Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

Our organisation has been in the news a fair bit recently. Well, actually, being a local authority we’re always in the local news and the coverage is rarely positive (and often inaccurate too). But what I’ve been increasingly concerned about recently is the fact that the local media keep getting there first – reporting on stories hours, sometimes days, before our own website publishes the information.

The case in point was demonstrated this week when my organisation made some important (and controversial) decisions on school closures. I’m assuming the press were notified through the usual channels, and the news made it onto their websites within hours. We, however, didn’t post an update on our website until the following afternoon.

The major problem with this, apart from it looking generally poor, is that it forces citizens to look elsewhere for information that we should be providing them with. This also means that the information they eventually find will probably have been edited, and is usually accompanied by a long string of unmoderated user comments positing all sorts of theories and opinions, many of which are stultifyingly ill-informed. And of course, most people will probably look to the media first anyway, but perhaps then come to our site to check the facts and to get background information. If we’re not providing content to coincide with news stories appearing elsewhere, and making it prominent from the homepage, we’re really failing our users.

It’s not that we have a lack of news either. I recently encountered a problem where important press releases were too quickly getting bumped off the home page (which only displays the 3 most recent releases, with a link through to the rest). Our school closures story, for example, got bumped within hours by two stories about awards ceremonies and another about tips for Christmas shopping. Whilst non-critical releases are great (SOCITM’s 2008 Better Connected report commended the 76% of local authority sites which featured ‘good current news beyond a report of a council meeting or decision’), if the softer stories are drowning out the more important ones we are again failing our users.

This is all compounded by the fact that our site does not support RSS feeds or news alerts, so we’re not actively ‘pushing’ these stories in the first place (SOCITM found that only 33% of local authority sites do either of these things). Our news stories are given good prominence on the homepage, but unless you actually visit our site you probably won’t find our press releases.

Another problem (which impacts the speed of all developments on our site) is that content often has to go via various levels of approval before it can be published. By speeding up this approval process, or by further devolving editorial authority, we could drastically improve our ability to react to news and events more quickly and effectively. Only then can we consider ourselves to be, as the Better Connected report puts it, newsworthy.

Key points:

  • Get press releases online as quickly or quicker than the media
  • Make them prominent on the homepage, for a reasonable period of time
  • Explore other methods of distributing news – RSS, alerts, e-mail digests, SMS, news tickers etc
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