Will social media play an important role in shaping places of the future? MSc Urban and Regional Planning student and Assistant Planner at Planning Prospects Simran Dhaliwal asked our Founder Paul Erskine-Fox for his views.

SD: How often do you use social media as part of the public participation process? If so, how do you use it?

Sometimes. Social media is more effective in some engagement scenarios than others. Traditional social media activity, such as setting up a Twitter feed or Facebook page for a project, can struggle to attract the right type of interest, in my experience.

It is difficult to find people who may be interested in your project using Twitter because it has limited means to search for people with particular interests or living in a certain area, for example. Facebook groups can often become an echo chamber for negative views. All it takes is for someone to post a negative point of view, many people will 'like' it and people with alternative points of view will be intimidated and dissuaded from posting what they think as a result.

Using Twitter to connect with community-level organisations who can retweet and spread the word to their followers can be a good strategy. Targeted and 'paid for' Twitter and Facebook content can be very effective in encouraging people to visit an engagement website, as they can be targeted by demographics or location.

SD: What changes have you seen over your professional career in how social media is used?

I would say that it became very popular and 'trendy' as an engagement tool at one point, but I think many engagement teams have realised that there are certain risks that come with it that need to be managed, and that certain types of social media activity can be far more effective than others.

Simply setting up a project Twitter feed, sending out some tweets linking to your website, retweeting a few things and following a load of people is unlikely to get anywhere near the same results as targeted social media content and comes with far more risks.

SD: What is your opinion of the use of social media in the public participation process?

I would say that social media platforms have become valuable tools to engage with people beyond the immediate local community around a development site, particularly younger, busier people that might have a positive interest in what you are doing. However, the risks, costs and benefits of each approach need to be carefully weighed up on a project by project basis.

SD: Why do you think social media isn't used widely in the UK?

There is too much perceived risk. Organisations are scared of getting it wrong and creating potentially more issues to deal with than if they had stayed away from social media in the first place. It is also quite resource intensive, especially if it becomes a tool to address questions and queries from the public.

SD: Do you think there is enough information and guidance on the topic? If not, how could it be improved?

I think organisations across the public and private sector need to create their own guidance on how best to 'deploy' social media - setting out what works and what doesn't tend to work in each project scenario.

Making a success of social media as a tool to drive community involvement isn't difficult or complicated, and doesn't require specific training. But I think people often need some guidance on how to get the most out of it and minimise the risks. I think, too often, people are simply told 'to be social' in the hope that engaging openly on social media will always bring positive results. It needs a bit more thought than that, but not too much more.

SD: What do you think the future holds for social media in public participation?

Targeted 'paid for' advertising is a really effective method of inviting participation from people of a certain age, with certain interests and living in a particular geographical location.

I think that the use of social media will continue to rise on this basis. However, awareness of data privacy is rising rapidly, which casts doubt over people's willingness to provide social media platforms with personal data which could be used to target them with information about opportunities to get involved.

SD: Would you consider using social media as part of public participation exercises in the future and why?

Paid-for targeted campaigns are likely to form part of most of the future community engagement and consultations that we run. They are a really effective way to reach younger, busier people who are difficult to communicate with by other means and who are more likely to engage in a positive, constructive way.

This type of social media engagement is also very low risk, because it doesn't involve creating another unmoderated forum for discussion about your project that Facebook groups do, for example. It is simply a case of placing a link to a project or engagement website in someone's news feed, for them to click through and provide their views in a safe, user-friendly intimidating environment, while they're sitting on the sofa at home or while they are at work.

SD: Do you use social media in other aspects of your job, and in what capacity?

I think it's a useful business development tool, not necessarily for 'advertising' in the traditional sense, but for informing people about our online engagement product, exchanging expertise and views with fellow professionals and conveying our ethos and approach as a business. I think it can be a useful shop window for an organisation, but pushy advertising is not what social media is good for.

SD: Is place-based research using geo-tagged social media posts a good idea?

Yes, with caution. Whilst this can be useful insight to inform future thinking, there are lots of privacy issues around using this kind of information without the social media user's permission. I ultimately think that the best way for social media users to inform the built environment is to ask them for their insight, rather than take it from them without asking, but I think there is potential in this form of data collection to inform certain place-based decisions.

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