John Shewell: Social media is the key to connecting with the public in 2012

2012 promises to be another challenging year for the public sector and the biggest challenge is reaffirming the sector's relevance in the minds of citizens.

John Shewell: Trust staff to take responsibility for using social media
John Shewell: Trust staff to take responsibility for using social media
Local public services are under intense pressure to do more with less, and some authorities are in a quandary over whether to accept the government’s incentive to freeze council tax.

Last week Peterborough City Council decided to reject the government’s offer to fund a freeze in council tax by proposing to put it up by 2.96% and earlier this week Chelmsford District Council said they propose to increase council tax by 2.4%.

Clearly local public finance is proving to be an intractable issue for some councils, but there is an even bigger concern facing local public services – relevance.

At a time when the public purse is being squeezed, local public services must demonstrate the value they bring to the communities and citizens they serve. Failure to do so may result in valuable services being cut without a peep from the public – or worse calls to chop more.

This goes to the heart of reputation management – it is about the raison d’être of local public services and making the connection with citizens.

The bigger challenge is connecting the three interrelated parts of local public service-citizen-innovation in a meaningful way.

This means building understanding of which the starting point is genuine dialogue. Broadcast-style communications will not be sufficient.

Local public services must establish a relationship with their citizens and bring the organisation closer to their communities.

Social media creates the space for meaningful dialogue and the public sector is uniquely placed to connect with the communities and citizens it serves.

One approach is to devolve communications across the organisation. This should be done through a brand strategy that retains an organisation’s corporate identity with clear protocols and guidelines that encourage staff to become ambassadors for the organisation – after all, reputation management should be everyone’s job.

Organisations also need to let go of control. Trust staff to take responsibility for using the technology in the appropriate manner and encourage them to represent the organisation.

As with other media content is king. However, unlike other more traditional forms of media – social media offers people the chance to connect with and shape the content as a debate or discussion progresses. This alone can help break down some of the barriers that have existed with public sector organisations.

As important providers of public services it is now more important than ever to demonstrate the value and relevance of the sector.

Local public services need to get closer to their customers, cultivate meaningful relationships and establish relevance. This is the challenge for local public sector comms.


John Shewell is the head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council and recently wrote ‘Social Media in the Public Sector’ white paper published by DWPub.

   

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