Reliance on local media to convey key messages from a local authority has always been a hit & miss affair. “If only there was a way to spread the message and still retain its integrity.”

Printing flyers and brochures may help spread the message but it’s an expensive process and we rarely put tracking measure in place to qualify the success rate. “If only there was a trackable way to transmit the message once then get other people to spread it on our behalf along with the added weight of personal recommendation.”

No one knows the job better than the officer on the frontline. Who better to convey information in real time particularly in emergencies? “If only there was a direct channel, a real alternative to accessing local media that allowed ‘instant messaging’ when we need to get the information out at a time that suits us.”

Yes, you’ve probably guessed where all this is heading. A big plug for social media. You got me. Actually, the real reason for this blog is to begin a real discussion about the future role of comms officers. You see, if we begin to empower frontline officers to convey information about their daily work through social media channels and we cease to supply press releases in the traditional sense ( Birmingham Newsroom & Shropshire Newsroom ), what’s left for comms to do?

Well, quite a lot I would argue. Comms officers are creative people drawn from a range of backgrounds and very often from the media itself. But too much time is spent firefighting, responding to a timescale and agenda set by news-hungry local media. Where is there time to be truly creative? Even with direct social media channels, services need support and a new perspective to make the most of the opportunities that socmed provide. Local media will not and should not be sidelined, for the sake of accountablility if nothing else. There must be checks and balances. But if local authorities begin to change the rules of engagement to be more inclusive should we not move from combatative to constructive in our discussions with the media? And include our residents in that conversation too?

Some local authorities are shifting towards a model where comms officers become the managers of a new news channel; the council itself.  Futurecomms sees the council as the primary news provider and the media as commentator.

It’s more than just maintaining the integrity of the message, it’s the conversational nature of socmed that’s exciting. We’re opening up new channels of communication with residents. The terms ‘engagement’ and ‘consultation’ appear in different contexts in a host of strategies and policies. The truth is there is no consultation without engagement and its engagement that socmed makes possible when the only alternative was poorly attended public meetings. Engaging in socmed can enhance the reputation of an organisation too as many a multi-national will atest.

Should local authorities embrace social media? Hell, yes!

Is there a role for comms officers in the brave new world? More than ever. As mentors and critical friends, supporters, enablers and facilitators and hands-on news managers.

The social media genie hasn’t just left the bottle, its been living in comfort in a bijou city centre appartment with panoramic views of the waterfront development and creative hub for the last eighteen months. Its got a network of friends on Twitter and LinkedIn, uses Skype to stay in touch with the folks back home and attends a pilates class in the local community centre.

See also Meeting in the Middle


A Muted Trumpet

Last Saturday’s LocalGovcamp in Birmingham was a bittersweet experience. Meeting up with bright sparks is a great way to recharge the public sector batteries and the proliferation of great ideas and challenging debate were a tonic. The abiding memory I’ll take away was an expression. It was a look of sheer frustration. That expression was on the face of a few people in a session I attended. Let me explain. The session was led by the excellent Dan Slee of Walsall Borough Council who is one of a small team that pulled off a couple of social media coups for Local Gov. Inspired by a police force (sorry can’t recall who) and a Children’s Ward, Walsall decided to Tweet for 24 hours (#Walsall24) across its range of services. This was followed by #Walsall100 across a whole week by which time our own homage, #Shrop360 was in the advanced planning stages. Last Saturday was the penultimate day of our 7-day campaign and the Shropshire delegates were somewhat buoyed by its apparent success (full report to follow). So I gatecrashed Dan’s session with a view to adding to the discussion and encouraging others to take the plunge. Now, anyone who’s attended a govcamp event will be familiar with the blame game.

“Yes, we’d love to but IT won’t let us.” or “Yes we’d love to but management won’t let us.” These statements are sometimes based on actual policy but sometimes simply a perception of policy that has yet to be tested or challenged.

What surprised me was the response to our comments about the positive potential of social media to open up channels of communication and improve the reputation of councils which was, “Yes, we’d love to use social media but Comms won’t let us.”

I’ll pause for a moment to let that sink in.

“Yes, we’d love to use social media but Comms won’t let us.”

Dan and I shared a glance with ‘disbelief’ written all over it. Having experienced first hand a week’s worth of the kind of positive PR that shrinking budgets could never afford, delivered through a free medium by front-line officers going about their daily routine, you have to ask yourself..what is the problem?

For Comms of all people to object to engagement through social media is akin to turkeys voting for Christmas. Dan has far more eloquently expressed the view that anyone presently in Comms who hasn’t made it their business to ‘get‘ social media is sleepwalking their way out of the organisation. Though he is at pains to point out that there’s no need to panic.

Here’s the thing. Stop thinking you can manage the message. Sorry, but you can’t. You couldn’t pre-social media and you certainly can’t in the digital age. Comms need to evolve to have any relevance as I wrote in an earlier blog . I can only say that #Shrop360 unearthed a wealth of talent and enthusiasm that we harnessed from across the organisation to the benefit not only of the reputation of the organisation but also the moral of staff at a difficult time. Your call.

Kudos: Digital Birmingham, Podnosh, Public-i, NALC, Firmstep, Talk About Local, Arcus Global, Global Crossing and @pigsonthewing for making Localgovcamp happen.