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MENTOR - DEALING WITH HOSTILE BLOGS

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You need to proceed with caution when it comes to random views posted online, warns Sally O'Reilly...
You need to proceed with caution when it comes to random views posted online, warns Sally O'Reilly

The days when staff had to hold a meeting to gauge local opinion are long gone. Nowadays all you need to do is log on to see what is going on in the blogosphere.

The proliferation of web entries on every subject from dog poo to David Cameron is dizzying - more than 6,000 bloggers are signed up to blog directory Britblog alone.

All of which is very democratic, but keeping track of this Babel-like eruption of random opinion is hard going. For councils, there is a dilemma about what to do when blogs and websites criticise services, or even abuse staff. Is it best to sit tight, safe in the knowledge that most people will never read these defamatory opinions? Or should councils take prompt action against inaccurate and abusive rantings?

For example, famously in the local government world, Liverpool City Council blocked its employees access to an internet blog that made allegations about senior officers associated with former chief executive Sir David Henshaw. The blog, named 'evil cabal' after a remark by former leader Mike Storey (Lib Dem) about Sir David and his supporters, was run by blogger 'Tony Parrish' and claimed at one point it had over 6,000 hits in a day.

Alex Aiken is head of communications at Westminster City Council and LG Communications, an umbrella group promoting best practice in local government public relations. He believes blogging is an issue which councils need to take seriously.

But as a starting point, he counsels against over-reaction. 'Treat blogs like any other

media,' he advises. 'Building a relationship will take time, so supply information, invite bloggers to events, accept legitimate criticism and offer corrections (where information is inaccurate) but don't criticise. Many blogs are, by definition, unrepresentative, but most do represent a legitimate point of view.

Bloggers have been inspired to write by something. There is also no evidence that they are as effective as the writers/editors would like to claim.'

There are three clear options for councils: try to stifle blogging with legal action; join bloggers by setting up your own version; or co-operate with bloggers. Legal action should be a last resort, but the other options are proving useful to senior staff. Chief executive of Isle of Wight Council Joe Duckworth has started a blog - rejoicing in the name Joe Blogs - which welcomes feedback from local people about services and addresses their criticisms with an immediacy which would be difficult in any other medium.

But Mr Aiken warns against offering open-access to all comers on any official part of a council site. 'There are things a council can't host - like supporting a particular political party, or people saying that smoking cigarettes is great. You need to proceed with extreme caution here.'

Taking a look at an open access site like www.croyweb.org.uk illustrates this point. Complaints about housing policy can escalate into contributors using four letter words.

Co-operating with bloggers and independent websites in your area can be extremely useful, however. The affluent London borough of Richmond has a professional independent site, www.hampton.online.org.uk, which the council treats in the same way it would a local paper or radio station.

'We now have very cordial relations with the site, though this wasn't always the case,' says Richmond LBC head of communications Cormac Smith. 'It's very well run by volunteers, very engaged with community issues, follows big issues, runs on-line hustings and is an addition to the local media.'

But Richmond's Mr Smith points out that while responding to criticisms or complaints made on a relatively well known site may be essential, the sheer number of bloggers and the comprehensive range of their interests means councils will have to let some comments go. They simply don't have the staff or the time to counter the adverse comments made in every single blog.

'You have to prioritise, given the nature of this medium,' he says. 'Unless you had hundreds of press officers it would be impossible to respond to every blog. We have to be clear about what we are here to do, which is promote issues like recycling, safety and value for money.'

This does not mean there is room for complacency, however. It is not always possible to predict how influential a blog or apparently obscure website might turn out to be but some blogs become essential reading. Witness the considerable influence of www.arsse.co.uk, a British Army rumour machine, which is regularly visited by Cabinet ministers.

Mr Smith warns against ignoring an anti-council blog with a significant profile.

'Blogging is gaining in potency and we have to proceed on a case-by-case basis. This is about the impact on reputations,' he says. 'We can't react to every word that appears in hyperspace, but we are watching this one closely.'

Learn more about protecting your authority's reputation at LGC's new conference 'Improving Your Reputation'. Visit

www.lgc-improvingreputation.co.uk

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