Shifty shellshock

When I started out working on council web content eight years ago I didn’t realise that making our content and processes as easy-to-use as possible to tempt people onto the web would be called channel shift.

Five years ago I attended the National Digital Inclusion Conference and alarm bells started ringing. It was the first time anyone had pointed out to me that 1/3 three people in the UK didn’t have a computer (at that time). It was also the first time I heard about the broadband lottery. Maybe I was naïve but I’d just assumed everyone was like me and my family and friends.

Roll forward a year and channel shift had been given a name with programmes being rolled out the length and breadth of the country in a drive to get people transacting online with local and central government because that is the cheapest channel. Everyone was and still is quoting Socitm’s channel costs:

  • face-to-face £8.23
  • telephone £3.21
  • website £0.39

These are the figures that are driving channel shift in the name of efficiencies. We can all save a fortune by getting people online. What these figures fail to take into account is back office integration. Until processes are either completely redesigned or aging and multiple back office systems are integrated with our websites online will be more expensive than the phone because of all the data double handling – online form produces an email then an officer has to re-key the information into a separate system.

Deep sigh.

Where am I going with this?

Last week I was lucky enough to be asked to do the social reporting at the Public Sector Forums Channel Shift event in Glasgow. This was delivered by Sarah Fogden (@sarahfogden) and Gerald Power (@geraldpower), both channel shift and change management consultants from Trapeze Transformation.

Both worked for the Cabinet Office when Digital by Default was being written and both reckon DxD has been misinterpreted. We’ve all taken it to mean that all services should be designed to go online when in fact each one needs to be evaluated on individual merits as not all services/processes sit well online.

I can’t reproduce everything that Sarah and Gerald said but I’ll give you the top things I learned that day.

Matching the task to the channel

Each channel has its own strengths and each customer demographic has different preferences – not all tasks suit online.

  • What outcome are you looking for?
  • Will the channel you’re thinking about achieve the outcomes?
  • Is it economically sensible?
  • Will your target customers use it?

Is the task ready for the shift

To answer this you need to do a lot of research.

  • What volumetrics do you have?
  • What customer profiling do you have?
  • What analytics do you have?
  • What are they telling you about the task, channel and customer?

Why do you want to shift channels

Are you doing this for the customer or for efficiencies?

If you’re doing it for the customer you need to make it easier to use or access. You need to make it faster. You need to add value.

If you’re doing it for cashable savings you need to keep looking backwards for a headcount reduction. You need to rationalise offices/buildings. You need to lower the cost of contracted services. If you don’t produce any of these there are no efficiencies.

Hotspot analysis

  • You should pay attention to where significant resources are being spent.
  • If you don’t spend much money in a task, you won’t save much by shifting channel.

However, use this with caution. Benefits cost a lot to provide but the people claiming benefits often have complex needs, across many services. Processes such as these are best done face-to-face with human intervention.

Simple suitability

You can assess the suitability of a process for self-service by asking:

  • Is it complex or simple
  • Is it rules-based or judgement-based
  • Are the transactions high or low volume

Humans are good at managing judgement-based processes and ambiguous tasks whereas machines are better at simple rules-based processes. They are also good at complex processes but these often need significant investment to implement.

The customer

This may seem obvious but it would surprise you how often it is forgotten. The customer should be considered at the start of the channel shift process, not stuck in at the end with some user testing before go-live.

  • Every bit of data you have tells you about your service users – use it wisely.
  • Learn how to do customer journey mapping which is not the same thing as process mapping.

The channel shift team

This should be cross cutting.

It shouldn’t be led by the call centre as they’re probably the ones involved in the headcount reduction. This is like asking the turkey to organise Christmas dinner.

It shouldn’t be led by IT. IT is the enabler to much of channel shift but that’s just the gubbins in the box. No one, least of all the customer cares what’s in the box, they just want it to work without them noticing how it works. Don’t get hung up on the IT detail.

Don’t ignore comms/research unit. These guys are probably the ones with access to customer profiling and channel preferences. You’ll also need them to market your new channels. People don’t just shift channels by magic – they need to be persuaded to try new channels.

Overall channel shift needs to be led from the top across the whole organisation and needs to be driven by a clear vision and business case with support from stakeholders.

Sarah and Gerald were great speakers and with their background it was obvious they know their stuff. It was a fascinating day which reinforced many of the thoughts I’ve been having about channel shift for a while but I’ll leave you with this nugget:

It doesn’t matter how good you think the path is – customers choose the path they like best.

From John Smeaton to #hurricanebawbag

I said I’d share the findings of my Masters dissertation so here goes. The post is a bit long but hey ho, I’m sure you’ll all cope.

The research investigates the use of social media by journalists and emergency responders in Strathclyde over three emergency events:

  • the terrorist attack onGlasgowairport in 2007
  • the Lanark school bus crash in early 2010
  • the severe weather in December 2010.

The Co-op building fire and the severe storm in late 2011 were also tracked live.

The most interesting parts for me were the case study interviews and comparing the influence of emergency responders and media outlets.

I’ve uploaded the complete dissertation but this is a summary of the conclusions of the latter chapters.

Case study interviews

As can be seen by the comments from both Strathclyde Police and South Lanarkshire Council there has been a slow realisation that social media can be used by emergency responders to communicate directly with the public instead of the traditional way of using the media as a conduit for information.

It can also been seen that the media is also beginning to respond to the public’s use of social media and a recognition that sites such as Facebook and Bebo are ways of sourcing photographs and Twitter can be a source of concise comments to add to news stories, both online and in print.

However, for both the media and emergency responders, from 2007 to 2010 there seems to have been little appetite to learn how to use social media effectively – learning seems to have been driven by events, with little or no sharing of best practice, either within each group or across groups.

This is consistent with the findings of the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel (2011) which advised a review of how councils and the police use social media and an assessment carried out as to how they could improve.

It is also similar to the research undertaken by Bruns et al (2012) around the Queenslandfloods of 2011 where they showed that both groups had a role to play in emergencies: emergency services are the trusted source of information but the media is best placed to collate emergency information.

The case studies, together with the questionnaire results also show that there is a propensity to favour Twitter over other social media channels in gathering, broadcasting and sharing emergency information which is again borne out by Bruns et al (2012, p.12), mainly due to the ‘retweet’ function but also due to the difficulty of managing conversations on Facebook which can ‘rapidly swamp important information’.

Live tracking 

The live tracking of these two events shows a maturation in the use of social media by Strathclyde Police, South Lanarkshire Council and STV Glasgow. By using mainly Twitter as a daily tool for communication they are building relationships, not only with their followers, but also with each other.

However, as shown by the Evening Times, many media organisations may still have a long way to go, both in learning how to use social media effectively as a day-to-day communications tool but also as a news gathering tool. It remains to be seen if news organisations who are already comfortable using social media will share their experience with newcomers or if they will be left to learn ‘on the job’ as an incident breaks, as their predecessors did.

Hashtags too present a further difficulty, especially for emergency responders. Often a hashtag has been created by the public before the emergency services are on the scene and decisions about whether to use the public hashtag or create a new one could affect how quickly and effectively essential information is disseminated. In their research Bruns et al (2012, p.29) go so far as to suggest that ‘messages should be designed to be passed along easily . . . and should contain hashtags relevant to the topic’.

Influence/follower comparisons

The online tool Followerwonk shows that even although STV Glasgow and The Evening Times have relatively few followers, they still have significant influence.

This would suggest that a little more discernment around who organisations follow back or who they chose to follow could increase their influence.

Overall these diagrams show that the audiences for South Lanarkshire Council, Strathclyde Police and the area’s media organisations tend to be different, as do the audiences of the different media outlets themselves.

This would suggest that were they to work together on unified messages during an emergency instead of working autonomously, the information would reach many more people and the likelihood of messages ‘going viral’ would increase.

This work should be done during ‘quiet’ periods of learning and not during an incident when the message itself is the most important consideration, rather than refinement of the medium.

This is in keeping with the findings of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel (2011) which found councils and the emergency services use of social media weak and Bruns et al (2012, p.31) who consider the retweeting of official information as ‘amplification’ of key messages.

Overall conclusions

It would appear that news organisations are at different stages of using social media but that the level of its use is not relative to circulation figures, but more on how interested, individual journalists are in using it. Both the questionnaire and the case studies highlighted that it is often one journalist who uses social media, often starting with a personal account, but that using social media during a crisis such as a weather event or a major incident proves its worth to senior management and it is then developed in a more formal way.

Social media strategies and policies seem to have grown organically with the early adopters within Strathclyde’s media. However the laggards may be putting rules and regulations in at an earlier stage of its use compared to the early adopters.

The members of the Strathclyde Emergency Co-ordination Group (SECG) are monitoring and using social media in their normal day-to-day business as councils, NHS Boards, police and fire and rescue service. However during an emergency incident the approval process for any information coming from the Communications Group means that its release can be slower than a social media audience would expect. This is similar to the findings of Kapucu (2006) who found that hierarchical structures struggle in emergency situations when quicker problem solving and information sharing are required. It would also appear that there are no protocols for sharing information between members across social media platforms. Information sharing by retweeting amplifies important information and is critical during emergencies (Bruns et al, 2012).

During an emergency, Strathclyde’s news organisations will use information, video and photographs provided by the public on social media channels, if they can trace it back to source. This would suggest that the public is aware when a news organisation has used their content but it remains to be seen if this is still the case if there is ever a large-scale incident in Strathclyde which creates a high volume of social media content across different platforms. All interviewees described busy news rooms with tight deadlines where social media is an add-on for existing staff.

However, the usual journalism practice would appear come into play at the scene of an incident where there have been casualties or deaths, in that reporters will check the names of victims, casualty figures and other details with the lead emergency responder, rather than depend on information from the public. News organisations are however, comfortable taking photographs from a personal social media account once the person’s name has been officially released. As stated previously the ethics surrounding digital media are still being researched and with a constantly changing landscape ethics policies will need to keep up (Ess, 2009).

Strathclyde Police admitted that they are in the early stages of monitoring social media at an operational level and it remains to be seen how this would connect and connect with the other information that feeds into the SECG Communications Group cell during an emergency. This has been highlighted as critical to the flow of communication and the potential to correct misinformation by the Riots Communities and Victims Panel in their interim report (2011) following the London Riots.

Some local authorities are using social media to have two-way conversations and monitor situations and for them social media could be an effective communication tool during an emergency. However, other local authorities are still using social media as a broadcast tool which goes against the advice held in the SECG Communications Plan where agencies should identify their key audiences and ensure ‘effective two-way communication’ (SECG:PCG, 2011 p.32).

A turning point for emergency responders was the severe weather in 2010. Up until that point they had felt their duty was to inform the media during an emergency and that it was the media’s duty to inform the public. However, during the severe snow, with people trapped in cars, emergency responders realised that they could warn and inform the public themselves, although there was a realisation that the tone and content of the messages wasn’t quite right. By the time of the storms in 2011/12 this had been improved upon and emergency responders were also beginning to retweet each other’s information, although again there is no official protocol in place to make this a slicker operation.

Overall, during the time scale studied, both journalists and emergency responders have learned how to monitor and use social media during emergency events, rather than preparing during normal business. This goes against the advice of the Deputy Chief Constable of Tayside Police who advises that ‘you shouldn’t learn about social media while the bricks are flying and the cars are burning’ (Scobbie, 2012). There has been very little sharing of good practice, either within each group or across groups.

Twitter seems to be the platform of choice for both groups when it comes to putting out or sharing information, although journalists will use other social media platforms to glean pictures from personal accounts in certain circumstances. This is consistent with the findings of Bruns et al (2012, p. 31) who describe Twitter as:

deeply embedded in the broader media ecology, both drawing on and rapidly becoming a primary source of information for more mainstream news and media outlets.

By watching the storm event and the Co-op fire live this study shows that some organisations’ social media use is maturing and, not only is it being used as a communication tool for day-to-day business, it is beginning to be used to build relationships with their own audiences and each other. However, others still have a long way to go on their social media journey but not only are they playing catch-up, they should be aware of the speed at which the social media landscape can change and also that we have a generation of digital natives who take social media for granted and who expect organisations to communicate with them using it (Shirky, 2008).

Hashtags on Twitter seem to be a cause of concern for emergency responders and #hurricanebawbag showed them that, not only do they not control hashtags, when they try to control them it can have a detrimental effect on the flow of important information. Hashtags are essential for effective retweeting and as has been said earlier rewteeting amplifies any official messages (Bruns et al, 2012).

This research has also shown that each organisations’ Twitter account has very different sets of followers – they have very few common followers. Were they to share information more effectively, official information would travel further and quicker than it does at the moment. Also a little more discernment in who they follow could result in higher influence scores and a better flow of information if those influential followers choose to retweet official information.

This research has focused on the Strathclyde Emergency Co-ordination Group and it would be useful for research to be done across the other emergency areas to see if the results are consistent. However, the results here are consistent with research done inLondonfollowing the English riots in the summer of 2011 (Riots Communities and Victims Panel, 2011) and research done inQueenslandfollowing the severe floods in 2011(Bruns et al, 2012). This would suggest that the following high-level conclusions can be drawn for emergency communications in general:

  • communications groups working during emergencies need to be aware of the expectations of a public used to the speed of social media. As discussed by Kapucu (2006) extreme events require quicker problem solving and information sharing than at other times
  • there also needs to be a connection between operational monitoring of social media and the communications group’s use of social media to share information
  • Twitter should be the main social media channel for communication information and conversation during an emergency event
  • the effective use of hashtags and retweeting between emergency responders, the media and the public are essential for the amplification of key emergecny information.


This research indicates that social media has an important role to play for both emergency responders and the media but most important group of all is the public who need clear and consistent information during a crisis.

The following suggestions should be taken into consideration to enable emergency responders and the media to use social media effectively not only in their day-to-day business but also together during an incident.


Each Category 1 organisations should set up a Twitter account, as should media organisations. This should not be done during an incident but rather during ‘quiet’ periods when users have the time to learn how to use it effectively. Fail early so if mistakes are made, they are done while the account has few followers.

Twitter lists

Twitter lets users create lists of important accounts which means the ‘noise’ can be filtered out from the rest. Lists of the following could prove useful during an incident:

  • Category 1 responders such as blue light services, local authorities and health boards
  • Category 2 responders such as airport operators, utility companies and harbour authorities
  • Local/regional media

Community of Practice

The SECG model has been shown to work although there should be cognisance at a strategic level that the sign-off process for information can be too slow for the expectations of a public now used to the speed of social media. However, there is a disconnect between the SECG and the media in the area. Having the media attend SECG meetings during an incident is unrealistic but an online community could be set up. Public sector organisations are already comfortable using the Local Government Association’s online networking platform, the Knowledge Hub. An emergency response community should be created where best practice can be shared amongst, not only emergency responders but also the media.

Twitter hashtags

Hashtags should also be discussed on the community of practice as early as possible during an incident. The hurricanbawbag hashtag was trending inScotlandby mid-morning on the day of the storm but had there been a platform for the media and emergency responders to discuss what hashtag was going to be used for official information there would have been less confusion and the media could have shared the official information in a more effective way.


Both the questionnaire and the case studies showed that media organisations and emergency responders are at various levels of social media use maturity. A buddy system should be set up where a more seasoned user is paired up with a relative newcomer. This would add an extra, one-to-one dimension to the community of practice and would help get everyone onto a similar level of use more quickly than if it were to grow organically.

Automated tweeting

During a crisis there is little time for either the media or the emergency communications team to sit on Twitter looking for information to retweet. However, there are tools available to automate retweeting and reposting. Tools such as TwitterFeed and If This Then That allow users to set up a rule that will recognise a hashtag being published on a named account which will then automatically retweet on the user’s account. Therefore if an official hashtag is agreed by the SECG the media can set up a rule that will retweet everything with that hashtag from Strathclyde Police, therefore the people who follow the Daily Record will see the official information coming from Strathclyde Police. These rules can be set up in advance during ‘quiet’ periods so that only the hashtag needs added. Retweeting not only amplifies the message (Bruns et al, 2012) but, looking at the Followerwonk data, the message will also travel to a wider audience by sharing it across accounts.

Crowd sourcing/mapping

Applications such as Ushahidi and Sahana should be trialled to gauge their usefulness in the Strathclyde context. Ushahidi is an open-source crowd mapping tool and it was used to map fuel shortages in the run up to a threatened tanker drivers’ strike in March 2012. The Fuel Shortages Map allowed categories such as fuel shortages, deliveries and queues to be placed on a map of the country, either by tweeting using #fuelwatch or by filling in an online form. Volunteers around the world plot these pieces of information on the map (Fuel Shortages Map, 2012). The application has also been used for large scale events such as the severe snow inNew York in 2008, the Japanese tsunami in 2011 and the on-going political unrest inSyria (Ushahidi, 2012). A demonstration by a UK volunteer would show not only the power of the tool itself but also the power of the crowd. Again this should be done in a ‘quiet period’ rather than learning how to use it during the pressures of a crisis.

Tweet ups

Tweet ups are informal events where people who use Twitter meet up face-to-face, often for the first time. Talking to other people who use social media tools but who are from sectors other than the media or emergency responders can be beneficial in that they may be using social media in different ways that could be applicable during an incident. Emergency responders and the media should be encouraged to attend these and even to organise their own.

So there you have it. A year of my life condensed into a blog post. I hope it was worth it!

And here’s the full thing – From John Smeaton to #hurricanebawbag

Trust me, I’m a scientist

I didn’t go to university.

There I’ve said it.

All through primary and secondary I wanted to be a journalist but when I was leaving school I aimed too high – it had to be English literature at Glasgow University or nothing. I didn’t get the grades so it was nothing.

Well actually I ended up at the local tech doing a Communications HND. When I left I started a journalism training course with one of Scotland’s top titles and secured a job with them – two years before my school friends had left university. I knew I’d made the right choice.

However, as I went through my working life I was always being asked what university I’d gone to or what my degree was in. At first I was embarrassed to admit going to the local tech. Then over time I convinced myself that I wouldn’t have been intelligent enough to do a degree anyway.

Just over four years ago my boss suggested doing the management development programme at work which was practical and taught in house. However, at the end we were offered the chance to do a post graduate certificate in Leadership and Management of Public Services which would be delivered online by Glasgow Caledonian University.

I can’t lie and say it was easy because it wasn’t. I loved some of the reading about the history of local government – it explained a lot about why we do what we do in councils. I hated reading the theory of performance management. But what I did enjoy was making sense of a range of materials and writing an assignment around it.

It was tough with two young children in the house and working full time but the learning style suited me much better than if I’d had to sit through standard lectures. The low point was when a colleague phoned one Sunday to discuss an assignment and heard MiniMe in the background. She said, “It must be really hard for you. I mean, every minute you spend on this is time stolen from your children”. I came off the phone, had a good cry, then knuckled back down to read some more text books.

I stopped at getting my certificate but I had caught the learning bug. I knew I wanted to do something more relevant to the work I enjoyed.

A quick search online pointed me to the MSc in Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. I’d heard good things about RGU so I applied and was accepted.

The year I started it was voted best modern university in the UK and has been now for three years running and last year the Sunday Times voted it best Scottish University.

I can certainly vouch for the quality of the lecture notes, the online support from lecturers and the admin staff. However distance learning isn’t for everyone. I loved it though. I loved being able to choose what supporting material I read. I always chose some from the reading list but I always went off piste too and tried to tie in some of it with work, especially social media.

So what were the highlights?

European Union and public affairs: I now persuade family and friends to take more of an interest in EU politics. Most people in this country have no idea how much influence interest groups and lobbyists have in Europe but they also have no idea how much influence EU politics have on their lives.

Media industries: a lot of the language and concepts in this module were tricky but it was fascinating and gave great insight into the history and development of print and broadcast media. This module has made me think that there’s no such thing as the free press in the UK, but that’s just me.

Critical approaches to corporate communications: Again, difficult concepts but the areas of corporate narrative, language and storytelling were invaluable.

There were several points during the dissertation year that I felt like jacking it in but I kept at it. My dissertation researched the use of social media by Strathclyde’s media and emergency responders, tracking it from the attack on Glasgow Airport up until the storms last winter. As a journalist my favourite part was interviewing for the case studies. There were a few eureka moments not only for me but for the people I was interviewing. Even before it had been marked the contents of the thesis were discussed at contingency planning meetings and I am discussing how to take my recommendations forward with the Scottish Resilience Development Team.

It was a relief to hand it in but the wait for the results seemed endless. I found out I’d passed with flying colours on Wednesday and I must admit I was chuffed. Now I’m more highly qualified than my friends who went to uni after school.

The weirdest bit though was that a couple of hours after the results came out my tutor emailed to ask if I’d consider being a professional advisor on research she is doing. Who me? Are you sure?

Suddenly I’m being taken seriously. It happened this morning at a meeting with our Corporate Management Team when they were told my news. They listened to what I had to say and gave me credit for the research I’d done.

It’ll take me a while to get used to this new feeling of being credible. I almost feel like a proper grown-up!

However, the whole point of this blog isn’t about patting myself on the back. It’s to start a crusade.

At the LGComms Academy one of the speakers said that one popular image of PR people is Bridget Jones who, in her own words, ‘fannies about with press releases’ and this is one of the reasons that PR has such a bad reputation.

Cormac Smith, chair of LGComms, when put on the spot during the first day of
the Academy said that the theme of the event was that comms should be seen as a science, not art. What he means is that our jobs should be research and evidence-based. We should measure and evaluate what we do, just like scientists.

And you know what? Three years ago when I was chosing my course one of the things that swung it was that RGU have it in their business school and it is a Master of Science, not an MA.

So now I not only have a degree, I’m a scientist to boot and next time I’ll share my findings.

Move over Sheldon, you’ve met your match!