A Content and User Experience Strategy for local government

Updating my original content strategy first written in 2013. Still a work in progress, still subject to change and additions

News articles and blogposts

It's perfectly understandable that the press and media office should want to include news articles on the website home page; it's important that the council communicates important information about the council and its service delivery background to the public. It would be a bold website manager indeed who would refuse such a request.

However, that must be taken in the context of who the actual audience for press releases actually is - usually, press releases are not written for the general public, they are written for the press, for journalists to take that press release and rewrite it - with the media organisation's own spin, naturally, and holding the council to account where appropriate - into a form for the general public, adding whatever other context may be appropriate.

Because of the importance of the work of the press office to the council, it is fair that some of their work should appear on the website home page; however, council press releases should not be a dominant feature on the website home page.

That said, sometimes council news does have the general public as its principle audience - the announcement of a new initiative such as the introduction of free garden waste collections for the over 65s, the start of next year's budget consultation process, the opening of a new leisure centre, a consultation on a new Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme (and subsequently, the results of that consultation), etc. This kind of news should indeed be featured prominently on the home page, but separate from the standard press release content, and it should be written as citizen-focussed content rather than media-focussed content, emphasising the benefits to the citizen for the initiative rather than being a puff piece for the organisation.

Because it's the nature of news content to be both voluminous and frequent, it creates its own natural Search Engine Optimisation. This is good for the press office, but potentially bad for the citizen - over the course of a year there might be 15 press releases about flytipping initiatives and fines for perpetrators who have been caught, but only one service page about reporting flytipping. Because of this, steps must be taken to exclude press releases from the standard site internal search results, whilst still allowing them to be included in specific news search results. This maybe by means of clever configuration of a good search engine, or, more likely, by the provision of a separate newsroom site which has its content indexed separately from the main site.

News articles which are over three months old, and ideally later at over 12 months old must automatically be clearly flagged by the website Content Management System as being old news; a reader should not have to look closely at a date on an article to see that a press release about a one month amnesty on library fines was actually nearly two years ago, it should be blindingly obvious to them.

News articles, whether citizen-focussed or media-focussed, should not be used as a cheap and lazy way of providing service information outside of the main site. The core information from a news article which will have ongoing service relevance must also be backed up with that information being also included in the service section of the site - a news article announcing the introduction of a new walking bus scheme for additional schools must always have those details added to the main service page about walking busses. When this year's external audit report is published that will naturally always be announced by a news release, but a user who wants to read that report must always be able to find it by navigating from the home page to the council budget and finances section of the site without having to go via a press release.

Blogging by staff in service areas is a great way of showing the human face of the council, of improving our reputation with the public and indeed demonstrating to the public that we also are the public. Whilst most people probably aren't interested in the council's Waste Strategy (<sigh>), a blog post by a staff member of a Household Recycling Centre about some of the interesting and amusing things left there can help develop and improve the relationship between citizens and council, showing some of the constraints we work under, and letting them into our working days a little. Care however must be taken to ensure that staff blogs and blog posts are clearly shown to be an important part of the staff member's job as representing the council well, rather than giving critical media and members of the public an excuse to say that staff are ignoring their primary duties by messing about on the internet.

Because blogs are essentially the voice of human beings rather than the voice of the council, a more relaxed attitude can be be adopted regarding the tone of voice and precision in use of grammar, however all blog posts must be spell-checked and if necessary copy-edited to follow certain basic standards of grammar usage.