In the public sector we have been used to communications in a noticeably one-way fashion for some years.
When we consult we have been guilty of asking questions to get a particular answer. When we do PR we have been guilty of chiselling press releases to perfection by Committee, then releasing them into the dead of night via our websites. Even when we talk to our staff we’ve seen criticism public sector managers are hierarchical, top-down control freaks and don’t do interaction very well.
Social media is transforming this for the better.
When I first introduced Twitter to my colleagues I was frowned on as being some sort of excited 6th former with an idea that would never run.
12-18 months later it is becoming part of the public sector DNA.
In Blackburn with Darwen we’re interacting 2-way with our residents via Twitter every day. We campaign on Facebook – from new leisure centres to local neighbourhood issues. We invite feedback and act on it without relying on over-structured surveys prescribed by the Government. And we promote and engage with people in different ways via YouTube – most recently on electoral turnout for young people.
None of this is without risk. Culturally it is uncomfortable for organisations not used to genuine 2-way interaction via fast-moving channels. There is risk in allowing staff access and all the HR and legal/libel ramifications this presents. And there is risk in turning over stones in the community that we may not have done for years.
But there is also massive opportunity. I see this in 3 key areas – firstly for efficiency – social media provides cheaper, alternative methods for engagement that are more effective than traditional print and outdoor media advertising. Secondly it complements democracy – if as Councils we’re not open to new ways of engaging with local people then what are we here for?
And thirdly because of the principle of interaction. You can talk on Twitter, you can group and organise on Facebook, you can broadcast – and be broadcast back at – on you Tube. This is the essence of public service and should be at the heart of how we manage our communications mix.
No communications director worth their salt would throw all their eggs into the social media basket alone. But social media represents a big part of how the world works, and Councils without a proactive social media strategy, and a tolerant approach to staff usage, are really missing a trick.
Tom Stannard is director of policy and communications at Blackburn with Darwen Council