all are, to better understand how the internet is changing what they do.
There I got to meet The Studio a kind of crack team of people enabling change with skills from different parts of local government.
I also got to hear how Carmel McCartney, a community worker for the council has built and nurtured a Facebook page to serve the Crumlin community in the north of the city . There’s also Pauline Sargent who runs a hyperlocal blog in the community of Drimnagh who has met and connected with Carmel.
Carmel, although she doesn’t know it, is doing things that in years to come with be second nature to community workers. She set-up a Facebook page for one of the community she serves. She’s savvy enough to know that the 83 likes she has on her page isn’t the measure of what she’s doing. What is is that when she posts other neighbourhood Facebook pages pick up on this and share her content which allows her to reach thousands.
At the heart of it is a simple thing. It’s basically the council talks to it’s residents at the place where they’re gathering.
There should be more people like Carmel and in truth there are. But they’re often the people and in places you’d least expect.
Similarly, hyperlocal blogger Pauline Sargent is another glimpse of what things should look like. Her hyperlocal site Drimnagh is Good seeks to better tell people about what is going on in the community and sites like hers should be welcomed as part of the news landscape. They won’t always say great things about the council. But then newspapers don’t either but we think nothing about engaging with them where we can.
The whole relationship between blogger and local government is something that will become more important. Just because we never have is no reason to never will. I’ve written about what the blogger – press officer relationship should look like before.
But as Pauline and Carmel show it all just boils down to building good, human relationships. Offline as well as online.
Creative commons credit
“The best social media,” it read “doesn’t happen in an office.”
That’s dead right.
For a long while now I’ve been arguing that communications people should share the sweets, relax a little and learn to let go. It’s by doing that they can really reap the rewards of good and trusted communications channels.
I’m not alone by any means in thinking this and it’s excellent to start seeing the rewards being reaped.
Here are some good examples of digital communications that caught my eye over the last few months.
What’s worth commenting on is that the majority of the good examples are not done directly by comms people. They’re done by people in the field telling their stories or they’re using content that first originated outside an office to tell a story.
Real time updates by people on the ground work brilliantly.
Back in 2008, digital innovation in the public sector – and third sector – was isolated. What this quick link collection now shows is that it’s mainstream and unstoppable.
National Trust Dudmaston Hall, Shropshire – If only more organisations were like the National Trust. We’d all be eating better cake for one. They’re also getting good at digital communications. They’re equipping venues with social media accounts to give you updates and insights from the ground.
I’m quite partial to this stream from the Shropshire stately home which is near Bridgnorth and a personal family favourite. They talk to people and they update. More people are likely to sign-up for a venue rather than an organisation that looks after lots of venues although there is a space for that too. You can follow them on Twitter here.
Acton Scott Museum, Shropshire – An imaginative use of pictures makes this Twitter stream fly. How can you not see horse drawn ploughing and not want to go and visit? You can follow them on Twitter here.
National Trust Central Fells – Using the principle if you do good things tell people the @ntcentralfells Twitter do a good job of updating people on the work they do. Most of the time it’s witnessed by two walkers and some sheep. They updated progress on building a bridge in a remote spot of Easedale in with pictures of them at work and reaped the benefit of feedback from people stuck in offices. You can follow them on Twitter here.
Supt Keith Fraser – A Superintendant in Walsall who keeps people up to speed with events and crime in the town. Personable. Informative and willing to engage on the platform. You can follow him here.
Swedish Tourist Board – It’s rather marvellous is this. Technically, it’s run by the Swedish Tourist Board but this isn’t a collation of picture book shots and platitudes. They give the @sweden Twitter to a new Swede every week. More than 20,000 people follow it. You can follow them here.
I know this writer! Qaisar Mahmood askes what it means to be Swedish. The answer he gets: ”Blond and reserved”.
— @sweden / Micke (@sweden) April 3, 2012
Walsall Council Countryside Officers – I’m a bit biased in that I know Morgan Bowers the countryside ranger but I absolutely love what she has done with social media. A digital native she uses her iphone to update Twitter with what she is doing, what newt survey results are and pictures of the sky over Barr Beacon. This is brilliant. You can follow her on Twitter here. Her manager Kevin Clements has also picked up the baton on Twitter with regular updates. You can follow him here and it’s good to see the burden shared.
Walsall Council Environmental Health Officer David Matthews – Britain’s first tweeting environmental health officer David Matthews was a big part in why Walsall 24 worked as an event. He was able to spot snippets of interest that he passed through for others to tweet. Afterwards, he didn’t need much persuasion to take up an account in his own name. The @ehodavid was puts out the normal updates and warnings but with added humour. Much of the frontline updates is anonymised. Pictures taken of dreadful takeaways need a health warning to look at during lunchtime. You can follow him here.
9 cases of Campylobacter food poisoning last week Symptoms include diarrhoea/vomiting/stomach/pains+cramps+fever FAQ? tinyurl.com/boeanm2
— David Matthews (@EHOdavid) April 2, 2012
Pc Rich Stanley blog – Walsall has a stong claim to be a digital outpost. One of the big reasons for this is the way West Midlands Police have picked up the baton – or should that be truncheon? – and embraced social media. Pc Rich Stanley uses Twitter well but also blogs excellently on various day-to-day aspects of the job. Here he talks about policing the Aston Villa v Chelse football game.
Walsall Council Social Care – People in social care do a brilliant job. They’re good at saving lives. Literally. But all too often they don’t do a good jo of telling their story. As a sector they shelter behind big stone walls and hope a high profile case like Baby P NEVER happens to them. Tina Faulkner and Becky Robinson are comms people who both understand old and new media and have blogged stories from the frontline. You can read them here.
Walsall Leather Museum Audioboo – Francesca Cox eyes lit up when she heard of Audioboo. A couple of days later she posted this chat with a demonstrator about her first day at work. What the clip does is open up all sorts of possibilities with oral history and when embedded on another website brings a different aspect to this.
US Army – Like geeks with an interest in sub-machine guns the people behind the US Army social media presence are blending both interests well. Pinterest is a way to collect pictures in the one place. If pictures tell 1,000 words this collection speaks a great deal on what messages the military would like to get across. It’s split into themes. You can find it here.
Can We Make Walsall A More Creative Place? – Walsal Council’s regeneration scrutiny committee wanted to look at the creative industries. We launched a Facebook page to begin to connect. Fifty people have liked it so far to allow the start of feedback. Face-to-face meetings are now planned. You can like it here.
NASA Facebook timeline – One of the many things I really love about this page is the way NASA have embraced timeline. Scroll back to 1965 and you can look at content they’ve updated from that year featuring the first NASA spacewalk. For any organisation with a long history this approach is a must. You can like it here.
Northycote Park and Country Park on Facebook – Wolverhampton Council’s parks team do a really good job of innovating using social media. They’ve been experimenting with creating Facebook pages for venues. This is Northycote Park and Country Park and has 200 likes a few weeks after it was launched. It has pictures of new born lambs and updates on events. You can like it here.
Monmouthshire Council Youth Service on Facebook – Hel Reynolds has flagged up this page. A youth worker updates it. Not a comms person. This means that it has a tone that suits the people it is aimed at and doesn’t come over as trendy uncle Monmouth breakdancing at a wedding. You can like it here.
US government’s EPA Documerica project on Flickr – In the early 1970s the Documerica project sent photographers to capture environmental issues across the country. They captured car jams, low flying planes, people meeting up in public spaces and other things. They’ve posted many of the images onto Flickr and they’re a time capsule of how the US was. You can see them here. To update them they have a blog to encourage a 2012 version here and a Flickr group here.
Torfaen Council on Flickr – Here’s a council that is posting images to Flickr routinely. They show a good range of images that residents can see. You can see them here.
WV11 on PACT meetings – The wv11 blog have worked with West Midlands Police to cover public meetings – known as PACT meetings – to allow residents to pose questions and see what is happening in their patch. It’s great work and shows how you can connect to people who want to be civic minded but struggle to reach meetings. You can read a blog of a meeting here and a storify here.
Oldham Council – It’s an excellent idea to make interactive council meetings. This Guardian pieces captures why.
Birmingham City Council – Comms officer Geoff Coleman has done some excellent work with live streaming council meetings. It opens up democracy and promotes transparency. It’s netted 10,000 views. You can read about it here.
Birmingham City Council’s election plans – This year plans to be a big year in Birmingham. There’s a chance of a change of administration and there will be great attention on the council and most importantly, how they communicate the changes in real time. What better way than crowd source what people want? You can read it here.
Caerphilly Council – Digital video clips are easy to consume but notoriously difficult to do effectively. Many have tried in local government but few have been as effective as Caerphilly Council with their nationally sigificant use of YouTube clips. One clip both pokes gentle fun at themselves and features a sheep with social media logos roaming the borough. It makes you smile. It keeps you informed. It’s fleecey brilliance.
Creative commons credits:
Road at Rifle, Ohio in 1972 http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3815027813/
Documerica Photographer, David Hiser, at Dead Horse Point, 05/1972 http://www.flickr.com/photos/usnationalarchives/3814966348/
Or at any rate a place where local newspapers are no longer the only show in town?
Go to Cannock in Staffordshire and you’re closer than you think.
Gone or retreated in the past four years are the Rugeley Post, Cannock Mercury and the Rugeley Mercury.
Another of them, The Chase Post, closed this week as 45 jobs were cut from Midlands titles.
As a young man I spent some time on work experience on the Post learning the ropes.
Mike Lockley, its editor on closure, was in charge when I was there and recently celebrated 25-years at the helm.
A dynamo of a man powered by his love of a news story he was capable of a generosity of spirit to those looking to find a start in the industry. A generation of staff and work experience people have him to thank. Me included.
So do the school children who saw pink custard back on the menu after some Mike Lockley-fired Chase Post campaigning.
I have him to thank for my first front page by-line. A piece on a Cannock musician whose speculative letter to Reggie Kray resulted in an offer of money from the gangland kingpin and an offer of unspecified ‘help.’
“I was a bit worried when Reggie Kray wrote to me and offered me money,” the musician told me.
“What if he wanted a favour doing? And have you seen his writing?”
He was right. The note handed me looked like it had been written by a left handed 10-year-old and was signed chillingly ‘Your friend, Reggie Kray.’
Of course, Reggie only became ‘gangland kingpin’ in the stumbling copy that Mike re-wrote. My version was far more boring. But the cutting helped get me a job.
Mike was also an award winning columnist. His piece announcing closure is typical. Wry, amusing and self depracating.
In a piece written a few days before closure was announced Mike celebrated 25 years in charge by writing that ‘a town without a newspaper is a town without a heart.’
So what of the future of news?
The excellent Dave Briggs, who does things with the web in local government, once rolled his eyes at me on this subject.
“The thing is Dan,” he said. “There really is nothing in life as boring as the future of news debate.”
In a sense he’s right.
Because out in the real world it’s not really an issue.
Because people are finding their own ways of getting news whether its from across the web, Facebook, Twitter or a hyperlocal blog.
Think of the now dead Football Final. As a kid the paper shop was full of blokes at 5.30pm waiting for the Pink to be delivered because they’d missed James Alexander Gordon read the final scores on Grandstand on BBC1.
If football scores have been sorted then what of news?
I’m not sure there is a golden bullet answer. As Alastair Campbell told the Express & Star which still circulates in Cannock, the news agenda today is far more fractured.
Hyperlocal blogs like Connect Cannock are part of the future, there’s no doubt about that.
So are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn streams targeted at micro audiences around a library, a piece of open space or a service area.
So, what does this mean for local government comms teams?
Once again, the need to think about what you are doing and how much resource you point at the web.
Ex-journalists have often been hired in local government press offices because they know how to write and package information for newspapers.
Many of them are changing with the changing landscape.
But as the social web grows how long is it before a blogger gets hired by a local government comms team for their ability to communicate using WordPress, Facebook and Cover It Live?
Picture credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Krays.jpg
Once upon a time clip art was once cutting edge.
No, really. It was.
Back in 1997, the first Walsall Council website sported a dancing light bulb.
No, really. It did.
There’s also a notice telling people that the website was under construction (it’s slide number two on the presentation embedded in this post.) If you’re on a mobile device the embed may not be showing. If that’s the case the link is here.
We need to evolve, learn and innovate. Nothing demonstrates that better than the late 90s webpage frozen in time showing Billy the Bulb and one giant leap for a council website. Time has moved on and we need to too.
At the Socitm Learning from Better Connected event at Manchester there was plenty of examples of innovation.
Not least the forward-thinking webteam who ripped up the rule book and re-designed the liverpool.gov.uk website based on what people want rather than what officers think people want.
Here’s my preasentation that I’ve posted to Slideshare.
Included on it are:
Some stats on internet use.
Some stats on the mobile web.
A quick map of the Walsall media landscape 2011 and 2005.
A quick case study on engaging with the community through Flickr.
How a countryside ranger can tweet from the sharp end.
Some stats on Walsall 24 which saw us live tweet for 24 hours in real time.
All good stuff for 2011, but you can bet your bottom dollar in 13 years time when we’ll All have robot butlers it’ll seem a bit tame and dancing lightbulbesque.
Quite right, too.
With burly minders flanking the stage Billie-Jo and her ex-lover Seth from an Arkansas trailer park would set-to in front of a studio audience.
Gripping stuff it was too, but you had this feeling nothing would change.
Two parties in a sometimes strained relationship came together at Hyperlocal Govcamp West Midlands in Walsall.
The session ‘What does a good blogger – press officer relationship look like?’ saw bloggers sit down with press officers.
For some, it was the first time they’d ever spoke to the other side.
Like a parish pump Relate, there were sometimes a few choice words. But unlike the warring couples on TV there was a growing appreciation of the points of view.
It’s a session that has been extensively covered.
Local government officer Simon Gray, who is not from communications, blogged brilliantly about the session here. When he said neither side appeared with full credit, he’s right.
He’s also dead right in calling on both sides to cut the other some slack.
Paul Bradshaw writing a guest post for Podnosh made some excellent points in how local government should make information easier to access.
Mike Rawlins, of Talk About Local, who also contributes to Pits N Pots in Stoke-on-Trent has written an excellent post from his perspective on this and dead badgers and does, as Simon suggests, cut some slack.
Paul Bradshaw wrote a good post from the session focussing on the call from bloggers to make information more easy to access.
Sasha Taylor has also blogged from the session from a police perspective.
The 10 points I wrote then I still stand by. The full post is here. The edited highlights are boiled down to this
FIVE THINGS A PRESS OFFICE CAN DO:
- Treat them as journalists.
- Put them on press release mailing lists.
- Use blog comment boxes as a press officer.
- Accept not everything bloggers write is going to be favourable. Complain politely – and constructively – if things are wrong.
- Respect what bloggers do.
FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR BLOGGERS:
- If you have courage of your conviction put your name to what you do you’ll find your voice getting heard far better.
- Don’t be afraid to check stories.
- Respect press officers. They have a job to do too.
- Be accurate. The same rules for newspapers apply to blogs.
- Buy a copy of McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists to save your life and potentially your house.
1. Create blog friendly content – A conventional press release is tailored for the print media. That’s not necessarily blog-friendly. A short film posted to YouTube or Vimeo is. A two minute film to explain with an interview the points made in the release would work.
2. Add pics as a matter of course – Even if it’s a stock pic. Mike Rawlins of Talk About Local made the point that there is a demand for images. They’re going to source a pic from Google images anyway. Why not provide a good one?
3. Judge when to respond – the excellent Michael Grimes of the Citizenship Foundation re-purposed the US military’s flowchart of engagement with bloggers. It’s good advice when to engage and when to ignore the internet troll.
4. Build relationships – In print media you know you’ll get a better story about countryside placing it with a reporter who is passionate about green issues. So why not do it online too?
5. Put talking to bloggers in black and white. Make it a policy decision. Here’s one from Wolverhampton Homes to show you how.
6. Learn about open data. It’s not a geek topic anymore. It’s come into the mainstream and bloggers are at the forefront. Local data advisor and hyperlocal blogger Will Perrin has pointed out that press officers will need excel skills. Why? Because you’ll need to interrogate data sets just as you’ll need to leaf through council minutes.
Creative commons credits:
No papers today – Katmere http://www.flickr.com/photos/katmere/51065495/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Antique clippings – D Sharon Pruitt http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4799271086/
Many of those pearls just never get past the beermat scribble stage.
Once me and a mate had the idea for beeridea.com. This would have been a site to sanity test great pub ideas that may have emerged after pint number five.
It never got off the ground.
One wheeze that has got out of the pub is Hyperlocal Govcamp West Midlands.
Staged at Walsall College on October 6 the aim is to be a half day unconference for local government with added flavour.
It’s followed by an uncurry. And beer, naturally.
Who is behind it? some bright people from local government and hyperlocal blogging. Namely, Simon Whitehouse of Digital Birmingham, Stuart Harrison of Lichfield Council, Andy Mabbett of Birmingham City Council and Mike Rawlins of Talk About Local. And me.
Two things: first, hyperlocal bloggers. These are either an important emerging news platform or untrained citizen journalists playing fast and loose with the law. Depends who you talk to.
The second? The open data movement. Once dismissed as box bedroom anoraks they are now slowly making an impact. In time this will be massive, I’m convinced of this.
For me, in Autumn 2010 Local government people, hyperlocal bloggers and open data geeks are at three points of the same Venn diagram.
It doesn’t make any sense to stage an event that doesn’t incorporate those elements.
The trick, if we can achieve it, is getting the three elements to talk and understand more.
Why a half day? We thought it interesting to see if the unconference format could fit into the day job. Events on a Saturday have worked well in the past but they attract the deeply committed. Would a mid-week event expose the 9 to 5-ers to inspiring ideas?
What is an unconference? It’s an informal conference that allows the agenda to be chosen on the day. I’ve lost count of the number of people who look back at Localgovcamp in Birmingham in 2009 as being a major source of inspiration.
Why Walsall? We’re from the West Midlands and the thinking was it may be good to do something in one of the Black Country boroughs. It’s also a town that does some surprsingly good things online.
Who are the nice sponsors who are allowing this to happen? Big hand for Public Sector Forum, Jadu CMS and Local Government Improvement and Delivery (formerly IdEA). Also very supportive have been: Replenish New Media, Talk About Local, Vicky Sargent at Boilerhouse, SOCITM, Walsall Council, Digital Birmingham, Birmingham City Council and Lichfield Council. And Russell at Walsall College.
What resources are there?
Here is the eventbrite: Ticket info and sponsors.
Here is the Google map: Where it is and where to park.
Here is the govcamp discussion page Right here.
What is an unconference? This is what wikipedia says.
How to run a govcamp The Dave Briggs guide
Yes, but what does an unconference actually look like? Here is localgovcamp in Birmingham.
Creative commons credits:
Logo: James Clarke of Replenish New Media
Walsall College: Dan Slee
Andy Mabbett and Dave Briggs: Jamie Garner
It’s not a view of hyperlocal sites shared by Marc Reeves who quit as Birmingham Post editor last November.
After more than 20 years in print journalism he moved firmly to digital launching the West Midlands version of thebusinessdesk.com – a site laser targeted at busy business people.
Sitting in Urban Coffee in the heart of Brum’s financial district he cuts a relaxed figure suited but tieless with a healthy tan.
Without the weight of a print works to keep warm and a 200 year old pension fund to service? No wonder he is relaxed.
To the National Union of Journalists Marc in the past has been a figure of suspicion. To the digital community an inspiration.
He’s here at a Jeecamp fringe event to talk to hyperlocal bloggers and students about his experience with his new start-up.
This event Marc is talking at could just be an exercise of grousing at how journalism is going to the dogs. It doesn’t pan out that way.
Marc carefully explains the thinking behind the site. There’s a few surprises. And some lessons that can be learned by the local government, hyperlocals looking to monetise what they do.
The event was brilliantly summarised by organiser Philip John. No, I didn’t agree with all of it. But there were a few lessons that can be learned by the public sector as well as hyperlocal bloggers.
How does the Business Desk work?
Business people are busy people. They’re at their desk early planning their day. A targeted email with 15 relevant news headlines is sent before 9am. The email links back to the website.
MORAL: They’d looked into their audience. Who it was and how they could best be communicated with. Then they tailored it. They DIDN’T build it Field of Dreams style and hope they’d come.
How do they know what stories are popular?
Google analytics help tell the journalist what stories are popular and which are not. Extra time and effort is then spent on ones which are popular.
MORAL: Don’t work blind. Listen to see what is popular.
Where does content come from?
Refreshingly, it’s fresh copy. Stories emerge from networking, talking to contacts as well as through standard press releases and announcements. They started as a two man team and have increased to six in the West Midlands. With similar sites in Yorkshire and the North West as well as the West Midlands they have a turn-over of around £1 milion. That’s a serious figure.
MORAL: Well written content updated daily can work. Traditional journalism CAN work.
What about paywalls?
What are paywalls? They are barriers to content you need a subscription to get past. They won’t work, Marc says. But they’ll work beautifully to push traffic towards sites like The Business Desk. They won’t work for hyperlocals.
MORAL: Information is free on the web. Think of other ways to be self-sustaining.
So how does the thing pay for itself?
Site advertising pays but increasingly events do too. Niche events that 40 people will pay money for insights on work, for example. They also become ways to built the online community offline too.
MORAL: Don’t look at one way to generate funds.
What about the site traffic?
Unlike newspapers, Marc was hugely free with insights into his site traffic. There’s about 1,200 visitors every day with 2.5 to three page impressions per visit.
This is from a base of 4,282 and 2,400 email subscribers. Small numbers? Maybe. But this is a start-up. And remember, the Birmingham Post used to sell around 10,000 a week.
MORAL: Build a community around a niche.
Email? Isn’t that boring?
It generates 90 per cent of site traffic. That’s big figures. I’ll say that again. It generates 90 per cent of site traffic. That’s not boring. It’s brilliant. It’s not something unique to thebusinessdesk.com. The IDeA Communities of Practice site does something with a daily email update.
MORAL: E-mail is the overlooked communication tool of web 2.0. As late 90s as it is you can reach big numbers through it. It also acts as a tap on the shoulder to remind you that site you signed up to is there.
So, what’s to learn?
I’m convinced there are lessons here, not just for news websites but for web users in general and yes, that does mean the public sector.
1. Think basic. Email may not be sexy. But people use it. In large numbers. Get an email subscription going. Don’t be afraid to be web1.0.
2. Think sustainable (content). Think about how the site will last. Make sure there’s a team not one overworked individual.
3. Think sustainable (finance). Think through how it can last and if not be a not-for-profit at least be a not-for-loss.
4. Research. Put some thought into your audience. Think who you are writing for. Think how and when they’d like content delivered. Be niche.
5. Wear different hats. Be a journalist. Be a marketeer. Be an advertising sales person.
6. Write your own content and develop a voice.