Introducing a Social Publishing model


During their studies at the University of Marburg, the brothers Grimm, who were academics, linguists and cultural researchers before becoming storytellers, came to see language as closely linked to culture and therefore cultural expression.

Just as personal values shape the integrity of an individual, an organisation expresses its personality in how it talks, the information it provides, the way it presents it and in the nature of conversations it is part of. Employees will tell the same story in slightly different ways, some more engaging than others. Values and actions play a part in shaping the culture of an organisation, in how it connects and how it is perceived.

Logically then, if you keep true to a good set of values and tell it how it is, honestly, constructively, inclusively and sensitively, in language that people understand, and listen accordingly, an environment where increased opportunity for open dialogue and mutual understanding is created.

This post is an update on Leeds City Council’s ongoing work to refresh website content and design and on progress using social networking. It introduces a concept we are developing loosely titled ‘Social Publishing’

The original plan

Back in 2012 we built a new council website because the old content management system was failing. We needed a new platform to gradually introduce more transactional services. We aimed to reduce content that wasn’t used and rewrite new content in plain English. The old content was a mixture of factual information and some self promotion. There was a lot of old statistical information, mostly in PDFs. Some areas had some really good content but this wasn’t widespread. The site was built around the structure (and restructures) of the council and so not really helpful for those who wouldn’t know how a council worked.

As with any project of that nature, it’s a big ask to build and populate content to perfection by the go live day. However we didn’t delay and some content ended up being a copy and paste job. That meant it would be updated on the new site. It would then be an ongoing job to keep all content relevant and useful.

Different service areas had their own web publishers, who could publish to their bit of the site. Publishing was an additional duty to most people’s roles and it was generally assigned to admin staff; unfortunately those more likely to move jobs.  There was a small central team of publishers, with access to web developers and designers for quick fixes, and who sat within customer services so that they could react to any requirements to update content based on call centre insight. Their main responsibility was to develop the site and make medium and longer term improvements and train the other publishers. So in effect it was a devolved publishing model. Hub and spoke as it is sometimes known.

Each page had an option for users to rate content based on a star rating. There was no way to interact or discuss. It was basically provision of information and limited transactions.

What happened?

After go live, publishers gradually started to refresh their mostly new content, and whilst some did a great job, not all content was regularly updated. In some cases the original content prior to go live was reinstated, including some self promotion. A lot of historical and statistical information continued to be published that wasn’t really of general interest and was again mostly produced in the form of PDFs. An increasing number of publishers forgot their passwords and how to use the system. This meant the central team had to do a fair bit of hand holding which increased site admin so they couldn’t really develop the site further.

The site only received a 1 star rating (out of 4) in the 2013 Society of Information Technology Managers (SOCITM) Better Connected Survey which identifies good practice in the development of local authority websites, based on extensive evidence-task research. This was disappointing to say the least.

Some service areas had set up social media accounts. There were some good uses and some where it was not quite clear what they had been set up for. We didn’t have a social media strategy and the accounts that were set up relied on staff who had taught themselves to differing levels of competence. The 50 Twitter accounts that we were aware of immediately grew to 76 once we offered to help coordinate some training and support. Of the 76 accounts 40% were lone staff, meaning there was little or no cover for leave or absence.

It wasn’t really what was planned and in the case of social media, we had no plan.

What did we do next?

In mid 2013 we had a rethink, the web publishing model was changed and all web publishing was provided centrally by a slightly larger central team which had dedicated web publishers. We also introduced web chat to some web pages, delivered by our digital access team who also run our corporate Twitter Help, Facebook and YouTube accounts. This resulted in a more social way of providing customer service.

We removed the content star rating system as nobody used it. We also refreshed the site and introduced the top tasks to a more prominent position.  In the 2014 Better Connected Survey, the site just sneaked into the top four star rating. There’s still a lot of work to do to keep and improve on that rating and also introduce more transactional services that can be accessed 24/7.

Importantly, we managed the expectations of those service areas who thought they had been punished and had their publishers removed. They still have access to web publishing through the central team. We also introduced the option of longer form social networking and blogs for service areas who could demonstrate managing the expectations of what this would involve. Longer term, this might be on the same SharePoint platform as the website, but current web developer priority is to increase the transactional functionality. We are therefore using the social platforms that are in general use such as WordPress, and Facebook.

We ran a project to better understand ‘voice, context and digital identity’ before creating a sustainable social media strategy which is based on this publishing model and on social media friendly principles. We now have an approval process for new accounts, mainly based on meeting a response time within two hours in promoted working hours. This means services need to get enough staff skilled up to help manage the accounts. We also introduced a network of digital champions whose role it is to coordinate web and social media publishing, ensuring content is fit for purpose and they manage the expectations of social media use.

This allows us to create spaces where the service areas who wanted the more self promotional web content to tell their stories but open it up for comment. We use these discussion areas to explain what’s going on, what’s changing and why, and to encourage services to be more engaging. And that’s gradually starting to happen; on this blog and  here and here. It also includes the places that we have for formal consultation. We are also acutely aware that discussions happen elsewhere, so creating our own discussion space is not always the best approach.

Sometimes it involves joining in discussions on other forums and blogs. Supporting staff in being confident and effective in their use of social media is something that can require a cultural and digital shift in understanding and delivery. Providing an encouraging environment to learn and dip a toe in takes time and confidence. Similarly, providing wider awareness of the benefits and opportunities that using social networking can bring and increasing digital confidence for services to then do it is a job in itself too. So part of the coordination and support for staff in this new world of social media is a background in how the social publishing model works and what support they can get to make the best use of it.

The statistical information that was increasing the size of the website is gradually being transferred and published on Leeds Data Mill where we are looking to provide an increasing amount of our public information as open data and fewer PDFs! This can then be accessed by those who may in the past have submitted FOI requests.


As the diagram above illustrates, we have the ‘Information Area’ which is our website and data mill and we have the ‘discussion area’ where we tell stories and invite others to tell theirs and give their views. However, we’ve learned if we don’t explain what’s new, how it fits together, what there is to see or invite people to have their say or find out about what there is to do, then we wouldn’t be good hosts or all that sociable would we? ‘Build it and they will come’ never really works! So we included a signposting function to bring it all together. This is where communications colleagues and other staff promote what we do and link to the website or discussion forums. This might be with their individual social media accounts. Again making it more human.

So what?

There is a great review by Gloria Lombardi about a report “The Digital Workplace in the Connected Organization” by Jane McConnell which explores organisational culture and early adopters and which looks to understand how an organisation, its people and tools are shaping new ways of working.

That’s exactly what the Sociable Organisation concept is about; sharing stories of how people might work or are working in different ways to better connect and so that others may do the same. That includes sharing what didn’t go quite right and what we learned from it; ‘Working out loud’ I think the new term is.

A really sociable organisation acknowledges its part in a genuinely complex rather than complicated system and attempts to inform its practice accordingly. Often, the traditional approach is absolutely fit for purpose – but there are times when a different way of ‘knowing’ is needed.

This ‘social publishing’ model is something we are trying as a way of describing the elements we think offer the best way to currently manage the expectations of providing up to date, relevant information, opportunities for discussion, feedback and storytelling and signposting. It’s work in progress, and we’d like feedback. It will take time to explain more widely and to introduce, but we hope it might help us to be more sociable and effective in what we do. Perhaps it’s that cultural expression that the brothers Grimm described.

What next?

What would be interesting to consider, is how future SOCITM Better Connected Surveys might include the discussion elements of this or other approaches? It is after all about better connecting.

So we hope this post and our thinking helps collaboration between local authorities and nudges the localgov digital agenda.

We’d be happy to discuss further.

Phil Jewitt


About Phil Jewitt

Comms guy and meaning maker, living in that place between personal and professional. Home is Leeds, Yorkshire. I work in communications for Leeds City Council, the 2nd largest council - with a lot to talk about and a lot to listen to.
This entry was posted in discussion, publishing, service design, social media and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Introducing a Social Publishing model

  1. johnpopham says:

    I find this really interesting, Phil. It reminds me of something Catherine Howe said to me at LocalGovCamp in 2011, which was that people are not ready for the reality of local authorities as collections of people all with a voice (video here Personally, I think that is how all organisations should behave, and people are going to have to get used to it. But, it will take time, both to develop the confidence and voices of the people within the organisation, and for the public to accept it. To some extent, the end game in this puts me in mind of the video app Vyclone. Vyclone takes people’s smartphone videos shot in a particular location and mashes them together into one multi-camera video. What you are trying to do is mash multiple voices into one, overall voice for the organisation. That is a particular skill if you can pull it off.

    • Phil Jewitt says:

      Thanks for the comment John. Yyclone sounds interesting.

      I don’t think it is case of mashing different voices into one, more about explaining that there are different types of content which will interest different types of people and there are therefore different spaces where people might go or feel comfortable to share their thoughts about them. Some subjects will be more emotive than others and that will no doubt be areas that stir debate. So perhaps this model is about contributing to that debate. Agreed, not an easy one to land but perhaps in some way linked to a previous post on this blog about Ivory towers and definitely a reason to try.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s