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Six TikTok lessons for public sector comms teams

Back when banana bread was in vogue and pandemic protections were still a thing, my team and I took a cold look at our social strategy.

The results sent us tumbling down an FYP shaped rabbit hole with little idea that less than six months later, TikTok would have become our most followed, most powerful digital channel of them all.

Here’s six things we learned on the way to 100,000 followers:

Understand ‘why’

A quick and dirty audit of our social media identified a gap in our ability to reach younger audiences.

This was confirmed by the results of our annual residents survey, which told us people aged 54 and older were much more likely to feel informed about the work of their local fire and rescue service than those aged under 30.

It’s a monster myth that TikTok is a channel for teenagers, but 16 to 24 year olds do remain its biggest audience segment- making it the obvious place for us to try to correct this imbalance.

Don’t obsess over ‘what’

All professional communicators are taught to think strategically about the platforms they use and the messages they want to share.

This is admirable, but we wagered the big discussions about what we would use the channel for could wait until we’d achieved our first goal- building an audience.

That’s not to say we don’t have a plan- we do- but it’s less than a side of A4 paper and there’s little point spending hours on a strategy for a few hundred followers.

Embrace the chaos

To the uninitiated (which we were) TikTok can feel like a bonkers place. But time spent on the channel reveals a chaotic world of niches, trends and communities- many of which are ripe for tapping into to share your organisation’s message.

From pitting UK against USA, to Yorkshireness, fitness and ASMR, we’ve hopped into all manner of weird and wonderful sub cultures to help share our content with a wider audience.

Have fun

Social media gurus often apply an 80/20 rule to content creation- that is, 80% heaped tablespoon of entertainment, combined with a 20% sprinkling of your message.

TikTok chucks this principle out the door, with the channel’s much-vaunted algorithm dictating that 100% of your content needs to be either entertaining or interesting to reach a decent number of people.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get an important message out there- you just have to repackage it in a more entertaining way and in keeping with the unique style of the channel.

Like every channel, TikTok has its controversies- from Mary Whitehouse style outrages over the latest trend to concerns over sexualised content.

Use it for good

Our experience so far though has been that its community guidelines and content moderation work are far, far more robust than its more established rivals.

And whilst platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can feel increasingly toxic places to have two way conversations, TikTok’s generally younger audience feels much more pre-disposed to sensible debates around issues of social justice, equality and inclusion- making it an ideal platform to further our organisation’s work in this area.

It’s never too late to learn new things at work

My colleague Jack and I didn’t have a clue about TikTok eight months ago- we didn’t even have the app.

The constant emergence of new digital channels can feel bewildering if you’ve been working in the communication sector for a while.

But the right training combined with a bit of bravery showed us that you’re never too old to learn a new skill, or apply old skills to a new channel.

Zander Mills is Corporate Communication Manager at South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue, and Vice Chair of LGcomms

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