Weather With You

We've looked at how MetService has used social media so you can take the weather with you...

Photo by Neil Guthrie, provided to MetService through FacebookWe’re always talking about the weather; it’s one of the main topics of conversation throughout the world. We use it for small talk when we have nothing else to say, and it can be the main topic of conversation - particularly when we get more extreme or prolonged types of weather.

The weather affects so much of what we do - even the outcome of sporting events. I think the New Zealand and England cricket teams would agree that the weather hugely contributed to the drawn 2013 Test series. We also need to know about the weather for a variety of reasons. Some are economic reasons; people in our agriculture industries care deeply about the weather. Some are health and safety reasons; if you’re out tramping or deep-sea fishing, you want to know what you’re in for. The weather affects our everyday lives so much.

Social media fits in better with many people’s lives than other channels.

New Zealanders benefit greatly from the provision of up-to-date weather forecasting. However, it’s absolutely crucial that the forecasts are available when and where people and organisations need them. It’s especially important in New Zealand, because the weather changes quickly in this part of the world.

Why did MetService start using social media?

For MetService, using social media was a natural progression from their tried and trusted methods of getting weather forecasts out to the public. MetService already uses, among other communications channels: TV, radio, websites, and weather forecasts in the press. To MetService, it seemed an obvious progression to use social media to further disseminate weather forecasts and important information.

It also afforded the opportunity to create a two-way dialogue with the public, gaining valuable feedback for MetService. MetService knew that people were already talking about the weather and the service on Twitter and Facebook, so it was best that MetService was there to respond and educate where required.

How did MetService start using social media?

There was no “big bang” approach to using social media. Communications staff at MetService were already using Twitter and Facebook in their personal lives, so were aware of the technology, the benefits, and the potential pitfalls of using social media.

People were already talking about the weather and the service on Twitter and Facebook

Another important factor was that MetService’s senior management team, including the CEO, were also using social media in their personal lives. This was important, because the “fear factor” in using social media was very much reduced. There was leadership and support from senior management for using social media.

MetService has a broad strategy for social media: to increase its use by the public - better engage with the public; and - above all - get severe and other weather information out as accurately, quickly, and effectively as possible. So MetService knows where it wants to go using social media.

What was MetService’s approach?

The approach was an iterative one, gradually building up the expertise and use of social media over a number of years. MetService was already using a website to communicate weather information, and extended its use by adding a blog in 2007. This allowed forecasters to engage with the public and provide more information on why certain weather conditions were happening. The blog has recently been extended to include how the weather affected certain historical events.

Why wouldn’t the organisation want to be part of the conversation?

In April 2009, MetService started Tweeting weather information. There is a limit of 140 characters on Twitter, so the dialogue had to be short and effective. At the time of writing, MetService had more than 11,000 followers on Twitter.

In early 2011, MetService started using Facebook. This allowed it to become much more interactive with the public, with photographs and comments on the weather. It also allowed MetService to link up with other organisations where weather information is important to their activities, and also connect internationally to other weather forecasting services. The weather information in New Zealand is accessible to anybody in the world.

Currently, MetService’s Facebook page has around 19,000 likes. It is also worth noting that all of MetService’s social media channels are linked. MetService’s website links to its Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as directing visitors to the weather blogs. The MetService website and social media accounts can be accessed through mobile devices, so information is available while people are on the move or carrying out activities where the weather might have a significant effect.

What security processes and procedures did MetService put in place to protect its use of social media?

MetService put what it considered to be enough process in place to manage risk without compromising its ability to be responsive. MetService’s communications team introduced a social media policy that made it clear who could post, blog, and Tweet. This short policy also outlines why social media is used, including the need to listen to, respond to and engage with the public. Weather reports are checked for accuracy, and comments posted on Twitter and Facebook are moderated to ensure that no inappropriate or offensive content is published.

The Department of Internal Affairs’ social media guidance came out after MetService began using social media. However, MetService staff said it did provide a useful check for them on how they were operating. It confirmed that the practices and protocols that MetService had put in place were appropriate and consistent with the guidance.

Were there any issues with resourcing the use of social media?

Resourcing has been a common issue for many of the public entities we have interviewed about using social media. Am I about to open Pandora’s Box and could this become a resourcing millstone around our necks? By building up gradually, MetService was able to monitor the resourcing implications and, although there were some difficulties at times, the benefits to MetService far outweighed the difficulties.

Forecasters needed to be encouraged to use social media, and responding to comments can take some time and effort. But, overall, this is managed well within MetService. The responsibility for posting, blogging, and Tweeting does not sit in one place but is dispersed throughout the organisation. This has helped with resourcing, and the timeliness of getting information onto social media.

There have been some training implications but they have been fairly light, and MetService has needed to provide only guidance and individual coaching for those who are blogging, Tweeting, and posting on Facebook. MetService found that some staff have ways of thinking and writing that are more in line with how to post on social media platforms. MetService actively sought to involve those people.

We were told that being prepared to use humour and personality are vital for blogging and successfully using other forms of social media. People who use social media also want to share their experiences, so be prepared to enter into a conversation. In our view, this is good advice for other public entities thinking of using social media.

Some staff members are more forthcoming and keen to use social media in the workplace. MetService is aware that training might need to increase slightly in the future.

Was there any resistance to using social media?

There was a bit. Some staff were – and still are – not comfortable with using social media. We were told by MetService that this was more of an organisational cultural and knowledge issue. Crucially, the leadership of MetService was supportive of using social media. They led by example, which allowed staff to experiment with using social media because the leadership team didn’t put barriers in their way.

Being prepared to use humour and personality are vital for blogging and successfully using other forms of social media

Where to now for MetService?

MetService sees further developments for the use of social media in the short term. It would like to see an increase in the number of people viewing and interacting with weather forecasting and information. Social media fits in better with many people’s lives than other channels.

MetService seems to be able to keep pace with the use of social media by having strong leadership, an understanding of how it can improve what it delivers, and not being frightened to actually use it. There are protocols in place on usage, and resourcing is well managed. Although it is not quite “business as usual” at MetService, social media is used more regularly there than at the other public entities we visited. During the next few years, using social media to communicate with the public is expected to become an integral part of the business.

It’s likely that people are already talking about your organisation on social media. They were certainly talking about the weather and the accuracy of forecasts. Why wouldn’t the organisation want to be part of the conversation? That was MetService’s stance – that it should be part of the debate that was already happening.

The lessons MetService learnt

  • Leadership buy-in – leadership provided a clear steer on social media, encouraged its use, and helped maintain the pace of development.
  • Gradual build up – an iterative approach helped build up the internal expertise and allowed resourcing demands to be monitored.
  • Hidden capability – some staff may naturally take to social media without much training, so consider whether you have any "hidden gems" internally.
  • Basic sound practice – risk was addressed without the need for complicated and unwieldy processes.
  • Dispersal – an internal network of staff who can interact on social media disperses the resource burden and helps manage content risks.