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Have you seen your personal use of WhatsApp shoot up over the past year or so? Well you’re not alone. So how can public sector organisations maximise this as an opportunity to engage?

by Lauren Kelly

WhatsApp… it’s a top, high usage channel that is hitting all polls and leader boards as a channel to be getting on-board with. Only how does a public sector body and in particular a local authority do this?

It’s a question that’s been whirling round and I’ve seen numerous posts about it recently in various forums. Who’s using it, why and how?

About 12 months ago we started a pilot to use WhatsApp with our youth support team. Admittedly this wasn’t without risk, as it’s a highly encrypted popular off the shelf channel. However, we considered the risks and deemed them acceptable enough to see how it goes.

The team bought a single pay as you go phone with a SIM card for the phone number and I set them up with a small amount of training to help them use the desktop access. For those who haven’t seen this, it’s a fantastic feature – it enables you to send messages as if they were a BCC email from your computer to the WhatsApp groups. Multiple people can log on (meaning those going on leave can have these service covered) and it means people who don’t physically have the phone (like our teams in Macclesfield and Crewe – about 25 miles apart) can both use the same number to deliver the messages on.

At Cheshire East Council, WhatsApp is used by our youth support service. It means conversations take place where the young people are and on a platform they are familiar with.

Since we started the trial, we’ve had many positive outcomes, where young people are more informed about activities taking place local to them, or are in more regular contact with their youth support worker.

In one example, the use of WhatsApp has been attributed by the team for keeping a young person on track and helping them during a time of crisis. By having direct contact with this young person, the support worker was able to coach them through difficult situations in a way that suited them.

They have said that this young person’s confidence was too low to answer phone calls and they rarely have credit but via Wi-Fi, can access WhatsApp. 

There is also power in the ability for the youth support worker to see when that young person has read the message. During the trial, we feel that the use of WhatsApp is helping us to communicate better with young people and be there during times of need.

So what are the benefits?

  • WhatsApp is completely free to use

  • We can instantly send a message to anywhere

  • It’s easy to use

  • Voice call support

  • Video calling available

  • It shows that your message has been sent or not and that the receiver has received or read the message

  • Free calls to other WhatsApp users are supported

  • WhatsApp started providing an end-to-end encryption feature, which makes your WhatsApp communication highly secure

  • You can send broadcasts – we use this a lot when communicating with young people who attend our groups. This is a way of sending the same message without other young people seeing each other’s details

  • Some young people can only communicate using WhatApp as they very often don’t have phone credit

I can’t help but feel that this channel needs to be treated like Twitter and Facebook. It reminds me exactly of the last blog I wrote ‘Beware of the tick box Twitter account’. As how do we govern such a channel?

We have options to consider if we were to roll out WhatsApp wider, but these have potential monster-like issues lurking within them too. So, do we have?

  • A) One phone number for the whole council, with different groups run via it, which the services then access to send messages

  • B) Each service runs off, buys their own phone and SIM card, and sets up independently

  • C) A mix – a corporate and some selected service channels where appropriate

Option A) leads to control over your messaging but could be difficult in terms of audit trails and trust – those who have access could send something to all channels. 

Option B) is a potential free-for-all: messages not signed-off before being sent.

Then we have option C) This could be the best way forward but has a mix of both issues!

Perhaps there is a happy medium or something I’ve not considered? I’d love to hear if anyone else has managed to map out how they will govern WhatsApp and widen its use across their authority.

In the meantime, we continue with our trial with one service, but I strongly feel this is a channel to watch out for in the future. A channel where people subscribe and we can deliver our comms messages direct to resident – now that could be extremely effective in the years to come, and has the potential to save money.

It’s not just messages such as:

  • We’re gritting in your area tonight

  • Bins weren’t emptied in your town today due to weather- they will be emptied tomorrow instead

  • Traffic issues currently being experienced on the M6 – please check before you travel

There is also the potential for messaging like; we are consulting on…, what do you think? Snap polls, key campaign messages being directed to people in a certain area, emergency messaging and/or self-help options to help people remain independent in their homes. The options are endless really.

The potential to deliver these messages directly to people’s phones and have the opportunity for developing an engaging conversation with them is huge. In fact there are many opportunities coming over the hill with WhatsApp.

We just need to tackle the monster issues that come with it, like governance, audit trails, and getting it cleared by our ICT teams…

Let me know your thoughts and insights on Twitter at @Comms_Kelly and cc @comms2point0 in.

Lauren Kelly is a senior marketing and social media officer at Cheshire East Council

Image via Pascal Maramis

Original source – comms2point0 free online resource for creative comms people – comms2point0

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