NEW TACK: We’re mad as hell and we’re just not going to take it any more, so we’ll be polite, human and factual… a new approach to online snark

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There’s a change in the air with how the public sector is using social media. 

Back in 2008, a public body would get credit for even using the platform.

Over time, that changed. Train companies and others with spot-on online customer services raised the bar.

Trouble is, digital expectations grew just as public sector services were cut through waves of austerity. What the public sector used to do, they sometimes no longer do. That’s a tough message to explain. It’s led to a backlash of frustration, anger and abuse online and often the frontline is the comms officer updating social media. I’ve lost count of the number of people who just switch off in the evening where they used to try and help with customer service questions.

“I get told I’m an idiot 9 to 5 online,” one person who looks after social accounts for a council said. “Why do I want to switch on to get told that in my own time, too?”

My advice for dealing with snark online used to be to play the Uncle Keith card. In short, don’t argue with an idiot. To a passer-by its just two idiots arguing. Swearing? Have a zero tolerance.

But over time I’ve seen a new approach.

It’s a very human approach that draws a clear line in the sand. It calls people out when they are wrong and uses facts and humour.

Importantly, it’s an approach that very often goes down very well with people online. Using the crude measurement of likes and comments, public sympathy can be very often with the human and factual public sector response rather than the troll.

I’ve lost count of the number of times in training when I’ve showed people examples of this approach they’ve practically whooped with joy.

“That’s brilliant.” They say. “I wish we could do that.”

The reality is they can.

Of course, each response needs to be judged on its own merit. But if its factually accurate, polite, professional and maybe a touch witty too then, why not?

Some examples of the new polite, human and firm to snark

Example 1: Bournemouth Council

Take, Bournemouth Council. When they asked people to report potholes they were met with snark. Did they back down? Did they heck!

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Example 2: South Somerset Council

South Somerset District Council were sent an FOI demanding to know how their council tax was spent. The response is factual but also calls upon Ancient Rome.

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Example 3: Dorset Police

I’ve blogged this before, but it’s such a great example I’m blogging it again. They could have left this inaccurate piece of fake news but it was important to challenge it.

 

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Thanks to Tina Stokes and Kristian Ward for this.

Picture caption: Flickr / Documerica.


LONG READ: Why you should have corporate AND non-corporate accounts

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I was reminded of low level civil war happening that pits people in the same organisation against each other.

It’s the comms team against the rest.

In the red corner, the comms people who don’t much like the idea of people outside the team having access to social media. In the blue corner, service areas who glower at comms teams who don’t let them do what they want to.

“The idea,” one senior comms person told me, “Of giving access to social media to anyone outside my team and having a free for all just fills me with horror.”

A free for all would fill me with horror too. But some basic training can reap some really positive results. Let me explain.

Where non-corporate accounts can work well

During training, I often quote the Edelman Trust Barometer. A fine piece of work that points out that people trust 52 per cent of people who are ‘someone like myself.’ That’s significantly higher than the chief executive or any of the suits.

It’s part of the science behind why things like Dave Throup’s Twitter account works so well for the Environment Agency.  You can see day-to-day content like this:

A web page presents tailored content on a topic. You want Baswich library in Stafford? It has its own webpage. You don’t have to sift through lots of irrelevant information. In the same way, a social media profile on a specific topic does the same job. I live in Brierley Hill in Dudley. So the Sergeant that polices the area is more relevant to me:

 

Sergeant Harrison has 1,617 followers and 13,935 people live in Brierley Hill. Even taking into account some of those followers will be fellow officers that’s potentially 11 per cent of the population. That’s compared to 8 per cent of the population – 447,000 – who follow the corporate West Midlands Police account.

Sergeant Harrison’s account works best when he talks about the bread and butter of what is happening in Brierley Hill. To a Brierley Hill audience that’s perfect. Would I sift through the noise of the corporate account looking for Brierley Hill? Probably not. But from the corporate account I want the big messages. And if it kicks off somewhere, I really want the corporate account most of all, please.

Earlier this month I was carrying out a comms review for a fire and rescue service. The community fire station’s page wasn’t engaging. It was rarely updated. But it did have 10 per cent of the population signed-up just waiting to be told things. The decision was taken to carry on but with extra training.

It’s not all plain sailing

Experience of looking after social media policy and delivery for a large council that grew from one to 60 accounts is that things don’t always go well. Over the last few years I’ve reviewed hundreds of social media accounts. Experience shows they fall into three categories. A third are useful and are prosper. A third need a hand and a third you should think about closing down unless they radically improve.

Not every devolved account will be great at sharing the corporate message and somtimes they will frustrate. But for me, it’s about accepting the balance. For me, the third that are doing really well outweigh the downside.

Research that paints a picture of the corporate v non-corporate

My eye was caught by a tweet from Police Oracle with ‘Officers better on Twitter than police PR teams report says: The study analysed almost 1.5 million tweets.’ You can see it here. The tweet prompted several devolved accounts to rail against their comms team. The only trouble was, the research doesn’t show that at all. To her credit one of the authors Miriam Fernandez pointed out in a tweet that it was wrong.

But what does the research say?

Funnily enough, it shows that there is a role for both the corporate and the non-corporate devolved account. They just do different things. If you want to read it you can download it here. Caution: there is a paywall. It is called ‘An Analysis of UK Policing Engagement via Social Media.’ It is by Mriam Fernandez, Tom Dickinson and Harith Alani.

The study looked at 1.5m posts 48 corporate 2,450 non-corporate UK police accounts on Twitter.

The researchers found that corporate accounts got higher engagement – measured as retweets – talking about roads, infrastructures, missing persons and mentioning locations. They got lower engagement on crime updates and advice to stay safe. They were found to broadcast more. The non-corporate accounts were less formal and were more likely to respond to questions.

A quick lesson for better engagement from the research?

  • Have a clear message with a concrete action
  • Know the message but also know the options to act.

What a good corporate account should look like

For me, there are two purposes for the corporate and the devolved non-corporate. The corporate can put out the central messages. It should be a Match of the Day highlights show sharing the best of the rest. It should be human. The comms team can set the direction. It can deliver the training. But the non-corporate team, service area or individual accounts are where the real gold will be found. So have both.


WINTER COMMS part 3: Eight ways to communicate with images in the snow and ice

Hey, remember when listening to the local radio station at 7.40am was how you found out about school closures? Good times. 

Today, things are much more complex. The public sector has the tools to talk to people directly. Information and also counter-argument. It is not enough to tell people with words. In the days of fake news you have to use video or images. I’ve blogged examples of video here.

But how about images?

Well, if a picture can paint a thousand words then use more of them.

An image from the frontline of a rescue

Macclesfield Police were involved in a rescue of a couple who took their baby for a ride and then got stuck in sub-zero temperature. The shot taken on a smartphone shows just what they are up against.

An image from the frontline of road conditions and a closure

A shot posted quickly by a frontline officer to the web can be shared swiftly.

 An image of stills from the traffic cameras

While the best content is outside the office there is a way to stay in the office and get something usable. Images of road conditions taken from traffic cameras acts as a warning. And you get to stay in the warm.

An image of text

For all engaging image can attract attention 80 per cent of people in an emergency just want text. This screenshot does just that and drives traffic.

 An image of conditions to drive traffic to the link

Snow and ice on the ground show the conditions people are up against.

An image of conditions as a warning not to travel

This shot of the North Yorkshire moors to anyone with common sense shows a picture of an impassable road. It works well on Facebook.

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A collection of images for reassurance

Shots of ambulance crews facing the odds reminds people that the service is still there and working hard.

 A sharable infographic

The irony of this NHS image is that it is shared on a council website. Which is the intention of making something sharable.

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WINTER COMMS part 2: Using a Twitter thread to communicate a complex point

It’s the winter and of course the council never treated the roads. Ever.

Only thing is, yes, they do. But icy blasts can see things deteriorate quickly.

Perth & Kinros Council made that very point using a Twitter thread. This is the convention of linking a series of tweets. For me, this functionality is a gamechanger as it moves things from 140 characters to as many characters as you like.

They used two shots from a traffic camera. One to show you the road conditions shortly after the gritter passed and then a new shot 45-minutes later. They used GIFs in addition to sugar the pill and reinforce their points.

So far so good. Now the first image. The road that’s just been cleared.

Then a GIF that illustrates snow.

Now the second picture of the same scene less than hour later.

Now the two of them side by side.

And a round of applause for those doing the hard work.

A complex point simply executed. Bravo Perth & Kinross Council. Well done their comms officer Lisa Potter.


WINTER COMMS part 1: Seven ways to communicate using video

If you don’t think that love is a little bit like gritting in icy weather then, boy, let me convince you. 

There’s a short 48-hour window every year when Valentines cards are hugely important. Then for the other 363 days a year they’re not all that.

For a handful of days a year the state of the roads, grit levels and snow are really important. But unlike Valentines Day those days don’t come pre-printed in your WH Smith desk calendar. You don’t know when the cold blast will come.

My gritting obsession

For three years, I was a local government Twitter account. Every tweet in. Every tweet out. I put back Christmas dinner by 10 minutes to tell people that we were going out gritting. The reason for this? Those handful of days people wanted to know if it was safe to go out.

There’s a lot riding on getting it right. Reputational damage. A switchboard in meltdown. Serious injury. Loss of life. Get it right and your follower numbers increase and people see what you are doing.

Why video is important

I’ve been banging a drum for video as a comms channel for three years now. More than 70 per cent of the UK population have a smartphone and almost three quarters are happy to watch videos of less than five minutes, Ofcom say. That’s your audience right there.

In the latest cold snap,#BestFromTheEast – or #BeastFaeTheEast if your are in Scotland – has shown public sector communicators going into overdrive to communicate.

Here are SEVEN videos that communicate a cold weather message

Using humour and song a pre-prepared snow day announcement

Frimley Junior School in Surrey made this great video to announce a snow day. They’ve used a homage to an 1980s rapper to get their point across to parents. It shows humour and delivers the message.

Using a Facebook Live on icy roads

The Facebook Live platform is currently being encouraged by Facebook. Shoot one and you’ll reach more people. So, hats off Oldham Council for shooting this on what looks to be an ipad. An officer introduces himself and introduces the vehicle driver who is responsible for the gritting operation. As they negotiate the streets they talk about the myths and what they are doing.

Importantly for a Facebook Live is that there is a reason to keep watching. In training myself and my colleague Steven often talk about this as the ‘sword of Damocles.’ You want to keep watching for a specific reason. Here there are two. Will the WiFi cut out? Will it cut out before the exposed heights? Spoiler: they make it to the closed hill and see a Spanish truck stuck.

Using an animation to tell a story

The Met Office need to get a series of messages out with weather warnings. They’ve done this through a variety of means bu the animations have proved eye-catching and effective ways to reach people.

Using a GIF to make the text more interesting

The GIF is the 1990s technology that’s at home on the web. They are short animations that allow you to repurpose some footage. You can make your own or you can use a GIF library. Both Facebook and Twitter have libraries you can delve into.

Here Transport Scotland lists the prevention advice and then adds a GIF of a sliding car.

Using pre-shot footage to explain how grit works

During the time I spent in local government comms I tweeted the fact that grit was not fairy dust dozens of times. Same too for how grit works. This Kirklees Council clip with the backdrop of a salt barn shows a man in hi-vis talk through how things work. Shoot them in the autumn and have them to hand. Good tip.

Using realtime footage of work in progress

Fake news! I never saw the gritter! Well, here is video footage of the gritters in action. It doesn’t have to have a narrative arc. Just point, shoot and publish. And combat thosze trolls who say that you weren’t out.

Using hyperlapse video

North Yorkshire County Council had the bright idea of using footage from the cab of a gritter as it passed through the rural county. Shoot the footage on the hyperlapse app and you can look as though you are moving far faster.

 


6 pieces of content from #ourday I liked

A day a year local government shouts about what it does.

I raise my hat to everyone who took part in the day and created content.

Seven years ago, this was purely a Twitter thing when it started as #walsall24. Over the years the Local Government Association has got involved to support it.

But now that Twitter is the 4th most popular social platform should it just be Twitter? I’m not so sure. If it is true to its aim of reaching people to tell the story of what local government does it needs to find the best platform. Probably, this is an array of platforms.

An additional worry in a discussion on the Public Sector Facebook group is that people struggle to create the time to make #ourday really work. But anecdotally, this does work as internal comms. It also works to encourage service areas to share their stories.

Here are five pieces of content that caught my eye

Radio DJ Nick Grimshaw posting about council gritters on instagram

Nick Grimshaw has 1.3 million followers. He is from Oldham. The winner of their name-a-gritter competition was ‘Nick Grit-shaw’. So, as an Oldham boy made good he shared it with his followers attracting 30,000 likes.

Why is this good? This isn’t the council talking about what they do, it’s a Radio One DJ. That’s far cooler.  

keeping your streets ice-free…. “Nick Grit-Shaw” I’ve made it 😂👋🏼

A post shared by nicholasgrimshaw (@nicholasgrimshaw) on

An interactive be-a-council-officer game

There used to be a cartoon strip called You Are the Ref where you were given a scenario and had to choose the correct outcome. Doncaster Council used Twitter to create a similar scenario only being faced with the challenge a council officer would face. It gave a taste of the difficulty council staff face.

Why is this good? It’s not saying ‘here’s what we do.’ It asks: ‘what would you do?’

A poem set to video

There are 1,200 services that local government does. It’s hard to cover them all. But a video of just over a minute covers much of the ground. Well done Bath & North East Somerset Council.

Why is this good? It uses video so autoplays in your timeline. It covers a range of things in a short space of time.

Hello doggy

The most popular Facebook update wasn’t a council service as such but a lost dog. Of course it was. It was never going to be an engineer filling in a pothole, was it? You can see it here.

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Hello, regular people

One of the benefits of #ourday is putting faces to names and to be able to tell people what they do, as this Derbyshire Dales Council tweet shows.

Why is this good? Because it tells you who those familiar faces are and what they do.

A Periscope broadcast to explain a guided walk

South Cambridgeshire has many attractive places and guided walks encourage older people to step out. Here the council used Twitter’s live streaming app Periscope for a council worker to talk about what the scheme is.

A clip-on mic helps to improve the sound.

Why is this good? Because it is getting out of an office and experimenting with technology.


CAKE STOP: My most depressing moment in local government involved chocolate cake

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“The thing is, Dan,” someone very senior once told me, “if we asked people what they want, they’d just say chocolate cake.”

So, the senior person described what he thought they’d like instead rather than asking people.

In many ups and downs it was the most depressing moment I had in eight years of local government.

I’ve always felt uneasy with this ‘we know best’ concept of public service for people.

Earlier this month I saw something different that has hardwired putting people at the heart of things.

I was in London and could make a meet-up – or teacamp – for local government people. The meet-up was tremendous. A room in a pub. Some tea and coffee and some shared learning. It reminded me of brewcamp meet-ups in the West Midlands. Hats off to the excellent Natalie Taylor of the GLA for organising.

What was hugely good was a quick exercise that spelt out what ‘agile’ looked like. It’s a process I’ve leard lots about but never really come into close contact with. In short, this is looking at a service you want to change in the organisation and going through step-by-step.

But at each step, looking at what will benefit the service user… the real person public sector people are trying to help.

It was hugely refreshing to focus on the user not the organisation. Not to say a little difficult.

There is nothing new about this process. It has been used for years and has been a mantra for places like GDS. But seeing it at close hand it’s clear there is a lesson there for communications people.

The question for communicators is not about chocolate cake…. it’s ‘does what you are communicating help real people?’