Four key considerations when managing social media in the public sector

At Abavus we regularly speak to public sector managers who are concerned about how best to handle social media use within their organisations. As time goes on I’ve noticed several themes that come up time and again in these discussions, and I’m going to use this blog post to talk about each one of those in turn.

1. Don’t bother trying to hold back the tide

It’s not uncommon still to speak to senior public sector managers who are not themselves on social media, or who believe that the best way to manage social media within their organisations is simply to ban its use. Taking this approach is simply trying to hold back an unstoppable tide. The genie is out of the bottle. Social media is changing the way the public sector engages with its customers. There’s no way around this.

There’s another group of managers who recognise and acknowledge that social media is a game changer that can’t be ignored, but who still refuse to engage with it themselves. Having got to where they are without social media, they think that it can be left to others within the organisation to handle. Quite often people in this position have the erroneous belief that younger employees will be well able to handle social media on their behalf because they’re digital natives. This is a very dangerous assumption to make – example after example of social media gaffes shows that so-called digital natives are just as prone to making mistakes on social media as anyone else. The bottom line is this. If you’re a senior manager in local government you can’t ignore social media or leave it to others to manage. You have to get to grips with it yourself.

Get personally on board now. Start incrementally with one of the three most popular media tools (I would start with Twitter) and see it as a benefit rather than a risk, an opportunity rather than a chore. Once you do that, you’ll be able to generate your own ideas as to how you want to shape your organisation, embracing social media as you do it. You’ll better understand both the risks and opportunities that social media presents. You’ll be part of the conversation rather than watching from the sidelines.

2. Think about how you’ll manage social media risk

Incidents that have led to staff being disciplined or sacked as a result of inappropriate social media use are on the rise. Whether through individuals uploading clips on YouTube of workers on duty clowning around, or colleagues making inappropriate or discriminatory remarks about other colleagues in what they thought were private forums, or responding inappropriately to customer comments, the number of different ways in which people can make mistakes on social media seems limitless. However, that’s not a reason not to engage.

To avoid these individual and corporate risks firstly consider promoting yourself as a social media friendly organisation to employees. Let employees use and access social media at work, but give them the support  and training they need to understand how to use social media safely. Have a clear policy that guides staff through your expectations of how they’ll use social media, both on and off duty. Deliver social media training for staff, whether through new employee induction programmes or staff training days. Educate them how to appropriately use and profit from social media whilst helping them understand the risks that come with it.

3. How will you handle instant news?

Social media means that news travels incredibly quickly these days. As an organisation, you are always playing catch up and having to respond to events that have happened and are already being talked about. How do you handle the communications challenges that this speed of news presents? Even if you do have a 24 hour communications department, you have to recognise that there will be news out there before you can appropriately respond. Public opinion is being shaped whilst you are still asleep.

Also gone are the days where you would take a semi-relaxed attitude and engage your media and communications professionals as a bit of an after thought. When previously you had breathing space to fully plan your media and communication strategy around emerging issues now days you don’t have this luxury of time. So how do you get upstream in dealing with instant nature of social media?

  • Work on the assumption that anything and everything you deal with could be in the public domain within minutes. Worry about this – it will ensure you are focused (but don’t stress).
  • Work with your Communication teams closely on activities that are of media interest whether it’s about positive or negative news and be in a position to promote good news or mitigate risk quickly using social media.
  • You might not be a communications professional but in the projects or work you manage, when you are confident and competent, you should personally drive the social media agenda and social media strategy.

4. Off-script: the challenge of the well-intentioned employee

In point 2 I highlighted the potential pitfalls of social media in a disciplinary context, but often it is the well-intentioned employee who presents risk to the organisation through their social media usage. For example, a common issue in the private sector is confusing customers by sending out conflicting messages from multiple brand profiles. The public sector is no different. Whether you’re a local authority, police force or government department, you need to keep close control over any social media accounts that might be taken to represent your organisation in any kind of official capacity. That means keeping control over who within the organisation has access to those accounts, ensuring that the messages sent out are consistent with your brand guidelines, and tracking who is responsible for which messages.

For more detailed advice on how to manage social media risk in the public sector check out our free white paper on the topic.

One Response to Four key considerations when managing social media in the public sector

  1. Vanessa August 19, 2015 at 5:40 pm #

    Hi Darren.

    Thanks for sharing this blogg. Really interesting having just worked with an organisation that are just started to embrace the whole social media scene.

    I will share this with them.

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