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13/10/2016

Free Food for Thought - or how I ended up talking social media and planning

Written by Simon Moon

Free Food:

Is the title given to the email sent to me by our marketing manager, to trick me into opening an email about creating some more blog content for her. I am not sure she knows her audience that well, as having been recently fed, and rather well at the Zetter Townhouse in Clerkenwell, I was not that hungry. However open it I did, and writing I am. So maybe she does afterall.

The way we communicate with each other has changed, not our marketing manager and I, but all of us. The way we access information and interact with each other, with brands and organisations has changed.

We all know this and we have all accepted this, however there is seemingly one man left standing; Consultation.

Consultation is changing slowly, but some believe a big change is upon us. Maybe not this year, but certainly over the coming year and likely, sooner than most will be ready for.

Engaging with new growing, online communities is becoming of greater importance in the planning consultation process. Digital platforms and communications channels such as social media are enabling developers to set out their case, provide information, engage support and gather feedback on their proposals and developments.

Of course, the traditional communication methods, public exhibitions, community meetings and the like aren’t dead. But there’s no doubt that digital in all its forms and social media are here to stay, and growing in influence and importance for consultation and engagement.

For those of you that think that social media is just for the kids and B list hollywood celebrities, with their snap chat and Instagram, you could not be more wrong.

  • 45% of internet users over 65 use facebook
  • 52% of adults have more than one social media account
  • 6m users are on Twitter in the UK alone.

But how important is social media in the public consultation process?

Well we wanted to take a closer look at this. We wanted to understand how important social media is as a tool within the planning consultation process; How much weight do the industry and the decision makers put on public responses, captured via social media and ultimately, should we all be engaging with our consultees through social media as part of the public consultation process?

So here is what we did

Remarkable Engagement compiled a report with YouGov surveying councillors across England, Scotland and Wales. The survey was conducted through an online interview sent to nearly 12,000 councillors across Great Britain. YouGov then facilitated online interviews on our behalf with a representative sample of 1,401 councillors.

The results were weighted by political party, council type and region to give a sample that was representative of councils in Great Britain.

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What we found out

  • 60% believe developers should be engaging with local communities through social media
  • 74% believe responses gathered via social media would add value when reviewing planning applications
  • 34% believe social media feedback should be included as part of an SCI.

A substantial 75% of respondents said social media is an important or very important engagement tool with just 4% not convinced (yet).

However, despite this clear belief amongst the planning authorities in the value of social media in the engagement process, many developers are yet to embrace it as a tactic with which to engage communities.

It is slowly increasing, but it is still not currently widely included in consultation and engagement activity.  

Social media channels give us the opportunity to access a wider demographic when compared to traditional methods. It is a powerful ally when it comes to reaching out to younger members of society, or those with young families, who may look on developments more favourably given the lack of housing options for our growing population.

Equally it is powerful in its ability to reach other members of the community who are increasingly time poor (almost everyone), and unable to engage with us through more traditional channels. Online channels give them potentially 24hr access to information and feedback mechanisms ensuring our consultations are inclusive.

Many comments gathered within the report did reflect the belief that the inclusion of social media would broaden the spectrum of opinion collected. For the majority of developments this would clearly be a benefit to show a wider and more diverse community had been consulted.

“Alongside other forms, this method can engage wider audiences including those younger voters who may not be politically  engaged though more traditional forms of communication.”

Broad adoption of social media within the consultation process is being hindered by continuing concerns such as a general lack of understanding of the channel, as well as worries over resourcing and control.

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It is clear to most that social media can provide useful insight into people’s true thoughts. As many of us know, it is easier for people within the social space to make comments that they may not make at any other forum. This perceived anonymity creates the feeling that those on social media are more likely to give a negative response and that feedback will be geared more towards objection - opinion that we cannot truly escape in any medium.

Although the more traditional methods have proven their worth and will continue to do so, as social media evolves, so too should consultation.

There are still a few barriers in the way, namely statutory necessity and a general fear of losing control in one way or another, but these things will change.

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Organisations like The Consultation Institute (tCI) have created guidelines and a code of practice for the social space. Guidelines that help with everything from audience and stakeholder mapping through to measurement and reporting.

Understanding these guidelines and best practices is essential to the effective use of the social channel for consultation, understanding the nuances of social and what is expected of us within it.

For example, when it comes to the publication of content or information within social, it almost has a language of its own. The needs of social are different and the types of content and communication that is needed to ensure we are engaging and informing our stakeholders and consultees is different.

This is not that surprising really, much like any other communication channel, the format needs to fit the medium; you would not try to use a print advert to communicate an offer or raise awareness on radio.  

With social, we are interested in building a dialogue, generating engagement through the publication and distribution of relevant information. Rather than publishing everything about our consultation like we would with a traditional consultation document, or overloading boards at a public meeting with information that is often read out of sequence or not read at all, social media thrives on smaller pieces of content that are chunked up.

These snippets are then delivered over time and that will build the story, layering information out to our communities in easily digestable and understandable pieces to ensure they have the best chance of actually reading it and truly understanding.

Remarkable works closely with tCI to ensure examples of best practice like this reach our clients and partners and to ensure that the consultations we are involved in encourage broader participation from a much wider cross-section of respondents, making consultations more effective and more inclusive.

Access full report

For more best practices follow @Rem_Engagement, call us 01962 893 893 or email info@remarkablegroup.co.uk.

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Simon Moon

Head of Digital and Social Media

Consultation Online, Social, digital, Planning, Consultation, Syndication B2C