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Featured Story | Written by Rich Davies
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New technologies. New mindset. Is the public sector ready to embrace change?

Embracing this new digital landscape is as much a cultural change for public sector comms professionals as it is a change of delivery. Here are four key considerations when building your digital presence.

1 May - 10 min read

The new digital landscape

With a combined user base of over 3.6 billion, social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook boast huge numbers of Millennials and Generation X among their active users, but organisations should also recognise the shift amongst older generations, like Baby Boomers, into this more digital space, moving away from more traditional channels of communication like phone calls, face-to-face and letters. Older generations are now the largest demographic on Facebook, emphasising how effective social is for engaging with them for targeted campaigns and highlighting the need for public sector organisations to embrace this natural channel shift.

This new digital landscape is as much a cultural change for public sector comms professionals as it is a change of delivery. Benefits lie with both the general public and public sector comms teams themselves with regards to time and money saving possibilities, but it also presents opportunities for organisations to develop a sense of personality and individuality. Creating a “brand” around an organisation helps make communication with your audience easier as you can build relevance, creating a more emotional connection between the two. Here are four key considerations when building your digital presence…

Pulling on the purse-strings

After more than a decade of cost-cutting measures in the public sector, many organisations are faced with limited budgets to communicate with the public. The need for more innovative communication strategies has never been higher on the agenda in providing support to frontline services and teams.  

Although not a completely cost-free alternative to more traditional communication methods, social media has proved a useful tool in the UK public sector’s arsenal, allowing direct communication with the public, in real-time. This digital shift brings speed, relevance, personality and allows organisations to achieve more with less. Using channels that are convenient for your target audience, rather than dictating on which channel they should speak to you.

A more digital-focused communications strategy can help occupy the space where local publications like newspapers once sat, bringing communities together to discuss local issues; informing on and promoting successful initiatives.

According to a study carried out by Brunel University, St Helens Council were one of the first councils in the UK to join Twitter back in June 2007 and have continued to use the channel to inform, engage and converse with their residents.

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Keeping a cool head in a crisis

When emergency incidents happen they can take many different forms, be it a security alert or extreme weather, there is the requirement for a quick, flexible and collaborative decision making process and structure which can be called upon in times of crisis. In these situations, public sector comms play a vital part in handling these crises.

The challenge facing public sector organisations such as police forces and other emergency services is to manage the expectations of the public and their desire to receive up-to-the-minute updates on a crisis situation. As well as the expectations on the time frame in which information is delivered by them, public sector comms teams are viewed as a trusted source of information to deliver helpful and informative news, in an open and factual way by their audiences. To achieve this, comms teams need to establish a trusted tone of voice across their communication channels, while managing levels of empathy. Striking a balance between being the trusted source of the latest information while being sensitive to the mood and feeling of a community is key here.

An excellent example of how a public sector comms team utilised it’s social media channels as a crisis management tool is during the Manchester Arena bombings back in 2017. Greater Manchester Police, along with Manchester City Council delivered updates to the public throughout the night, helping to keep them safe, reassured, and informed as well as offering advice to those affected.

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As events unfolded, the local council advised the public to follow updates from the Greater Manchester Police’s Twitter account, with posts being retweeted throughout the duration of the crisis by the public and other local agencies such as Manchester Metrolink, which added further information about the event’s impact on public transport in the city. Social media provides public sector comms teams with the reach to inform a much wider demographic and draws advantages from traditional media to help spread the message throughout a community, in real-time.

Make it a two-way conversation

A modern, digital approach has proven highly effective in aiding public sector organisations’ understanding of the general public’s expectations; seeing the sector adopt new avenues for service delivery and communication. This effectiveness can be measured through things like media monitoring and social listening. For many years now, communication in the public sector has been centred around increasing engagement; a key target surrounding the use of social media.

This conscious channel shift requires public sector social media teams to think about their activities in a more commercial sense, the aim is to change behaviour and get the public to adapt to a more digital comms strategy.  To successfully convey the right content for your audience you will need to combine your knowledge of your audience with a data-driven strategy. Ensure your organisation understands who it needs to engage and what content and channels are best utilised to achieve this; for this, there is a need for an organisation to operate in a more strategic manner to really hone their messaging of who they’re trying to engage and to demonstrate value back to the organisation. Get these things right, and your audience can even start working for you, providing you with user-generated content which adds a sense of personality and authenticity to your communications.

At the very heart of all this is managing the expectations of your community – individuals now expect to have access to the information and resources they require at any given time and an effective social media comms strategy allows public sector organisations to meet this expectation. Public sector comms teams must not only acknowledge this expectation for quick response times from their audience, satisfying this desire for 24/7 information, but efficiently meet this need. A joined-up approach between social channels, departments, and website content has never been more prevalent. Generally, the campaigns which prove most successful are those which are rolled-out across several channels at the same time, promoting the same core message.

Confidence is key

In this context, we are not just talking about the public’s confidence and trust in public sector organisations, but also the confidence of these organisations to express themselves and create a personality for themselves as a “brand”. Social media teams must not be afraid to express a sense of personality in their communications, portraying a playful approach where appropriate and conversely an empathetic tone when required. Gauging and adjusting to the right sentiment on the part of the public sector organisation is often greatly appreciated by the public, helping to build a sense of trust in the organisation.

It is important that public sector organisations “find their voice” within this digital space, developing the appropriate tone to best speak to their community. This tone of voice must be instantly recognisable to audiences but also instil a sense of reassurance and trust.

A major aspect of building public trust in a public sector organisation is embracing the effect employees can have when acting as ambassadors for your organisation. A 2018 Ipsos MORI poll of trusted professionals placed nurses top of the list, followed by doctors and teachers. Police officers were also seen to score well in this poll, with these job roles professing a distinct level of trust among the general public.

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Many public sector organisations would argue that having a workforce of trusted and respected public servants to call on in a digital space is a far more powerful tool than paying vast amounts to work with celebrity influencers. This employee advocacy is something which Stockport NHS Trust utilises to its benefit:

“We have thousands of employees, and our doctors and nurses are very highly trusted, just make sure you have social media policies in place,” says Alicia Custis, Head of Communications at Stockport NHS Foundation Trust.

Gaining internal buy-in from employees is essential in portraying a sense of authenticity to your audience while ensuring that different departments and teams within your public sector organisation present a consistent voice and are all singing from the same hymn sheet!

Social media wields the power to revolutionise the way in which public sector organisations communicate with their communities and is already proving an invaluable tool for comms professionals. Whether the focus for a public sector comms team is to simply save money and move away from often costly more traditional mediums, implement an effective crisis management communication strategy, increase citizen engagement or simply to build the trust their audience have towards them.

Rich loves working with companies to build long term strategies to help meet their goals and he has extensive experience working with fast-moving, innovative tech companies. In his spare time, Rich loves to learn new stuff, try new things and binge-watch great TV & movies - however, despite all this he is still no good at pub quizzes.

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