Love it or loathe it, social media is impossible to ignore. Councils that shun it (or under-estimate its importance) are not just missing out on potential publicity but could end up looking embarrassingly out of touch.
Virtually all local authorities use Twitter and Facebook in their media or communications department, with many opting for Instagram and YouTube too. Larger councils also have corporate accounts, with some service departments using social media alongside the wider authority to reach specific audiences.
At the same time, many councillors use Twitter to keep in touch with voters, both during and between elections. So how should local authorities get the most from social media and avoid potential pitfalls?
Matt Woor, social media channel manager at Suffolk County Council, says social media is used extensively by authorities that recognise its benefits but less by those that see it as a risk. The important thing is to remember is that it is not just for journalists and politicians.
Members of the public frequently wish to communicate with the authority and have a two-way conversation. 'It’s very much about customer service,' he says. 'You are trying to listen as much as you can.'
Jennifer Green, head of strategic communications at Manchester, says the council quickly went from communicating, to engaging, with residents. Following last year’s bomb at the Manchester Arena, the council saw an eightfold increase in people contacting it via social media for information. 'The closest channel to people is the channel they have got in their pocket,' she says.
The council runs neighbourhood Twitter accounts alongside its corporate account but sees Instagram, where many users post images, as the best route to young people. 'It tends to be a younger and happier audience,' adds Green. 'There is a clear network we tap into that produces some quality content.'
Users of social media, including councillors, must be confident and understand the possible repercussions if they get things wrong. Equally, it is important to enjoy the informality of social media and get across the council’s less corporate side.
Jennifer Begg, co-founder of social media training consultancy Two Bees, says councillors can be particularly nervous about Twitter and may find it difficult to distinguish between professional communication and personal banter. 'They know how active journalists are on Twitter,' she says. 'If any of them messes up, it is front page news.'
Councillors with forthright opinions they would be happy to voice to a room full of people are often shy of doing the same on social media, adds Begg. 'The thing that makes local councillors effective is how well they communicate with constituents. It’s a really missed opportunity if they are too nervous.'
Where a council has numerous social media accounts, is it vital to ensure consistency. Birmingham has more than 100, including more than 20 Twitter accounts, and is in the throes of rationalising them. Steve Arnold, head of marketing, says: 'There is a balance to strike between having a range of accounts and the need to take a co-ordinated view.'
Birmingham and other councils see social media as vital to reach the public, including local bloggers, at a time when local government is often ignored by traditional media. 'The goal is to get the right information to the right people,' adds Arnold.
Beyond the need to avoid obscenity and remain within the law, social media has few real rules. Equally, the guidelines that exist have developed haphazardly in a short space of time. So how should councils approach the different platforms?
Fast furious, Twitter is a way for councils to speak to the nation and even the world. Though longer than before, tweets should be kept short and to the point, offering an option of further conversation, while providing a route to more publicity via images and links.
Unless there is a crisis, a council can never be 100% sure if most of its tweets are seen or have any impact. Residents may turn to Twitter in an emergency, such as bad weather or a major incident, or just to post complaints.
Humour, especially irony, does not always come over well although, applied skilfully, may diffuse an awkward situation. Try at all costs to avoid public rows. 'There is no dispute or argument you can have on social media that is worth winning,' says Matt Woor.
At the same time, unless a complainant is simply voicing an opinion, councils cannot ignore criticism. Louise Neilan, head of communications at Southwark, says people use Twitter to make service requests that can be dealt with via customer services. If an issue is complex, it is advisable to communicate offline. 'People don’t tend to come to the council for chatty interaction,' she adds.
Facebook is somewhere to meet the people, where the council’s posts are more likely to be seen by residents. Images or video help attract more attention and residents who show most interest by posting comments or questions are more likely to receive future updates via their newsfeeds.
Facebook can be used to stream live meetings but, as on Twitter, controversy may not be far away. Never divulge residents’ personal information and, where a remark is negative, inform individuals how to contact the relevant part of the council. 'Only get involved in a discussion if you can add value,' says Woor.
Councils hoping to communicate with younger people may be disappointed as users are more likely to be parents or even grandparents. But unlike on Twitter, where much personal information is kept secret, users of Facebook frequently reveal an extraordinary amount about themselves and their lifestyle, including where they live.
Instagram allows councils to get across their warm, affectionate side - especially to younger people. A ‘shop window’ to the community, it can show residents at play or work, enjoying the fact they live locally. While most councils have relatively small Instagram followings, it can help to create a buzz around events, with residents sharing photos or videos.
One of the first social media platforms but another relatively new player in local government. YouTube provides the opportunity to post longer videos that are designed to inform as well as entertain. Unless they have a large number of followers/subscribers, councils may need to point people towards their YouTube channel via other social media, or a website.
Mainly a platform to flag up the council as employer and pillar of the community, LinkedIn helps the authority communicate with professionals in other organisations, including contractors. A LinkedIn profile should mention the council’s key personnel, its main operations and its vision for the area.
In conclusion, social media must be approached with caution but enthusiasm. When the next new platform emerges (as it surely will), councils will probably bide their time and see how it develops before investing wholeheartedly, just as most did with Facebook and Twitter.
That may well be the most sensible strategy. Social media has yet to take over the world and nor, as Jennifer Begg observes, is it 'a magical unicorn that’s going to fix everything'.
But equally, the council that remains aloof from social media loses the opportunity to get its message across using what an increasing number of people. rightly or wrongly, see as their lifeblood.