Sunday 3 April 2011

Telling the truth

Some people think Blackburn is a bit of a trailblazer on the social media side of things. I'd much rather people looked to Kirklees when handing out such accolades.

However, what I do think I can comment on, what I do think I am qualified to comment on, is the state of social media in local government, even if my view is only limited to Twitter and to my own organisation.

So I'm going to tell you how I see it, because I am a little tired of reading things from people who are commenting on local government and social media and wondering which planet they're on.

Believe me when I say, the conversation absolutely cannot move on from the tools. At some levels it can. And in some Departments within the organisation, it can. But it is very easy when you spend 24/7 in the padded cell of the social media bubble to think everyone is on the same page as you. They are not. There is, at the moment, perhaps one person per Department in our organisation who is what you might call a 'social media champion'. Some of them know Twitter, and some of them know Facebook. Some of them know why we need to be doing what we're doing and not how and some vice versa.

There needs to be some cohesion and that's what our Department is trying to do. And we're succeeding. Our Corporate Communications Manager and I spent Friday morning talking to some Directors about social media. About the tools and the uses, the cost savings and the pay offs. As a result, the carebears are going on tour around the rest of the organisation. But this is where we are. The ball is running down the hill, it's gathering moss but it sure as hell aint at the bottom as yet.

If we don't keep teaching people about the tools, if we assume everyone knows how to use the tools, we are doing a dangerous thing. In Blackburn, the massive majority of over 50's are not on Facebook. Look at your management teams. Ask them if they are. You will find they are not, that their daughters and nieces are, that they use it to chat, but that they are not. They do not understand why you should use it for business, they do not yet know the applications which it can be put to use for. It is our job to tell them. It is our job to continue to highlight the cost savings and the internal communication opportunities at a time when both those things are absolutely crucial for the survival of our sector.

The battle is not won. 'Everyone' does not understand social media in local government. Go on a hunt for case studies. Go on a hunt for success stories. We cannot abandon our efforts to teach people the tools either - email had one tool needed to utilise it - and we all can still quote examples, I'm sure of those in recent memory who still didn't quite manage to get their heads around it. Social media is email x 10 - the skill sets will be naturally acquired by some, but for many it will require simple basic tuition, some in groups and some on a 1-2-1 basis.

We are in danger of having the digital inclusion arguments within our own organisations. Make no mistake, the implications for leaving anyone within our stripped down organisations at the bus stop as this bus pulls away are far bigger than they were with email communication. The rules are different, the pace of the world is different, we must absorb Public Health responsibilities and all the social marketing and communications implications of that - we must ensure that the staff that we are left with are ably and adequately equipped to do business.

We are not businesses. We will not be able to provide the service we provide as well as we should if we switch our focus to shareholders instead of stakeholders. But ignoring the training and comprehension needs of our workforces, of our senior management teams, is simply not an option.


  1. A very good post. We need to teach people about the tools, but we also need to reassure them that we won't chop their arms and legs off if they make a tiny mistake along the way.

    What holds some organisations up is the fear that senior managers have of these tools. They instil that fear in others via their rules and strict policies.

  2. I like this very much, because it's human, and compassionate, and it sticks to a topic and explains it so other people have a chance of 1) understanding you and 2) deciding to join in and help you.

    Please do not be afraid of having a digital inclusion discussion within your own organisation. The best thing about social media tools is, once you understand them, they become an astonishingly quick and cheap way of doing things that are really good. The important thing, though, is the 'really good' part. If you want old-aged pensioners to get a flu jab, you won't be able to find 'em on Facebook. But you can find teenagers, and say 'are you bothered about your Nan? Does she get sick in the winter? Have a word with her, please. Tell her about da da da'.

    This is only one example. It's a community service. What we care about (which maybe business doesn't) is social outcomes in familiies and communities. We are talking to people who live together, go to school together, work together, love one another, have fights, give one anothr colds, get one another pregnant and so on.

    Please, anyone who has the power, have the conversation in your organisation about how you can you use these new tools to reach people and give them information, but also touch them emotionally, in down to earth ways, like a big organisation couldn't do before.

    In a year when we're being pushed to do more with less, it's a very kind and considerate and focused thing to do. Social media in local communities is truly cheap and cheerful.