Monday 4 March 2013

@carmsccpress with love

The Electoral Reform Society recently carried out a survey of Welsh councils to establish how many of them allowed the use of Twitter during public meetings. Some have a blanket ban on tweeting, such as Wrexham, while others such as Carmarthenshire prohibit councillors from using Twitter during meetings. As usual in Carmarthenshire, the ban does not appear to be supported by any written rules.

The Society also looked at how Welsh councils use Twitter to communicate with the public. Of the 21 authorities that responded (including the three national parks) Carmarthenshire came in at 19, just ahead of Angelsey and Rhondda Cynon Taff in terms of the number of followers. Rhondda Cynon Taff had a reasonable excuse as it had not actually launched a Twitter service at the time.

For a council which says that it employs 20 staff in public relations (one of the largest in Wales) and which last year won an award from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations for "outstanding in-house public relations", this was, to put it mildly, something of an embarrassing failure.

Strangely the number of followers has soared in the short time since the survey was published, which suggests either that friends and family have been pressed into service to bolster the numbers, or that the publicity generated by the recent libel trial has paid dividends. Sometimes, of course, people actually buy followers to make themselves seem more popular, but perish the thought.

A rummage through the council's Twitter archive offers some clues as to why the service is so unpopular.

The number of tweets varies from day to day, reasonably enough, and a typical day yields around 15-20 messages. There are lots of routine announcements such as "Licensing committee meeting today 10 am. County Hall", and sometimes there are what appear to be campaigns, including a recent effort to publicise the council's Care and Repair service for older people. And they are now nearly all bilingual. Great stuff.

Another campaign took place earlier this year to encourage people to go along to sign the Armed Forces Covenant, and according to the press office, children from two Llanelli schools were dragooned into going along to witness the ceremony.Not so great.

The armed forces also made a surprising appearance at that shoppertainment complex - the one which local people voted overwhelmingly to be called the Stepney Centre but which the council insists on calling Ffwrnes. Not long after the new theatre had opened it played host to army officers, drummers and tanks (yes, really), and the people of Llanelli were encouraged to go along and look.

But since the council considers that Jim Davidson and Live Superstars of Wrestling will make the new centre the cultural hub of South West Wales, perhaps the tanks, drummers and army types were not out of place.

Perhaps Cneifiwr should point out to any non-Welsh readers that we're really not like this at all. The true cultural capital of South West Wales is of course the Mwldan Theatre in Cardigan, a venue which is mercifully safe from the clutches of the philistines in County Hall, Carmarthen.

Then there are more questionable advertising campaigns promoting commercial ventures such as Nandos and the Hungry Horse. Nandos, we learn, is trading well above expectations at its new branch in the council's shoppertainment complex in Llanelli.

Occasionally we are told that there will be a surgery for constituents. Apparently Kevin Madge and Colin Evans (both Labour) are the only councillors to hold surgeries. Certainly none of the opposition councillors appears to. The irony here is that Kevin Madge went on record last year describing Twitter as dangerous.

Once a day the press office puts out a standard message saying, "Catch up on today's news and press" with a link to the council's output of stories about dog muck, litterbugs, political propaganda and occasionally hilarious press releases written in bizarre and demented English. That's not really the press, is it? Except that reading this stuff will give you a sneak preview of what will be in the following week's Carmarthen Journal.

If all this is starting to make the council's Twitter feed sound mildly interesting, be assured that it isn't. Having ploughed through hundreds of tweets, Cneifiwr should know.

Back in 2011 the council launched a bizarre Twitter offensive in the name of deputy leader Pam Palmer. For a whole week she (or rather the press office) produced a stream of tweets in English and Welsh which made her sound like Abergwili's low-budget answer to the late Queen Mother, as she was ferried around the county visiting schools and hospitals.

The press office showed back then that it had not really understood Twitter or social media, because automated, virtual Pam was available in broadcast mode only. She did not take questions or interact with the peasantry of Carmarthenshire.

And that's still how it is today. In the hundreds of council tweets since January 1 this year, only 10 are actual interactions with the public, and 8 of those are thanking people for saying how wonderful Ffwrnes or some other council  service is. Of the remaining two, a woman tweeted to complain about the lack of parent and child parking spaces in council car parks. The press office batted that one away by replying that parent and child parking spaces were a feature of public car parks, followed by a snarled "Thank you".

Another unsatisfied customer who must have felt short changed.

The other query came from Dyfrig Thomas, aka Dyfrig Llanelli, a former county councillor, who wondered why Carmarthenshire could not produce anything like the excellent Twitter bad weather services put out by Ceredigion and Swansea. It's all on the website, came back the rather brusque reply.

Of course the 10 people who feature in the council's Twitter feed are only the tip of the iceberg. A search on all those contacting the council's press office with questions or complaints shows that there were many more who did not receive a reply. What they all had in common was that they asked awkward questions or said things which the council does not like.

And that brings us to the second major reason why the council's Twitter feed is not a success. Whether you like them or not, Twitter and the other social media are democratic. They don't like crude propaganda, and they don't like one-way megaphone contributors.

Cneifiwr's advice for anyone who who does not receive a reply is to follow your question up with a tweet making a formal complaint. Not because this will make the council take your question or comment seriously, and you should certainly not expect an apology.What it will do in the short term is push up the number of complaints the council has to register and report (they will love you for doing that), and in the longer term it just may force the council to interact with the people it serves and finally understand that communication is a two-way process.

Well, you never know.

Whether the press office in its current form will see the light and realise that propaganda is a waste of time and money is quite another matter, because the press office clearly has ambitions to turn itself into a news agency.

It recently announced that anyone interested could sign up to have a feed of stories about dog poo, litter, black propaganda and demented hype delivered to to their computer screens.

Somehow, I can't imagine there will be many takers.


Plaid Gwersyllt said...

Councils don't like twitter criticism because too many people see it. Maximise your impact by also addressing your tweet to a local who has lots of followers like .@jonathanplaid that will really piss them off!

Mrs Angry said...

Nandos, wrestling, Jim Davidson: why have I never been to Carmathen?

Kevin Madge is right about twitter being dangerous, though: it is the work of the devil, and steals people's souls. Carmarthenshire County Council is quite right to fear the use of phones in the public gallery, for this reason if none other.

Cneifiwr said...

I hope you haven't started going to one of those evangelical churches Mrs A. It sounds as though you have had a funny turn.

Anonymous said...

Just had a brief look through their followers and quite a lot are people with something to flog. So the quality of their followers is lacking.

What I mean by that is for a council you'd want the person on the street following you as that is who your meant to be engaging with. I wonder if these research teams take this into account or whether they just look at the raw numbers.

No one should fear twitter unless they don't want any publicity.

Tessa said...

HAAAAA HA HA HA! Stop it! My pelvic floor doesn't have the pre-childbirth spring it had - erm - before giving birth - and thanks to you lot I'm perilously close to ruining my new office chair!

Mrs Angry said...

The Lord moves in mysterious ways, Cneifiwr, and He has revealed to me this evening a story that will interest you re evangelism and council partnership. Post tomorrow, God willing.