There’s been three of late that have caught the eye. One from NASA about a petition for a Death Star and one from an Elvis impersonator singing about council gritting. One about using Star Wars to make a point.
Elvis? This was a YouTube clip made by Torfaen Council’s comms team the clip features a local singer who sings – or maybe croons – about the job the council do to keep the roads clear. You can see it here.
Yes, we can use Elvis to be human…
It’s January 2013 and Neil Jones and his team should clear their mantlepiece for the silverware for that film that will rightly come their way. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Ben Hur, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings rolled into one. Best short film, best PR on a shoestring and best use of a Welsh Elvis tribute act. Step forward, Torfaen Council.
In a fine blog post for comms2point0 Neil says they’ve had more than 250,000 views, 7,000 Facebook likes and more than 2,000 Facebook shares. They’ve also batted away FOI requests demanding how much (budget: zero) and made the BBC TV news.
But what was the success? You can read the full post here but as Neil says:
‘In the depot’ goes global using a simple, sticky message which ticked all the viral boxes. People love discussing the weather, people love discussing snow, people love Elvis and people love having a laugh. The final viral ingredients were a sprinkle of planning and perfect timing.
Fun is the key. Fun makes people smile and remember and share.
Yes, the White House can use Star Wars to be human…
I’m struck by how much it chimes with other things that work. I’m also struck by a post by Philadelphia blogger Jim Garrow who writes the fine ‘Face of the Matter’ blog points to the quite brilliant response from the US Government’s Paul Shawcross who is Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget.
That’s a grand job title but in ruling out a request for the US Government to start work on a Death Star Paul writes:
The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn’t on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:
The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We’re working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?
Yes, council gritters can use Star Wars to be human…
The third? Lincolnshire County Council’s skillful editing of a snowy scene to shot an At-At (that’s an enemy walking thing that’s not to be messed with) that is walking across the road with a reminder to stay safe on the roads.
It was picked up by the @starwars official account and re-tweeted to 300,000 accounts in one go.
Our cameras show Lincs drivers today must beware black ice,frozen standing snow +an Imperial assault on the rebel base. twitpic.com/bxks6r
— Lincs County Council (@LincolnshireCC) January 23, 2013
Hats off to Jonathan Fitzgerald and the comms team there.
“Our gritting teams are receiving overwhelming support and praise on our @LincsCC_Winter gritter twitter and on @LincolnshireCC for their efforts in the 2013 Snow Wars; we’re proud to give our residents – and, it seems, half the planet now, the benefit of our timely advice, warnings and updates, along with a smile.”
So in short, being human is a good way to talk to people and to ask people to listen.
That’s not rocket science.
If that means charging £20,000 to make a change to a Government website then I’d rather not, thanks.
This week the gov.uk website, built in-house by geeks using open source (ie free) software was launched.
I’m not a webbie but even I can see the value in being able to make changes and tweaks suggested by people and there’s a great piece on it here on the Cabinet Office digital blog.
In an entirely different scale and in an entirely different corner of the digital allotment there was a public versus private issue in local government I stumbled across.
A private company is approaching councils offering to take over grit alerts.
That’s an area I do know something about as Walsall Council, I’m proud to say, was amongst the pioneers of the Twitter Gritter model along with places like Derbyshire County Council and Kirklees Council. Our engineers looked at us a bit funny at first, heard us out, trialled it and now are big advocates for it. It’s cost us £0 in three years but we’ve connected scores of times with people.
What’s Twitter Gritter?
It’s real time alerts keeping people up to speed on what their council is doing to treat the roads.
If we go out at 2am to treat the roads and only two shift workers and a drunk see what we’re doing isn’t it a good idea to tell people?
It’s also talking back to answer questions and pass on serious problems like a burst water main that’s turning to sheet ice.
I’m not against the idea of the private sector. Far from it. I’ve spent a big chunk of my career there and there are plenty of freelancers and organisations whose time would enrich the organisations they help. You’ll know them by the track record they have. Others in the private sector? They’re poor bandwagon jumpers, to be fair.
What I see in the public sector with events like UK Govcamp, Localgovcamp and other events are people willing to share and develop ideas to make the world a better place.
That simply wouldn’t and isn’t happening in so much of the private sector.
What does the private sector Twitter Gritter look like?
You can read the text I’ve posted to a Google Doc here. I’ve taken out the name of the company to spare their blushes. Nothing against people looking to make a profit out of something, per se. But when someone you don’t know asks you to hand over the keys to your Twitter account so they can do a poorer job and charge you for it then forgive me for being underwhelmed.
Why is it bad?
I’m tempted to just leave it to Mike Rawlins’s 140 character reaction.
@danslee is this serious? Has someone actually proposed this to you?
— Mike Rawlins (@mike_rawlins) February 3, 2012
But here are FOUR cut and pastable reasons and can be shared with gritting engineers to help them avoid making the wrong decision.
1. If it means handing over access then don’t. You wouldn’t do that with your email. Don’t do it here either.
2. If it’s broadcasting then don’t. The social web works best when it’s two way. People can ask questions and report problems. Run simply and sensibly that’s possible. Talk to your council’s social media person. They’ll tell you. Don’t if it doesn’t.
3. If it’s not their area of expertise then don’t. It looks what it is. Something developed by people who don’t know how the social web works. You wouldn’t let non-engineers loose on an engineering project. Don’t do the same here.
4. If it costs when it can be done far, far better for free in house then don’t. So many other councils already do it. Look at what Birmingham City Council’s in-house freelancer Geoff Coleman has achieved on a budget of nil, for example. Good freelancers will always work with you to shape something. They’ll pass you the skills so you can flourish. If they don’t then don’t.
True words then and true today and he never had to drive a Vauxhall Astra on the M6 in minus five degree weather.
In local government its worth going the extra mile in wintry weather.
Get things right in sub zero weather and you’re laughing.
Get it wrong and you’re not. Just ask the Scottish transport minister who resigned after scathing criticism.
For the past two weeks Walsall Council – the council I work for – has been using social media as a key way to keep people updated on wintry weather.
It’s not the first time. Last year, we were one of a small number to use social media. We used Twitter to flag up gritting and service disruption.
This time, we expanded a touch. During the icy period of November 26 to December 11 2010 we used the council website, Twitter, Facebook and Flickr.
Staff were primed to email the communications unit, members of the team by 8am every day as well as individuals. When the gritters went out the engineers e-mailed and even called to flag up what they were up to.
Council website www.walsall.gov.uk
With new digital channels taking all the attention you’d be forgiven for overlooking your website. Don’t. It’s where a lot of your content can go.
We used one page on the website as a links directory to more than half a dozen potential service areas so people didn’t have to search around the website.
It’s where most people will go first.
Stats: 2,200 followers (a five per cent rise in two weeks)
261 tweets at almost 19 a day.
Content: Updates on gritting, school closures, service disruption.
Links to council gritting pages, school closure page organised by education provider Serco.
Links to winter shots taken by residents and posted on Twitpic and Flickr.
Links to BBC weather.
Link to the @mappamercia grit map.
Did we RT?: Of course. Social media is supposed to be social. We retweeted the Met Office weather forecasts, neighbouring authority grit updates and advice on
Facebook: Our Walsall fan page
Stats: 345 likes (up 10 per cent in two weeks)
Daily post views up 3,105 or 82 per cent.
Each status update received between 159 and 783 page impressions.
Content: Three to four updates a day with links to a general page.
Flickr and Twitpic
A set of pics were posted of the gritters in action at a training event in late autumn designed to test out the routes. These were posted to Flickr but the best pics came from residents themselves. In the spirit of web 2.0 we posted links to good shots.
One pic was crowdsourced for the council website header shot.
Content: snowy scenes taken by residents as well as shots of gritters posted by the press office.
It’s one of the great jobs of this winter to see a mapping project really take off in Walsall. The Mappa Mercia group are people I’ce blogged about previously. Last winter they drew-up a grit map on open street map for Birmingham. You can take a look here. They spotted the grit routes for Walsall and Solihull too and quietly added them. So, when winter came we were quite happy to link to their map. It shows residents spotting a need and doing it themselves.
Content: grit routes.
EIGHT things we’d suggest:
- Get service areas to tell you what they are doing.
- Communicate to residents in good time.
- Monitor, respond and communicate every four hours. Have a rota to do this.
- Put the same message across different channels. But in the language of the platform. Don’t RSS it across everything. It won’t work.
- You can crowdsource good picture content.
- Have an idea what the frequently asked questions are and think about the answers before you are asked.
- Take a screen shot of the positive and negative comments from Facebook and Twitter. It gives the service areas an idea of what is being said if you email it to them. The positive stuff will go down very well and make them more supportive of what you are doing.
- You can reply to negative comments. But if people swear or are sarcastic think twice. You may not have a constructive conversation.
Last year, the idea of tweeting when your gritters was going out was revolutionary.
Around half a dozen councils were leftfield enough to do it and the idea spread.
Public sector web standards organisation SOCITM picked up on it making it mainstream with their report for subscribers.
Is that enough?
Can we stand still now?
The fact is local government needs to innovate like never before.
Someone famous once said when you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts.
So, where’s the innovation this year? Here’s some ideas and pointers on how straight forward they are…
1. MAP YOUR GRIT ROUTES
In the West Midlands, there’s some amazing innovation from mapping geeks.
Bright people from Mappa Mercia including the excellent Andy Mabbett last year built a grit map on Open Street Map to show grit routes in Birmingham. They dug out the routes from pdfs on the council website.
That’s a good example of working with a talented and community-minded online community.
Advantage: Community engagement.
Disadvantage: You need mapping geeks to be grit geeks too.
2. TWITTER GRITTER
Everytime you go out you tweet the fact. If you’re not doing it you should. It’s not enough to provide a service at 2am. You need to tell people. Why? Because they won’t know your council tax is being spent in such a way and they may well ring your harrassed staff at a time when they are thinly stretched.
Advantage: Community engagement. Cuts down unneccesary contact.
Disadvantage: You’ll need some kind of rota or it’ll all fall on one person’s shoulders.
A short clip to explain what the gritting service is all about. Shot on a Flip video It’s a good way of communicating what is being done.
Advantage: Creates blog-friendly web 2.0 video content.
Disadvantage: You need a Flip video. The process isn’t instant.
4. MAP GRIT BIN LOCATIONS
Publish grit routes as open data? Why not.
But beware the perils of derived data that quicksand argument that means anything based on Ordnance Survey is mired in dispute.
Advantage: Publishing open data increases transparency
Disadvantages: It can’t be based on OS maps.
As local government Facebook sites mature and grow there’s more reason to post grit updates there too.
Drawbacks? Not all phones will allow you to post to fan pages and you may have to log on at a PC or a laptop.
Advantage: You reach the massive Facebook demographic.
Disadvantage: Your Facebook fanpage is harder to update than a profile.
6. LIVE TWEET
A trip around the borough in a gritter with a camera phone geo-tagging your tweets. It works as a one off and builds a direct connection.
Advantage: A service from a different perspective.
Disadvantage: Labour and time intensive.
7. TEXT AND EMAIL ALERTS
Sometimes we can be so struck by new gadgets that we can forget the platforms your Dad and mother-in-law have.
Simply speaking, there are more mobile phones in the UK than people.
Many councils are charged around 8p a text to issue an SMS. That’s a cost that has to be picked up from somewhere. But using the standard costs per enquiry of around £7 face-to-face and £5 over the phone the 8p charge starts to look viable.
Advantage: You can reach large numbers of people and cut down potentially on unavoidable contact.
Disadvantage: It costs.
Not every council has the resources to tweet its gritting. In Cumbria, the community of Alsthom high in the dales regularly gets cut off in the snow. Fed-up with the council response the town clubbed together to buy their own gritter.
Community and digital innovator John Popham floated the interesting idea of the community stepping in to tweet gritting activity. In effect, a Big Society Twitter Gritter It’s a fascinating idea, would share the burden and may fill the gap where a council doesn’t have the digital skills or the staff.
Advantage: If there are residents willing it’s a good partnership potentially.
Disadvantage: It’s dependent on volunteer power.
9. QR CODES
What are they? Funny square things that your mobile phone can identify and can download some information about. I don’t pretend to fully understand them and I’m not sure if they’ve reached a tipping point in society just yet. However, Sarah Lay of Derbyshire County Council is looking at adding QR codes to grit bins to allow people to report problems. It’s a fascinating idea that needs looking at.
Advantages: Tech-savvy citizens can use them to pinpoint problems.
Disadvantages: A format that is still finding traction amongst the rest of the population.
10. OPEN DATA
What can you publish as open data? Wrack your brains and consult the winter service plan. There’s grit routes themselves. There’s the amount of grit stockpiled. There’s the amount of grit spread day-by-day.
Advantage: Open data is good for transparency.
Disadvantages: Day-by-day updating could be tricky as engineers are snowed under. If you’ll forgive the pun.
Walsall grit pile Dan Slee http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5087392858/
Four Seasons bridge http://www.flickr.com/photos/fourseasonsgarden/2340923499/sizes/l/in/photostream/
Twitter gritter Dan Slee http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5115786276/
Road m4tik http://www.flickr.com/photos/m4tik/4259599913/sizes/o/in/photostream/
It’s 3am, freezing and snow is about to fall.
Within an hour roads will be covered with a snow blanket children will squeal at and commuters will swear at.
It’s a race against time. And a time when the myth ‘all local government clocks off at 5 o’clock’ is tucked up along with everyone else.
If roads are not gritted there will be rush hour chaos, anger and hell to pay. Just ask the councils who look after Reading and Basingstoke.
Gritting is one of 800 often unseen vital local government jobs.
So as local government isn’t it a good idea to use social media to let people know what we are doing?
Or in other words, it’s not enough to do the job and hope residents pick up on what you are doing. That’s trickledown public relations. It doesn’t work.
What is increasingly important is doing the job and letting people know you are doing a job.
Gritting is a perfect way to marry an important service with social media.
It’s fast, immediate and talks to the resident direct. No need to wait for the evening paper to come out and people – hopefully – turning to halfway down page 16 to read what you are doing.
At Walsall, in the winter period we decided to tweet gritting information. In winter time gritting is becoming – like school closures and the cancellation of markets and events – important to communicate by social media.
At Walsall, in the winter period we decided to tweet gritting information. That was on top of schools closures, household waste and which schools are open.
There is a winter service plan at Walsall. It’s a 49-page document that sets out the 16 gritting routes covering more than 250 miles of road – that’s 50.1 per cent of the network.
A duty engineer checks weather data and assesses the risk of freezing temperatures. It’s down to them to make the call to order the fleet out.
Why? We already had a twitter feed @walsallcouncil with 1,000 followers. As the result of regular press queries we had good relations with the transport officers responsible for it. It was a small step to actually tweeting the info.
How? Engineers were primed to email when they made the decision to order out the gritting teams. Press officers are equipped with Blackberries and are able to pick up the email and use Twitter.
When? FHow? Engineers were primed to email when they made the decision to order out the gritting teams. Press officers are equipped with Blackberries and are able to pick up the email and use Twitter.
When? From December 28 2009 to January 8 2010 we tweeted 71 times. We’d warn we were going out. We’d also link to advice on our website and issue urgent advice. There was a spate of thefts from the 175 grit bins, for example. Two incidents were reported to West Midlands Police. That was tweeted too. We also retweeted relevant @wmpolice advice and @metoffice updates.
Here’s some examples:
Grit update – Careful on the roads tonight. We’re gritting at 10pm after a sharp fall in temperature.
Grit update – We’re out. You’ll not be suprised to know. Take it steady on the roads. We’ll be monitoring the weather through the night.
Thanks @richjohnstone_. Heard back from a gritting team in Pheasey. A trip through the night is highly likely.
How was it received? Very well. There were two negative comments about what we were doing. But overall, there was a heck of a lot more positive feedback. We even had a couple of positive blog comments.
Spotted a @walsallcouncil gritter in the Crescent, Walsall! Good work guys.
We also responded to incidents in almost real time. A burst water main was flagged up as an ice hazard at a busy junction. We called engineers who were able to send out an emergency gritter as part of rounds…
@WalsallCouncil looks like a water main has burst – leighswood ave / middlemore lane WS9 – traffic lights being set up – traffic chaos
Thanks @stevieboy378. The Leighswood Ave / Middlemore Lane water leak has been added to the duty gritters’ list.
We got some positive, real time response. Forwarded to the team on the ground it was a boost to the drivers.
We also backed up the Twitter activity with a short film shot on a Flip camera and posted to YouTube.
We supported this with a press release to local media and trade press.
HOW OTHERS HAVE TACKLED IT…
The Walsall Council approach was by no means unique. There have been several other councils looking at gritting and social media.
In Warwickshire, a gritter was fitted so that it could send out geotagged tweets on it’s route. It’s a great idea in principle. But I do reckon @warwickwinter will need a few tweaks. Or is four or five tweets a minute okay if you lived in the area?
The hugely talented @pezholio took a look at the Warwick approach and drew up a test geotagged map. It’s a fantastic idea that could realy work. You can see a map of where the gritter has been and at what time. It would solve at a stroke the argument from an angry resident that swears blind his road hasn’t been visited.
Kirklees Council has also some good things with @kirkleeswinter
Essex Council have also been tweeting gritting through their mainstream Twitter account. As this is something that has a 700+ following it makes sense to inform as many people as possible. Camden Council have also kept up a good output with snow updates through their central Twitter feed.
Also, big up Sutton Council who have provided a map of grit bins. However, with thefts taking place across the country of grit – and the bins themselves – would this escalate problems with crime?
ELEVEN THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND
1. GET PLUGGED INTO YOUR ENGINEERS – arrrange with your engineers to let you know when they’re gritting, find out what the standard questions are and find out what the answers are – or who can tell you them.
2. MONITOR TWITTER – Have someone monitoring who can use the corporate Twitter. Tweet out-of-hours. Explode a few myths.
3. CONVERSATIONAL – Be conversational. On-the-spot tweets are a good way to use Twitter and to turn around important inform
4. YES, YOU WILL GET FLAK – People will accuse you of not gritting. Even when you have. They’ll also want their side street gritted when you don’t do side streets. You’ll need to have a form of words ready. Bear in mind that social media is another form of communication. Those conversations you’ll have over the phone you’ll also have via Twitter. With this stuff you can be part of the conversation that is already taking place.
5. PASS IT ON – Even if you have an answer to the tweet cut, paste and pass it onto the engineers.
6. TELL PEOPLE ABOUT IT – Make a log of your activity and pass it on internally. Don’t keep it t yourself. Create a Slideshare for your power point.
7. RESPOND TO @REPLIES – Where you can, try and respond. Even if it’s just to say ‘Thanks for your tweet. We’ll pass it on.’ People don’t expect a detailed answer within seconds. An acknowledgement is only what you do off-line. But if you can act, then respond quick.
8. YOUTUBE. A film of gritters shot on a Flip video camera is cheap and effective.
9. THINK PICTURES – Tweet pics of what you are doing. Add to the community’s Flickr group pool with your shots of council staff in action.
10. EXPLAIN, LISTEN, PROMOTE – It’s clear that everyone in your organisation won’t be an advocate of social media. Even if the person at the top ‘gets it’ you need to be aware that you may have to re-sell to managers. Possibly at times of great stress and pressure. Be patient.
11. THINK GEOTAGGING – Technology exists to geotag vehicles. It’s a small step to produce a googlemap where people can go to se when and where their street has been treated. Talk to engineers and you’ll find that hours are spent insisting to residents that yes, their street has been gritted. Wouldn’t it be simpler to let people log on if the technology already exists?
Sarah Lay’s blog on Christmas social media activity. http://bit.ly/5AGZSG