I’ll set the scene. Social Media Week was coming up and our team were racking our brains about what we could do for the sector that would be practically useful. This involved a considerable amount of chocolate digestives. On my part anyway.
I think we’d be the first to put our hands up and say we aren’t the world’s no.1 social media gurus – we see really innovative stuff day in day out from councils up and down the country that we aspire to. Therefore it is most definitely not our place to be telling those who already doing fantastic work what to do.*
However, what is apparent to us from discussions with many officers is that for all the councils that are doing great local engagement through social media, there are an equal number of councils who are desperately keen to be doing more, but for a whole host of reasons are meeting hurdles along the way.
We have lots of officers contacting us for case studies from other councils so they have a body of evidence to demonstrate to those more senior how they can successfully incorporate social media into their work.
There are numerous discussions in Knowledge Hub where users point out that they would like to take a look at a link someone recommended in a blog but then the link's site is blocked ….
There are also of course, councillors who get in touch us about being unable to use social media during meetings. Or telling us about fellow members with the attitude: “No blackberry, no tweet, no Facebook. Gotta life" (reportedly a direct quote!!).
So back to us racking our brains - what would be most helpful for us to do? We came to the conclusion it was to be clear in our support for officers and members to be empowered to just get on with it. Hence both #OurDay and the Social Media Friendly Mark.
If you are busy doing great things with social media and it’s now simply part and parcel of you day to day engagement and not seen as something new, different and what others are a little bit afraid of then that’s wonderful! Super in fact and absolutely 100% more power to your elbow for getting on and doing it.
However, when you are happily getting on with uploading short videos to your council’s YouTube account and checking in your Leader at your Town Hall on Four Square, it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of colleagues who can’t – even though they want to.
That’s still the reality of social media use in local government.
We were bowled over – genuinely a bit emotional - when we saw the success of our tweetathon #OurDay. What were particularly brilliant were stories like this from Stuart Mackintosh in Redcar and Cleveland:
“To say we've been late to the local government social media party would be an understatement - it's more like we made it to the bar in time for last orders by the skin of our teeth. Yesterday was a massive logistical challenge for a tiny comms team, but the internal reaction to what we achieved today has been fantastic and I'd like to think there are pennies dropping and eyes opening across the organisation. Granted, comms handling it all centrally wasn't the ideal scenario, but quite simply it wouldn't have happened otherwise and we wanted to be involved by hook or by crook. […]for us it's now a case of shouting as loudly as we can about the benefits of social media being an integral part of our daily work and taken from the comms toolbox when it's right to use it.
“For too long, it's been perceived as an add-on or a "we don't really understand so let's just send out a press release for everything as usual". Really hoping yesterday was the springboard to change that view.”
And it’s for this reason why I think the social media friendly mark is necessary. If a council is already doing great work in its social media presence it’s an opportunity to clearly display their commitment – a way of saying “Woo Hoo! Look at us – we are doing our best to engage in a way that suits lots of our residents!”
Conversely though it can be a prompt to others to start debating the questions and worries we hear time and time again: “Are we actually social media friendly if we don’t have public access to wi-fi in our building?”, “Should we let our councillors tweet during meetings?”, “Do we trust our staff not to sit on Facebook all day if we open up access”, “Don’t we need the head of communications to sign-off every tweet?”, “But anyone can say anything about you if you start using it”, “You need to know all that techy stuff to get it”, “No-one my age even uses it…..”
This isn’t about “othering” social media, or making it seem radically different from any other way you communicate. The mark is simply a way for councils to say clearly that they do social media well (or are trying to) and believe in something that, whether us old hands like or not, is relatively new and still viewed warily by many as an optional add-on.
Hopefully, very soon, there’ll come a time when conversations around the whys and the wherefores of social media use aren’t necessary and “marks” aren’t needed. However there was a time when the humble telephone was viewed as “the instrument of the devil”. People need a lot of reassurance around new technology and the purple tick is a light touch way of doing it.
The LGA won’t police the use of the mark or tell councils what they individually need to do to be social media friendly. I think what we are most interested in is supporting officers and members to use as whatever tools at their disposal to engage with as many residents as they possibly can.
The success of #OurDay gave a small snapshot of how the sector can show its worth using social media and if a purple mark can help a few others convince sceptics they should give it a go, I think it’s worth it.
*I was going to insert something about granny’s and sucking eggs here, but I’ve never ever saw a granny do this, so to my mind it’s an analogy that does not stand up to scrutiny.