Social media and the public sector

Posted by Ruth Atherley of AHA Creative Strategies on September 15th, 2016

community engagement, social mediaRecently, I started The AHA 100 Cups of Coffee Campaign. The intent of this initiative is for me to get out and connect with 100 people – to introduce myself, catch up and have a conversation. It’s not just about networking and business development, although that has certainly been a positive byproduct. It is about making sure that we, as AHA, are engaged with what is going on in the world, what people are thinking and doing, and what they are passionate about and committed to achieving. It has been incredibly interesting and inspiring.

Not surprisingly, some of the people with whom I have met are communications professionals. Many of them work in the public sector – and several work for municipalities (cities, towns, regional districts) in British Columbia and in Ontario. The AHA team has worked with quite a few municipalities, providing a range of services from messaging development, stakeholder communications, social media, communications planning and implementation, and issues and crisis communication.

I have to admit, I love working with local government. In my experience, the people who choose to work in this area have a passion for their communities and they are quick-thinking, smart and empathetic individuals who care about the work they do and its impact on the people of their town, city or regional district. They get to work early, rarely take a lunch, and are there well after the sun has set. They are dedicated – and they usually have a pretty good sense of humour. The work is interesting and thought-provoking.

Communication that involves diverse stakeholder groups demands that we keep ahead of the curve on new tools and technologies that we can use to connect with the communities. It is crucial that we understand the key elements of any initiative – what the barriers or resistance might be, what people really think, what the fears and concerns are, and the best way to inform, educate and engage. And, I have to say, when you have felt the thrill of having a large group of people respond, participate or even just acknowledge that they were provided with relevant, timely information that is useful to them in making a decision, or that helped them understand why something is being done or not being done – it’s incredibly rewarding.

One of the topics that has come up several times when meeting with senior local government communicators is the challenge of social media. Everyone deals with social media these days – both public and private sectors. Those who work in the public sector have a different, and I think more complicated, challenge regarding how they engage using social media.

These days, most organizations – in both the public and private sectors – are monitoring social media for mentions. The challenge comes from a) understanding what conversations and discussions on social media are relevant and useful; b) how to best make use of the knowledge gleaned from online monitoring; and c) what to do when comments or discussions are negative, hostile or aggressive. And c) isn’t something that can or should be taken lightly. While criticism and concerns from stakeholders should be viewed as an opportunity to better understand how a program, initiative or project is being perceived – not everything that is shared online is constructive or accurate. Sometimes people are just blowing off steam or, in some cases, shooting off their mouths without any evidence-based stats or facts to back them up. Opinions – whether informed or not – are a dime a dozen online. Unfortunately, the ease of putting something up on social media can mean that there are inaccuracies, mistakes and misinformation being shared.

A communications professional in local government has to make the call (likely several times a day) as to how to deal with a range of information being shared on social media. It could take up their entire workday and go into the night if they responded to everything. And yet, by the very nature of who they are as a professional, there is always the need to respond; to explain the details of a situation or decision; to provide news, stats and facts; and to inform, educate and update. In addition, they have to balance this within a complex world that includes the community (residents, businesses, etc.), elected officials (mayors, councillors, etc.), senior bureaucrats (city managers, chief administrative officers), board members and, of course, media. Each of these may have their own goals, objectives or agendas, relative to the situation. It’s quite a balancing act for a communicator.

One of the things we have done with several clients is to build a social media response plan that includes criteria that identifies the key projects, initiatives and campaigns that are expected to generate interest from the community, as well as outlines each of the stakeholder groups and their expectations, concerns and needs. This plan is a useful resource that helps the communications team to have key messages outlined, identifies the priority for response, and provides a road map that helps to make the sharing of information via social media both effective and efficient.

Traditional media, citizen journalists, advocacy and community groups, and involved stakeholders all rely on social media to engage with themselves, with each other and with local government. Social media has given those of us who work in the world of communications an exceptional opportunity that is wrapped up in a very complicated package that is delivered 24/7 on social networks. It is an exhaustingly exciting time to do the work that we do.

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