I’ve been off this week, which gave me some time to follow and participate in a number of online debates, including the weekly #lgovsm and Guardian Local Government Network respective discussions on giving staff access to social media and the future of local government communications.
There has been a lot of talk recently about communications teams releasing control in relation to social media. Although communicators have a key role to play in helping colleagues to get to know the benefits of using social media, and how to use it, like good parents (or more accurately a good brother or sister in this case) they will need to let go and allow colleagues to just get on with it. Just check out Helen Reynolds’ (@HelReynolds) presentation on giving staff access to social media in Monmouthshire, and you’ll soon realise that by doing this the end of the world isn’t nigh. It’s under 9 minutes, and well worth a watch.
However, does the same apply to other channels of communication (social media is just a range of communications and engagement channels, it’s not the cure for the common cold)? Writing in the Guardian Local Government Network, Richard Vize sets out the case for releasing control of social media, and also includes the changing nature of local government communications teams in recent years.
Communications has been professionalised, which is a good thing, and senior politicians and officers now value the discipline more, which is an even better thing. Inevitably, making communications more professional has led to accusations of spin, particularly from some journalists, whereas in reality not giving journalists everything they ask for in exactly the way they want it isn’t spin, it just represented a shift in the relationship between communicators and the media.
Local government didn’t start this, it began most notably in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher’s press chief, Bernard Ingham, although much of the credit/blame is placed at Alastair Campbell’s door. Being more organised and focussed is a good thing, but not everybody likes it.
So what of the future for local government communications? Is control and good management the way forward, or do we need to let go of the reins? The answer is probably both, and so we need to split our personalities and approach. Effective PR and marketing campaigns, which help the Council and residents achieve their mutual objectives, need to be planned and implemented well to be cost-effective. And if any local government communicator knows of a senior politician or officer with a laissez-faire approach to the local media then I’d like to hitch a ride with them on the next flight with Pig Airways.
But things are changing, and at a great pace. Traditional communications channels still have their place, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Social media is playing an increasingly important role, as it should do, as it is low-cost, very effective in some areas, and it reflects the changing, or more accurately, changed nature of the world. Engagement through social media is key, encouraging residents to take part in conversations with us, rather than just using the platform as another way of broadcasting messages.
This conversation has to be a broad one, and should include a wide range of Council staff, using both work and personal social media accounts. Communications teams should initiate and support, but then when the time is right let go, although it’s only human nature that we’ll keep an eye on what is going on, and occasionally have to step in with a shovel when something goes wrong. But in this case, wrong can be right, as we should be allowing a culture where mistakes may happen.
So control, management, conversation, and letting go all have a place in local government communications, it’s just a case of finding the right balance.