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Linford Christie was a great sprinter, winning Commonwealth and European gold medals on a regular basis. However, it wasn’t until late in his career that he stepped up to the very top level and became world and Olympic Champion. When he won the 100m Gold at the Barcelona Olympics he was 32 years old – four years older than all previous winners.

According to athletics folklore, one of the main reasons for this was that he dramatically improved his starting technique after his training partner Colin Jackson (also World and Olympic champion at 110m hurdles) told him to start on the B of Bang! Christie was able to shave  a tenth of a second off his start, enough to convert Silver and Bronze medals into the coveted Gold.

To use social media successfully, you have to be equally quick off the mark. Events get frenzied coverage online – think of the racist woman on a tram incident – but they soon fade away.

Last week, the screening of the BBC drama series Public Enemies  – which focused on the relationship between a probation officer (Anna Friel) and a released murderer (Daniel Mays) presented an opportunity for probation trusts to publicise the work that they do and correct common misconceptions of probation officers as soft on crime and criminals.

Public Enemies didn’t show the probation service in the best light. To create an exciting drama, they had the probation officer acting in a very unprofessional way, eventually embarking on a love affair with the offender she was supervising. I blogged about the series and created an online magazine, “Probation in Action” containing articles, interviews and videos about the way the probation service really works. You can see a slideshow of the magazine in the sidebar to the right of this post.

The chart below shows the number of different visitors who viewed the online magazine every day for the last week. You can see how quickly interest peaks and fades away as people move on to the next new topic.

It is therefore important for PR departments to be quick off the mark and have their content ready as a number of trusts including Staffordshire and West Midlands and London were. The great thing about riding the crest of the social media wave is that you can quickly attract a new audience (Twitter followers, Facebook friends, Blog subscribers etc) at least in the short term, and you can retain and grow this audience by continuing to publish new and interesting content.

However, the added value of online content is that it continues to remains visible and accessible in a way that traditional media items (TV and Radio interviews, local press articles) do not.

Those probation trusts who created material for the airing of Public Enemies, be it background information about the supervision of released prisoners and risk management or case studies of probation officers at work (such as this one developed by @gmptprobationPR), will be able to redirect their online audience to the same material when it becomes relevant again – on the publication of MoJ statistics or a national or local news story.

Again, this is easy to illustrate from my own blog. The piece I wrote about Public Enemies last week was the fourth in a series on probation and social media over a period of three and a half months. Although the original post was only viewed 398 times in its first week online, it has now been viewed over 1300 times, as you can see below:

The increase in views in December came about in response to my blogging three more times about probation issues and the mini-peak last week was in response to the screening of Public Enemies.

The other reason that Linford Christie stepped up a level later in his career was that running – and winning – became his sole focus; he dedicated his whole life to training and preparing for major championships. In the same way, organisations who commit to social media and develop a good range of interesting online content in their key areas of operation can expect to profit fully when the occasion arises.

Sometimes organisations are wary of getting involved in high profile online media storms, but they needn’t be. Probation trusts could have responded to the racist woman on the tram YouTube video with a short comment and a link to an article or feature about the work the service does with hate crime and racially motivated offenders – but only if they had a carefully constructed piece already on their website.

The results when you prepare well and get off the mark fast can be spectacular:


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