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Digital: Social media is the new normal

The 21st century human expects a different kind of relationship with the brands and organisations with which they connect. Catherine Howe, Director of Design, Cancer Research UK, explains.

Future Comms digital banner

Key points

  • Weave together and integrate everything from social media to automation to support a new and better relationship between citizen and state.
  • Give your residents and customers an “omnichannel” experience - in a digital world it’s all connected.
  • Connect the activity of the customer service function properly with your communication teams and focus on the quality of the relationship you have with the citizen and not just with the customer.

The digital citizen

Do you remember when Facebook was new? When #riotcleanup mobilised thousands via Twitter to respond to the 2011 riots? When the BBC first experimented with hyperlocal journalism and we started to talk about councillors holding virtual surgeries? 

The debate then was about a renaissance of participative democracy and an opportunity for politicians and the state to reconnect with citizens and to create a 21st Century democracy. 

But we didn't.

And now we see this huge disruption still being wrestled back into a box labelled 'comms' and we are contemplating democracy-changing technology on a global scale. 

In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica revelations we have to started to see how social platforms such as Facebook can be used to target fake news to people in a specific way to shape the world we live in. Social media clearly didn't 'fix' democracy.

Our ability to normalise the extraordinary is extraordinary in its own right. Councils – ahead in many ways of other parts of the public sector – rode the social media wave, normalised it and started to focus on the next wave of disruptive technology: Big Data followed by service design – and now the lure of automaton. 

The challenge we face now is how to weave together and integrate these waves of technology together into something which is actively supporting the social contract and the relationship between citizen and state. And the risk of not doing that? These technologies will continue to evolve and develop anyway, with a drive for profit and not social value.

There are many parallels with the charity sector where I work now.

Social media drives us to more modern marketing, Big Data opens up research possibilities we couldn't have imagined and as we start to look at automation in earnest we can see ways to free up people's time to focus on core purpose. 

And this is the single biggest difference – the fact that in my new world we can articulate and share a common core purpose. Even without the political dimension, the sheer complexity of the services local government runs mean that it is near impossible to imagine any council ever gaining the clarity of mission which we see at Cancer Research UK.

Austerity, as well as a more user-centred view of how we design services, means that that clarity of purpose is always a negotiation between different competing needs in the system. Sounds like we really do still need that 21st Century democracy revolution we decided was too hard when we first saw the potential of social media.

We have also seen a consistent but often quieter progress in the customer service world. Well, quieter at least until GDPR rolled into town and reminded us exactly how much data on our customers, clients and service users we collect and store. In the private sector that data is being used to segment, profile and personalise communication with customers and while few councils are yet able to do that, it’s now a commonly held strategic ambition to be able to access 'customer insight'.

So far, I have touched on citizens, users and customers and we should never forget that they are all the same person. A person increasingly able to see the dysfunction that ensues when one organisation tries to have at least three different relationships with them – no wonder the public lose faith in the public sector's ability to get things done.

The 21st Century human expects a different kind of relationship with the brands and organisations that they connect with. Their expectations are of what our marketing colleagues call an “omnichannel”, personalised and tailored communication that creates a sense of intimacy and connection. They don't expect the right hand to be telling them to be doing more recycling while the left hand is sorting their care needs as they come out of hospital. We could address this with better data and analytics and with more user centred design, but is that enough?

Local government will always have to wrestle with the complexity of multiple services and pressures that need to be balanced across the system. User-centred design will only get us so far – it should be the role of democracy to help us manage this balance but for that to work we need to return to the question of 21st Century democratic design.

Communication professionals that I know understand this. There are only so many ways that you can dress up an announcement that has been made on the basis of party politics and not by weighing the evidence and engaging in a meaningful way with the people who are most affected. 

Councils are managing such complexity now that the only way that this will ever balance is with citizens getting more involved both in managing their own complexity, but also in helping to establish balance across the complexity of the whole system. 

We need to improve our relationship with the citizen and provide an environment where social media and other waves of technology can enhance and not undermine the social contract.

Many of the steps that are needed to turn this around are beyond the operational reach of local government but should be shaped by the experiences of people in communities:

  • Will Perrin and the Carnegie Trust are looking at how we implement a duty of care obligation for social media platforms
  • Doteveryone are lobbying for a more ethical approach to technology development and a fairer internet for all.

There are some direct and practical steps that councils can take though:

  • Connect the activity of the customer service function properly with your communication teams and ask both of them to focus on the quality of the relationship that you have with the citizen, and not just with the customer.
  • Make this an omnichannel experience and stop seeing a distinction between social and non-social channels – in a digital world it’s all connected.
  • Look at the work that people like Kirklees are doing to think about what a 21st Century democracy could look like and how we take the steps to get there.

Communications, as a discipline, shares a lot of traits with digital. When, as practitioners, we are at our most successful we become invisible as what we do has been embedded in the system. In a digital and communicative world, we have to look and work below the surface of our disciplines to look at how the system underneath is working to be able to create the balance that is needed.

The challenge of Future Comms is not about specific campaigns or messages, but how we shape the relationship with the citizen in a way which allows those citizens to shape us. To do that your efforts need to be focused on using technology to deepen and strengthen that relationship. Social media won’t fix democracy, but we can.

Further reading