CommsCamp15 – engagement using WhatsApp

WhatsApp logo - a green circle with a white speech bubble design and a white phone icon in the middle, WhatsApp written underneath

This session was led by Geoff Coleman who can be found on Twitter @ColeBagski

  • Birmingham City Council (BCC) trialled using WhatsApp during the 2015 General and Local Elections
  • people were encouraged to sign-up to receive information throughout the elections
  • bought a £30 pay as you go Android phone, loaded WhatsApp and synced it to work desktop PC using WhatsApp Web, no cost apart for this as long as the phone is linked to a wifi network
  • used desktop WhatsApp Broadcast lists (up to 256 people per list) which act like an email blind carbon copy list – everyone on the list can see what you’ve sent out but not who else has received it, individuals can also send back messages to the broadcaster and no-one else will see them
  • WhatsApp can be a little shaky so less suitable for time-sensitive news
  • if you wanted everyone to see all of the messages back and forth you could use the group chat function instead, but this would make everyone’s details available – perhaps best for discrete internal groups with clear parameters
  • BCC asked local online influencer to help spread the word as well as using their own channels
  • just under 600 people signed up to the service – how to opt out was also made clear and easy- and attracted a younger profile than other social media audiences who weren’t necessarily following the Council’s Twitter or Facebook accounts
  • as it was an opt-in service, the majority of interactions were polite and productive, with good inquiries that help shape content, as interactions are not public less trolling or showboating as there’s no external audience
  • the BCC team sent out information and updates using text, video and graphics as well as updates from the election count as quickly as possible – hard to keep up on any channel when results are coming in thick and fast though
  • after the election users were asked for feedback which was positive overall
  • had support from chief executive Mark Rogers who was filmed to get across key messages – videos were short, shot on an iPhone and edited in iMovie
  • a few people did try to call or text the WhatsApp phone but were helped to sign up to the service
  • using WhatsApp did create more work over the election campaign but it was high quality engagement
  • which other services could use WhatsApp and deliver added value to publics? Suggestions included:
    • roadworks
    • arts and culture updates
    • adoption and fostering groups to put people in touch with each other and to share news and advice
    • virtual focus groups allowing people to contribute in a group setting but without the dynamics of a face-to-face group where quieter people can be overwhelmed
    • community forums and discussions
    • groups such as tenants and sheltered housing residents
    • first responder groups in an emergency or to potentially ask the public for incoming information
  • the application works well for niche campaigns, wouldn’t work as well for time-sensitive news – if you’re interested in X sign up here and we’ll send you Y as and when
  • Project WIP at Shropshire County Council has trialled using WhatsApp for residents to contact Councillors
  • are there other social messaging apps that could be used? Kik, Snapchat and YikYak were all mentioned but “why would you want to go into that space and would you be welcomed?” was a point made by one delegate

Image: downloaded from the WhatsApp media library


Birmingham Civic Dashboard

Car dashboard lit up at nightThe last of three presentations at #Brewcamp on 6 October was about the just-launched Birmingham City Council Civic Dashboard by @siwhitehouse also blogging here

Here’s what the council’s news release says:

Birmingham City Council and local residents can now work more closely together to discuss issues and identify trends in the community through a brand new web tool.

The ‘Birmingham Civic Dashboard’ allows residents to see local issues reported to the council –  such as housing repairs and anti-social behaviour – on an online interactive map.

Every day, the application takes live data from the city’s Customer First contact database and shows trends on the map, allowing both the council and residents to identify ‘hotspot’ areas where issues are common or recurring.

In turn residents can comment on the trends that emerge over time, giving an on-the-ground perspective on particular issues.  This is the first time that a UK council has put its service request data online in this way.

The pilot website is part of ‘Make it Local’, a pioneering project run by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA).  The Birmingham Civic Dashboard was developed on behalf of the council by Digital Birmingham and digital production company Mudlark, who together make up one of four teams across the country taking part in the programme.

You can read the rest of the release here

Just from my initial pokings around the site, it’s great to see so much data presented in an easy to use way. There’s no doubt that it will be useful for communities, councillors and officers alike. From a council-nerd point of view, I found it really interesting to see the breakdown of just how residents are contacting the council, with phone still the most popular way for people get in touch.

The project had a relatively small budget and was a public sector/private developer collaboration. Lessons have already been learned for application to later stages of the project.

Next steps are to see how the data is used, how people come back and the questions they ask. Plans are afoot to get people together who are already interested in their area and talk with them about it.

And the Dashboard doesn’t even show the entire level of contact to Birmingham City Council – only those logged on the Contact Centre content management system. People who have visited the website and self-served don’t show up – so real numbers will be even higher.

Definitely a project to watch.

Links: Bournville Village Blog post about the Dashboard (via @pigsonthewing)

Creative Commons: Project 365: April 28 by cosmicautumn on Flickr

Connecting with councils

Statue of a girl holding her hands to her earsThis was the first of three topics at #Brewcamp on 6 October, led by Nicky Getgood – @getgood plus Getgood Guide and Digbeth is Good

Nicky told us about her work with the Digbeth Residents’ Association and the frustrations involved in trying to engage with her local council. Lessons were:

  • local groups want a relationship with their council
  • groups should be included in big consultation projects, not left to find out about events and information by accident
  • Plain English information is vital if you want good feedback
  • if you advertise an event, make sure it goes ahead or the cancellation is well publicised – one roadshow event didn’t go ahead due to a photoshoot being scheduled instead. Local people didn’t know, went along and felt stood-up
  • press offices can’t afford to ignore bloggers and local interest groups – after being fobbed off a number of times, Nicky resorted to an FOI request. Bloggers have niche and often important audiences, engage with them
  • Councillors should reply to emails – in one case, of three councillors being contacted only one replied and that was to forward the email to a council officer. Who didn’t reply
  • Councils should develop ways for local groups to access funding, signposting and support for grassroots ideas and projects – frustrating for people to be constantly knocked-back
  • when community posts are deleted or left unfilled, groups who have worked with the officers in those posts need to be informed and given new contacts where possible.

In contrast, the Association’s relationship with the Police is good. Representatives tend to go to meetings and lines of communication are open. Shows it can be done.

Chat after Nicky’s talk centred on positive ways that local groups can try to engage with their Council. Requesting a meeting with the Mayor/Chairman, approaching officers and Councillors through different channels and doing everything with a positive attitude were all cited.

Creative commons: What’s on your mind? by Carol VanHook on Flickr

Crisis comms in a digital age

LIttle boy standing by computerWith the Fox News Twitter account hacked earlier this month, and the compromising of The Sun’s website last night, have you updated your crisis comms planning for the digital age?


The Fox News Twitter account was hacked over the 4th July holiday weekend. Tweets sent by hackers claimed that President Obama had been assasinated. Here’s the New York Times coverage

Much of the criticism of Fox News focused on the slowness of their response – the tweets were up for 10 hours – and the lack of explanation on their website about what was happening and why.

David Meerman Scott sums up lessons to learn here

Twitter also has clear advice on what steps to take if your account has been compromised if you can still log in and if you can’t

What plans do you have in place if your corporate Twitter account/s are compromised? And have you asked your Councillors and staff who tweet to consider the same thing?


The Guardian reports that last night saw “apparently the first hack of a major UK newspaper’s website.” with a group called LulzSec claiming to have infiltrated The Sun’s website and email system. 

The same group also claim to have hacked into a US Police website last month.

While you’d hope that the hacking of a Council or related website wouldn’t be on the agenda , it’s not unheard of.

Wesminster City Council’s transactional website was targeted in 2010, apparently to prove a point about safety of information.

While the Visit Cambridge website was hacked in 2009 and its homepage changed, as picked up by Dave Briggs

Have you sat down with your ICT team and discussed what you would do if your Council’s website were hacked? What are the potential implications and who and what services would be affected?

While ICT deal with the techological side of things, what actions, messages and channels do you have ready to deploy?

If you haven’t already done it, you need to discuss all of the ‘what ifs’ and get a plan down. You never know if and when you might need it.

Creative Commons: 3 year old hacker by Neoliminal on Flickr

Say cheese, Councillor

Black and white portrait of Wilhelm SiemensIf a picture’s worth a thousand words, what does the average councillor photo gallery tell us? Mainly that many Councils haven’t put enough thought into them.

Search some local council websites for councillor information and you come across a right rogues’ gallery. In the worst cases, photos show a range of different backgrounds, are taken from unflattering angles or haven’t been updated in years.

If this is ringing a bell, you’re missing a trick. Yes, it’s a big job, but it’s all about presenting your Council and its Members in a professional and consistent way.

How to go from ghastly to great:

– use a professional photographer? Ask them to cut you a deal – you may need to hold a number of photo sessions. You won’t get all Councillors together at the same time

– go in-house? Our excellent graphics team also acts as council photographers, using a digital SLR camera. They also take great photos for our website, residents’ magazine and other publications. If your council doesn’t do this, could it?

– ditch the school photo background – use depth of field to keep your subject in focus but blur the background. Makes for a more interesting picture

– choose one spot for photos to be taken – it needs to be uncluttered, clean, always available and preferably flooded with natural light. We take photos of our councillors in a common area of our offices. Once chosen, stick to it – consistency is key

– work with democratic services to choose suitable dates for photo shoots – I’ve often held them before and after Council and other major committee meetings. Ask the Chair to give a reminder announcement at the meeting

– make sure Councillors have fair warning when photos will be taken so that they can dress up, shave, have their hair cut etc. Don’t hold surprise shoots. They won’t thank you for it

– include a photocall as part of new councillor inductions – again, making sure they know it’s going to happen

– avoid up-against-the-wall syndrome by sitting subjects down. We sit our councillors side on to the photographer, turning their head to look into the camera. Once again, consistency is key

– always be at each shoot to tweak things if necessary – my bugbear is taking off security passes

– take some smiling and some serious shots. If you’re releasing shots to the press, and a serious story breaks, only having photos of your leader or portfolio holder beaming away is less than ideal

– upload new photos to your website asap and make the whole gallery available to all services on your shared drive – saves you constantly emailing and means everyone has access to the most up to date shots

– update regularly – councillors change over time and new councillors are elected. We update annually or as necessary if a by-election is held. This also means that councillors are used to photo shoots being part of Council routine

– give local media access to the photos. In the past I’ve burned discs and sent them to news teams, but social media has opened up new opportunities. Many councils now have Flickr Pro accounts and The City of York has uploaded their Councillor photos as part of their photostream.

If your Councillor gallery says a thousand words, make sure they’re saying what you want people to hear.

Creative Commons: Portrait of Wilhelm Siemens by Smithsonian Institute on Flickr

My take on communications

So. I’ve been working in communications for a few years now. What’s my job about exactly?

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations defines PR as:

“The planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.”

That’s the overarching description. But what am I? To my mind, I’m a translator. In local government, all the services I work with have their own jargon, some of it very technical. And we do love to abbreviate: LSP, LDF or DCLG anyone?

I translate the information that services want to get out to their stakeholders, so that their audience/s – most often residents – can understand them. Dwellings turn into homes, refuse vehicles are transformed into bin lorries and Members become Councillors.

Another part of my job is to constantly ask “What’s in it for them?” and “What action to you want your audience to take?”. There needs to be proper substance to what’s being communicated, or there’s no point in doing it. Policies aren’t interesting, people and action are.

I also love spotting potential stories and shining a light on them. There’s a lot of great stuff going on at my Council. We all need to shout louder about our locales and the good things going on in them. Communications will lend you a loud-hailer.

Creative commons: focusin’ mind by miuenski on Flickr