Westco’s own Elinor Firth, Head of Communications at Richmond Borough Council, tells us about her approach to Social Media in an increasingly digital environment.
How do Councils engage on social media?
Whilst all councils have now embraced the need to use social media to engage and inform residents – which is both fantastic and essential, I am a firm believer that social media is primarily about people and not organisations. Communications teams have strategies and plans on how best to use Twitter/Facebook/ Instagram, etc. and we all read industry blogs and try to stay ahead of the next social media tool in the pipeline, but the key thing to remember is that we are still corporate organisations. We are communications specialists hiding behind a ‘handle’. We are safe in the knowledge that @resident doesn’t know what @pressofficer looks like. Some organisations do provide the first names of their staff in their posts, but for councils, is it really appropriate for @Councilspokesman to suddenly become ‘Sarah from Sutton’ or ‘Bill from Brighton’? We are not the decision makers or policy designers and it’s our job to both represent and present professionally. The key to real engagement is showing that councils are, first and foremost, listening organisations, who want to work with communities to shape future policy. And, for those whoarepublic facing, it’s important for them to be engaging on social media platforms in the same way that they would do on the door step.
Is Social Media appropriate for Councillors?
When it comes to the Councillors themselves, it’s more than appropriate, it’s vital. Many Councillors across the country are already embracing this technology. We have Leaders’ Tweeting, Cabinet Members ‘instragramming’ and ward Councillors blogging. But, as more and more people turn to social media to find out their news, have their say and make their views known, we need to make sure our Councillors are equipped to respond. It is my view that it is no longer an option for Councillors to ignore social media. Working with our partners atTransmute, we have seen the importance of social media engagement first-hand thanks to the design and implementation of a social media training course for Councillors, which we tested with Cabinet Members atRichmond Council.
What did the training involve & did it work?
As always, we try to design training courses around the needs of a particular group and I think it is fair to say that the social media usage of Cabinet Members at Richmond Council is mixed. We have some members who are not on social media at all, others who are just there to watch, some simply re-tweet and some who try to tweet occasionally. Part of what I wanted the training to achieve was to give them all a basic introduction to social media. Start at the beginning. Why should a Councillor use social media? How can social media benefit the work of Councillors and support the work of the council? So, we designed a training package that looked at the basics – but was also very practical. We looked at hashtags, images, re-tweeting, who to follow, good practice and the important question – what happens when people are negative? One of the central things we wanted to demonstrate was that social channels are a great way to show personality – show who Councillors really are and make them more relatable and transparent. Councillors are parents, grandparents, students, have other jobs, pets, hobbies – they are real people that have real life experience, and this is valuable when you’re vying to represent residents. Social media gives Councillors a platform on which to start having meaningful conversations with residents.
Sounds great in theory, how did it work in practice?
The feedback was really good! Attendees felt that the training was informative and helpful and nearly all of them have asked for further 1:1 support to help them build their profiles. As with all these things, the proof will be in the pudding and it is still early days. That said, provided the correct training is given, a social media presence is undeniably more vital than ever, and the benefits work both ways. Not only do residents benefit from a more personal connection with their Councillors, the Councillors themselves get to know more about their public and the issues that really interest and concern them.
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