Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

Last September, my department launched an internal news blog, aimed at keeping staff informed about the latest developments and initiatives, as well as celebrating achievements and sharing best practice. It featured an update from the Director on the visits, meetings and events that she attends every week, as well as a regular report from Council meetings on key reports and decisions.

This proved popular with staff as a way to keep informed. It also provided a way for them to have their say, by leaving comments on the posts. Crucially, we invited posts from any member of staff, to get a broad view of the work across the department. In all, we had nearly 200 posts, from over 50 contributors.

Going public

We’ve been so pleased with this new way of sharing our information that we’ve decided to make the blog public. My argument for this was simple – we have nothing to hide and our service users will have a genuine interest in knowing what we’re up to.

The new blog

In that spirit, we’ve just gone live with

Before going live, we trained key staff throughout the department on publishing to the new blog. This will enable us to keep up the high volume of posts from across our services, without necessarily relying on centralised publishing (although we are retaining an editorial overview, with posts requiring central approval before going live).

We transferred all relevant posts from the old blog in order to preserve the archive that we’ve built up over the past year – this means that we’ve already got a healthy looking “tag cloud” of popular topics which people can browse.

Broad remit

The blog has a broad remit – covering all of the services we deliver to Edinburgh’s children, young people and their families. We’re a huge department with lots of stories to tell, so I’m hopeful that we won’t be short on material. We’re also going to encourage contributions from key partners, parents and carers, and young people – in fact, we’ve already featured a couple of posts written by young people themselves. This is another feature of the blog which I’m particularly excited about.

One challenge will naturally be to filter what comes in and make sure it’s of sufficient interest to the wider audience – the concept of what makes a story “blog-worthy” will take some time to take shape, and I’m hoping that honest feedback, backed up by some decent analytics, will help us identify what really ignites people’s interest.

Inviting comments

Without doubt the trickiest subject, when discussing our ambition to make the blog public, has been around comments – the ability for anyone to have their say. Of course, we’ll be pre-moderating any comments before they go live. This isn’t to censor anyone, just to make sure nothing nasty gets through. Our organisation has published an acceptable use policy for anyone wanting to contact us through social media, and we’ll be keeping the same rules for the blog. Where it will get interesting, though, is if we get legitimate negative comments. This is the tricky bit of genuine public engagement, and will certainly be a cultural shift for some, although most folk I’ve spoken to are excited by its potential.

The bigger picture

One thing we were always keen to stress to staff is that the blog is part of a much bigger picture – one of various ways in which they could get news. We have various internal and external channels of communication, and we’ll continue to strengthen the editorial processes for getting stories to the right people, via the most appropriate means.

Top blogging tips

To help people wanting to contribute, we came up with 8 top tips for writing a good blog post:

Be personal – blog posts should be written in the first person (e.g. “I think…” or “I’m pleased to announce…”) and can be informal. If you are writing on behalf of someone, say so – people can quickly pick up on writing skills and will recognise if different people are pretending to be the same person.

Be clear – use plain English, avoid jargon, and explain any terms that people may not have heard before.

Be honest – don’t avoid difficult subjects. People respect honesty and openness.

Be relevant – never leave the reader asking “so what?” – explain what your news will actually mean to them.

Be connected – link to further reading e.g. related articles or other websites.  Try to put links at the end of your post to avoid people leaving your post halfway through.

Be visual – photos and videos are a great way to grab people’s attention – whether it’s a high quality film or just a snap from a mobile phone.

Be creative – think about ways to engage your audience. Put the most important facts first and create something that people will want to read.

Be responsive – people can leave public comments on posts. If someone comments on your post, respond where appropriate. Invite comments by ending your post with something like “what do you think?” or “We’d be interested to hear your views on…”.

In the spirit of that last tip, I’m keen to hear what people think of the new blog and the thinking behind it. Are you planning something similar for your organisation? Or have you seen other examples of blogging in local government?

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6 Responses to Going public – a council blog case study

  1. Lorna says:

    Hi James
    I’ve recently come across your blog and think it’s great that you’re sharing about accessibility and usability – I hope to learn by following.
    It’s really inspiring that an internal blog has gone public, and hopefully given your colleagues some confidence around posting to a blog. The blog looks great, with a wider variety of stories. I’d love my organisation (voluntary sector infrastructure) to blog, and tried to make a first step by showing our Chief Officer around WordPress … a few months on and he’s yet to press ‘publish’, but I remain hopeful.
    A question I have regarding the Bright Futures blog is around use of the author function. Did you discuss or consider individual staff members having author rights, and if so, what influenced the decision for all posts to be authored by ‘children and families’? I’ve seen this approach on other local government blogs, and confess that as a reader I find it frustrating when it comes to commenting because I have no idea who I’m talking to, and it makes the whole thing feel a bit less human. However understanding why organisations do it might really help me.

    • James says:

      Hi Lorna, thanks for your comments.

      Great question about the authorship. We’ve now got about a dozen staff trained as WordPress “contributors” which means they can create new posts but not take them live – that helps us maintain editorial control and also ensure the timing of posts is carefully managed.

      The 100+ posts we’ve added so far were actually submitted by over 50 different people – staff and non-staff. It wouldn’t have been feasible to train and set up new accounts for every person who wanted to contribute a post, and it’d also be hard to manage that many users. So our approach is to have a few staff from across the department who can publish stories from their area – this is the same devolved approach we have to managing content on our websites.

      But this is where we get the dilemma that you refer to. We could display the name of the person who published the story to WordPress, but that’s unlikely to be the same as the actual author of the post. Instead, we’ve decided to start by mostly using the generic “Children and families” name and just introducing each post’s actual author at the start of the post itself.

      Your point is very valid though, and an additional disadvantage is that you can’t filter posts by an individual author. We have got a few posts that appear as written by a specific service – for example, our sports unit, and we’ll be giving this more thought as we go forward. One option I’m considering is to use a plug-in such as Custom Author Byline to display the correct name each time, but I haven’t tested this yet.

  2. Lorna says:

    Hi James
    Thank you for your reply. Wow – 50 contributors, that’s brilliant! It makes complete sense that you use a generic name.
    It will be interesting to see how readers respond if you do try out other options – good luck :)

  3. Susan says:

    I absolutely love this. I try to champion the use of social media in our organisation whenever I can and your blog reinforces how well this can work. I particularly like the ‘we have nothing to hide’ from our service users. The top tips are very concise & useful, I hope to take this to colleagues to progress – many thanks

    • James says:

      Thanks Susan! Glad to hear the top tips are useful, they’ve certainly helped to get people thinking about what and how to write, especially those who have never blogged before!

  4. Ross wigham says:

    Good job. This looks really exciting stuff and really inspirational for other local authorities.

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