I was invited to Colorado by a federal agency as part of a group of experts in public relations and social media. Our goal was to revise a public relations manual for national training.
The group leader asked me for an overview of social media with an emphasis on the advantages of participation. Some in government may be wary about participation she explained. What would I say that would prompt them to consider social engagement?
What is Social Media:
There is no uniform explanation of social media beyond an internet-based effort to communicate and exchange ideas and thoughts with target audiences. What Disneyland does will be different from Jeep which will be different from a national association and different again for a state or national government agency.
Social media depends on what you’re trying to accomplish and what you are willing to do. Every entity must make that decision for themselves. But usually it involves the creation or expansion of a website and populating it with materials your users find rewarding or interesting. This usually involves articles (a blog) or the creation of audio or video (podcasts). You expand your presence and conversations by reposting the information on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In or additional social media sites.
From “Marketing Charts:” 87 companies in the Fortune Global 100 are now using at least one social media platform, up from 84 last year and 79 in 2010, according to a July 2012 report from Burson-Marsteller that includes data from Visible Technologies. Twitter is the most popular (82), followed by YouTube (79) and Facebook (74), though newer platforms Google+ (48) and Pinterest (25) are also seeing significant levels of penetration.
A new survey of local government social media states that 94 percent of city government uses Twitter and 90 percent use Facebook. 50 percent are using YouTube. (Fels Institute of Government, University of Pennsylvania).
Why engage in social media? Because it accomplishes operational goals for millions of organizations:
For commercial sites, it’s increased sales.
For associations and nonprofits, it’s membership and contributions.
For advertisers, it’s an opportunity to influence.
For government, social media has profound implications:
Consider the following:
A principle issue in successful social media is authority. The more authority a site has, the more of an audience it obtains and there is no greater or more trusted source for information on many issues than government.
Government agencies can communicate directly with its audience without the incumbrances of going through mainstream media. Agencies no longer have to beg for coverage; they can create it themselves. They control their own worlds.
Agencies can tell their stories and influence their constituencies. They can take their case directly to the citizens they serve and do it as often as they like.
Improving citizen relations: Social media aspects of websites works twenty-four hours a day to answer inquiries and provides information regardless of the availability of staff. Hundreds of inquiries start out with, “I saw your website and viewed a television show and I would like additional information on…”
It respects the learning styles of users. Some prefer audio, some video and others like to read.
Media likes organizations that reach out to their constituencies. They mistrust those who hide and have little to say. As long as government engages in social media accurately are responsibly, they build good media relations.
Government is often misunderstood and sometimes mistrusted. This ends when bureaucracies care enough to educate and offer information on what they do and how they do it.
They can offer services more efficiently through web channels thus saving citizens time and money while doing the same for themselves.
Emergency information can be offered quickly. Disaster and criminal justice agencies can easily and quickly offer information, audio or video about an unfolding event thus notifying media and those affected of details and resolutions.
It’s equally important to understand that bogus web or social media sites are popping up all the time providing false information. Having an understanding as to how social media works may save your bureaucracy from major embarrassment.
Agencies can conduct polls and get feedback directly from the people they serve. They can have a dialog and get opinions enabling them to do a better job.
Have critics? Invite them to join a podcast (radio show). You will be surprised as to polite your detractors will be during a public discussion.
Many government agencies now have a “Plain English” mandate requiring a communications style that allows for easy to understand materials. Social media supports that mandate.
They can create media about their employees and highlight individuals and their service thus increasing morale.
They can do a better job of recruiting the right employees.
Need to communicate in different languages? Social media makes it easy.
The vast majority of younger people engage in social media and it’s dramatically increasing for older audiences. There will come a time in the near future where people will expect government to have an innovative and useful social presence.
Government can do this tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of times as people come to their website looking for insight and answers.
I have been engaged in social media for 15 years first by placing radio shows on a government website and responding to comments and through my current position via television and radio shows, articles and transcripts. I have engaged hundreds of thousands of people without one negative comment.
It’s not that hard or expensive:
The bottom-line is that government agencies can do all of this and it’s not that hard or expensive to do (see the list of articles below for additional information). Bandwidth powering social media sites can be had for $10.00 a month. Professional WordPress based websites can be created for a $300.00 or less. Video cameras cost about $100.00 (or use your smart phone). Digital audio recorders cost $200.00 (or use your smart phone). The technology and techniques are all understandable and approachable. There are dozens of people in your community engaging in these practices who would be more than happy to help.
And it’s Fun:
The creativity of social media is useful and enjoyable. You can effectively communicate. You can better serve. You can create a new audience of friends and influence people important to your causes.
All it takes is the willingness to try.
But here’s my prediction, you WILL be doing social within the next five years. Sooner or later, you will be digitally engaged with your audience, so you might as well get a start as to understanding issues.
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Additional articles on implementing government social media: