UK government agency to monitor blogs

15 August 2007
Financial Times
Carlos Grande

The COI, the UK government's communications agency, is working on a way to monitor what people say about policy on blogs and internet forums for the media briefings it sends to ministers. A project by the COI's Media Monitoring Unit is considering how to add blogs to its regular summaries of government coverage in mainstream press or television.

The summaries are used across Whitehall from ministers to departmental communications teams, often as an early warning service on issues rising up the public's agenda. The blog project was in part prompted by departments' concerns at being caught unawares by debates spread on the web.

It reflects the growing media profile of the format and the fact some individual bloggers are moving from niche self-publishers to establishment opinion-formers.

Clarence Mitchell, director of the MMU, said though there was debate about the objectivity of some bloggers, several were taken increasingly seriously within government.

Mr Mitchell said: "There's a whole level of debate taking place online which simply didn't exist before and departments feel they need to be fully engaged in that."

He insisted any future service by the unit would not intervene in monitored blogs.

However individual departments which took any service might choose to reply directly to bloggers' criticisms - as they would any commentator - or address points through general media statements.

Pilot studies have looked at pensioners' online reactions to a recent budget and internet opinions on counter-terrorism measures. They have tracked web traffic generated as well as the tone of discussions.

The blog monitoring would need a sufficient number of individual government departments to agree to cover the extra costs involved. If this happened, MMU estimates a service could operate by the end of the year.

A growing number of companies already monitor blogs in sectors such as technology where online product reviewers can be highly influential. Universal McCann, the media buyer, recently estimated that more than 50 per cent of UK respondents to an online survey said they had read a blog within the last six months and about 20 per cent had posted comments on their own.

The media buyer said this lagged far behind China and south Korea where blogging - mostly devoid of politics in China - was more widespread, and less likely to be seen as self-interested as it is in the west. The vast majority of blogs in the UK and the US are abandoned after a relatively short period of time or read by only a handful of friends or contacts.

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