Finding new ways to publish public information has turned Torfaen Council into a local government social media leader. Gill Hitchcock reports.
The video that started Torfaen’s social media journey – Photo credit: Torfaen County Borough Council YouTube
The message was simple. South Wales was gripped by snow and Torfaen Council’s gritters were doing their best to keep roads clear.
But when the local borough council posted a video about it on YouTube – with an Elvis impersonator singing about the trials and tribulations of keeping routes open to the tune of Presley’s classic, In the Ghetto – it went viral.
Gareth Phillips, Torfaen’s digital transformation officer, says this was a serious public information film. But by using humour – and the voice of Darren ‘Graceland’ Jones singing about life In the Depot – instead of asking councillors to issue what would no doubt have been a rather more straight-laced film, the council’s reach was vastly increased.
“We had 500,000 views of the video and reached tens of thousands of shares,” says Phillips. “It became a phenomenon and we won a string of industry awards.”
Not only did it raise awareness about the council’s gritting work, Phillips says it also generated a huge amount of positivity among workers and public goodwill towards them. And it opened up the organisation’s eyes to a new way of communicating.
This March, four years on from the giddy heights of its gritting fame, the council’s Torfaen Spring Clean campaign also used YouTube, along with Facebook and Twitter, to spur locals into helping clean up the borough.
The Twitter hashtag #torfaenspringclean reached 40,000 people and, more importantly, the campaign got 300 people involved in local clean-ups of litter over three weeks and around 300 bags of rubbish were cleared from local communities.
It’s these sorts of idea, and the impact they generate, that saw Torfaen featured as one of 20 exemplars in Eduserv’s report Good Practices across Local Government Digital Service Delivery.
This small council – the borough has a population of just 90,000 – is singled out as a big hitter because of its good use of social media.
So why is Tofaen is punching above its weight? “We were one of the first to really start using social media in about 2009, and ever since we’ve been very agile in our response,” says Phillips. “Our strategies have been changing and we’ve pushed things so that we’re at the forefront of new stuff.
“We’ve built up a reputation within the local government community as one of those organisations that innovates, experiments and evaluates to see what works and what doesn’t.”
The real catalyst was a bout of severe weather in the winter of 2009-10 when the council had large amounts of real-time information for residents, but no way to disseminate it.
It found, however, that residents were communicating among themselves on social media, asking questions of each other about school closures or bin collections. And sometimes the information coming back was incorrect.
Torfaen needed to play catch up, and quickly created Twitter and Facebook accounts. “They were really popular, even at the start, and there was a lot of demand for the types of things we were talking about, with very much of a customer-care focus,” says Phillips.
Part of Torfaen’s success, he says, is because it has bridged the gap between communications and customer services that other councils have kept quite separate.
Social media interaction on Twitter or Facebook is a joint effort. Staff in its communications team and across a range services have responsibility for getting out information in real time.
But there is also joint responsibility for reacting to public enquiries. Who deals with what depends on the nature of the question. If, for instance, it is about highways, libraries, play groups, or youth services then an officer from one of those services will reply.
“The amount of interaction we get on our posts often exceeds the population of the borough.”
The strategy, says Phillips, can avoid a build-up of customer demand on more expensive channels, such as phones.
For such a small borough, Torfaen runs a lot of social media accounts: in all about 50, with 20 related to council services and others for various projects or campaigns.
It has nearly 10,400 Facebook followers, predominantly women (71%), almost half (44%) of whom are aged between 25 and 34. Philips says the channel attracts “strong community interaction” between local people, as well as between the council and its population. And Torfaen appears nifty in responding to enquiries, taking on average 11 minutes.
Meanwhile, its 11,000 Twitter followers can, for example, find out about the resumption of green waste collections, have their say on enhancements to Pontypool town centre, or view a podcast of the latest cabinet meeting.
Phillips thinks that one in every four of the borough’s 40,000 households uses its social media channels. “The amount of interaction we get on our posts is quite often in six figures, exceeding the population of the borough,” Phillips says. “In terms of that mass broadcast, we are regionally significant.”
Everything comes at a price, including successful social media accounts. Although Phillips says it is not always easy to quantify costs, he believes that dealing with an interaction on Facebook or Twitter is cheaper than through a telecoms centre or face-to-face meeting.
Increased use of social media has also allowed Torfaen to reduce its council newspaper from six to two editions each year, which has brought in an annual saving of £25,000.
But Phillips also stresses that the council is still publishing its local daily newspaper, posters and leaflets to make sure that residents without access to the internet or social media are not left out.
It seems clear that the council’s use of social media will continue to expand – something that Phillips says will be driven by user demand.
He says this will probably involve more use of Snapchat and Instagram, but Phillips is also keen to ensure that social media interactions are used in ways that go beyond informing citizens of the council’s work.
He wants to see them feed into the council’s decision-making processes, too. Recently, and for the first time, the thread from a Facebook consultation made its way onto the agenda for a council committee. He wants more of this.
And when it comes to video, Phillips says he has learned through experience that being quick to get your message out is more important than perfection.
“The Elvis video taught us that,” he says. “It was not high production but because it was timely, relevant and funny, it was extremely successful.”