How Sunderland City Council uses social media to engage with constituents

Remember Sunderland City Council during the Election result night? Sunderland was the first to announce the General Election results. This remarkable achievement can’t be seen as a one-off result. The Sunderland City Council communication team not only reaches the public quickly and directly during elections, they are also using online communication tools on a daily basis.

We asked Lee Ridley from Sunderland City Council how they stand out the crowd in the Facebook capital of the United Kingdom.

How long has the council been busy with its Twitter feed?

Our Twitter has been running since March 2009 and we currently have 1,121 followers. We update our feed about four times a day on average and sometimes more during busy days or when we tweet from events such as the Sunderland International Airshow.

We use our Twitterstream to give out information such as news, events, jobs and ‘extras’, with these extras being manually added information (responses, comments etc) rather than aggregated RSS feeds, in order to help provide a personal as opposed to an entirely corporate face (as being too corporate puts people off).

For example, it was very helpful during the winter weather when residents wanted info on school closures, road conditions etc as soon as possible. A number of residents used Twitter to ask questions and get news.

We also live tweeted our election results on election night as well as posted videos on Youtube of the ballot boxes coming out and the results been read out minutes after it had happened. This led to many hits and replies on both our Twitter and Youtube pages. Residents were getting the latest news as it happened instead of having to wait until it was announced in other media.’

How does the Twitter feed fit into the communication strategy of the council?

Sunderland City Council has a long history of developing a range of programmes and projects aimed at exploring the use and raising the awareness of digital technologies across the many different communities of Sunderland.

Since winning Digital Challenge in 2007, which seeks to establish new methods of working with technology, we have targeted hard to reach groups and individuals who may be currently digitally excluded for any of a number of reasons. Our use of social media is just an extension of this. It is an opportunity to solve problems and improve the lives of people in our communities as well as to get information out to many people with a few clicks of a button.

It’s much faster and much more immediate than traditional media and it’s also two-way so that people can communicate with us in new ways too. We like to put our residents at the heart of everything we do and let them have their say on as many things as possible concerning the city. So it makes sense to enter the arena that many residents use every day in order for us to connect with them. It’s a case of taking our news, etc. and putting it somewhere where we know our residents will be, rather than relying on them picking up a newspaper or coming into the civic centre to find out things.

Sunderland recently won BEACON status. Technology has a major role to play in place shaping policy. The creative use of technology increases the ability of local partners to identify and address the issues in their area and deliver improved services and outcomes for our residents. Digital inclusion is a much deeper issue than tackling the digital divide and providing direct access to technologies.

Why are you using Twitter? What are your goals?

We use Twitter because, as well as the points that I have already made, we believe that it is important that we join in the conversation rather than just stand and watch from the sidelines. People will be talking about us whether we have a presence or not. What do you do? How do you join in? Do you take the kick-down-the-doors approach, the ban-the-internet approach, and try and get the user banned? In practice, you have two choices.

There’s the do nothing approach, to avoid giving the people extra publicity — ask yourself whether you really want to have that particular argument in a public space? Or do you do something? Do you engage or do you let it slide?

You have to decide what you can control. You can’t control what people are saying about you, but you can control how your staff use social media through acceptable use policies. Our view is that is better to engage with our residents rather than ignore what they are saying. That way we can find out their views, put across our point of view and try to work together rather than take a ‘us and them’ approach.

I hope that our use of Twitter helps inform residents, gives them access to information quicker than they would have got it otherwise, allows them to have their say as well as allows us to keep track of conversations.

What other online communication tools do you use to reach your target audience?

As well as our web site, we also use Facebook to post news, events, photos etc on our fan page. We use Youtube to post videos such as the opening of Sunderland Aquatic Centre and Flickr to host photos.