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The Public Sector Needs to Get Social or Be Left Behind

Most council authorities up and down the UK struggle with new media communication and in particular appear to be disregarding the huge potential of engaging with their communities via social networks. This isn’t happening due to the recent budget cut backs, although the lack of resource and money won’t be helping the public sector address the imbalance any time soon, but rather there seems to be an overall lack of confidence, specialist staff and a fear of what might happen if people are invited to freely provide comment.

Not often are councils praised for doing their job well but when something goes wrong, it will be splashed on the front page of the local rag and it’s the talk of the town. What if the freedom of social media resulted in a constituent backlash and a barrage of negative comments? A “We couldn’t cope with the workload” reaction springs to mind; however, with a longer term approach and policies put in place to deal with any criticism or complaints, as well as a content and engagement strategy, public sector organisations could connect to the masses and understand their views like never before.

Having previously worked for a local borough council, I believe that Facebook and Twitter communication is incorrectly de-prioritised in favour of the local media. Even with the opportunity to take advantage of my interests, skills and understanding, my employers didn’t think it right to take resources away from writing press releases and reactively dealing with enquiries. Although integral to any council’s communication strategy, local newspapers and BBC radio will only ever reach a small segment of people so the net should be widened if they are to do their job across each area of the community effectively.

A large proportion of those who work outside of the local area, people who have moved to the locale as well as students and younger generations are completely disengaged with councils and the services they offer. This is not to say they are not interested in the information but probably not interested enough to actively seek it out, for example on the authority’s website. What is also worse for councils, is that local media is becoming much more social media savvy and they are the ones hitting new audiences via social news feeds. On the one hand this is extremely good news but what is disappointing is that councils are still missing out on the chance to comment and interact with both the press and the public at the same time, in what could be a very dynamic and interesting discussion.

Those who are currently at school, university or are of the age where they may soon start their own family are potentially the members of society who will be most affected in the future by the decisions local councils are making now; why is it this group of people who are the last to hear, or may never hear, about important resolutions, such as budget allocation, planning permissions, the privatisation of services or how schools operate?

Council communication teams that are not already integrating social networking into their strategies should be doing so and nor they do not need to spend money employing a social media agency or consultant. Facebook and Twitter should be treated as just another marketing and public relations channel and, as such, these platforms can be put into the mix accordingly. However, at the very least, local UK councils can open official accounts so news and events posted on their websites’ can be linked back to and spend a short amount of time each day acquiring fans and followers. Following this, social networking pages can be advertised and more engaging content can be planned and executed.

About Keredy Stott

  • Gareth

    I think you are coming at this from the wrong angle.

    I cant disagree with the argument that local authorities spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about an increasingly obsolete print media. But Im not convinced about the extent social media is the way forward either.

    Increasingly the services and departments (events, town centre management, leisure services, museums, educational services, community facilities, etc etc) that would benefit from interactive communications are being cut, given to the private sector or shipped off to arms length companies.

    Looking into my crystal ball I see the public sector becoming increasingly obsessed with the handful of services there is a statutory obligation to provide. Which does mean a lot of the fluffy/cool stuff will start to disappear as LAs become leaner.

    This leads to a level of interaction where taxpayers/customers/residents only deal with their local authority to request a service or report that a service has failed.

    So what I would propose in a shift in focus (in line with the DCLG’s revised comms and PR guidance) that the elected members are pushed into social media.

    Elected members are the ones who can shape policy and make changes in line with resident requests. And, ultimately they control the strategic direction of the local authority. They should become the faces of the council in the new media world.

    There are any numbers of inherent dangers and obstacles in this approach, especially for the LA comms teams struggling to play ringmaster to a large number of politicians who may or may not be undermining the authority – but it would (I feel) be ultimately more fruitful than an officer try and force social media to fit around something that inherently doesnt fit with the customer/provider dynamic between people and their local authority.