Making your council magazine work in the new world

This is repost of a piece I did for the fantastic comms2point0 (@comms2point0) blog that I hope some of the public sector readers will be interested in. It’s worth saying again that anyone working in public sector PR needs to be reading that blog every day because it will help, inspire and let you steal perfectly good ideas.

Council magazines may seem like a strange topic for discussion given the amount of time and effort we now spend on social media (see my previous post) but I just wonder if we’re now discarding a tool that’s still got so much to offer in the internet age.

Whatever the format, people still love reading stories that build a narrative about where they live and what interests them.

Given that local authority mags now seem to be the communications equivalent of the bowler hat I’d like to reassess what they can provide, particularly in tandem with social networks.

Back in 2009 Northumberland merged seven authorities into one massive county council, covering a diverse and disparate geographical area so large that its road network covered the same driving distance as Newcastle to New York.

How could we communicate with such a varied and dispersed population that often had little in common and no understanding of the new council’s role or aims? Simple – a magazine posted to every home, each month that could engage with local people, promote services, explain the changes and provide vital public services.

To help offset the costs the magazine would work with other public sector partners and accept private advertising.

So far, so good. Around 77% of people said they read it and found the information useful. We won a CIPR award for our efforts and had some other notable achievements: a 21% increase in residents who felt well informed, more than 2,000 people used vouchers we printed to attend a local event, foster care enquiries doubled and recycling increased markedly after a series of articles.

Then things changed. The magazine had been controversial with the local press – we have eight titles operating in Northumberland – and our publication regularly made their front pages (not in a good way). The new government code of practice cast doubt on our monthly distribution and made a quarterly option untenable. In the new age of austerity in which Northumberland needed to save more than £100m, the delivery costs also became unacceptable.

Instead of scrapping the magazine altogether we looked to the web to help save the day and used our growing social media following to drive traffic to a new online version, hosted by a digital publisher.

To cut the costs and help cater to residents without good internet access (Northumberland is predominantly a rural area) we printed a small number of traditional, hard copies that could be collected by the public from libraries, leisure centres and other council buildings right across the county.

We had our doubts about the new system – would people used to hard copy, straight through their letterbox, go online? Would social followers more used to 140 characters or less bother with a 32 page online magazine?

Well, after three issues we’re finding that people are really taking to the new format and spreading the word online. Residents are still interested in getting local stories from their council about key issues that affect them. Our magazine has had more than 402,000 downloads so far, and social media has been a key way of delivering the news to the public.

It seems that the basic communications principles still apply, only the channels have changed.

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