The Director of Strategy, Communications and Customer Services presented the report which outlined the focus of the communications team over the past year. Members were asked to offer comments on the direction of travel for communications to help set out an overall Communications Strategy.
Councillor Duffin raised the issue of inconsistency between the information conveyed by the Council’s Twitter account versus the Facebook page. He suggested filming parts of Council meetings and uploading them to offer better engagement with residents, as many people in the borough were unaware what happened at meetings. He raised the issue of disjointed communication and the concern of relying solely on social media to inform residents which risked alienating certain groups. Many residents were not on social media, and did not have internet access; as such it was essential that communication was wider to ensure all residents could stay informed regarding updates.
He expressed concern at the relative disparity between the energy the council expended on monitoring the activity of councillors on social media and responding to complaints from residents. He highlighted his view that there was a perceived bias from the communications team with Conservative Councillors being quoted, named and photographed, while Councillors from UKIP and Labour did not receive the same treatment. Finally, he raised the issue of false press statements and queried the Council’s procedure as there had recently been a press release containing false information, which had been corroborated by officers. He queried why no further action had been taken to correct the release.
The Director of Strategy, Communications and Customer Services agreed that the information featured on Twitter and Facebook would be assessed. Generally information appeared on both, but some immediate updates were posted on Twitter and not Facebook. With regards to filming meetings the Committee heard that it had become increasingly popular with a number of Local Authorities and the Communications team wanted to do more, as it was a different way of engaging local residents with the democratic process. It was to be explored further as part of the direction of travel and the Portfolio Holder had also requested increased use of video. Generally speaking the communications team aimed to use as many channels as possible to deliver information to residents as social media was most suitable for certain audiences. The Council also used posters, leaflets and the local press to communicate a number of issues.
In terms of some of Councillor Duffin’s latter points, the Director was not in a position to comment as he had highlighted specific dates for which she did not have the information to hand, but she would look into the outside of the meeting.
The Chair interjected that there needed to be some further input regarding the role of the communications team, which realistically was two-fold. Understandably, with regards to planned events in which Council policy was being promoted it was right that the relevant Cabinet Member would be pictured and referenced. However, in terms of reactive events, such as the attempt to burn down the library in East Tilbury, it seemed bizarre that local Councillors present were not named and pictured in the same way. He asked for clarity on the Council’s policy or protocol in these events.
Members heard that the communications team promoted the work of the Council, including Portfolio Holders, decisions made jointly such as the Lower Thames Crossing where there is a Council position, and outcomes from other Committees such as Overview and Scrutiny. The team responded to requests and assessed what the messaging should be. There had been no request from the ward councillors around the events in East Tilbury. Specific responses had been made to media enquiries and with reference the latest position regarding the library, quoting the Portfolio Holder. It was highlighted that the Ward Councillor had been present at the time that the Cabinet Member had been interviewed and photographed which caused some concern for Members of UKIP and Labour.
Councillor Watkins supported the proposal to film meetings to post on the Council’s website and upload to social media, particularly if this was to be done by the Council’s communications team rather than an outside organisation. He praised the seemingly 24hour service of the team and insisted their work around the “give a gift tree”, which had been largely social media driven, deserved recognition. He sought clarification on section 3.7 of the report and asked what the process would be moving forward regarding publishing public notices in the local press.
It was confirmed that there was an error; the report should have read June 2017, not 2016. The contract, which was very small and only covered public notices with no other advertising, had been awarded for a two year period and the decision whether to go back out to tender would need to be made soon.
It was asked what Opposition Members might do regarding press releases and statements. The Committee heard that the communications team was responsible for promoting the view of the Council, including the Mayor and other Councillors represented in their specific roles, for example Overview and Scrutiny Chairs, not by their party affiliation. Any Members seeking advice or guidance should contact the communications team who would offer any assistance possible.
The Committee noted and commented upon the update and direction of travel for communications to inform the development of a Communication Strategy.