The importance of social media for government
Social media is used by citizens all across the globe; however, not all government departments are using social media to its full potential.
This is all the more surprising given that government departments should be communicating better with citizens.
Uptake of social media in Australia is no different.
According to the Sensis Social Media Report 2016: How Australian people and businesses are using social media (SSMR), more businesses now have a social media presence than previously recorded.
In Australia, Facebook continues to be the most popular social media platform by far, followed by LinkedIn and Twitter, and for large to medium businesses, Instagram and YouTube are also common.
While many businesses are reaping the benefits of social media, decision makers within government departments and agencies are still trying to figure out the best way to approach citizens with the available social tools.
The role of social media in government
As the number of Facebook users increase, users are consistently voicing their opinions on user policy and functionality. Facebook staff are able to follow these opinions and change the platforms settings accordingly, resulting in increased participation.
Today, more people are online than ever, the SSMR found that an average Australian spends more than 1.5 business days on Facebook alone per week. This should be a wakeup call for government departments that aren’t on social media. This is where the public are, and this is where you can engage with them.
Thus, it is inevitable that government departments, in order to achieve their desired policy objectives, should start using social media channels to better communicate with the public in a valuable and meaningful way.
However, for this to occur, there needs to be an acceptance that social media channels have changed the way the public communicates. Communication is now immediate in forging relationships and addressing complaints at speeds never seen before.
According to the SSMR, social media is one of the few digital avenues offering two-way communication, giving the sender the ability to receive feedback and monitor sentiment.
However, governments’ ability to fully utilise this two-way communication channel still has some way to go.
According to The Leader’s Report – the future of government communications, the majority of government communication spend remains focused on traditional channels, with spend on newspapers, radio and television accounting for between 74%- 97% of media spend.
Furthermore, 40% of those who took part in The Leader’s Report research, say they lack an understanding of digital and social media.
While some governments are still debating their views about social media, there are others who are pro-active on the social web. For example, the Australian Federal Government’s Department of Human Services received complaints from the public who were upset with the process of claiming social security payments. In response to this, the department launched the Facebook page Family Update to provide further assistance to families who rely on Child Support payments, Centrelink and Medicare.
There has also been implementation of social channels across Australian local government. For example, Connecting with Communities research found Brisbane City Council created history when they used social media during the Brisbane flood of January 2011 in an effort to share vital information and engage with residents and businesses that needed to evacuate. Both of these government departments used social media to achieve their organisational objectives by creating genuine connections with the public and building their trust.
Hence, social media shouldn’t be ignored. Without the audiences trust your message will never be heard.
U.S. Rep. Buck McKeon, R, Calif said: “If you ignore [social media] and you just keep doing things the way you did when I first came to congress, you do so at your own peril.”
The need for a cultural shift
However, it is apparent both local and national governments are still hesitant with their social media use and are fixated on the ‘try and see phase’.
A stiffness resides in government where traditional practices about public relations are deep-rooted, however, they are seen as obsolete in the digital age. Such practices only leave the government to be seen as nameless, faceless and even untrustworthy.
In the private sector, many large businesses and the biggest brands use social media as an effective way to solve problems in real-time, monitor sentiment, manage brand reputation and increase loyalty.
There is a need for the government to be courageous and embrace social media like many global businesses do, for example, they respond to customer’s complaints immediately, giving them the opportunity to resolve the issue and mitigate damage to their brand.
According to SocialBakers.com, Starbucks ranks #4 in the Top 100 Twitter Brands. Most of Starbucks tweets were replies to individual tweets effectively highlighting that continual engagement with customers will lead people to be brand loyal.
The risks for government
We understand there are inherent risks for government social media, including (but not limited to):
- “Liability from Third-Party Content;
- Freedom of Information Act Requests and Public Records Compliance; and
- No centralised Control of corporate message.”
However, it is time for governments to learn to adapt and embrace social media if they wish to productively communicate with their communities and stakeholders.
Social media should be seen as an opportunity for the government to effectively engage with its citizens and help society progress.
Dan Pfeiffer, Senior advisor to former President of the United States Barak Obama said “anything that breaks down barriers and brings the public and politicians closer together is a good thing.”
Social media allows engagement with the public simple yet powerful, provides a useful took to build audience trust, and gives useful insights on public sentiment to help inform government decisions and public policy.