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Tapping into a new era of communication

Social networking sites are no longer exclusive to teenagers and students as companies, service providers and local authorities become more web-savvy. With the rise in people’s consumption for technology and the internet, online communication tools are becoming more important as a way to reach all types of audiences - even in the waste world - more cheaply. So much so, that when Belfast City Council’s budget for its annual waste awareness event Waste Week was cut by two thirds, it turned to the internet.

We found that by using the traditional methods of sending letters and putting out posters we were directing [our messages] at the same social group [each time] - Naomi Palmer

The campaign was a success, according to council resource education and promotion officer Naomi Palmer. “We used Facebook, Twitter and the council has its own You Tube site which we have quite a few fans on,” she says. “We found that by using the traditional methods of sending letters and putting out posters we were directing [our messages] at the same social group [each time]. But with social media [we found] there were young people and young professionals we could also target.”

The council’s innovative and approach to working within a challenging budget won it three awards. It received the Best Integrated Communications award from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations; its reuse and rewear textile workshop Stitch and Style won the Green Award for the Best Green Event in the UK; and it was given the Green Apple Gold Standard for Irish Councils.

Tailored communications

During Waste Week, held in the first week of June each year, Belfast City Council organises a series of events aimed at all social groups. Palmer explains: “We made sure we tailored the communication methods to suit each audience we were aiming at for each event, for example our Stitch and Style event was aimed at young mothers and professional females, so we used a more web-based approach for the event.”

It was decided to make Stitch and Style as waste-free as possible, so the council promoted it via email and online mediums. A limited supply of posters were printed and put up in key locations across the area for maximum impact. Scraps of waste textiles with the council’s website stencilled on them replaced paper leaflets. Even a basic advertising technique that involved holding up placards across Belfast City Centre at busy intervals was effective, because it was so visual.

Council resource education and promotion officer Mary McGinn says: “We put on a workshop teaching participants basic hand-stitching, we also invited local designers who specialised in using waste materials in their clothing and we also showcased clothing from charity shops. There was more demand after that event and we organised three more Stitch and Style events.”

In contrast, the council’s Movies with Glass event was advertised using posters in local community centres and received good coverage by local media. It was aimed at the general public, and the older generation in particular. The idea was based on a World War II glass recycling scheme that offered free entry to cinema-goers if they brought a glass bottle or jar. Residents were invited to free viewings of Casablanca and Grease in exchange for a glass jar, designed to highlight that the often overlooked glass jar and glass bottle can be recycled.

Combined strategy

An informal public debate called Conversation Café was also organised, at which residents were invited to debate environmental issues. “This event was organised via Facebook and posters in local cafes. It managed to attract a good selection of different social groups across the community.

“It really gave them the chance to talk about the services of the council in an informal and friendly way, while we gauged their attitude towards recycling. We found that there were sceptics and there were supporters and although people were fully aware of the need to use their recycling bins, they didn’t seem to realise that reducing and reusing is even better than recycling.”

This whole event was filmed and, once edited, was broadcast as a podcast on the council’s website.

By working with schools to encourage children to recycle and displaying visually captivating sculptures made from waste electronic and electrical equipment at City Hall, the council also managed to spread its waste awareness message with a variety of communication methods.

Digital is a dream for us and it’s completely waste free. It’s faster and it’s at the touch of a button, as opposed to sending letters - Naomi Palmer

But it is the web-based products that seem to have really made the difference. Palmer explains: “Digital is a dream for us and it’s completely waste free. It’s faster and it’s at the touch of a button, as opposed to sending letters. The Facebook page can be regularly updated throughout the day by the communications team. We sometimes say things like ‘remember what goes into your blue bin,’ which reinforces the recycling messages which we hope will be made into habits for residents.”

Ready-made database

As people join the council’s Facebook group, they form a ready-made database that the council now uses to send emails and messages. This type of communication enables Belfast to connect with residents on a different level to a standard paper mailshot. Palmer says: “I think by putting [a message] on Facebook, as opposed to reading it in a local newspaper or a letter, it becomes more personal so residents are also more likely to message us. We have a policy that if a resident sends in a comment, they will have a response within two hours, as we feel even answering the next day is too long to wait.

“I think if councils don’t jump on the bandwagon they’re going to suffer. You can’t rely on leaflets coming through doors and you can’t rely on adverts on the television and radio because there are so many more [communication] channels now.”

Today, the council has a recycling rate of 29%, which is a huge improvement from 2003’s figure of 3.5%. Although, the council is unable to pinpoint that it is the work though its Waste Weeks that is causing this steady rise, the awards and feedback received from its campaigns seem to show how effective it has been.

While the council sees online communication as the future for interacting with its residents, it also understands that not everyone is skilled in the art of posting comments on another person’s wall or accepting an online invite. Palmer says: “We will be mostly digital in future but we can’t allow ourselves to miss out on parts of the community that don’t use social networking sites, so we will still use leaflets because some people just like having a leaflet on their fridge.”

But with the idea that Belfast council may even create its own application for iphones and Blackberrys, the local authority is embracing the digital future and the digital generation - ensuring that residents will never forget what to put in their blue bins.

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