Communicators are placed at the digital crossroads of most authorities, promoting the message but also monitoring twitter and seeing the customer response. They can lead campaigns to get people online and co-ordinate customer and ICT resources so they are used to best effect. And PR is well placed to help the growth agenda by supporting local digital companies to access assistance from the council. These are all proper strategic roles for local authority communication teams.
All this comes as media patterns of consumption are showing a relentless shift away from traditional channels to the smart phone and tablet device. Superfast 4G will drive that take up even further, with speeds of up to five times that possible with 3G. Nottingham will reportedly have 4G by this Christmas.
It is not only the white heat of technology driving digital. The inevitable budget cuts that local government faces after the spending settlement in December are the next major challenge facing the sector and they will be a catalyst to again force communications teams to think more clearly about cost-effective public relations. Part of the answer has to be digital, and how this technology can prove its worth by combining with other corporate services like customer service.
Let me offer you four ideas on how we can do this most effectively.
First, take control of your website and use it as a platform to change people’s behaviour from queuing at council offices to transacting business online. Run a campaign to encourage residents to use online services and information sources, rather than filling out paper forms and calling the council directly. One central London council saw a 13% increase in customer satisfaction once they closed their public counters and boosted their online services.
Second, use social media and blogs as an ongoing consultative tool - but recognise that each community has different rules of engagement. It’s important to listen and learn the rules before participating, read the contributions of others and know what the current conversations are and what people are saying in order to see how we might help. Online engagement should be authentic. It’s vital to make our corrections transparent, issue clarifications, and declare that we have done so rather than editing our content once it has been published. Social networks are tolerant of mistakes and errors - as long as you take responsibility.
Third, use digital communications to put "truth, trust and transparency" at the heart of your communications. Digital is always listening, so it’s easier than ever to scrutinise and pick out inconsistencies and inaccuracies in data and message. Organisations like the Sunlight Foundation in the US are leading the way in making government transparent and accountable by focusing on the digitisation of government data and the creation of tools and web sites to make that data more accessible to the public. This in turn supports the reputation of the authority as a whole
Fourth, beware of the ‘Apple Gap’ and address it. One local authority has discovered from its survey work that there is measurable difference between citizens who use iPhones and iPads to access council services and others. They expect seamless, savvy service. The below-average satisfaction rates with the council of iPad and iPhone users compared to the average suggests that councils have to do even more to fulfil the expectations of this digitally-adept segment of society.
Great digital communications will not work on its own. It has to be supported by good service delivery and be part of a coherent campaign. But organisations are finding that they can move services online and out of the Town Hall, and citizens prefer things this way.
Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council.