We helped the Met Office strengthen its reputation

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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.


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Sodexo and Twitter for students

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The meteoric rise and impact of social media the world over has brought about a revolution in communication. But how do large companies embrace it?

Many companies – and Sodexo is no exception – have been slow to see and harness the benefits of Twitter and Facebook to talk to and with customers.

Social media is all about instant two-way dialogue and, in a large corporation, rapidly changing longstanding ways of communicating doesn’t happen overnight.

That is beginning to change within Sodexo though and the pace of change will increase, because the business is now committed to using these interactive tools to engage better with students.

Sodexo Education is in the vanguard. Students are the e-generation. Computer literate and smartphone savvy, they use social media to communicate daily.

It is so important in their lives now that a recent survey by Dream Systems Media found 56 per cent of college students said if they were offered a job by a company that banned social media use, they’d turn it down!

If that’s how they talk to each other, it is not surprising that Sodexo wants to talk the same language.

Marketing Director Claire Morris said: “A lot of our sites are now using Twitter to communicate with customers: telling them what is on the menu, running competitions and asking for feedback.”

For example, Sodexo’s Twitter account has created a great buzz amongst Southampton Solent University (SSU) students. Offers and prize draws, as well as information, are being tweeted by Sodexo’s team at the university, where Sodexo has a contract to manage catering and hospitality services.

“It is driving engagement with the students, generating topics for communication and getting a buzz going,” said Claire.

Sodexo has a website, linked to the SSU intranet, in which students use a Quick Response (QR) code to go directly to a microsite called theunity, where they can get details of menus, opening hours, special offers and other information on catering.

Claire added: “It is important that we use the means of communications that this generation of students is using.

“We decided at the end of last year that we would not run any more satisfaction surveys using paper but all electronic, so that they can be completed using iPads, websites or QR.”

Lars Kavli, a social media consultant with It’s Open, has been working with Phil Hooper, Corporate Affairs Director and Sodexo’s UK and Ireland Marketing team, to see how social media can benefit communication in various sectors, starting with universities.

He said: “Technical innovation has brought about cultural change in which media users and practitioners have started to expect different interactions from media. They expect two-way interaction and some way of making their voices heard.”

Today, he says, one per cent of communicators create new content, nine per cent interact with that content, by responding to it or passing it on, while 90 per cent observe that content, so may also be influenced by it. “This is the ripple effect that is happening and while some companies have looked on this as a big threat, it is actually a huge opportunity to hold a very different relationship with service users or customers.”

Companies like Sodexo are now embracing social media and beginning to move away from the traditional corporate, reactive and defensive style of communication.

“We have seen at SSU you can have a very different kind of dialogue with your service users,” said Lars.

After researching how universities around the world are using social media, Twitter, because it is newsorientated, was found to be the best way to get the information directly to someone you are not familiar with.

“Your voice has to be authentic because you cannot manage an experience someone has of your services, if what you are saying bears no relation to what is actually happening,” said Lars.

“You can use video and photography too but the important thing is to tell it like it is.

“In the early stages, one of the challenges is to help Sodexo feel like they are not opening a can of worms, to let everyone have their say and comment on different
issues. But that is going to happen anyway, so it is better to be proactive to benefit the wider protection of the company.”

Claire’s colleagues in the USA say Facebook is becoming ‘old hat’ with students there, because everyone, including their parents, are using it. “For us, instant, short, effective communication with Twitter is much better.”

Lars said: “The litmus test for all media is ‘is it still useful and does it provide benefits to users?’ If the answer is yes, it will remain alive. Students are fickle and so big trends tend to work for three or four years.”

He added: “Facebook requires much more content and is a good tool for reflecting who you are and how you want to be perceived, but Twitter is better for quick communications. It is becoming the default media because it is like texting to a wider public.”

SSU’s retail development manager Marc Jaytin took to the use of Twitter fast. “He had some training but he’s a natural. He understands the messages that
work and the interactions you need,” said Lars.

Sodexo is also using LinkedIn, the professional network for job hunters, to cut its recruitment costs and find the right people.

The move into social media is not an exact science.

“It is a learning curve but you just have to start using it and learn from experience,” said Lars.

Written by Bob Roxburgh


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