About 3 months ago I posted that I would be attempting to revive some of old journalism skills by conducting an interview with George Eykyn, DCLG’s Director of Communications.
In the interview, I wanted to learn about the priorities of the department’s e-Newsroom, hear how they’re incorporating new media tools and techniques into their content and gather examples of what they see as examples of best practice from local authorities around the country.
I hope the below is of use to both officers and elected members. Next week I am releasing a report on local government digital communication strategies. In some answers, Mr Eykyn backs up findings or recommendations included in the research – where this happens I have put the text into bold.
In training sessions that I run, Councillors and officers often cite comms team as being the biggest barrier to using online channels for interacting with residents. Why are comms departments so controlling on digital communication? Shouldn’t all people in a council have access to social media?
The decision on allowing employees access to social media such as Facebook at work is a tricky one to get right- it’s more than just allowing staff access, it can be a reputational matter for the organisation as well: individual public servants might comment inappropriately via a social media site, or not be open about their day job when they post.
And we’ve all heard or read stories in the media of employees spending too much time on Facebook or looking at sites they shouldn’t be. However there’s also the fact that most people in the workplace are responsible hard-working adults who can make the right decision on when to work and when to play.
The technical limits of the IT system are also a factor – there may be reasons why an organisation limits access to bandwidth-hungry sites such as YouTube. As more and more websites such as BBC News Interactive stream video, it would be counterproductive to ban access to all sites of interest but some must take priority.
I can’t speak for councils as their policy is a matter for them, but here at DCLG colleagues do have access to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, balanced by clear policy guidance on how and when it should be used.
Do all civil servants in DCLG have access to social media?
All DCLG civil servants with internet access are allowed to visit Twitter and Facebook social media platforms. We have an official departmental Twitter channel (@communitiesUK) which updates our 25,000 followers with news about the Department. It gives links to our news stories and directs people to interesting content on our website.
We are also developing a Facebook page for our Fire Kills marketing campaign to replace its existing stand-alone website.
Our Ministers use Twitter too – notably Grant Shapps, who has 28,000 followers.
Tweets are usually written by one or two members of the communications team. With over 25,500 followers, DCLG now attracts more online followers than the likes of the Department for Health, the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office. Excluding Number 10, DCLG has the third highest number of Twitter followers in Whitehall, just behind the FCO and Treasury.
What role does Twitter play for the Department?
We use Twitter as a means to inform and alert; it’s a way we can get information such as responses to breaking news or an announcement out swiftly to a wide audience. It also helps to drive traffic to our site which gives us greater understanding of who accesses our webpage and what they are interested in.
In future, I hope we’ll use the channel even more, with more of a dialogue developing on hot topics that grab our followers’ attention.
Who are the best local government comms teams? What can other teams learn from them?
The best comms teams – in any area – are those who give their audience what they need quickly and effectively- often for government comms it’s about giving the audience clear information to enable them to make an informed decision. I look for clarity: concise information presented simply or innovatively! The best public sector comms teams have the individual citizen in mind as they design the service they provide.
Are there any initiatives or campaigns that have impressed you recently?
There are lots of interesting and successful campaigns by councils so it would be unfair to single any out. But I was struck during the recent riots at how quickly councils (both those affected and those which weren’t hit by riots) responded online with information for residents about the riots and for recovery, and especially the ‘I love’ campaigns to regain social pride.
What are you doing in DCLG that is different?
We aim to deliver clear information quickly and effectively. I’m a believer in the need for plain English and in using different channels to reach different audiences – the web enables us to do this effectively and complements our more traditional communications.
I am pleased with our use of free online mapping tools to show the impact of Government policies, such as where housing cash will result in new homes, where neighbourhood plans will be piloted and also DCLG’s council ‘transparency timeline’. This highlighted to the public which councils have put their spend data online, and when they did so.
View Neighbourhood Plans Frontrunners- 3rd Wave in a larger map
It’s a good indicator of how the web can present useful information to the public in a more effective format- we got a mention in the Guardian data blog for innovation too, which was encouraging.
What is the strategy behind DCLG’s e-Newsroom?
Our original aim was to create a site for journalists that would supply the latest news, stories, images and other information. Feedback and analysis has suggested the e-Newsroom is visited by journalists, local government practitioners and others – members of the public make up a large proportion of our visitors.
We’re moving towards supplying more news stories (rather than just press notices, which are aimed almost exclusively at journalists), demonstrating what policy means on the ground through increased use of examples and richer content extending beyond press notices.
For example, we offer filmed case studies to show policies in action – like a pub which has been taken over by the local community in North Yorkshire. The e-Newsroom and, in particular, Twitter enable us to respond more promptly to breaking stories and developments – we have to be mindful of propriety and, of course, limited resources.
We have put more emphasis lately on explanatory documents, FAQs and so on, to equip our media and citizen users better with the material they need to understand and re-tell the story in their own way.
We’ve also worked to improve signposting of content through the site: someone may come to us from a tweet, read a press notice or news story, view a video and then choose to visit the (more detailed) DCLG policy webpages on the topic. We want those choices to be easy and well signposted.
Are the ministers supportive of your new ideas? Are they actually contributing new ideas themselves?
Yes. All our Ministers have taken part in video clips to talk about new announcements, and are keen supporters of our new rebuttals page where we can quickly respond to any inaccurate reports in the media. Some of them are also pretty active online themselves; they do a lot in their own name and communicate party-political material (which the Department doesn’t carry) via their own and their party’s networks.
What is the most popular area of the e-Newsroom?
DCLG website and quantitative surveys suggest that the most popular pages in the e-Newsroom are the home page, news stories, press notices and Twitter feed.
Half the visitors to the DCLG website visit the e-Newsroom and half use it more than once a week. More members of the public visit the e-Newsroom (1 in 3) than journalists (1 in 6).
What information are people wanting from your e-Newsroom?
Feedback suggests the majority of users would like to see more stories that demonstrate and illustrate Government policy, not just headline press notices. There’s a continuing demand for more data to be made available. The majority of journalists say they visit the e-Newsroom for DCLG data and for ministerial press notices, speeches and articles.
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