What I learned when my post went viral

By Lorna Branton

Last week social media surprised me. A personal post of mine received almost 20,000 views and over 250 likes and comments across Facebook and Linkedin, as well as some direct action taken as a result of my message. But Twitter and traditional media? Not one single piece of engagement.

The post was trying to achieve a very specific goal – to help a homeless man I had seen that morning who was visibly distressed and soaked due to the torrential rain. I had a quick conversation with him before catching my train and he explained that his sleeping bag had been stolen. I didn’t have much time so gave him some cash and made sure he knew where he could go to get warm and dry.

I resolved to see if I could help this person through a horrible day. I started my quest on Twitter and by contacting the local radio station to see if they could do something on the breakfast show, but didn’t get a response from either message. My next step was Facebook.

I am a lucky woman and my friends are both amazing and speedy. I had asked people to give the guy any spare cash if they were passing and to have a chat with him. Within two hours one friend had tracked him down, delivering a sleeping bag and some dry clothes. Nothing that week gave me more satisfaction than reading that he had received some help.

A subsequent conversation with a colleague got me thinking about whether there was any learning in here for communications professionals. As a result I put something on Linkedin, which continues to have strong engagement.

Had I taken some video footage and put together a short clip, I have no doubt that Twitter would have been effective, but to really elicit emotion and action using only words, you need more than 280 characters. As professional communicators we instinctively understand the power of story telling to win hearts and minds, but to achieve that in writing you often need a longer form to make an impact.

So what was it about this particular story that had such an impact, once I had found the right medium for my message?

Firstly, it was about a person – not about ‘people’ as a general construct, but about an individual, identifiable, person.

Secondly, it had bags of emotion – both mine and the person I wrote about. For those engaging with the content there was a real emotional payback for becoming involved with this story. Those with deeper engagement (those who helped or offered to help) had a stronger emotional return than those who supported with comments and likes, but there was something for everyone involved.

Thirdly, by using Facebook I had made my communication direct and hyper-local, as I knew there were people in my community who could help. Finally, there was an unambiguous call to action and a clear timeframe in which the action needed to be taken.

These elements worked together to build a small but dedicated group of activists who were able to receive my message and take action. A bigger group, also affected by the content, shared my story more widely, until it reached tens of thousands of people.

If this had been a communications campaign then my digital storytelling would have been far more effective if it was backed up by a range of other communications techniques, to reach a range of audiences.

Obviously, public sector communications activity isn’t usually as clear cut as this situation, but there are some important parallels.

Everything the public sector does and achieves is for and about people. Those who work in the public sector are generally doing important jobs in difficult circumstances.  If we want to win hearts and minds it is the stories of those individuals – both the staff and the people they serve – that we need to tell.

We should tell these stories authentically, which helps the audience to empathise and understand, even when the message is difficult to hear.

Wherever possible our messages will have more resonance if we can target them to those with a direct connection to the issue. That way we can build groups of supporters who can share our messages more widely and who will become our advocates and supporters.

All organisations have stories to tell, but for the public sector those stories are a really effective way to engage people and to explain issues that can be both complex and unpopular. The narrative we share with our audiences shouldn’t be about bricks and mortar or services and products. We should be talking about the people inside those bricks and mortar, the amazing things they do, the challenges they face and the way that services and products are used to help people in our communities.

So next time you are running a campaign, try to get to the heart of the people affected by your issue and let individuals tell their story, directly to the audiences most affected. People understand people and as public-sector communicators we are privileged to know and work with some of the very best. Lets show them off.

Lorna Branton is assistant head of media (ai) at NHS Digital

Image courtesy of flickr user Joe the Goat Farmer

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