EnviroComms’ Stephen Bates looks at why Councils have failed to capitalise on the potential that Social Media offers in waste communications

Social Media. It’s a polarising topic. Either it’s the origin of all that’s wrong with the world or the most brilliant way to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. In truth, it’s simply a benign means of communication with one’s peers and a great way to deliver a message to vast numbers of people at a relatively low cost.

In theory, it’s the ideal channel for waste and recycling communications yet one that hasn’t really been capitalised on by many local authorities. A very quick bit of research into Council Recycling Facebook pages reveals the average number of people following those pages to be 93, not exactly wide reaching when local populations can number 100,000 or more. It’s useful to consider why this might be so.

Firstly and most significantly is that we often find that no or little budget is allocated to Social Media. Whilst it’s a low-cost option, it’s not a no-cost one. Money has to be spent to boost awareness and develop the content that will attract attention and get shared to provide a critical mass of engaged users from which a solid base of outreach can be created. And to achieve this, the content itself needs careful and creative consideration

Bland facts and figures will never engage those other than already avid recyclers. Social Media is a heavily populated medium with no end of things to grab people’s attention so standing out requires some lateral thinking and sometimes, a brave approach, something that Social Media lends itself to perfectly.

The trick is to create content that gets shared and that which achieves this to the greatest levels is typified by retaining one or several key approaches; it’s funny, controversial or disruptive to common thinking; things that the public sector generally tend to shy away from. As a result of this, Councils are often faced with a binary choice; “do we err on the side of caution but stand little chance of increasing recycling or do we create a bit of disruption and controversy but reach far more people and deliver a substantial gain in recycling?”. There are shades of grey but the lighter the shade, the less successful the approach will be.

And like all other communications, Social Media needs to be strategic and planned but when knowledge of how to make it work is lacking, the natural tendency is to treat it more as an add-on after thought for the odd ad-hoc message.

The other option is to ignore Social Media altogether but doing so is to deny one’s self access to a highly effective means of communication. Social Media today is as much a viable channel of outreach as broadcast or print based media and even doorstepping. Nearly 55% of the adult population use Facebook, over 25% use Twitter. Both are cross-generational platforms with as many users over the age of 50 as under.

Social Media is not a passing fad. It’s here to stay and its use will only increase and spread even further across demographic groups replacing more traditional media channels, something that has arguably already been done.

Many leading waste industry commentators have flagged up the lack of public communications as a contributing cause of recycling stagnation but with the omni-present issue of budget scarcity, the solution is not an easy one. However, on the basis that some budget for communications exists, it might be time for Councils to start looking more strategically and pro-actively at making better use of Social Media to engage and stimulate behaviour change. And money invested in gaining that critical mass of users will have beneficial financial consequences not just in terms of disposal cost savings but in the avoidance of the need to deploy traditional, more expensive outreach tactics to the levels currently committed to.