Through Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, town hall communications teams are now fully exposed to the real-time onslaught of public opinion – from constructive debate to acerbic put-downs and, in some cases, just virulent abuse.
The importance of two-way communications taught in PR classes becomes rather more than an academic exercise when you find yourself trying – in Westminster’s case – to convince hundreds of irate tweeters that you are not in fact 'banning' rare burgers.
The electronic maelstrom can put a false claim half way around the world before the truth has got its tweeting boots on. And sometimes by that time the damage is already done.
A challenge for councils is the way we use social media to foster debate on local decisions and issues.
It can be tempting to throw your head in your hands when the TweetDeck is practically taking off with the volume of comments on a particular issue.
So how can we channel that public debate and make use of it? We are developing a prototype LocalSay app – grant-funded by NESTA and delivered in partnership with OTM which will give information on upcoming planning and licensing decisions and enable people to give real-time feedback and kick off a debate with other people in their area.
This, of course, doesn’t replace the statutory consultation process but gives another channel for debate and enables us to build a wider picture of local views. If we don’t find a way to do this it will happen anyway.
And far better for us to go out and seek those views than wait passively for someone who would rather use social media than fill in a form.
But while many councils have proven themselves adept in moving to social media, we have perhaps not been so nimble in mirroring the web’s commercial rise.
By that I mean not basic transactions like paying parking tickets over your local council’s website – these are now expected as standard.
I mean by studying how people shop and transact on the web, and adapting those techniques to the public sector. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
In Westminster, we have a wired population. In January this year, we conducted research which illustrates the point: eight out of ten (81%) of residents access the internet every day, the majority of those for more than an hour.
Just under half of our residents access the web through a smart phone and just under a third use a tablet device of some kind. Our residents also access the web through the television, games console or e-readers like Kindle.
So, our average resident is no digital slouch. The challenge for us is how we present services to them in an attractive and appealing way, using the kind of web services they are obviously familiar with.
Our first foray at the end of last year was via a microsite branded Value for Money Friday (VFM Friday). The council’s communications team worked with local businesses to compile a series of offers – both from the council and our partners – that we could promote via twitter, Facebook and our own dedicated site.
In some cases, we have borrowed the approach of aggregation sites like Groupon – once we get enough takers for a language class, for example, within a certain time limit, then that deal has gone.
The feedback and take-up so far has been positive and from being a weekly promotion, the site has now morphed into CitySave, a portal of offers for Westminster residents. As well as commercial offers, we use the site to bring to our residents’ attention some council services they may not know about – for example the availability of a free legal advice session at Westminster Reference Library.
However, there is an important mission here beyond the council setting up some kind of electronic shopping mall. This is what you could call consumer localism; using our civic leadership role to promote local traders.
Councils represent an increasingly tech-savvy population. Time then for us to catch-up.
Julia Corkey is assistant director of communications and strategy, Westminster City Council.