Using social media in the public sector

This is a post I wrote that first appeared on the excellent comms2point0 blog . I wanted to repost it here just to get me started:

Northumberland is the most northern of English counties. It’s quietly created some of the most pioneering and widely adopted social media accounts in the country.

Ross Wigham, head of communications at Northumberland County Council tells how…

Northumberland is probably the biggest place you’ve never heard of. We’re one of the largest English counties and generally pride ourselves on being an amazing, hidden gem.

Having said that, if you’ve ever seen a Harry Potter film, heard of Hadrian’s Wall, read the gospels or used an electric light then you’ve seen something of the most Northern of Northerners.

You will also have seen one of our world famous castles or beaches on countless TV shows or movies, but what’s this got to do with social media?

Well, probably not much but I hope to share some of the things that have helped us really embrace this technology in what is probably one of the country’s most rural, traditional and remote counties.

We’ve now got more than 13,000 people signed up to one of our profiles (from a population of 300,000) and recently won a couple of awards for the work we’ve done in communicating with residents this way.

The one thing I’m emphatically NOT is any kind of digital expert or guru, but hopefully you can make some use of these thoughts/ideas/ramblings about our adventures in social over the last two years.

  1. Think customer not corporate. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? For too long we were focusing on the things the council wanted to push out, and not the stuff residents wanted to talk to us about. It’s meant to be a conversation, so make sure you’re listening as well as talking.
  2. Very few people are interested in councils. We may as well face it: people don’t really like councils. They do like some of the services we provide though, which is why we have several different profiles. To get the conversations going we had to split out the interest groups. People interested in just getting alerts about closures aren’t necessarily interested in the other 850 things we do.
  3. Put social media right at the heart of your comms work. It’s not something that should be an afterthought and you need to be talking about social media at the very highest level. For me this is quickly becoming the most important and effective channel.
  4. Exploit the power of reach. We run all the way from Tyneside right up to Scotland. To give you an idea of the scale we have more than 3,000 miles of road – which is like driving from Newcastle to New York. It takes 8 local papers to cover this patch but relevant, timely information can be sent in seconds at the touch of a button.
  5. Start sharing. We’ve found Facebook in particular a great place to share things. When we asked residents to send us photos that we could use for free in our publicity and marketing material we got 700 images. It’s also given us so much vital intelligence and a channel for consultation that’s free.
  6. Don’t forget about the traditional media. It shouldn’t be a case of one or the other. The fourth estate are every bit as influential as ever. Importantly, at a local level, there is trust invested in their news and that’s invaluable.
  7. A vital tool in Emergencies. We’ve had our share of those in the past year or so, including 30 plus days of snow, major flooding and the Raoul Moat incident. Our efforts only really started paying off after we launched our winter alerts scheme and once people realised they could get reliable news quickly – and on the move – they signed up by the thousand (read more about this)
  8. Work with your friends. Working with local partners can add loads more value for the public. We teamed up with colleges, emergency services and bus companies to help get messages out there during the bad weather.
  9. Get your policy right. Policies are really boring, but also really important. You need to nail down who in the organisation is allowed to use and monitor this technology. Secondly and more importantly you need to decide how you will respond and when. We adapted something from a blog-guide used by the USAF. We also treat direct questions on Facebook or twitter in exactly the same way as media enquiries.
  10. Build a community, save yourself work. During the extreme weather the online community were able to answer each other’s questions and resolve loads of problems without the council or the media needing to get involved.

5 thoughts on “Using social media in the public sector

  1. Brilliant!

    Really glad you are blogging, Ross. There’s some really good things taking place in some unexpected places in local government. Northumberland is part of that really intreresting peleton.

    I’ve long thought that blogging in the public sector was an essential thing to do with vanishing budgets and a whole new media landscape.

    One thing just to keep you going. There’s an excellent thing called Weekly Blog Club. Post something by midnight on Thursday with the #weeklyblogclub hashtag and you have a ready made audience. They’ve a blog to collate entries too:


  2. Thanks dan, really appreciate your kind feedback.

    Completely agree with you and comms2point0 is highlighting some of that innovative work hat can often go unnoticed.


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