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Using Social Media to Engage and Empower Local Communities

In today’s “Big Society”, there’s increasing importance for local authorities and other public bodies to engage directly in a two-way dialogue with the people on whose behalf they are working.

Social Media  can be an extremely effective tool for empowering and giving a  voice to communities, but its use needs to be carefully planned and managed.

On the positive side, Social Media is in widespread use, and has low barriers to entry in terms of cost and technical difficulty.

On the negative side, without being part of a wider engagement strategy it can exclude important sections of the community and can become directionless,  with no real ROI.

Although Social Media is about learning by doing, often the lack of basic IT skills and experience with using Social Media platforms can prevent valuable members of a community from being included in a wider online consultation and engagement.

A multi-agency engagement approach

The Somerset Coastal Change Pathfinder Project (SCCP) is a multi-agency body tasked with consulting coastal communities on the future of the coastline.

As part of our work with SCCP, we have been running social media engagement workshops – bringing in interested groups and members of the public in the communities affected by coastal change.

The philosophy behind the workshops is to educate and enthuse local people in engaging with the project via social media.

The keys to making this work include:

  • Its about engagement, not social media – not everyone who want to get involved in the consultation will know, or want to know, about social media. It’s important that the workshop is sold and promoted as a platform-neutral engagement opportunity. Members of the public can engage in consultation any way they want to, but it’s good to let them know how useful social media is as an engagement tool, and to help them use in case they want to learn how.
  • Creating a shared learning environment – rather than just showing people “how its done” you allow them to work together to solve problems and find solutions.
  • Identifying levels of engagement – make sure you understand where individuals are in terms of their understanding of social media and allow those who know more to help those who know less.
  • Keep the project at the heart of the workshop – any training or practical examples should be focused directly on engagement with the project. Let delegates actually have their voice heard as they learn.
  • Make it goal-focussed – if you are showing people how to use Flickr, for instance, teach them by allowing them to create – for example in this case – a gallery of images of coastal change in  particular part of the coast which will feed directly into the consultation programme. By creating something that is directly relevant to the consultation, you are doing more than just teaching skills you are beginning the engagement process.
  • Evaluate and follow up the session to help drive future engagement with the community project.

You need to bring not only expertise in the technology involved, but also in the project issues and in the local community. The best workshops are those where the delegates feel empowered and because they will know their own community better and the project issues, they should be  the  real experts in driving forward the social media.

It is important to remember it isn’t about the technology, but about the conversation. People need to be shown how to use the technology initially, but then they should forget about it and think about the engagement. Just like we don’t think about the fact we are using a telephone when we call someone up,  or even the mechanisms of using e-mail.  True engagement through social media begins when it is just about the engagement, not the social media platform.

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