How to fix council news

Too long, too dull and far too pleased with itself. Little more than an exercise in vanity publishing. Irrelevant to the vast majority of people.

The complaints are numerous but at least you come here to read my blog not to find out when it’s bin day.

What about council news?

Followers of the gospel of top tasks don’t have much time for it. People rarely visit their council’s website to read the news. They’ve got something much more specific in mind, whether it’s applying for a school place or renewing their library books. News probably doesn’t make it into the top 100 tasks on a council website let alone the top 20. Why not drop it?

While there are a few exceptions like Brent, it’s hard to deny that the average council news page is a complete snorefest.

What’s this? 400 words on a benefit fraud case that didn’t even result in a prison sentence, complete with lengthy quotations from the magistrate and the lead councillor.

Now here’s 700 words on an upgrade to the council’s IT system that won’t be noticed by a single resident.

And how about a story about the trade price of recycled paper that almost wholly comprises quotations from councillors?

This is all worthy stuff and doubtless of interest to someone but it’s nothing that the average resident can do anything about. It’s never going to be the talk of the town or even get a mention at the dinner table.

But mixed in among these anaesthetic reports are things that residents care about and might even need to know: local events, major planning projects that will cause disruption, changes to bin day.

Sadly this useful information is presented, like the rest, in a turgid press release style. Residents are asked to plough through a huge slab of words that’s hard to scan for the essential details. The text is laden with contrived quotations from people no-one knows that rarely do anything more than state the obvious. It finishes without a call to action. It’s a wonder that anyone bothers at all.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Council news matters but it needs to be given to the right people at the right time and in a way that makes sense to them.

I reject the idea that council websites should focus on premeditated customer journeys to the exclusion of everything else. While there’s often too little focus on the customer’s intended task at the moment and far too much clutter and distraction on the average council website, we don’t want to swing too far the other way. There’s room for a few tips and nuggets of info that the customer didn’t come for as long as it’s not overdone.

So how do we fix it?

Social media is an important part of the mix. People might not go to their council website to read news but they’re happy to sign up in their thousands to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that bring the news to them. Councils that take the trouble to understand the strengths and limitations of each social site and adapt their style accordingly do best. Recycling your RSS news headlines through Twitterfeed is so 2010.

Where they need to exist at all, news pages should be written in a friendly and accessible style. Drop the passive voice. Talk directly to your readers using “we” and “you”. If you want people to do something then prompt them with a call to action, don’t just make them aware of the opportunity. Pull all the vital details clear of the body text. Dates, places and contact details should stand alone at the top of the page. Above all keep it short.

Now put links to individual news pages everywhere they’re relevant. If you’re going to automate this, make sure your CMS will remove a link when it’s no longer needed. Don’t clutter your pages with links to closed consultations and events that have finished. Don’t bother at all with stories that residents can’t do anything about like personnel changes and aren’t-we-doing-great pieces. Keep it practical — news you can use.

Got an event for children? Link to it in the schools section. Business news should be on your business pages. Green news should be on your environment pages. An event in a park should be on the page for that park, among others. Far too many councils keep news in its own section and away from all the parts of the site that people actually read.

Save the press releases for journalists. Keep them in their own section. Don’t link to individual press releases from your home page. Don’t call them “News”.

If you write in an accessible style, focus on things that matter most to residents and mix links to news pages into relevant sections of your website your news will be read and heeded. Carry on as most councils do today and you might as well scrap it entirely.

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  1. I don’t disagree with much of what you say, but…

    >News probably doesn’t make it into the top 100 tasks on a council website let alone the top 20.

    It’s no.8 on our site in the last month and that’s filtering out internal hits. It’s consistently in the top 10 if not top 5.

    >complete snorefest

    Mebbe. Our Comms team has consciously reduced the number of news releases though we do still put all on the website. It’s the politicians that want more releases – and who are we to argue with them?

    Releases are written partly with the press in mind, but also to inform residents how their taxes are being used. We don’t always get the print/web balance right, but we’re working on it.

  2. That’s interesting but where do the visits for news come from? If they’re coming from social media links then that’s understandable.

  3. Interesting stuff. I think the point you make about the “friendly and accessible” style is the hardest to get right. It’s probably also the point that some would disagree with you on.

    There’s a modern affliction among companies that they need to be seen as approachable and, heaven forbid, nice. This manifests itself in Barclays rebranding their ATMs as “The Hole In The Wall” and other dollarwaffle; I’m sure Private Eye would have greater transgressions.

    There’s nothing wrong with authoritative and dry, just make it equally brief and useful. I don’t want to hang out with, or high-five my council. If comms want to soften the tone take care.

  4. Andrew,

    That’s a really good point. I think there’s a midpoint between corporate robospeak and hyperventilating overfamiliarity that councils could explore for their writing style. It’s fairly close to how I try to write on this blog.

    Context is important. Advice pages about personal debt and what to do when someone dies need to take a different tone from a notice about a youth sports day. At the moment they’re often written similarly.

    Shropshire Council gets the tone just right with its Project WIP blog about web improvements, while as a customer of Virgin Media I find their writing excruciatingly juvenile.