Our latest guest post comes from the Communications Team at the Environment Agency:

If there’s one thing that social media is really useful for as a comms channel it’s getting out information in real-time. That’s something that the Environment Agency have worked on. Those plans were put to the test recently when torrential rain swept the country. Here’s how they fared.

Social media is revolutionising the way people engage with us.  We’ve grabbed the bull by the horns and it’s become an everyday part of communications activity.

Just two years ago we had a small number of people in our media team using social media but we’re about to give all our employees access.

In April 2012 we put a dedicated social media expert in each of our regions and a small team in our National Customer Contact Centre.  Since then a further 160 people have been trained to monitor and engage across social media channels.  

So, what do we use social media for?

We’ve focused on three specific areas: Informing and Intelligence; Customer Service; and Community Engagement.

Informing:

  • Telling people about our work and making sure they have up-to-date information, particularly during major incidents, including flooding
  • We also listen to social media so we can pick up on potential environmental problems

Customer service:

  • We use social media to offer our customers another way to contact us – we can often get back to them faster when they have a query
  • By getting in on the conversations, we hear and act when people have suggestions on improvements we could make 

Engaging:

  • We’re moving away from ‘telling’ and towards having new and open conversations
  • Using social media makes helps us to be more responsive and save time during busy periods

Putting it into practice

We’ve had no better chance to put the theory into practice than during this year’s flooding. We’ve reached out to many more people to warn them when they or their properties may be at risk. We’ve pointed them in the direction of accurate information and advice and encouraged them to sign up to our Flood Warnings Direct service, which gets messages on flooding direct to our customers.

By mobilising a team to monitor social media during incidents, we’ve also been able to pick up on reports of flooding and send these direct to our operations teams on the ground.

Monitoring social media closely during the recent floods also paid dividends in managing the Environment Agency’s reputation in traditional media channels. We’ve been able to pick up on potential issues early, often before they reach traditional media, giving us a head start in responding to public concerns. And, since many journalists follow our social media channels, they’ve taken content, including updates and photography, to use in media reports.

Updates on social media can be issued as soon as information reaches our communications teams. As a result, we’re able to get information to the public and the media quickly during an incident, proactively managing interest, and reducing calls to our media teams.

The training and equipment we’ve given staff on the ground has also paid off. We now have a network of social media advocates across the organisation who provide content direct from the field. This means that we have new ways of demonstrating what we’re doing on the ground, including our important work to reduce the risk of flooding.

Between October 2011 to October 2012, the number of people following us on Twitter has more than doubled, from 17,208 to over 44,609 and from 1,160 to 3,874 on Facebook.

And it works!

Only a few years ago our website was the main way we communicated with our customers on a large scale. But of course, this is a passive service. Thanks to social media we provided over 500 flood updates from our national and regional accounts this summer. These were shared over 5,000 times by other people.  We were mentioned on social media channels over 11,000 times and the number of people wanting to communicate with us via social media increased by nearly 16,000.

During the July flood incident 3.1 million flood warning pages on our website were viewed as a result of Twitter and Facebook.  And almost 2,000 people signed-up to our Flood Warnings Direct Service (1,100 signed up on the busiest day (6 July) alone - normal average is about 25 per day). 

We’re pleased, but there’s more to do

Like most organisations we are still learning and experimenting with our use of social media and keen to learn from the best practice of others. Our regional and national social media experts are exploring new ways of using these tools such as:

  • Crowdsourcing, which we want to build upon to help us map incidents as they happen and capture a record of the event
  • FourSquare to give customers the information at a more local level
  • We have a dynamic syndication plan to launch our messages and services via apps and widgets in places where we know our customers already go to. One example of this is the FloodAlerts App on Facebook, which has over 2,000 monthly users

We’d love to hear your comments on what we’ve been doing, let us know what you think. Tweet us @EnvAgency or like our Facebook page.

photo credit: Howard Lake  via creative commons on Flickr
This blog post was also published on comms2point0