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When it comes to digital, personality goes a long way

Daniel Cattanach is News & Media Manager at Bath and North East Somerset Council. He won Communicator of the Year in the 2016 Digital Strategy & Impact Awards .

Here, Daniel shares some experiences and thoughts on the importance of injecting some personality – and a healthy amount of creativity – into your comms in order to be heard in today’s noisy, digital space.

I was fortunate to attend GovDelivery’s 7th Annual Public Sector Communications Conference recently. Over 300 communicators packed out London’s inspirational RIBA building (and 750 watched online); with all eyes focused on how best to draw the attention of the public with more engaging comms.

We witnessed some fantastic examples of how our peers from comms and customer services are reaping the rewards of being more bold and adventurous in their efforts to connect with people through digital and social media. The positive results ranged from increasing public empathy with hard-working staff to improving efficiency. You can catch the full presentations online here.

It was incredibly reassuring to see there are loads of talented and imaginative people in the public sector embracing these opportunities, and who possess the drive and determination to do things even better. I’m sure it was a much-needed boost to a lot of us present who were frantically scribbling down the inspirational pointers (not to mention the 2,000+ tweets being shared via the #UKcomm16 hashtag).

I sensed a real desire amongst my public sector peers to put their creativity into practice. However, it can be difficult to break out of our comfort zones and turn that enthusiasm into action, especially when faced with the understandable fear of criticism.

But as newly crowned Nobel Prize for Literature winner Bob Dylan wrote, “The times they are a’ changin’“, and we have to change with them. Whilst acknowledging there’s still a place for a traditional approach with some audiences, we must adapt our communication techniques to make the most of digital and social media opportunities.

Times are changing


Feel the fear and do it anyway

Customers increasingly want public services to communicate with them in the same way that they connect with other organisations, companies and individuals. Yes, it’s a scary thought, but even adding just a little bit of personality can make a big difference. I too was cautious when we first took the leap of creating some quirky videos to encourage voter registrations earlier this year.

One particular concern was the strapline for our pancake video, promoting the vote: “Give a toss – mark your cross.”

Even though I’d carefully checked the origins of the term ‘give a toss’ beforehand (for the record, it’s far more innocuous than the present-day usage of the word), there’s still no accounting for taste. Thankfully, the initiative paid off; we gained a lot of shares and positive feedback (both internally and externally) and helped encourage over 8,000 new voter registrations in just a few weeks, as part of a co-ordinated campaign.

Such uplifting responses can give you the impetus to take greater strides towards breaking new ground with your communications – such as enhancing text-only tweets by using eye-catching imagery (including GIFs through the Twitter app) and creating additional catchy videos via mobile phone.

It’s also well worth venturing into live video streaming via Periscope or Facebook Live – offering behind-the-scenes access to events such as election counts with real-time interaction for the public – giving you a greater opportunity to engage with your communities; often well in advance of mainstream media outlets.

All of this is relatively straightforward if you’re armed with a smartphone, a decent internet connection and just a bit of confidence. The more you do it – the more you’ll learn about what works and what doesn’t, what your audience wants, and what tools are out there to help you achieve your goals.

It can also help to break down barriers between your organisation and the public – as people may begin to see your personality come out and rethink viewing you as some faceless entity which is fair game for abuse.

For a great source of support, advice and inspiration, check out the variety of public sector experiences available via the ever-expanding archive.


Share and share alike

The rapport you build up with the online community can really boost your confidence and help you strive ahead to face fresh challenges. Don’t think of it as leaving your comfort zone, but rather extending the realms of what you feel comfortable with.

I found a good example of this at the end of a fraught 24-or-so hours when we’d been supporting the Army and Police in dealing with the discovery and disposal of a 500lb unexploded World War Two bomb in the centre of Bath, back in May. I worked through the night with our emergency response team to communicate information about reception centres for those evacuated, details of road diversions and school closures due to the safety cordon, and photographing volunteers helping those displaced from their homes.

By the following morning, as the media got into gear to wake people up with the latest news, we’d already kept a lot of the community up to date through the established hashtag #BathBomb – which had been busily doing the rounds through the night. Evidence of the Great British spirit was already shining through as at least one member of the public had tweeted that the social media team from Lush Cosmetics were likely to have an interesting day ahead of them when they turned on their computers in the morning and saw what was trending!

Buoyed by the general good feeling of the tweeting population – especially as the drama drew close to its positive conclusion (with the Army successfully defusing the bomb), everyone seemed to draw a collective sigh of relief as the WW2 shell was driven out of Bath to be destroyed in a controlled explosion.

Crowds lined the streets for a glimpse of the now-defunct device departing for its final “resting place”, and an apt hashtag suddenly crossed my mind – something which seemed to sum up the overall feeling of exhaustion and elation. After carefully considering the potential reaction, I pushed the button on the following tweet:

Thankfully the calculated risk paid off: #BombVoyage turned out to be our most popular tweet to date and resulted in a string of positive reactions and increased engagement. It just goes to show, as Samuel L Jackson said in Pulp Fiction: “Personality goes a long way”.

However, remember to retain an air of professionalism when you’re faced with confrontation. Don’t descend into very public online arguments if conversations turn sour. The excellent Helen Reynolds has a great social media response flow chart –  which offers expert guidance on what to do in sticky situations. And GovDelivery has published a great blog post on communicating on challenging topics.

On the whole though, be sure to join the conversation and add a bit of yourself into the mix. Don’t hold back – make the most of the opportunity to let your personality come out and shine.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielCattanach