Interview: Martin Dean From Leeds Initiative – How Social Media Assisted Community Engagement

We caught up with Martin Dean, Head of Leeds Initiative. They won a Samcomms Award in 2011 for their community engagement through social media. In 2011 Leeds Initiative developed the Vision for Leeds 2030 and used social media as a means engaging people in Leeds in the conversation.

Charlotte: Good afternoon, this is Charlotte reporting for Optimum Exposure and this series of interviews and video interviews we are talking to a series of leaders and their organisations about their use of social media and how it has made a key role in growing the business or engaging with their audience, or customers or stakeholders.

And here today, we are at Leeds Civic Hall with Martin Dean from Leeds Initiative, so welcome Martin.


Really kicking off, just tell me a little bit more about Leeds Initiative.

M: Leeds Initiative is the partnership led by the Council that really has the best interest of Leeds City We are responsible in essence for two main things, for a long term vision for the city and pulling together partners to help us achieve it. In very short hand, that’s it. We work with the private sector, voluntary and third sectors. We work with different parts of the public sector to bring people together to deliver more effectively for Leeds.

It’s been a busy year because you have obviously updated the Leeds Vision for, what was it, 2030?

M: Leeds Vision for 2030, we concluded with the aim that we want Leeds to be the best city in the UK and working to prepare that vision, we needed to engage with the general public at exactly the moment really when the Local Government and Government in general was being challenged to reduce its expenditure and do a better job with less money.

So, preparing a vision might have in the past involved doing a lot with an advertising agency. It might have involved putting adverts on buses; it might have involved putting something through the letterbox of everybody in the community. This time, we had to be a bit smarter and that was really where we got to the use of social media and the use of web technology. Not to say that we didn’t do other things, but to concentrate on that, we needed pretty low costs of about something in the region of £7000 or £8000, created the ‘What if Leeds’ brand. It created a specific website that we use to directly engage with people so that they could then debate and work with us.

And then we use the social media technologies, particularly Twitter, but also Facebook and LinkedIn to begin to develop that as a tool for dialogue with the community. That is something that we have done a bit more in our work as well.

 At the start of the journey, how did you go about working out which technologies you wanted to use and actually go about engaging?

M: It’s interesting, we started using Twitter in 2009 and I personally started it a year earlier and I think it’s interesting because it starts as being every experimental. I think it’s one of the those things that you can only learn by doing, which I think is pretty countercontrol for Government and Local Government institutions where there is almost a sense that we are broadcasting, there is a sense that we are issuing a press release and clearly people are fairly well trained early in their careers that that’s for specialists to do and that needs to go through a very important process. Whereas this is much more intuitive and you need to dive in.

I think prior to the vision, we signed up, we joined Twitter to our website so we were using it almost in the way that everyone says you shouldn’t use it which is as a broadcast medium and I personally have a view that if you have something to broadcast and people want to listen, that’s the most important thing, then that is worth doing. But then you slowly work out how to use it partly to have dialogue with the people who are there, but also interestingly, the ‘What if Leeds’ work, to amplify the voices that we heard because it wasn’t a substitute for getting out there and meeting people.

For example, one of the things that we did was create our own blog to capture sometimes quite disadvantaged voices that we were meeting, so we had a colleague who’s role was to go out and meet people in the community and hear what they had to say about the long term future of Leeds and when they said things, we really felt that it was good for us to be honour bound and tell their story and push that out, using the new technology.

I think that for me was a piece of learning that partly the job, particularly for us in that case, but maybe more generally for Local Government is to amplify the stories of what happens in the community.

 I think that’s an interesting point. Coming back a bit to what you talked about the tensions within the whole fluidity of Twitter and social media, versus the PR, how did you go about the risk management or influencing people that this was and okay way of doing things?

M: I think what’s interesting is because Leeds Initiative has over the years had its own identity within the council, an identity that’s slightly one side, I guess we’ve had permission to experiment and I think that in lots of ways was the important thing and if it went wrong, it would have been quite easy to take a step back.

I think the learning that we have found there, is very much about balancing the things which are said by the corporate voice and then things that are said by people like me. And for me I think that’s an interesting thing which again, Local Government has been very bad at. And I will give you an example of something that happened during this piece of work. We made a mistake in 2004 when we published the last Vision for Leeds. We produced a photograph which was taken at Headingley and underneath the picture it said, ‘Streets in Harehills’, it was a captioning error. And this was admitted at the time, there was a bit of discussion at the time, but four years later, someone was writing a blog about policy and particularly about local community development and they had a very upset discourse about what had happened with this photograph. They were kind of saying, ‘the vision says all the right things, all the proper good things, but actually when it comes to it, they really don’t care about us because they did this.’

So, I wrote a comment on the blog, and said, ‘Hello, I’m Martin and I work for the Leeds Initiative and this is me, we did that, that was my team, we made the mistake, we’re sorry, and by the way, would you like to get involved in the stuff which we are doing?’ The response was really interesting, because the immediate response was, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ And I think the reason why the response was doing worry about it was because they weren’t now discussing with the moral of the organisation, they were talking to me. And I think that what we are learning with the new technology is actually, in most of what we do in our jobs in trying to get things done in communities, it’s about being ‘me’ and being on social media is a new way of being ‘me’, and I think that’s important, we have learnt that as we’ve gone along.

Is it more about putting a face on the organisation and being authentic, genuine and actually being the eyes and ears?

M: I think it’s all of those things. I think definitely being authentic is for me the really strong and important point. I think if someone sends a message to you or asks you a difficult question which the council is struggling with or the partners are struggling with or there has been some disappointing news or something didn’t go quite right, I think historically the PR thing to do would be to look the other way and start whistling. I think with social media, you have to say, ‘yeah, wish that had gone better and that didn’t go as we wanted it to, we are going to keep trying.’ I think it’s quite important to do that. I think people in local government are gaining confidence. I haven’t had a count recently but I think there are probably in excess of 20 services in the Leeds Council that are now on Twitter, a number that are on Facebook as well. I think a decent proportion of our Councillors are now using Social Media and it’s a good way of very directly engaging with the public.

What successes have you had? We’re sitting here there is a great reward sitting on the table which you must be very proud of?

M: Yes, we’re really pleased that we were successful at being awarded the Samcomms Award for 2011, for work that we did with the vision and I think that was for the best use of social media to research and evaluate and that was very pleasing because the majority of the recipients of awards that night were from the commercial sector. They were from agencies that are very much involved in this activity, so it was good to get that recognition.

If you go to our website, you can look at all our work to do the vision, to prepare the vision for Leeds and I think that’s part of the important accountability for the public sector. As my maths teacher used to say, ‘show our working’ and so we’ve done a report there where we’ve analysed the incoming information that we have got from social media and the other channels which lead us to draw the conclusions that we drew in the vision for Leeds work.

I think it also encouraged us to be a bit more innovative so traditionally you would look at pen and paper techniques and so on. I think we are more now interested in things like encouraging people to take videos and tell us what they think through that way. We made a couple of films as part of this exercise, very much people based activity. And things like Open Space techniques so that people set the agenda for themselves and can make a contribution. But going back to that measuring of success, I think that social media is a tool as part of your different products and therefore I think the way in which we measure it will change over time and will be part of that particular project.

In respect of the vision for Leeds, that evaluation report was really the way that we said how well have we done, how far have we reached into the community etc etc, and our sense was that while not perfect, it had really helped us do a better job.

And I think the bit that does a bit deeper over time is I hope that it helps us be more trusted partners. I think the fact that we are there engaging in dialogue with people who ask us questions enables us to be more trusted partners. I think the thing which is really interesting from the point of view of the community is that I think people in the community are so use to screaming at organisations about the stuff that they want to be done and they are just so pleased when they get a little feedback that says, ‘Yep, we’ve heard what you say, we want to be able to sort it out today but it’s on our to-do list, we are going to get to that, that will happen.’ So, I think that for me is very important.

In terms of a time investment for social media, is it more sort of project by project or do you still continue on a day to day basis to engage with the community on issues around the vision for Leeds?

M: Yeah, let’s break that down into a couple of piles. Clearly ‘What if Leeds’ is a specific campaign. We had some resource and we were able to deploy that and evaluate our results. I think where that led us was to build social media into the way we do things so, we have our website which includes a blog page, which it didn’t previously. That’s linked to our Twitter, that’s linked to our Facebook. LinkedIn, we’re not so deeply involved in as a body, although I think we are individually, so I think that there is a bit for me which is about adapting your day to day practice to accommodate social media and to make use of it.

I think the bit which is then really interesting is how individually we pick that up in our jobs and its interesting how people have had different approaches. Some people try to divorce the personal from the work, that’s something that I have personally not tried to do and it’s interesting the people who have signed up to follow me on Twitter because I want to say, ‘listen’, people who like to ‘listen’ or ‘talk to me about things by Twitter. People who did that during the Vision for Leeds, are still interested when I talk about Leeds Rhino’s latest performance, or maybe they are not, but actually that’s about me so I think it’s an interesting new way I think of people saying that I am around, I’m here, I am somebody who is trying to make a difference to the agenda which is mine and if you’re interested you’ve got a way of connecting.

Where to next, after you talked about adapting and incorporating it into the everyday workings of Leeds Initiative, so are there any big campaigns coming up in the future or is it more of day to day whilst you embed the vision?

M: Clearly the big task now is to make the vision a reality and that’s what our different partnerships are working on. We have got to see a priority plan with indicators and you can see on the website the progress that we are making on each of the short term as well as the bigger picture long term aims.

I think social media is something we deploy when we need to and when we want to. So, for example, as part of our work on climate change, we’ve just decided to create a new identity on our website around climate change, new social media involvement on climate change to get over the messages of what should you do if you are a business in Leeds that wants to make a difference to carbon omissions and saving money and so on and what should you do at community level to tell people about the councils wrap up programme and the various things which are happening on that agenda.

So, again we might have in the past put it in the council newspaper which now comes out less frequently, it might have in the past used leaflets through letterboxes and so on. I think we are now lucky to use social media as probably one of our tools of choice.

Reflecting back on the journey you’ve had, were there any key challenges that you’ve had or has it being, not kind of plain sailing but not too much of a rough ride?

M: Yes. The first thing very honestly that we had was launching the debating website that we talked about at the beginning and it didn’t work. And certainly some of the most regular users of Twitter in Leeds were very critical of that and you had to put your hands up and say, ‘Yeah, unfortunately we didn’t get it working by the deadline that we had set of launching that activity but we got it there in a couple of weeks.’ Actually testing and making sure that those things are done properly is really critical, so I think that’s part of it.

I think the second part is dealing with incoming. We did our first kind of tentative steps into Twitter broadcasting our events so we had a number of events and we were doing the commentary. I think we were very prepared for doing that because we knew what we were going to say. What we weren’t prepared for was the questions that were going to come in real time that we would need to deal with. So, I think that was an interesting learning point. We really kind of got the power of the medium. So, those would be a couple of examples where I think we’ve had to adapt and adapt and learn.

Finally, what top three tips would you give for an organisation or business looking at starting a campaign?

M: I’m not sure that the tips are any different to the tips you would use for running an effective project campaign more generally in business or in civil society. I think being clear about your objectives and your audiences it seems to me is critical. I think something which I haven’t spoken about much is that we started, I don’t think we really understood how to do it at the beginning, is the monitoring and getting that understanding of how much your message is being amplified, how much you are encouraging people to talk about the topics that you want to engage in.

And then I think the really key bit is be authentic and follow up. If someone asks you a question, give them an answer. I think that for me is the speed thing. So I can certainly think of instances where I have been asked a question and I do feel honour bound to give a response or engage with that person. I think organisationally for Local Government and organisationally more generally, that I think then leads you to reassess what good it is. Having a set of customer service standards that traditionally would have said we will reply to letters within 10 days, or will reply to emails in five days, no, in the social media world, that’s not good. Good now means you have to pretty much give an instant response. It doesn’t need to be a final response, that’s the other bit organisations need to learn. People are sensible. People know that you can’t solve a problem, that’s a difficult problem in a day. What they need to know is that you have heard what they say and you are on with it. That would be my message.

C: Brilliant. Thank you very much Martin, there was some real gems in there. Thank you for your time and this is Charlotte Britton reporting for Optimum Exposure.


M: You’re very welcome. Thank you.


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