30.05.2013 Q&A: Welsh councils in social media spotlight

The news that 14 cases of social media misuse were recorded in Welsh local authorities in 2012 has once again highlighted the issue of social media etiquette in the workplace.

Amongst the recorded cases of misuse by council staff were suggestive comments, threats, and criticism of the authorities concerned. Powys council sacked one worker and gave final written warnings to two others, while Gwynedd and Torfaen also reported three cases each.

One employee from Powys “sent messages of an inappropriate and suggestive nature to a learner through Facebook”. This person was suspended and their contract of employment later terminated.

Two employees received a final written warning, one for “posting worrying comments” and the other for “bringing the council into possible disrepute by posting inappropriate comments”.

The facts came to light after the BBC issued a Freedom of Information request to all local authorities in Wales.

There are undoubtedly many benefits to local authorities and their residents of using social media, and there are many great examples of local authorities taking innovative approaches to using social media. We think Cardiff and Monmouthshire in particular use their social media channels highly effectively, and incidentally neither of these reported any cases of misuse last year.

But as employers of many thousands of people, many of whom will have their own personal social media presence, social media use is clearly a minefield for local authorities as it is incredibly difficult to monitor and police.

We asked Helen Reynolds, Digital and Social Media manager of Monmouthshire County Council for her experience of managing social media and the benefits and pitfalls that digital communication channels can bring to a local authority:

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 Thanks for agreeing to speak to us Helen. Firstly, how long have you been in post?

I’ve been working in communications at Monmouthshire County Council for eight years and took the lead on digital and social media in September 2012.

How would you describe your job in a nutshell? Where do you concentrate resource and how do residents benefit?

I define my job as growing, nurturing and enabling online communities in Monmouthshire. I don’t see my role as being focused on traditional ideas of PR or marketing: it’s about helping people in the organisation and residents and businesses in Monmouthshire to use networks to grow communities. My aim is to enable people to improve life in Monmouthshire their own way.

In practice, this means things like:

  • getting into online groups and contributing to conversations going on about the county
  • working with my team to make our new corporate website more fitting for people who use mobile phones, want quick information and want us to speak their language – the new site will be launched in July
  • helping our staff to understand and use online tools to listen and talk to Monmouthshire people more effectively

However, I’ll turn my hand to anything I can help with and trying to be useful and helpful is hopefully bringing a more approachable and friendly face to the council.

Do other Local Authorities have equivalent to your position?

I think most authorities will have a champion who questions things, fights for engagement and has a passion for communications – I’m lucky that in Monmouthshire this is recognised as an important enough role that it’s my full-time job. I have seen more social media and digital engagement posts created in other authorities lately, the work is gradually growing in importance.

What are the benefits of having somebody look after digital/social media full time? What are your proudest achievements?

I think that having a role like mine gives an organisation a chance to lose fear around the concept of being open and helps us listen to what people are saying to us and conquer the ‘what ifs’ – like how to manage criticism.

A lot of the time employees can get wrapped up in their world of the office or the place they work and my role encourages people to connect with colleagues, residents and businesses.

One of the projects I love most is the support community we have for foster carers using Yammer – it cost nothing, stopped people feeling isolated and indirectly impacts on the quality of life foster kids in the county have.

I also love being able to experiment and learn on the go, like I’ve done with our budget consultations on YouTube.

You have had no recorded incidents of social media misuse at Monmouthshire County Council. Do you think there’s a link between this and the fact that you have taken a proactive, innovative approach to your digital presence? If so, what is the link in your opinion?

I think the key for us is that we trust staff.  We have staff social media guidance but it really is an addition to a general staff code of conduct. Innappropriate behaviour is unacceptable whether somebody does it on the phone, face-to-face or on social media.  To us, misusing social media isn’t the issue, ensuring our employees are doing a great job is a management responsibility, not for IT to police.

We allow all our staff to use social media and this opens up a world of knowledge and understanding about the place and people we work with. An unnecessary focus on the negative may stop us progressing and engaging.

What would your advice be to other Local Authorities thinking about how to address their social media presence and the culture around that?

My main massage is ‘don’t be scared’! My personal opinion is that we have a responsibility to provide services and communication in the way our residents want it and so it’s better to start trying now than to do nothing and wait for the perfect process or ‘right way’ of doing things to land on our laps.

We think Helen’s insights into how one Welsh local authority is approaching social media are fascinating.

What do you think? Are you surprised at the reported cases of social media misuse in Welsh councils? Is there a direct link between lack of trust of staff and cases of misuse of social media? How much does poor management contribute to the problem?

We would love to hear your thoughts – so get in touch.