Spin doctors and social media: Can public bodies be trusted to tell it straight?

Harsh but true … but how many public bodies are getting social all wrong?

There’s a theory, normally floated by press officers at organisations who feel they get a raw deal from the the local Press that they don’t actually need the local press any more.

The theory goes that, well, no-one reads local newspapers any more so they don’t have much impact and, well, there’s social media. We’ll talk to people directly! We’re the council/police/hospital, people trust us. And so on.

Previously, that theory didn’t involve social media, it was the rationale for creating council newspapers, with the added benefit of being able to spend tens of thousands of pounds of council advertising budget on getting a one-sided message across.

Now, however, that theory is bust. Reporters who previously saw their stories read by a diminishing number of newspaper readers now know the number reading them online is going up by the day. A story which begins life in a local newsroom can go across the country within minutes. Tesco knows this – which is why its marketing director tells his teams to take queries from local journalists seriously.

Social media is a two-way street for journalists. It makes it easier to get past the myriad of press relation regulations local public organisations have in place,  but it also gives those public bodies the chance to speak to people directly.

The question I want to pose is this:  Is that access to the public being abused?

At the Revival of Local Journalism Conference last week, the news editor of BBC Nottingham told a story about how Nottingham County Council sought to manage the story of its proposed new visitor centre in Sherwood Forest:

Released at 10.10am on a Friday – the Nottingham Post is now an overnight publication, the last main news show of the week had finished on BBC Radio Nottingham – it seems innocuous enough.

But a quick glance of the Nottingham Post’s coverage of the story shows this was far from a simple ‘new partner search.’ It was actually an admission that a plan which had been talked about for a decade was now being delayed again after problems the existing partner. The £13m tourist attraction had been big news and a lot of work had gone on on the council’s side.

The council’s tweet was, at best, spin. But if local public organisations are going to try and push the news direct to the public, then surely there should come a responsibility to ensure the message on social media gives the public the full story.

It’s not the only such example I could cite. Take Lancashire County Council, my local council, which put this out on Twitter:

It was actually a story about the county council was pulling out of running a company with BT, bringing hundreds of staff back in house and asking BT to provide other services with a new company entirely owned by the private sector. This was all on the back of one heck of a political storm over the awarding of a contract to the now axed council/BT company with claims that the company was getting special treatment in the tendering process. The county council’s chief executive agreed to leave ‘by mutual consent’ after an investigation was launched into the claims. The Lancashire Evening Post has the full story here.

At least the press release the Nottingham County Council tweet linked to was easy to follow and understand. I suspect not even those involved in the BT/LCC comings and goings could understand this.

Now lets look at my local hospital trust, East Lancashire Hospital Trust. Its Twitter feed has things like this quite often:

Now, I know from personal experience you can’t fault the birth facilities at this Trust. But I also know that in the eyes of the Government, East Lancashire Hospitals Trust has serious problems, and was talked about in the same breath as Mid Staffs Hospital last year. And there aren’t many signs of the not-so-positive feedback being shared on the ELHT Twitter feed.

So social media is being used to spin out a view of the world which organisations want to promote, so what?

There are two reasons to be concerned. The first is the seemingly constant push by local government to get the rules governing the publishing of public notices in newspapers lifted. Currently, cost is the favoured argument, and in the past it has been around being able to get the information out, for less, on social media. Public notices are there to provide information which people affected may wish to respond to.

Often, councils are the interested parties in these notices. Using some of the money spent on public notices to drive up engagement to their social media spin accounts seems very worrying indeed. This isn’t a defence of the status quo of what critics call a ‘subsidy’ on local newspapers, but a belief that the media has more interest in content reaching a wider audience than a council or other public body – and that’s healthy for democracy.

The second is that there are many examples of public bodies trying to act as a publisher. Reporters I speak to tell me of police forces who respond to requests for information by putting out articles on their own sites, or who refuse to release pictures for most wanted galleries online because they want to drive people to their own sites. Another regularly files court reports of cases it wants people to know about – but rarely in the same spirit you’d see a court report in a newspaper.

I hear of councils which store up news stories to publish on their sites first, or which can hit their newspapers first so that the local Press can’t ever be first with a balanced version of events. Public bodies aren’t there to be publishers, they are there to deliver public services.

It’s also worth noting that there are many public bodies who find ways to make social media useful. One which comes to mind straight away is Blackburn With Darwen Council with its Winter page which swings into action with updates whenever there is bad weather. Greater Manchester Police has been top class in encouraging police officers to tweet around the clock, which turns out to be handy for the media too.

But there are far too many examples of public bodies using social media to spin their version of events – abusing the social media user in the process.Whether the public sector likes it or not, local media organisations help to hold public bodies to account.

I write this post for two reasons. The first is because I believe tight regulations on how social media is used by public bodies are essential. Experimentation is fine, but using social media as direct channel of spin is wrong.

The second is because I believe if there are press managers out there convincing their bosses they can bypass the pesky media by speaking directly on social media, they’re doing their organisation a dis-service. As audience data shows, local media is noisier than ever before, reaching far more people than it ever has done.

Publishers now live or die by their ability to connect with the public, it’s the reason for being. For public organisations, social media is a means to an end. Trying to cut out the middle man will only end badly for public bodies that try to do that – the audience will, and indeed does, see right through it.

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3 comments

  1. Unh! You speak as if access to me is some right that only hacks have. You don’t.

    It’s really good news that government communicates directly with us. It means you’re no longer spiking stuff which we might have wanted to know or flipping it for the sake of a headline. I can find what I need and I can compare what the public service says with what the journalist said they said. Good journalists will still be useful in holding power to account. But public bodies sharing useful public information directly with the public – as a citizen I reckon you should be celebrating that.

    1. Hi Nick. If it’s sharing information without the gloss and spin then yes, I would celebrate it. But if we are to believe the mantra that ‘we are all publishers now’ then surely those who are funded by the public purse should ensure they are being straight, balanced and fair with those who pay their taxes.

      I see it like this: Anyone who can build up an audience around their content has access to that audience. That can be a ‘big media’ website as much as a hyperlocal. It can also be public bodies too, but if that audience is going to mean anything in the long term to that public body, they need to respect that audience, just as any other publisher has to.

  2. Most often, it’s movie stars and sports superstars who have a very high social value. A short-cut to assuming the persona of someone with a high social value is to simply pretend that you’re James Bond, Angelina Jolie or the hottest football, baseball or basketball star at the moment. Silly as it may sound, doing this gets your brain into the right mode to make you aware of how you behave differently than normal. It can be useful for being more conscious of your behavior. However, you need to have a deeper understanding of social value to be able to implement it as a permanent part of your personality. High social value is most often attractive, but not always. In this text, I will explain why …
    If you would like to read more about high social value, you can access to my blog on: http://worldofinnovations.net/2014/06/28/4-secrets-of-people-with-high-social-value/

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