Press officers have embraced social media in a revamp of the Executive’s public relations. Facebook, flickr and twitter accounts have been opened, alongside a blog and a series of RSS feeds.
As expected, the Executive Information Service focuses on the good news and common ground between the parties. That said, differences are inevitable as the 12 press offices put forward their own minister’s views.
Each site has a modest following perhaps due to its formal tone e.g. press releases and official advice during the water crisis. At the time of writing, there were four blog watchers, 85 facebook friends and 603 twitter followers.
Instant access to announcements, when published, is one of the advantages but comments are rare. Responding to the emergency Executive meeting on burst pipes, a James Knox quipped: “Too little, too late, me thinks!”
The Executive’s sole favourite page is NI Direct, which has 314 friends and has a more informal, conversational style e.g. “With heavy rain forecast for some parts of Northern Ireland, it might be useful to take note of the flooding incident line – 0300 2000 100.”
Flickr mostly features official events involving OFMDFM ministers or overseas
visits, such as last autumn’s US investment conference. Photos of Stormont Castle are used to tell the story of its renovation; they also provide a neutral backdrop on other sites. The white-on-blue symbol for the building (see www.northernireland.gov.uk) seems to take its inspiration from the White House homepage logo.
After its redesign, northernireland.gov.uk has a cleaner layout and more colour than before. The site’s main purpose is explaining the workings of devolved government, which it does quite well.
A plain English summary of what is devolved (and what is not) would be a useful addition. Devolution raised expectations and the public often demands that MLAs do everything, despite the limits on their powers.
Separately, nearly 10,000 viewers have watched short videos of Caitríona Ruane out and about on the Department of Education’s YouTube channel.
Joined-up communication is much more straightforward in Scotland’s single-party government. Its press offices have a slick reputation and makes extensive use of YouTube for ministerial announcements. Scottish tweets are as precise as those from Stormont. To be fair, there is little room to wax lyrical in 140 characters.
For frankness and transparency, the Irish Government’s news site (www.merrionstreet.ie) is among the best. Content includes doorsteps with the Taoiseach, videos of media briefings and an online archive of speeches. Webchats with senior government figures are also planned.
It’s especially refreshing from a government with its fair share of bad news. Press officers’ sense of humour, though, has not been cut. Emails from readers, cynics included, are picked out and published.
One observer exclaims that “every banana republic needs a propaganda department” while a more thoughtful commentator asks: “With the state of the nation at an all time low, is it still in the country’s best interest for the government ministers to be driven around in S-Klasse Mercedes?”
YouTube (Department of Education)