28 March 2012 – Cambridge Councillors – Introduction to Social Media


This page is a commentary to the workshop I delivered for elected councillors who have wards within the boundaries of my hometown, Cambridge. My brief was to deliver a basic level introduction to social media.

Key Links:


First of all I’d like to thank Cllrs George Owers & Neil McGovern for recommending me to deliver this workshop, and Andrew Limb, Jonathan James and Alexander Finlayson at Cambridge City Council for arranging this workshop. For the record I offered to deliver this workshop free of charge as giving something back to my home, with the intention that the take-up of social media by councillors will help improve constituents’ understanding of local politics and help them hold their elected representatives to account.



I wanted to try something a little different in this session, so experimented with the basics of “Prezi” to cover some of my social media background. (See here). From a zero starting point at the end of November 2010 (while still in the civil service) I launched Puffles onto Twitter. The day after my last day in service in the civil service I launched my blog “A dragon’s best friend”.  As I had separated the Twitter persona “Puffles the dragon fairy” from myself (& styling myself “Puffles’ Bestest Buddy”) I needed to make clear that the thoughts & opinions on the blog were mine rather than that of a Twitter persona. The commissioning of the cuddly toy reinforces this too.


What is social media? How is it different from mainstream media & traditional means of communication?

For me, the key word in the term ‘social media’ is the word ‘social’ – it implies a conversation. Key features of social media include:

  • Until recently, very few organisations could publish and get noticed. Today, anyone with an internet connection can publish and voice their opinion. This makes control almost impossible.
  • The ‘one to many’ model of broadcasting and publishing (with the audience as a passive recipient) is under huge pressure. People are able to bypass the mainstream media. They are also able to provide feedback in a manner that makes things difficult to control – e.g. “Twitter Storms”. Accordingly, large organisations such as the BBC have had to reform their complaints/feedback processes to reflect this. (See here)
  • Social media is much more difficult to monitor and manage compared to the mainstream media. Rather than focussing on a few large media organisations, there is a huge cloud where people interact
  • With the mainstream media, most organisations knew the rules of engagement. With social media, the conventions are still not clear.


What challenges and opportunities are there for local politicians with social media and its users?

Using social media can:

  • Complement offline work such as door-to-door canvassing
  • Allow you to cut out the middle man when engaging with local media and bloggers. Rather than phoning/emailing for formal responses, people can go straight to a councillor’s social media account and quote directly from there. This is happening more regularly – especially with Twitter.
  • Enable you to publicise where you will be – whether this is to encourage people to come to surgeries or whether to increase transparency by publicising who you are meeting and why.
  • Enable you to take part in debates of national importance – whether within your political parties (for those in one) or beyond.
  • Help raise your profile


But there are also challenges

  • As politicians in the current environment you are at an increased risk of being on the receiving end of some very nasty comments. Social media makes it easier for such comments to be sent. (It also makes it easier for law enforcement agencies to trace individuals sending them if such comments break the law)
  • You can leave yourself open to ridicule depending on what you post. (See “glum councillors” – could be an issue if you are very sensitive, could be an opportunity if you want to ‘go with it’)
  • Articles that you publish are more likely to be subject to far greater scrutiny than in previous years. Fact-checking, consistency of argument, voting records, decisions made, comparison with previous articles and publications…all of these can be brought together incredibly quickly. Look at the reaction to the Budget 2012 – intense scrutiny across social media by lots of people interacting with each other led to ‘granny tax’ becoming a trending item that same day. The following morning that trending item became a headline for a number of newspapers.


Information security

This was the key component of the workshops I delivered for Cambridge City Council customer services staff recently.  Learning the basics of information security is essential for anyone wanting to use social media. Social media is value-neutral. People are not. Just as people can do bad things in life, they can and do bad things using social media. Therefore it is important to protect yourself and those close to you before setting out in social media world. Think of it as the equivalent of closing your front door or locking your car when you go out and about. For more information on how to keep yourself secure, I recommend looking at the following sites:


Digital Engagement Guides – “The Guide”

Steph Gray, former Head of Digital Communications at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has put together a brilliant website for public servants on all things social media. (Click here to see it). One of the great things about social media – and the ‘creative commons’ movement in general is that the sharing of knowledge and information is much easier than in days gone by. The guides that Steph has collated – and this commentary too, means that long after the workshop is over, you can go back over content covered at your own leisure.


I covered some of the basics on how to use Facebook. The most important thing to do for those looking to use Facebook is to separate your ‘personal’ accounts from your ‘public office’ pages – as recommended in this post on the IDeA’s website. The principles are the same for the fan page I have set up for Puffles. Amongst other things, this set up protects the privacy of those close to you who may not want to get involved in the politics-related discussions that you may want to use social media accounts for. Some of you may also be familiar with this extended social media guide for councillors – again from the IDeA’s website.

The data I showed in the slides show that Facebook has a much larger audience than Twitter. Anecdotally this seems to be the case in Cambridge too. In terms of adding friends or getting people to ‘like’ your fan page (so that they can receive updates from you), you need to consider why someone would want to follow you. You need to give them a reason. This means adding content regularly and engaging with people who post [polite & constructive] comments on your page. It’s also an opportunity for you to ask questions of your constituents – especially those who may not be able to get to surgeries or council meetings. It could be related to a council consultation, a planning proposal or even ideas for a local event. If you show that you are willing to listen through social media, more people are likely to want to interact with you. If you treat social media as an outlet for press releases and statements only, do not be surprised if your audiences respond passively.


I took you through the basics of Twitter – with the mindset of listening (or watching first) before engaging. I have found the politicians that use Twitter most effectively are the ones that engage with people on subjects that go beyond politics – ones that show genuine niche interests (and that show they are human too!) Just because you are a politician does not mean the only people you follow are politicians and journalists. Follow those who are experts in your hobby or area of interest. I posted a blogpost on how I use Twitter. I also posted a commentary on how local councillors are using Twitter following a workshop with South Cambridgeshire District Council. Interestingly, the second of those two links got picked up by The Guardian and was cascaded on one of their local government email lists. This is despite them at the time having no idea who was the author of that post.

I covered some of the risks and pitfalls of Twitter – something that both of the above-links go into more detail on. In general, if you do make a mistake or a blunder, or post something that you later regret, apologise quickly and genuinely. Don’t say “I regret that an item that appears have been posted on my account may have caused some offence to some people”. Non-apologies like that get shredded very quickly and can turn into bigger firestorms than making an honest apology would. The nature of political tweeting means that some debates will inevitably get intense and passionate. Sometimes it is best to step away.

Remember too that the mainstream media is increasingly quoting directly from Twitter when seeking quotations on given issues. It saves them time from having to phone or email for a comment. The 140 character limit of individual tweets makes this ideal for short soundbites to be inserted into articles too. (Please avoid the risk of turning your Twitter account into a soundbite machine. If that’s all it becomes, few are likely to follow. It’s your thoughts that people are more likely to be interested in).

In terms of who to follow, have a look at the lists of people that I have put together in the category Puffles’ Twitter lists.



Blogging allows you to express your thoughts on a variety of issues in more detail and with a more permanent record than Twitter (which generically is known as ‘microblogging’).  I started blogging the day I formally left the civil service. There are many platforms out there you can use, Blogger and WordPress being two of the most well-known.

If you are fortunate enough to establish a profile – and much depends on the content & how you engage with people – you can become an influencer in your field. Such were the nature of my contributions through Puffles and through my blog that Cabinet Office chose to engage with myself and other social media users in the comments section of my blogpost Social media guidance for public servants. This was on the back of a tweet sent out by Emer Coleman in Cabinet Office seeking views about new social media guidance that Cabinet Office is now working on.

What I like about blogging is the ability to link to and from articles and pieces by other people. For me it’s a bit like a short university essay but much more fun. Much of what I blog about tends to be on the back of what someone has said or written, or on a news item of the day. Essentially A said B, my opinion on B is C, and for further detailed consideration of the issues raised in B, have a look at D. This approach can also substantially reduce what you need to say in a blog post too, allowing you to focus on a specific point knowing that you have referred your readers to someone else’s post that covers what you omitted.

Youtube – ‘vlogging’

“Look at me! I’m on the telly!” It’s not quite like that, but what ‘vlogging’ (video blogging) allows you to do is to bring to life the picture of your human face. After all, the most local residents get to see of their councillors are in the mailshots, newsletters or the posters in council buildings. We don’t get to see facial expressions & we don’t get to hear tone of voice.

There are a couple of people who’ve caught my eye on what they talk about  (and how) for ‘vlogging’. The first is Katya @ Battlefront who campaigns on mental health issues. All she’s done is sat herself in front of her computer with webcam and started talking into it. It’s not standalone vlogging though. Her work is part of a wider campaign around mental health. In terms of generic vlogging with personality and character, Rosianna (who tweets as @Papertimelady) has spent the last six years refining this to perfection. Short, sharp, well-edited posts on a variety of different things that are full of life and humour.

Having been to a “Making videos on a shoestring” training with the Media Trust I learnt just how easy it is to make short videos with relatively cheap hardware. Some of the more upmarket smartphones are able to take the sort of footage that once required very expensive equipment. The process of digitally editing footage has substantially reduced time and costs it takes to edit footage, making this sort of medium available to far more people.

What I’d like to see in future elections is candidates recording short video blogposts introducing themselves, who they are standing for, what their interests are and why they are standing. That way it’s not just a name on a ballot paper that people are voting for.


Cambridge and Social Media

One of the things I’ve observed with Cambridge is that it is a city full of little silos. In the final few slides I covered how I would like to see Cambridge breaking those silos. The question is how. Teacambs is looking to do this across the public sector using social media. The plan is to meet on the last Thursday of every month & is open to those from all sectors (private & voluntary) that are interested in digital and social media across the public sector. Another idea could be to have a large ‘Cambridge societies fair’ similar to what the students have, hosted say in the Guildhall or Kelsey Kerridge – but ensuring that everyone has a laptop with wifi connection (& plugs!) to get people to sign up and/or link to all the different societies, groups, clubs and organisations in Cambridge. There may be more. I’ll be blogging about this more later on.


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