Social media is a net positive for almost any entity with the possible exception of governments. There is nothing wrong with social media per se, however, governments at all levels have certain disadvantages not faced by most corporate interests or individuals such as:
- Government resources are usually high profile such as marked vehicles and uniformed personnel
- Their structure usually doesn’t allow for a quick response to negative publicity
- Governments get targeted more because of partisan politics
- Everyone has a vested interest due to their paying taxes, citizenship or residency, etc.
Social media itself can be very good for government in that it allows for immediate feedback, a two- way discussion and an opportunity for citizens to have their say. But there can be a clear downside as well. Sometimes people will post a photo or report on a situation without putting it into context or they may not understand what they are seeing. A friend of mine was a Canada Border Services Agency employee and had stopped in at a grocery store to pick up diapers after completing a 12-hour shift. Two days later a Letter to the Editor appeared in the local newspaper criticizing a uniformed CBSA officer for shopping on taxpayer time. It was assumed that since it was mid-day that he should have been on the job.
Most of my career within government has been spent in search and rescue (SAR). One of the very first things that SAR teams are often taught to do when arriving at a crisis scene is to stop and evaluate the situation. This is done to prioritize actions and to assess potential safety hazards. However, one quick photograph of a rescue team not moving with a caption such as “they arrived and just stood there” can be very harmful to the actual team as well as the government in general. When the Royal Canadian Air Force flys over a sinking boat they will make several passes so that they understand the wind and sea conditions before dropping a liferaft or other rescue equipment. A short video of this could look really bad on the national news but these aircrews have to understand exactly when and where to kick out the liferaft in order for it to land within reach of people in distress.
A minor oil spill can look catastrophic if the photo is taken from a particular angle and those opposed to fossil fuels may find it in their best interests to send out the most harmful looking photo. Paramedics could be shown standing around when injured people are nearby but there could be very valid reasons for it. Perhaps there are live downed power lines or they are awaiting police as there is an armed suspect inside. A picture may be worth a thousand words but just a few words to put things in context would be really helpful.
Why Big Government Needs a Media “War Room”
If you follow federal elections, you will note that the major political parties have communications staff standing by around the clock to respond to negative publicity. While municipal and many provincial governments may not be able to afford to do this but the larger provinces and the federal government could have a small team of communications professionals and social media experts on duty at all times to combat bad PR. They would be able to call the government personnel involved or other subject matter experts to get the information they need and get it out there quickly. Currently, most employees are not authorized to take unilateral action and getting permission to do anything media related can take hours or even days. This can have a heavy impact on the public trust in government, the moral of the employees involved and could even lead to unnecessary and expensive lawsuits. Governments at all levels need to embrace social media as it can bring a lot of good and can make it easier, better and less expensive to provide certain services to the public. But it has a downside as well. Most major corporations have a strategy to quickly respond to negative publicity. It is high time that governments did the same.
Do you have any examples of harmful social media posts due to a lack of context? If so, please share them with us.