SOCIAL SURGERY: Building the Art of Good Listening

“Oh, so it wasn’t actually local government that won a prize for Social Media Surgeries?

“That’s a shame isn’t it?”

That’s more or less what someone from a local government organisation said to me. They weren’t really listening and it got me thinking.

What’s a social media surgery? It’s volunteers with digital know how being put together in a room with voluntary groups and charities who would like to know.

It’s about giving a voice to groups who really need a voice.

It’s an idea that emerged three or four years ago from the vibrant community of Birmingham bloggers.

Nick Booth of Podnosh has turned that idea into something truly remarkable that has outgrown the West Midlands (disclaimer: I just think Nick is great.)

Podnosh won a Big Society award for the project hence the conversation I start this blog with.

I’ve helped out at a handful social media surgeries. Not as many as I would have liked. But enough to know why people do it and enough to be applauding wildly those who truly deserve the award.

Is it sad local government didnt win this?

Not at all. Because this isn’t a local government idea. It’s a community one.

But it also got me thinking about local government’s role.

A lot of the early volunteers come from local government. Birmingham City Council’s Digital Birmingham arm recognised it’s worth quite early on and helped get volunteers, for example.

At the last Walsall Social Media surgeries, which is one of more than 80 registered, the majority of surgeons happened to be from local government too.

That’s more a yardstick of there being decent people at councils rather than some strategic thing.

But social media surgeries, from what I see, are built on far more than volunteers from local government and I wouldn’t want to overstate their role.

Social media is transforming council communications. Gritting updates now come via Twitter. Libraries have Facebook pages.

But local government is founded in Victorian Britain and can still act like it at times. Even the best Twitter stream unplugged into officers who don’t want to listen will ultimately fail.

Just recently, I’ve helped start a Facebook page to help regeneration officers understand how they can make Walsall a town where creative people will live and work.

It’s called ‘Can We Make Walsall A More Creative Place?’

It won’t change the world, but I’m gobsmacked at how if you plug into networks and listen they’ll crackle with electricity and they’ll tell you things. I’m a bit excited at how its playing out.

Just recently I spent a really inspiring hour or so at Shropshire Council with Nigel Bishop, Jon King and others. Part of what they are doing is looking at how to embed social media in every corner of the council and at every step of the way. Not just as the end stuck on as a megaphone to tell people. Jon writes about it here. In short, they’re after better listening as well as communicating. That’s quietly brilliant.

So, what can local government really get out of what’s built at social media surgeries?

They can be places to help build good listening.

That strikes me as being very important.

LINKS:

Andy Mabbett on Social Media Surgeries

Social Media Surgery Plus

10 Downing Street: The Social Media Surgery is the latest Big Society award winner

CREATIVE COMMONS CREDIT:

Chris and Mary http://www.flickr.com/photos/podnosh/3529022026/

Laughing at Dudley Social Media Surgery http://www.flickr.com/photos/gavinwray/5921616904/sizes/l/in/photostream/


EMERGENCY COMMS: ‘Whatever you do, put social media in your emergency plan.’

Fire, storm, pestilence or just a burst water main, in an emergency local government can swing into action.

In the UK it’s known as emergency planning and in the US emergency management. Whichever part of the world you are in it’s the part of the public sector that has plans for every eventuality.

For a comms person, it’s often only when there’s a problem you’ll speak to the emergency planners. Don’t let that happe  n. Make a pact with yourself.  Go and speak to them as soon as you can and sort out what to do with social media. Here is why.

At localgovcamp in Birmingham this year Ben Proctor, who runs the Like A Word consultancy, ran an excellent session on emergency planning and the social web. It’s something he writes about well too. His blog is well worth a look.

Catherine Howe, who does things with Public I, made the closing but clear point: “Whatever you do put social media in your emergency plan.”

Of course, I reflected smugly, my council has. There’s 3,000 people following the our corporate Twitter stream. What could go wrong?

Overnight there had been a minor incident that I’d missed on my Blackberry which had ran flat. Thankfully, it wasn’t more serious. But it showed very clearly where we’re blindsided.

If only comms people have the keys to the Facebook and Twitter things can easily fall down. What’s the answer? Go to where the audience is. Give them access to the corporate account. They’re generally very sensible people and know what to say. If the situation develops you can always step in.

So, what sort of role does social media play in an emergency?

In a true disaster the web falls down before SMS. But people are instinctively running to it.

A tornado in Joplin – In in the Mid West US town when a milewide tornado struck, the community rallied by building their own space on the web. At first this was to search for missing people and then as the disaster turned to recovery it charted that phase too. The moral? People have the tools like this or this community Facebook page to build things for themselves. They’re not waiting for the council to do it. They just will.

The EDL in Birmingham – When the far right English Defence League first rallied they used Twitter to spread misinformation. The police monitored by were powerless.  Third time they came they had an officer monitoring Twitter, Mark Payne checking each claim and then re-butting within minutes point by point.

Facebook in Queensland – When floods struck 3,000 comments a day were posted on the Queensland Police site. It took a 24-hour effort to monitor, explain and rebuff wild rumour.

The report into the Queendsland event singled out social media as part of a range of channels to take action with. Ben Proctor has blogged on it here. A key finding is to talk, prepare and practice. That’s as just as much relevant to comms people as anyone.

An interim report into the Queensland flood made a series of comments and recommendations. On social media it stated:

“As it may be possible for the public to post information directly to an official social media site there are concerns that a member of the public may post false information. For example, inaccurate information was posted on the Western Downs Regional Facebook page. However, where there are enough staff to monitor content social media can be a useful tool to respond to rumours in the community.”

Seven things comms people need to know

1. Share the keys – Give emergency planning an awareness of what social media is, encourage them to monitor and respond and give them the keys to the corporate feeds.

2. You can’t control the message – As if the main message of our times is needed to be repeated.

3. There’s a shorter turn around time to respond – Speed may be of the essence.

4. It’s not just about social media – It’s one channel of several. Important and growing but don’t think that everyone will be on Facebook.

5. It’s good for combating rumours – As a comms person that can save yourself time.

6. Journalists will follow and like – You can save time and effort by creating channels of communications.

7. If the balloon goes up it’ll take resources – Social media is free is a bit of a myth. The platform is free. The time spent to manage it, listen and update isn’t. The lessons of Queensland are that it can take up resources. But you do get valuable return on investment for doing so. Regular monitoring when there is a crisis is absolutely critical. Don’t link to a press release and forget about it.

Creative commons

Fire http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/5075758029/sizes/m/in/photostream/


ICE INNOVATION: Ten case studies and ideas to innovate in the winter

Oh, the weather outside is frightful but the idea of doing cool things is always delightful.

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.

Now, they’re adding Solihull and Walsall too ready for the winter onslaught.


Birmingham City Council have linked to it from their transport pages and we at Walsall Council are tweeting it when the weather gets bad.

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.

It’s something I blogged about last year with a case study mapping more than 70 tweets.

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.

3. YOUTUBE

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.

Embedding the video in the service’s pages should be straight forward. Linking to YouTube and posting via Twitter and Facebook is easy. Tweet the link when you’re team are hitting the road

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.

5 FACEBOOK

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.

At Walsall, we tweeted the testing of the gritters in a dry-run for winter including geotagged shots from the cab itself as it trundled around the streets.

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.

8. BIG SOCIETY TWITTER GRITTER

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.

Links:

Creative commons:

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/