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It's not all doom and gloom for the public sector - we have social media!

Source: Public Sector Executive Jan/Feb 2012

Daryl Willcox, chairman of media and communications company DWPub, discusses its new white paper on the public sector’s use of social media, written by Brighton & Hove City Council’s communications chief, John Shewell.

Public sector organisations are feeling the pinch and with more budgets being squeezed, the Government has no plans to loosen its belt any time soon.

But it’s not all bad. Tough times are forcing people to use innovative ways to communicate. Traditional forms of communication are subsiding and making way for social media. This is allowing organisations to get closer to their audiences than they’ve ever been before.

At DWPub we recently published a new white paper called ‘Social media in the public sector’. It’s written by John Shewell, head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council, and it looks at how public sector organisations are using social media to connect with audiences. It includes case studies from the Department of Health, NHS and Greater Manchester Police and is aimed at all organisations in the public sector wanting to use social media to connect with their audience.

John Shewell writes about Brighton & Hove City Council’s use of social media. This includes the UK’s first online mapping of a local community in 2009, when the council wanted to find out who its key online influencers were. The results found that large groups of residents were talking about Brighton & Hove, mostly on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Bebo. The research found that some comments were negative – if the council chose not to get involved and allowed the negative feeling to grow, it could have damaged its reputation. Research enabled the council to find out what was being said about Brighton & Hove and participate in these conversations.

The white paper shows that some public sector organisations are taking social media seriously and achieving great results. Not only are they increasing their online audience but they are also engaging with them in a two-way conversation.

The NHS is a good example of this. Every Wednesday at 8pm people join in a conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #nhssm. Here they can discuss health issues, ask questions and share experiences. This arrangement brings the NHS and its audience together by allowing people to voice their opinions and offer help and support. The weekly chats are then put on a blog for people to read at a later stage. The chats attract around 30 participants each time, with hundreds more catching-up with it on the blog.

The white paper also looks at how social media can help in crisis situations such as the London riots and big national events, like Bonfire Night.

London Fire Brigade (LFB) wanted to highlight the dangers of Bonfire Night and get its message across about staying safe. It did this by tweeting about every fire its crews were called out to on 5 November 2011. This resulted in a big drop in fire callouts that evening. Not only did LFB successfully make an impact on Bonfire Night, it increased Twitter followers by 25%. This shows the public welcomed its message and was genuinely interested in what it had to say.

The case studies in the white paper show that many public sector organisations are understanding the point of social media and benefiting from it. But not everyone has been so quick to adopt it. Many public bodies are still only using traditional forms of communication and until they realise the need to move with the times, they will miss out on many opportunities to get closer to their communities.

The public sector is having a hard time at the moment, but instead of waiting for the situation to change, organisations need to find new ways of doing things. For communication the answer appears to be simple – social media.

Social media in the public sector is part of a series of whitepapers published on whitepapers which appear as practical ‘how-to’ guides.

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