I’m usually a bit skeptical of ‘social media training’ – after all, I didn’t need to sit in a classroom to learn how to use Facebook (though come to think of it their privacy settings could be the subject of a PhD) – but seeing Nathalie McDermott in action has totally changed my view. As the founder of On Road Media she does more than just training, she gives people the tools and crucially the *confidence* to use the web to achieve whatever they want to do.
We’ve worked with her a few times, mostly to help council staff get their heads around using the web to communicate in a different way, so we were over the moon to see that she’s running courses this month for anyone and everyone. I asked Nathalie to talk a bit more about what got her started plus details of the courses she’s running.
For me, the light bulb moment came in August 2005 when I saw a fresh-faced David Cameron being grilled by prisoners for the prison radio station ‘Radio Wanno’, a project I was working on at the time. Cameron was on the verge of running for leader of the Conservative party and had come into Wandsworth men’s prison in south London to look at what was being done to rehabilitate serving offenders.
One of the prisoners, who had been preparing to conduct this interview with the future Prime Minister for weeks, could barely disguise his frustration when he asked his interviewee to explain the justification of the latest Tory campaign ads, in particular this one: “How would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter? ARE YOU THINKING WHAT WE’RE THINKING?”
The prisoner made the point that it was a “hypocritical” move for politicians to be visiting prisons and asking about rehabilitation when ads like these made it worse for prisoners leaving prison; he said it was hard enough for him to get a job with a record without having giant billboard ads like these whipping up public fear.
The interview was fascinating. The prisoners dug deep and asked tough questions from a position of first-hand experience and knowledge. Cameron, to his credit, made quite an impression by playing ball and speaking openly and frankly, although, perhaps unsurprisingly, none of this content appeared in the Guardian article he wrote about his visit.
Even so, the prisoners were elated. Empowerment is crucial in a project like this one, designed to engage the most marginalised of re-offenders with activities outside their cell, in the hope that they can build the necessary confidence to adequately prepare for the mighty challenges on release. They felt that they had had a chance to have a conversation, as equals, across a table with a politician.
These sorts of conversations, being played out across the web between ordinary people and those in positions of authority, are slowly changing the relationship between citizen and government. I say slowly because there is a big difference between a council or government site with functionality for engagement and a council or government site with living, breathing employees who behave (or who are allowed to behave) like humans online.
I’m not sure what the etiquette is around quoting oneself in a blog post, but here goes! In 2007, in an article I wrote for Society Guardian, I said:
“The appetite for this sort of communication [social media and public services] is growing. New and increasingly popular sites, such as NeighbourhoodFixit.com [now FixMyStreet] and PatientOpinion.org, put people in direct contact with public services, the carrot being that their views may have an impact on what happens around them.”
I said that the carrot for people to engage fully online is that their view “may” have an impact on what happens. This is a crucial point for councils. Many of the council employees I have trained in the basics of social media for our friends at FutureGov have expressed an often paralysing fear that, once the gates are opened, there will be no way to stop the tide of requests, demands and complaints and, as we all know, councils are over-stretched as it is. This fear often leads to a commitment to pseudo-engagement or broadcast messages as before, but from an ‘@’ sign or Facebook account.
But we web users are, on the whole, reasonable adults and a resident doesn’t expect a pothole to be miraculously fixed by the morning if they have a brief chat with a council employee on Twitter. Instead, that chat will be experienced by the council employee, the resident and, most importantly, the third, invisible group of people on the web who are watching it take place, which shows us that the council is open to suggestions, debate and change…and, dare I say, praise! This sort of conversation gives us (the resident and the invisible group) the opportunity to feel better about the council and we’re much more likely to engage in different ways. (And Patient Opinion, mentioned above, will tell you that 50% of their postings from people about the NHS are positive, 35% mixed and only 15% are negative.)
This is just one of the areas that On Road Media (the social enterprise I founded in 2005) explores in our new 1-day course ‘Engaging Communities with the web’, designed to help councils and voluntary sector organisations carry out this sort of work, which takes place on 23rd June. We’ve acknowledged that the technology is the easy/easier part; understanding of how these spaces work and looking at the human aspect of what prevents us from being ourselves online is where the gold is!
Drawing on our work with councils, our experience of citizen journalism projects and our work with engaging marginalised groups such as the Gypsy and Traveller community, we have designed a new course that will help you to go about identifying need, build communities online and engage hard-to-reach groups. Our courses are delivered in adventurous ways (have a look) and we work hard to make sure that there is a good mix of people on the course for the discussions to be as rounded and as useful as possible.
Thanks for reading and thanks to FutureGov!