SOCIAL MEDIA: Why solutions, not shiny matters most

Sometimes you can hear someone say something that makes complete sense.

Twice in the last few weeks that’s happened to me.

Firstly, at Digital Futures in Shrewsbury Futuregov’s excellent Carrie Bishop spoke of using ‘just enough of the internet’ to get something done. That feels such a perfectly weighted, perfectly observed comment to make from someone who can comfortably grandstand by talking shiny tech.

Secondly, Coventry City Council’s Martin Reeves at the 10 by 10 WM event in Coventry.

The chief executive popped in to deliver a 15-minute speech to those that had gathered. We’d just finished hearing 10 examples of really good innovation across the region and were feeling just a little bit pleased with ourselves. There’s some really good things happening in the region and I’m really proud to be part of that.

“You are doing great things,” Martin said. “But I’ve just spent a few days locked away with other chief executives to discuss things that face us. Not once. Not once was social media mentioned in that time.”

The fact that Martin, who is one of a growing handful of chief executives who tweet, was telling us this was significant. Martin is an advocate. He’s a believer.

“How do you need to change that?” he asked us. “Stop being evangelists. Stop talking about the technology. Talk about the solutions. Talk about the solutions that may just have social media as part of it. Then you’ll get people listening.”

It’s a brilliantly clear, well thought through approach to take.

If there’s one thing that social media people are is passionate evangelists. Sometimes that passion comes from a belief that if only others could share this vision then the world will be a better place. The reality is that some people just don’t think that.

It’s not the shiny technology that matters to most people.

Thinking it through the good things at my own council have happened it’s been around finding a solution.

How do countryside people find better ways to connect? By having a ranger like Morgan Bowers on Twitter. How do we dispell rumours in a crisis? By using Twitter alongside people like the police. How do we stop people thinking we don’t grit? We tell them on Twitter.

But that hits one of the great conundrums about social media for an organisation. Organisations use it to get real life results. They want ticket sales or units shifted. But social media is a conversation. If you use it well you’ll use it with a human face and with a human voice.

So, maybe we need to be two things.

We must talk with a human voice when using technology to those outside the organisation.

We must talk solutions to those within.

Picture credit 
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MOBILE FIRST: On augmented reality and communications

A few weeks back my son got a new Nintendo 3DS for his birthday, the lucky lad.

Excited and smiling he took it out of it’s wrapping in the living room. Light blue and shiny it was. It fitted into his hands perfectly. A while later that day after all his cards other presents were opened I found him playing with it on the settee. He was moving the device around as if chasing objects around the room.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “Shooting aliens in our living room?”

“Well, they’re not aliens,” he says. “They’re pictures of mum on my new augmented reality game.”

Leaning over his shoulder I could see what he was doing. He’d used his new Nintendo to take a picture of his mum and he’d transferred them onto bubbles which he had to shoot down as part of the game. On the screen, there was my living room as the backdrop for the game. The image came from the device’s video camera. As my son moved the device so what was on the screen moved too.

What’s augmented reality?

Rewind to earlier this year. I’d heard Mike Rawlins of Talk About Local talk about augmented reality at a Brewcamp session in Walsall. He’d spoken of the experiments him, Will Perrin and others had been doing with augmented reality by effectively placing blog posts, pictures and news updates on a map. In effect each item was given its own co-ordinates and through a platform called layar people could use their phone’s GPS system to find it. Of course, each items was on the web anyway. It’s just that they can be accessed a different way.

In short, augmented reality is adding an extra layer of information to what you are looking at. You point a phone at a building, an artwork or a landscape and you can opt to access content related to it. It also works with print too. Point a smart phone at an image and you can access extra content. You can link to a video clip or even buy the item.

To me, this is just a little bit amazing. To me as a communications person it starts to get me thinking.

A mobile first strategy

Back in 2009 I read a blog post that utterly changed the way I think about news and the future of news. Going back to it today Steve Buttry, it’s author, seems like some kind of Tomorrow’s World visionary pointing out the obvious. In short, he wrote that he spends lots of time in airport departure lounges. In the past, people had killed time by reading paper newspapers turning each page literally. Increasingly, he was seeing people killing time by reading their mobile phones. So, he suggests, isn’t it smarter to think about mobile first? In other words, he describes a mobile first strategy.

Steve suggests that newsrooms take a deep breath, stop using antiquated titles like reporter, photographer and editor and just think of themselves as journalists. They need to get used to the idea of metadata. That’s the tags of extra information that help categorise an item so it can be found again. In other words, a story about a £5m leisure centre in Brown Street, Oxdown would be tagged with Brown Street as well as Oxdown, as well as leisure, Oxdown Council, finance, the ward name and the co-ordinates of the new building. That’s nothing to be scared of. It’s just the who, what, where, when and how that’s always been the cornerstone of news.

The mobile first approach, Buttry says, also includes links to the back story. The pieces of content that have already been produced which are relevant. The approach also allows journalists to crowd-source a story or views on a story.

It’s what most national news organisations do today and what The Guardian do very well.

Yes, yes but public relations?

What’s relevant to the news landscape is also relevant to communications landscape too.

I love newspapers. I started my career on them before I moved into local government communications. But I’m long past the point that Buttry saw of seeing more people look at their phones rather than look at their local paper. Only, I’m not catching planes. I’m catching a bus or a train and I’m in the Black Country in the English Midlands.

For me, I’m less interested in shiny technology than I am with communicating with people. If shiny tech can help reach an audience then I get to be really, really interested. Where news, the media and ultimately residents are heading then I believe that’s where communications people must be there too. Or even be as one of the first so they can get to understand what’s over the horizon. Maybe it echoes Buttry’s call that newspaper titles are obsolete but I’m getting increasingly convinced that the phrase ‘press officer’ and ‘PR officer’ are getting irrelevant. What does a press officer do when there’s less or no press and we still need to communicate with people?

We’ve changed in my corner of communications to adapt to social media because that’s what people are doing. We need to start to tentatively think about augmented reality too.

Yes, yes but how?

Now, I’m, not saying for a minute that we need to change everything to add everything we do to include an augmented reality – or AR to use the buzzword – element. The communications team that ditched print for the web in 1993 may in hindsight be seen as visionary. They’d also be a bit silly too. For me, it’s just being aware of the curve and investing a little time and effort into a project that’s going to be a learning process.

That’s probably where something like The Guardian’s n0tice platform can really start to come into play. Set up earlier this year, it aims to add news to maps on its platform. It has a small but growing following. There’s a board for Walsall which I’ve very tentatively started and I’m looking to head back to soon.

There’s also plenty of mileage in creating getting to know platforms like http://www.layar.com/ or seeing if a friendly webbie can work with you.

As comms teams are looking at changing the way hey do thinks through digital press offices this is something that can add some value.

How can augmented reality be used in local government?

Just last week I was in my car giving a lift to a town planner and somehow amongst the football banter, the work gossip and the cricket talk the subject of websites for planning applications came up. Yes, yes. I know. That’s just how I roll. The discussion turned to augmented reality. At this the light bulb above my planner mate’s head really lit up. Planning applications could be accessed. Maybe artists impressions could be added too. With links to allow people to comment.

Looking at other parts of local government and the opportunities are vast. Local history. Leisure. News. Content to help explain areas of countryside, habitats and what lives there. The truth of it is, we don’t know how local government can fully use augmented reality until people start to use it more, start to innovate and to try things out.

But in the back of my head I always think of my Dad when I hear of digital innovation. The real tipping point is when it opens up for someone like him with his very old phone and his late adopter use of the web. But if you wait until then to start to look at the subject you’re already far too late.

It’s far better to know what’s on the other side of the hill so you can spend a little time innovating and making a few mistakes when there’s not many people around to see.

If my eight-year-old is already using augmented reality it’s probably time grown-up organisations started to think about it at a comfortable pace too.

Some extra reading

Steve Buttry’s blog post on how news organisations can put mobile first 

Talk About Local on hyperlocal websites and augmented reality

Augmented reality. A useful six minute YouTube starter 

Will Perrin of Talk About Local demonstrating augmented reality

Philladelphia History on using augmented reality in local history.

Creative commons credits

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