How social can fuel great local conversations

“The profession is polarising between those practitioners that are cracking on and using new forms of media to engage publics in two-way dialogue and those that continue to spam journalists with press releases.

“The former have a great future in the business. The latter will be out of job within a generation.”

Stephen Waddington (@wadds) on the future of PR

After thousands of discussions, the West of England’s #WEbuildourfuture consultation ended yesterday (Friday 29 January).

This was an important and challenging conversation about housing and transport for the area’s four local authorities. Where 85,000 new homes should go and how transport should work are complex and thorny issues, with many differing and competing opinions. The last three months have seen the councils engage in genuine and thought-provoking exchanges. I hope it demonstrates the good practice Steven Waddington refers to in his quote above.

I’ve worked in this field for long enough to hear all the arguments about the housing crisis. I am sceptical about any suggestion of a silver bullet solution so loved by politicians.*

People have strong and valid views on these issues, which current policy doesn’t reflect. The £450,000 ‘affordable homes’ headlines, for example, highlight the disconnect between rhetoric and reality.

Combine this with ever-present ‘consultation fatigue’ and a feeling that people can’t alter things. Those leading the consultation had their work cut out to engage the public in a meaningful discussion.

Despite this, by yesterday the councils had received well over 1,000 consultation responses. Many were from young adults, residents and businesses with no professional connection to the issues. Although we need to analyse Twitter and Facebook comments, I’d expect many more responses as a result.

Given the challenges, this is a good outcome. I hope it helps create a long-term plan for housing and transport that reflects local views.

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Conversation: the key to success

Our activity was genuine, multi-faceted and two-way. It provided a basis for proper engagement on these issues. There’s a few key aspects that served us well and I would say are important for any project of this nature.

#1 Keep it simple: We developed a clear, simple campaign identity and message strategy for everyone to use. The messages focused on points that people were most likely to raise, rather than Q&A babble that noone would ever want to talk about. This was used across campaign activity in response to questions posed. The crucial message – whatever your views, get involved – was also the most used. It was a key factor in encouraging people to get their responses in.

These were used in newsletters and videos featuring local people’s views on housing and transport. This snippet summed up why people should get involved pretty well.

The messages featured in fantastic media coverage at the start of the campaign, and afterwards. Here’s the coverage from November alone.

#2 Identify influencers and work with them: We used tools and our own knowledge to connect with people who could support our activity online. These organisations and people had significant and relevant followings. We hoped they would advocate the importance of getting involved.

Over time, it worked a treat, and many people helped us out during the last three months.

Big thanks go (in no particular order) to Bristol Green Capital, iBristolPeopleOut BristolBrighter FutureNick HorneKat HartJames Durie and many others for their support.

#3 Listen, and respond: There were a couple of areas which demonstrated we were listening and boosted engagement.

Firstly, we tracked local conversations about housing and transport and responded with information about the consultation. We didn’t engage in anything political. That still left many people who had views on house prices, landlords, local bus services or traffic. It was great when people said they were getting involved as a result of our intervention.

This exchange is one example that shows the impact responding to people ‘in the moment’ can have.

Secondly, we *always* responded to comments, including trolls (once). Usually, we pointed them to more information or explained how they can make a more detailed point. One one occasion, we even got a response out of Santa (of Keynsham)!

#4 Keep going, evaluate and iterate on the way: An important aspect of a campaign like this is keeping the content frequent and relevant. If you’re setting up an online consultation from scratch, with no followers, you need to put some effort into it. Posting a tweet every other day and expecting people to respond is likely to disappoint.

We posted at least 10 tweets a day from a dedicated account, supplemented with third party content sourced from Twitter, our influencer lists and searches. This kept the consultation in front of people and gave us a basis on which to assess our performance.

Also, because we had data about how our content was performing, we adapted our approach and tactics to suit.

We were able to understand what worked best (videos, questions and tweets with pictures) and tweaked our approach to reflect this. Video and content to read after 9pm (when most people are at home) worked particularly well towards the end of the consultation.

#5 Use promoted posts: This campaign needed a paid component if our messages were going to reach the right people.

We used promoted posts on Twitter (targeted by postcode) and on local Facebook pages to get the online surveys in front of people from the West of England. Hundreds more clicks were generated by the promoted Twitter campaign in December and January.

Highlights, and looking ahead

My highlight came at an event with Bristol Green Capital when the #goodtransport and #WEbuildourfuture hashtags trended on Twitter on 21 January.

Special mention goes to Clare Nelmes, our main contact and consultation lead for the four authorities. She held everything together and had the confidence to give this approach a go.

Given that the consultation only finished on Friday, there’s still a lot to do to make sense of the feedback. But I can say that it’s been a fantastic campaign to be involved in.

I hope it provides answers to some big questions about where homes will go and how transport will work in future.

* Probably a blog post for another day, but this assessment of how we’ve got to where we are is worth reading if you’re interested.

*Update* in May 2016, this campaign was shortlisted as a finalist in the South West and Wales PRCA Dare Awards in the digital and social media campaign. Just three campaigns are on the shortlist and it’s a testament to the councils’ brave approach and the tenacity of the team who supported the work. Hats off! Here’s hoping you win the award in June.

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