Empowering Communities

Empowering Communities

Social media networks are helping citizens influence both their local communities and decision makers.

Client: RightNow Technologies
Assignment: Social Media in local government – White Paper

(Commissioned by RightNow Technologies, now owned by Oracle.)

In the Middle Ages, the town hall was the centre of public life and an ever-present symbol of government for an often riotous populace.

The citizens of today have thankfully adopted more pacific forms of protest while their power to influence decisions affecting their local community is greater than ever before.

Social media networks are the latest addition to the armoury of weapons that citizens have at their disposal to influence communities and decision makers.

Using these new communications tools, citizens can share their opinions with a large audience and bring about levels of change once reserved for a privileged few in traditional media.

But the downside is that seemingly trivial issues can snowball into major disputes, achieving an importance in the public eye that would have been unlikely a few years ago.

A tweet about a mundane issue apparently affecting only a few can easily end up becoming headline news in a local newspaper.

Nevertheless, this new and disruptive world of social media can also be harnessed to your advantage.

By monitoring the conversations taking place in social media, councils can create their own “early warning system” to help detect potential citizen unrest.

Minor complaints about poor service can thus be nipped in the bud, so preventing them escalating into major issues that test the organisation’s capacity of response and tie up scarce resources.

Thanks to the power of social media, minor irritations need not turn into major revolts.

The Digital Soap Box:

 Traditional media such as newspapers or TV broadcasts are essentially one-way communications channels available to a privileged few.

By contrast, social media use the interactive capabilities of the internet to allow people to talk to other people, creating in effect a digital soap-box.

Blogs were the first technology to show the power of social media to democratise information and encourage interaction.

Just as the speakers in Hyde Park Corner clamor for feedback from the crowd, so owners of blogs seek to build a virtual “buzz” using feedback, comments, links and ratings.

Blogs were quickly followed by podcasts, video sharing sites like YouTube and then social networking sites like Facebook and Linked In, which allow anyone to create online communities of colleagues, class mates or like-minded individuals.

The most recent and, in many ways, most radical addition to the social networking scene, is micro-blogging, of which Twitter is by far the best known example.

Twitter is often described as blogging for the text-messaging generation, but it is not just for kids: adults aged 35-49 make up the largest user group.

Using short text-based posts called tweets, Twitter users keep their circle of friends or followers continually informed of their movements or thoughts via posts on the Twitter website or by SMS messages.

While some of its content can seem pointless or arcane to non-followers, Twitter has evolved into a powerful public communications channel that breaks news and has already proven its worth in disasters and emergencies.

Citizen journalists and grassroots activists were the first to wake up to the potential of Twitter, and now many businesses, public bodies and politicians are using tweets to communicate with their respective audiences.

Businesses Learn To Listen:

 Citizens today are constantly bombarded with marketing messages and even internet advertising is starting to lose some of its novelty value.

Businesses are excited about social media because they represent a fresh approach to the age-old problem of engaging the consumer.

Twitter, FaceBook and other social technologies constitute a radically different type of media in which people are trying to talk to somebody rather than passively absorb information or be entertained.

These online conversations create unique opportunities for businesses but also some particular challenges because the ground rules are still being defined. Most consumers would find it acceptable — if not necessarily interesting — for the chief executive’s blog on a corporate website to extol the virtues of the company’s products.

But is this type of self-promotion equally acceptable on Twitter? British Airways thinks so. Its Twitter account pumps out last-minute flight deals and details of new routes.

BA uses both FaceBook and Twitter to engage with customers. So, if you tweet BA with an enquiry, you’ll get a friendly reply. But is clear the main purpose of both sites is to funnel customers to the BA website.

Businesses that look on social media as primarily a low-cost form of advertising may be missing out on their full potential.

That’s because the greatest value, and one that is to date largely untapped, lies in enabling businesses to listen to the online conversations taking place about their company, products and people.

Welcome To The Digital Community:

With 80 per cent of the British population using the internet regularly, citizens expect the public organizations and institutions they deal with to have a strong presence online.

Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are increasingly seen as an integral part of that online presence and their use is growing fast — and not just in central government. Newcastle City Council’s Twitter account is followed by more than 2,600 people.

Recent research reveals that 31 per cent of UK local governments have a Twitter account and 11 per cent are on Facebook. As well as central government departments, many Members of Parliament and a growing number of individual councilors are using social media.

Twitter is most often used as an extension of council’s existing website, announcing upcoming local events, job vacancies and other content whose details can be found on the main website or third-party sites.

But public organizations must remember that Twitter is a two-way communications medium. Those that see Twitter as essentially a broadcast channel — for sending rather than receiving — are likely to be disappointing by the results.

By opening their ears to the outside world via Twitter, public agencies encourage citizens and other stakeholders to participate in the decision-making process and they can get up-to-the-minute feedback on issues such as service delivery.

Sometimes, of course, that feedback is likely to take the form of a complaint. So staff that represent the council online must be given sufficient autonomy to enable them to represent their council’s views in an ongoing dialogue or conversation with stakeholders.

Twitter is an informal medium and a key strength is that it gives seemingly faceless public bodies a “human” voice. Nevertheless, formal procedures must be put in place to ensure information given via Twitter is consistent with that on other channels and that complaints do not go ignored, referring the citizen to more appropriate channels, if necessary.

Often social media initiatives are developed in isolation. But by integrating social media into existing customer relationship management and call centre systems, disgruntled citizens are more likely to get swift resolution of their issue or complaint.

And speed is particularly important in this era of social media. A disgruntled tweet about a seemingly small issue, if not resolved quickly, may get picked up and “re-tweeted” to a much broader audience that could include politicians, journalists and other opinion formers.

But it would be a mistake to see Twitter as simply a high-tech complaints box.

By monitoring the conversations taking place in social media channels, councils can get a much clearer picture of the issues that most affect citizens and this feedback can help shape policies.


Today’s citizens are discovering how social technologies can empower their conversations and reach a much wider and influential audience of listeners and opinion formers.

Businesses were quick to spot the potential of these grassroots technologies and many commercial organisations are now actively using social media to shape and influence their relations with customers.

The use of social media in the public arena is only just being explored.  Nevertheless, it is already clear that the technology has the potential to capture and transform citizens’ experiences of service delivery, as well as act as catalyst for far-reaching change.

Do you know what your citizens are saying about you?

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