We’re used to getting the weather reports from television, radio or the web. But these days we can also talk with the forecasters directly. Here the Met Office’s Dee Cotgrove talks about the organisation’s increasing use of social media.
The Met Office is one of Britain’s oldest and most highly regarded brands, enjoying public trust at levels around 80%. Traditionally most of its conversations have been one-way, mediated through other channels. Now for the first time it can communicate directly with the public, via a highly active presence on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook that reaches more than 75,000 people each month.
Contacts are overseen by the communications team based in the press office, which works closely with forecasters to ensure that appropriate messages are sent out. Before taking the plunge, the team first spent a year working with consultancy It’s Open and the Social Media Leadership Forum to help it understand the environment. “We wanted to watch and learn for a while, to see how it might to apply to us,” says head of communications Dee Cotgrove. “You can’t just copy other people; you have to see how it’s relevant to what you’re doing.”
Then in 2010 the team started getting involved in online conversations, entering comment threads on web forums to correct perceptions where necessary. This in turn helped it to adjust its own messaging, making it a two-way process. “Sometimes the public attaches the wrong idea to our weather warnings, and social media has helped people understand what they mean and what they don’t mean,” Dee says. The Met Office also started a Twitter feed, with weather warnings directed at particular parts of the country. Initially this was on weekdays only, occasionally extending to weekends in the case of major weather events. In the third year the project went fully operational, with customer contact advisors handling tweets on a daily 24-hour basis.
The catalyst was the eruption of the Iceland volcano Grimsvotn in May 2011, which threatened to repeat the travel chaos of a similar incident the previous year. “We were still providing updates at the end of that week and we felt we couldn’t just stop the conversation,” explains Dee. The @Metoffice channel now has over 60,000 followers, who are encouraged to keep in touch by tweets such as, “I’m Dan, and I’ll be here all night for your weather questions”. Our advisors were already experienced in talking with the public, but were given extra training for contacts involving social media. The press office still oversees the messaging to ensure the nuance is right, and it provides guidance in the case of high profile events such as this winter’s snowfall.
Dee distinguishes between two elements in the Met Office’s use of social media. On the rational side, the medium can help it reach more people more quickly and improve the quality of the information. But there is also an emotional element, she says, in helping connect with audiences. “For the Met Office as a brand it’s important that people trust our warnings, as it means they are more likely to heed what we say,” she says. “It’s fantastic to see people taking action on the basis of our warnings, as they did before Christmas in Scotland when schools were shut following our gale forecasts, and again in February when Heathrow cancelled some flights in advance of heavy snow.”
“Social media is more intimate and two-way than traditional media,” she continues. “We can appeal to new audiences and interest groups, like the annual Glastonbury festival, for example, and connect to what’s important for them. That gives them more of a sense of association and affiliation. It also means that other brands or individuals can endorse what we say.”
Social media was part of an integrated campaign last August in which the Met Office celebrated 150 years of forecasting. Elements included a timeline of its activities and progress over the years, and a competition for users to send in photographs demonstrating the indominatable British spirit in combating the weather
The organisation is active on YouTube, for instance posting weather warning podcasts by the chief forecaster. There can also be found educational clips about the science behind the weather, such as the natural forces that cause thunderstorms. Clips can be freely syndicated to other web outlets, and in some cases organisations can be given special content, as happens with the NHS for cold weather alerts.
Now into its second year, the Met Office’s venture is clearly a success,reaching over 100,000 people every month. It would be overstating things to say that social media has transformed its relationship with the public, as this was already strong. But, Dee says, it has certainly provided added depth and clarity, which will help to ensure that the level of public trust remains high.