Scotland’s local authorities using social media to engage with the public
For some, social media can be a confusing world with its own language and exclusive population. To those not au fait with its methods, the different systems can seem intimidating or completely pointless. The use of social media may be a given, but many local authorities are still reluctant to fully utilise the medium.
This could be about to change. In September, a group of communications professionals from Scotland’s local authorities came up with the idea to use Twitter to chart 24-hours in the life of participating councils. The event, known as #whatwedo, was designed to raise awareness of what a council does in a day.
Kate Bond, chairwoman of the National Communications Group (Scotland) who organised the event and also works for Aberdeenshire Council, said: “I previously worked for an English authority and I was using social networks with fellow communications professionals in other councils. When I came up here there really wasn’t that network.
“I started a group of communications professionals in each of the 32 councils, it developed over time and we now work quite closely with SOLACE Scotland.
“At our annual conference in March, Dan Slee, who works for Walsall Council, was one of our speakers and was really inspirational. He is a big social media blogger for Walsall Council and uses Twitter extensively. He had done a 24-hour campaign for Walsall Council. He inspired us and we thought, why don’t we take that model and grow it and see if we can get all 32 councils to do it all at the same time with a view of raising awareness of local government.
“We developed the project and kept SOLACE involved to ensure the chief executives were supportive of what we were doing, clearly the biggest challenge was always going to be trying to get all the councils contributing to it.”
The group managed to get 28 of the 32 councils involved and Bond believes the ones who did not take part “were worried about being involved and then perhaps raising expectations of their residents if they didn’t then have the capacity or resources to keep it going long term”.
She added: “They were all supportive of what we were doing but they were worried about how it might backfire on them. We didn’t set any parameters, I was very conscious that one council might only have one comms person, while others have ten. It was always going to be difficult to have a model which fitted everyone. We developed a ‘how to’ guide and we also set up a buddy system, so those councils who were quite proficient at using Twitter were able to offer advice to councils who may only be doing it for the first time. It was very supportive to ensure that there was no excuse for people not to become involved.”
An evaluation report based on a survey completed by 19 of the 28 participating councils found that in the 24 hours, councils tweeted over 1,000 times, achieved 360 retweets and replied to 105 direct messages during the event. There were 353 users contributing to #whatwedo and this included 28 participating authorities, as well as specific council services with their own usernames, other public sector organisations, individuals and the media as examples. The 19 councils reported 1,013 new followers during the event.
It was not all plain sailing, Bond added: “One of the councils said they were very much tweeting to the converted, so we didn’t attract that many new people, it was people who were already following councils and were interested in it. We were careful not to tweet too much as we were concerned we might put people off. There have been quite a lot of calls for us to repeat it. Perhaps we might widen it and do it differently.”
Finlay Carmichael, managing director of C2 Software, which helps businesses engage online with customers across multiple platforms, said a social media strategy does not have to cost councils a lot of money but could make a significant difference in engaging with the public.
“From a council’s point of view, it [social media] doesn’t cost an awful lot of money to achieve and it means they can disseminate information to people, make it available to them and get the most value out of the service. Hopefully that ends up delivering better value to taxpayers as well.”