While many UK local authorities have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, improving local government social media strategy is vital to boost user engagement

The debate over whether local government should use social media is long over. Almost all UK local authorities now have a presence on Facebook and Twitter. But are we making the most out of social media platforms, and is local government social media strategy working? What can we do to get better at social media and use it more strategically to promote better engagement with our citizens, improve our customer service and enhance information sharing on the services that residents value the most?

How merging teams can improve local government social media strategy

Many local authorities don’t have dedicated social media teams, and the responsibility for handling inbound messages is often split between the comms and customer services teams.

It takes quite a significant amount of thinking to bring the two elements together, and it’s often been difficult, taking up too much time and resources to merge these services. Councils can certainly become better at combining the two so there is better synergy, taking the lead from some organisations that are further along the road, for example, the police force.

Local government is responsible for such a wide range of services, eliciting various questions that require more than a simple, standardised response that a company in the private sector might experience when providing a single product or service. Local authorities tend to receive a raft of comments and questions from a diverse range of topics, with the public expecting an immediate response. Often there’s a need for customer service expertise to handle certain enquiries rather than relying on the comms team to field all the enquiries simply.

There is already good practice in place

There is already good practice in place, with the councils offering customer service responses on Twitter and Facebook, even as far back as ten years ago. Demand on comms teams is higher than ever with increased expectations post-pandemic, and incoming messages on social media channels are only adding to that. Customer service teams are also constantly under pressure.

Being responsive on social channels has a snowball effect

Encouraging more people to use social media channels to interact with their local authority naturally drives more efficiencies by preventing calls to contact centres. However, as more people shift to digital channels, the number of enquiries in that space increases, so teams need to have the skills and training to be equipped to handle these. Often when opening up social channels, too, organisations tap into other demographics they have been struggling to reach and see inbound enquiries increase, which is positive for increasing engagement, but also resource intensive for both communications teams and customer services.

COVID-19 was something of a watershed moment for social media

Since COVID-19, there has been an increased realisation in the public sector of the importance of social media channels to disseminate information and better serve our communities. The pandemic was a watershed moment and gave us the opportunity to demonstrate the value of comms to senior leaders in local government and how effective good comms can be. However, with that has come an increased expectation of what can be achieved through social media channels post-COVID-19. There is now a lot of pressure and expectation to maintain the same comms level for a diverse range of services across an authority, not just for public health comms – our main focus of supporting communities during the pandemic.

With this increased pressure, comms teams need to be more efficient as the expectations of their outcomes have grown. We’ve been working with social media management experts, Orlo, to help us better utilise our platforms to increase our engagement.

Get better at social media and improve user experience

Over the past few years, there continues to be an increase in inbound enquiries via social media channels, and there is no sign of this trend reaching a plateau. This is way an effective local government social media strategy is now more important than ever.

Is it a better customer experience for those communicating via Twitter or other platforms, or is it because people don’t want to be placed on hold when contacting a call centre?

With the cost-of-living crisis, it is usually seen by citizens as a cheaper channel to communicate with councils rather than picking up the phone. Similarly, with tightened budgets for local authorities across the board, it is more cost-efficient for councils to serve the public on digital channels rather than via call centres. A digital channel is more convenient, especially if it isn’t so urgent and fits in with the user’s lifestyle, who can contact us at any time of the day when it suits them. It also enables people with different abilities, including citizens who are neurodivergent, to contact their local authority for information. The challenge with so many social channels to manage is being adept at picking up and responding to all the messages that are coming through to the council.

When people reach out via social media platforms, they tend to see it as more human, that there is a person from the local authority behind that social media account. That can be perceived or real, but usually, it is the case. Traditional customer service channels have become less popular as people lose faith in filling out web forms or experiencing automated and long-waiting customer journeys on the phone.

Social media has become a much bigger part of people’s lives. Hence, it is important that local government social media strategy improves and embraces this shift in behaviour. Then they can respond with effective and meaningful social media comms campaigns that closely integrate with their customer services and provide the best communication with their citizens.

This piece was written and provided by Michael Stringer, Assistant Director of Communications at Surrey County Council.


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