On average, people spend about 2 hours a day on social media: some need it for work, others – to relax and procrastinate, some follow the news. 70% of my newsfeed content is news published by city councils, because that’s part of my work – to follow what is going on in Ukrainian cities to understand whether they are transparent and accountable in their activity.
Looking at hundreds of city council websites and dozens of official city pages on Facebook, I kept thinking about the communications of local self-government authorities – how they should be understandable for users yet official, informative and truthful, not exclusively positive.
I believe representative democracy has one big advantage in terms of communications – the citizens hear their voices in what the authorities say. As a community, we choose our representatives to speak on our behalf. Modern communication technologies allow us to express our opinion in more ways than ever: we can call officials or send them emails, leave comments on our or their Facebook pages, collect signatures under online petitions etc.
But communication is a two-way process, and just like the authorities need to hear their community, the citizens need to see the results of the authorities’ work, especially when we speak about the local level. The citizens must understand and be able to measure the effectiveness of politicians elected at the local level. However, fewer than 7% of citizens use websites of their city councils. So how can city councils organize effective communication with the communities they represent?
70% of my newsfeed content is news published by city councils, because that’s part of my work – to follow what is going on in Ukrainian cities to understand whether they are transparent and accountable in their activity.
The first question you need to ask yourself is why. What do you want to achieve through communication? Share the city council achievements? Tell the latest news? Establish relations with the community and make joint decisions? Promote the city brand and engage investors? Do you do it just because everyone does it? Whatever the answer, it is important that you be honest with yourself. You don’t have to tell anyone, but everything the city council does with its communications must serve that main communication objective.
Who is your target audience? Good news or bad news, there is no perfect formula for communications. However, there are some important rules, and one of them is do not try to communicate with everyone at the same time. Study your audience, define a few target groups. One of them can be, for instance, mothers with children under 6. How old are those moms? Where do they go most often? Where do they find information and with whom do they share it? What are they interested in? What offer that I have can be interesting for this target group? Each of the target groups can be named and provided with a short description which would answer the aforementioned questions.
The more communication channels, the better.
I will not dwell on the city website – it is understandable from get-go. All news, announcements and decisions must be published in time. Let’s talk about some less trivial things.
Social media are a key communication channel for medium and large cities.
Recently, the way we use social networks has changed and provides us with an opportunity to speak with our target audience directly. Social media are not just websites for catching up with friends. Now they are also the source of the news, a tool for event planning, a store and anything else. How can local authorities use it? You can talk to your community, and it can talk to you. It makes you more accessible to the public.
Make friends with Facebook, finally. Write about at least the most important events and news in the city on the Facebook page. If you don’t know what to write, you can find a lot of resources with post ideas and content plans online, for instance, this one. Watch the feedback from the readers and publish things they find the most interesting. Did your post about roads get the most likes? Write about it some more.
Make sure to track comments on your page and answer them – in a concise, friendly manner. Make sure to pay attention when people tag your page, or the mayor or other key officials in their posts or comments.
Always be prepared and rational. Today, anyone can become influential in the world of social media. It can be a random person whose comments under your post get the most likes. You have to understand that, as an authority representative, you must use only proven facts, avoid negative emotions etc. Focus on constructive dialogue and do not be afraid to admit your mistakes if any.
Provided you have the resources, you can use Twitter to inform on urgent events – for instance, road maintenance and infrastructure changes. You can use a Facebook or Telegram chat bot which, for instance, will help with using certain services or preparing documentation – young people will be happy. Even if not everyone starts using the service immediately, it is a great opportunity to show that you use all channels to be heard and to facilitate citizens’ lives.
Even though Facebook is as widespread as it is now, local media must remain your key partners. The crucial word here is “partners,” as opposed to broadcasters of your opinion. Nobody likes being fooled, so it is important that the media should perceive the information provided by you objectively.
Social media are not just websites for catching up with friends. Now they are also the source of the news, a tool for event planning, a store and anything else. How can local authorities use it? You can talk to your community, and it can talk to you. It makes you more accessible to the public.
Engage. And then engage again.
Be active in your communication on social media. Introduce website chat, respond to emails you receive. Remind the audience about you with monthly newsletters, text messages and other means of communication and maintain a database of audience – then, it will never be a problem to find out the public opinion or tell about the participatory budget competition.
Meet the community offline.
There are many ways to hear out the citizens – from public hearings to community meetings. Interaction in real life remains important. The walls between civil servants and the people they serve may be torn down at a joint seminar or a meeting over coffee with local activists or journalists.
If the authorities consult the public and make joint decisions, it will be more likely that the local politics will be based on citizens’ real needs. Besides, public participation may be an effective solution to “democratic deficiency”: low election turnout, general political apathy, skepticism towards democratic values and procedures. In this context, it is highly important that the local authorities should be transparent and accountable, so the public would have access to all the necessary information, and it could serve as the basis for building trust.
What does transparency have to do with it?
Due to widespread Internet and social media use, communications have become a tool of transparency and accountability. Everything can now be found online, there is an opportunity to ask questions publicly. Local self-government authorities can use this to become more transparent by publishing up-to-date, relevant information.
To sum up
The bad news is that there is no single communications strategy for local self-government authorities. The specifics will always be different depending on the region, communication channels and your target audience. The good news is that if you search for new strategies, practice and analyze your results, you can do it.