So, you’ve had some snow recently? There’s been so much written about it in the last week that the only remaining headline is a reference to robot-based 1980’s comedy movie Short Circuit.
But while you were kicking through a light dusting of white powder, I hope you spared a thought for us in the most Northern English County. Redesdale in Northumberland was the snowiest place in England with 33cm in a single day. On top of that we had 12 foot snow drifts and a 3,500 mile road network to worry about.
But for me snowfall is always a potent reminder of the massive shift in the PR landscape (not just literally). Four years ago was the catalyst for us to really try and evolve the way we engage with local residents and make information more accessible, real time and relevant.
If you’ve read Brand Anarchy (and if you haven’t you should – see my review here) you’ll know that the illusion of control for organisations has long been shattered and that we’re working in probably the biggest period of change for a generation.
The serious snowfall of 2009/10 marked the moment that we faced up to that industrial scale change in the communications environment and started our journey with social media.
Snow for Northumberland usually meant hundreds of live media calls, an obsession with how much grit was stockpiled, a lack of detailed information for customers and ultimately a shredded corporate reputation. That same year we made the decision to try something different and post our internal updates live to Facebook.
We also agreed to post details of gritting routes, progress updates, road closures, traffic information, travel updates and crucially all school closures by 7am. Then we asked people what they thought of it and encouraged them to post their own updates and views.
Back then it felt dangerous and risky. Everyone would swear and shout at the hated council right? Wrong.
People took a huge pride in the neighbourhoods, seemed to appreciate the transparency, enjoyed real time updates, thanked staff for their efforts and generally helped each other out as an online community.
It worked both ways and as an authority we answered questions as best we could, while the comms team stopped seeing snowfall as the omen of dread that it had once been.
For us that was a watershed moment. The game had changed and we’d gone from simple information transmission to something different. I think it’s a microcosm of the challenges that communicators face in dealing with the seismic shifts the industry has faced in the past few years, and is still facing now.
We’ve by no means cracked it – we still face huge challenges every day – but those 30 days of snow in 2009 fundamentally changed my way of thinking about the job and how we should be doing it.
Since then, we’ve tried to place digital, social, engagement (whatever you want to call it) at the heart of all our communications work whether it’s environmental health or local litter picks. Despite being one of the most rural and remote counties we’ve got around 40,000 people on our profiles across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and Linked-in.
In the last quarter there we 12,074 comments, shares or likes on our Facebook page and another 2,500 mentions on twitter. We also curate a Pinterest page to promote tourism in every town and attraction in Northumberland where community photographers or visitors can post images of their special day out.
Budget cuts meant we had to scrap our hard copy residents magazine so we used social media and email to distribute an online version that’s now been viewed more than 420,000 times.
Being more social has worked for us and helped us through some very difficult times and the public has responded.
Yes, we’ve been criticised when we’ve fallen short – that’s what’s supposed to happen when you’re having a two-way conversation – but crucially we’ve received far more positivity and praise (feel free to check our pages) than during that old one-way information transition mode.
Organisations and teams need to grasp the importance of this brave (but difficult) new world and not just when we’re breaking out the sledges.