It really is about time that something was said about the Communications
Scrutiny Sub Group meeting which was held almost four weeks ago. It was the
first I had attended after the Bexley Buffoon had imposed her new restrictions on
members of the public who like to see what is being done in their name. There
was as expected no Press Desk but neither was there a barrier. Only three chairs
had been provided for the public and two were occupied by the Chairman and
Vice-Chairman of the Resources Scrutiny Committee,
Councillors Steven Hall and Maxine Fothergill. Fortunately no one but me was
nosy enough to put in an appearance.
Also present was Councillor June Slaughter, I remember that because she made a point of speaking to me, maybe because she has been told not to.
Present too was Gill Steward, the Buffoon in person. I’m not sure why because her only contribution to the meeting was to tell us that when she was at West Sussex County Council they used to Tweet about traffic conditions on the A27 and in Hackney, where she lives, the Council runs an “exceptional” website. Better than Bexley’s anyway.
When the meeting ended I found myself thinking ‘What was the point of all that?’ We had the Council’s Communications Manager, the only one who might be an expert on the subject, being given the benefit of Councillors’ views. Maybe they are better able to give the views of the average man in the street but on the way out of the building a Councillor posed the same question to me. “What use did I think the meeting was.”
Right at the very end of the meeting all the Councillors were asking what the objectives of the Sub Group was, no one seemed very sure.
The Council acknowledges that times are changing when it comes to communications and it has fallen behind those times. In ten years the borough has lost much of its weekly newspaper coverage and social media has done much to fill the gap. And its website is poor to say the least. One might also say ‘technically fragile’.
It has already agreed to use targeted email for both communications and marketing, to make more use of social media and refresh the Bexley Magazine; and a fat lot of good that will do for me. Since Bexley Council engaged London Letterbox Marketing to do the distribution I have not seen a single copy. I would not be surprised if I have been blacklisted.
Before the meeting began the Sub Group went through the pretence of electing a Chairman. Without any debate they unanimously selected Councillor Nick O’Hare (Conservative, Blendon & Penhill) who by an incredible coincidence was already sitting in the Chairman’s position and had his opening speech ready.
John Ferry the Communications Manager (photo centre) was asked to summarise the current situation. “The website is key but we all know it is not our strength at the moment. The new one is expected to launch in April”.
There is a new email system and the Council has gathered 86,000 addresses and profiles of individuals from its various departments and residents will be able to subscribe to the subjects which interest them. A pop up on the website will encourage sign ups. using residential addresses and ages the Council will be able to target its emails.
Social media is “very powerful but demanding on resources”. The Council’s use of it “has been building very slowly”. Distribution of the local newspapers is shrinking as is the editorial space so the Bexley Magazine has become progressively more important.
“There are Councils which do not respond to newspapers.” Bexley is not one of them according to Mr. Ferry. Even so, news releases have fallen from 60 plus a month to under 20. The Legal Notices in the News Shopper cost about £12,000 a year but its distribution is “not what we would like”.
The Chairman then asked Councillors to inject their own thoughts on the Council’s use of the new communications opportunities.
Councillor June Slaughter (Conservative, Sidcup) said that people “are always moaning about how difficult it is to get around the website”. She was not an enthusiast for social media “life’s too short” but because of her membership of the Sub Group she “will have a go”.
She thought the Bexley Magazine “was valued” but the advertising revenue covered only 40% of its cost. A full page advertisement costs £1,500.
Councillor Joe Ferreira asked how communications priorities are set and reviewed and asked about the website’s compatibility with mobile devices. He said he found that it “struggled” and there were “thousands and thousands of pages which are out of date”. The number of Twitter followers was low too. He didn’t think sufficient use was made of video either. Finally he wanted to know what the Council would do if the Bexley edition of the News Shopper ceased publication, some editions have already gone.
Mr. Ferry began to say that the website content was badly in need of a good weeding but the Buffoon decided she would say it for him. When he was able to say so he said the new site would be “shorter and much more to the point”.
No money has been spent on social media and “it was hard to know how much appetite there is for us on there”. There would be more video and it would be more mobile friendly. Statute dictated that Public Notices must go in a local newspaper and it was unclear what happens where there are none.
Councillor Caroline Newton (Conservative, St. Michael’s) asked about “the reach of the Bexley Magazine and the poster sites” and she was interested in placing blogs and forums on the new Council website.
There is little good information about ‘reach’ but Mr. Ferry thought it was better to join residents on the popular media channels such as Streetlife rather than attempt to tempt them into moving elsewhere.
Councillor Sharon Massey (Conservative, Cray Meadows) was responsible for the most insightful comments of the day, she said that an on-line presence was extremely costly and even the world’s most visited website (The Daily Mail) had been forced to make 400 staff redundant. “We must be really aware of what we decide in here.” It’s no good having “all dancing media and we can’t afford to empty the bins any more.”
“It is brilliant that we are on Twitter and Facebook, it is not scary. It can be good news stories all the time but we are very aware how lies get published about Bexley Council, there’s loads of people making up stuff. Councillor Newton saw stuff on social media today, it’s almost laughable how some of the stuff gets made up but one of the things that really bothered me was during the Northumberland Heath concern and there was a big social media story about someone being stabbed and somebody had died and that had loads of legs before the actual reality came out. Do we have the legal power to do almost a police bulletin saying what the reality is? Can we address something that is particularly shocking to hear that someone had been stabbed and murdered when it wasn’t true?”
Mr. Ferry said “we have made pronouncements on something like that in the past but in partnership with the police. I think we would only do it with their blessing”. Councillor Massey wanted to know if the Council could use their 86,000 email addresses. The answer was No, what was needed was an out of hours media presence. In passing, Councillor Massey said she did not trust emails from London Councils, she “just deleted them”. On the other hand, the Chief Executive said she thought “the Local Government Association Comms Group was really good”.
Councillor Massey did not think it was a good idea to “allow residents to chat on our website to each other, I know people who run Facebook pages and they have to really monitor it. People shout and row with each other. You only have to look at the News Shopper comments after an incident.” She did not want to see “racist and homophobic comments on our website”.
Coming out with more good sense, Councillor Massey warned about too many adverts. “On the News Shopper site, it is so full of adverts you can’t even see the news any more.” I never dreamed I could agree with Mrs. Massey that much.
After that there was not an awful lot left that Councillor Oppong-Asare (Labour, Erith) could say but she warned about the website being too text heavy and put forward ideas for increasing the number of Twitter followers. She recommended more links to Council meeting webcasts and obviously wanted to put BiB out of business by suggesting a summary of meetings for people who don’t have the time or stamina for the webcast.
Mr. Ferry took the Twitter suggestions on board and the subsequent discussion revealed that the webcast audience was very small, never more than 30 and sometimes only four or five or six.
With the discussion concluded, Councillor Fothergill said that her business experience is that emails are increasingly left unread or missed because of the deluge of spam, but surveys have shown that texts to mobile phones are answered within three seconds. Perhaps the Council should harvest mobile numbers. I wonder how many people are like me, I reluctantly signed up for a mobile phone but I haven’t a clue what its number is.