When I was asked to take on a social media work assignment last year, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Although I’m a daily user of various social media platforms I had no real context for government social media and zero experience. I’ve worked in communications for the government for almost ten years and know first-hand how the government’s structure means any long-term projects can take a long time, so I was skeptical but willing. Now, 18 months later, I’ve learned that, although government tends to work slowly, there are a number of ways to adapt the two realities (the pace of government vs. that of social media) into a consistent, reliable online presence.
I work as an analyst for a department with a massive and unique file that often attracts controversy one way or another. As you can imagine this creates a challenge for us – we need useful and informative channels but we also need to carefully measure every word we publish, which requires extra time to develop. So the way it works for us is the following: we determine a theme months ahead of time, and develop related posts for each of our platforms. Then we send our content to subject matter experts to make sure what we’re saying is 100% accurate, and then we have to translate before getting final approval. By the time a post is published, it’s typically been vetted by many people over the course of some weeks… which goes against the spontaneous, personable interactions favored by users, making it challenging for us to connect to them. Cindy King’s article “28 Social Media Marketing Predictions From the Pros” discussed this particular challenge: In order to engage their customers, brands “must break down the social media silo they have created.” This is particularly problematic for social media writers in the government, because we want and need to connect with our audience but we’re limited in what we can say to them and how quickly we can say it.
To deal with this issue, we develop as much interactive content as we can, like contests or trivia questions, literally asking our audience to engage with us and let their needs direct us instead of speaking at them in a vacuum. King’s article addressed this, asking “can you create a voice and inspire customers to take action or do you simply publish pre-created content?” It’s a good question, and it’s something we have to carefully weigh each day. We are less free to embrace risk the way a brand can, but our restrictions are irrelevant to our audience so we need to bridge the gap between what we want to do and what we can do. In 2012 the University of Regina published a study on the use of public media by governments, arguing that a challenge for governments in social media is that “federal executives must show more flexibility, openness and leadership in using these new technologies.” Three years later, there have been significant leaps in that regard as the government workforce has embraced the need for a robust social media presence.
It’s an encouraging sign of changing times when a government becomes more accessible by using technologies that demand a certain transparency without sacrificing the need for restraint and careful consideration. As these technologies stabilize and evolve, I think we’ll see more and more openness on governmental channels. So, although social media is still a fresh endeavor for the public sector, we’re seeing how it’s contributing to a reduction of bureaucratic red tape and working towards a friendlier, more personal relationship with the citizens it represents. It’s no secret that governments work slowly, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from making meaningful contributions to technologies that have already changed the way people and organizations interact.