How social media changes the communication landscape for public sector organisations

Prior to joining Abavus fulltime, I was a senior manager within a large and highly visible public sector organisation with tens of thousands of staff. As part of my remit I was responsible for many aspects of how the organisation presented itself to the outside world. Consequently I’ve witnessed at first hand the many ways in which social media really is a game changer in terms of organisational communications, particularly when it comes to how staff members (or indeed ex-staff members) use it to communicate about the organisation.


As a large organisation in the public eye from time to time we were faced with retired or ex-staff members (senior or junior) wanting to write books or memoirs about their careers with us. Whether the publications were well intentioned or not we always had to painstakingly vet what was being written in order not to put at risk or compromise third parties, the organisation or those that still worked within it. Unquestionably this activity was time consuming and not inexpensive to carry out. But by having notice and working with individuals and often their publishers there was at least a framework within which to operate and ensure suitable outcomes were achieved (including blocking publications if necessary).


Social media and other web 2.0 technologies have changed this landscape. Now anyone can set up a blog and use it to write and post whatever they like about their working life and their experiences. Even if we want to stop them from doing so, often this it practically impossible due to the anonymity that the internet can provide. In recent years I came across or dealt with employees using social media accounts or blog handles (some anonymous) in order to post negatively about the organisation, sometimes in real time.


I was also involved in a matter where a spoof video was produced by an unknown individual which negatively characterised a prominent senior figure in my organisation which was posted onto YouTube.. This kind of thing isn’t uncommon. Consider the famous case of Domino’s Pizza – disgruntled employees made a fairly disgusting video suggesting how Domino’s Pizzas were really made, which quickly went viral on YouTube, causing untold damage to the Domino’s brand (although the company was eventually able to turn a positive into a negative and scored their own social media hit as a result).


The bottom line here is that my organisation could not write a policy that covered all eventualities without it being quickly out of date, not covering everything or simply looking stupid. It used to be the case that once the newspapers’ evening editions came out, I’d know that the news cycle was over for the day and I would have breathing space until the next day. Not any more. Social media operates 24/7 and it’s increasingly the case that news breaks on social media first before then being picked up by traditional news channels, rather than the other way around. When I am talking to Abavus clients, it’s clear that this is a problem with which many other public sector organisations also struggle. With social media so fast moving how does an organisation give effective policy advice and guidance?


From my own experience I think it’s critical that HR departments (particularly recruitment teams or professional standards units who may deal with recruitment induction and disciplinary issues) need to ensure that they are clearly educating new employees about the potential power of social media and about what kinds of social media behaviour the organisation views as acceptable and unacceptable. It’s often the case that employees can be quite naive about just how powerful social media can be. When something goes viral it can be just as much of a surprise to the original poster as it is to the organisation. As managers we’re not just responsible for protecting the reputation of our organisations, we also have a duty of care to our employees to ensure not only that they don’t do anything on social media that might harm the organisation but also that they don’t do anything that might harm themselves.


We need to take the time to ensure that our staff clearly understand what’s right and wrong. We can’t assume that their understanding is the same as ours, particularly since some groups of staff might have very different views on what’s acceptable on social media than managers do. In my experience it tended to be younger, more junior members of staff who were more prone to unintentional social media indiscretions (mostly whilst off duty) whereas those who deliberately sought to inflict damage on the organisation tended to be older, more senior or experienced staff members. It’s not my intention to be ageist or impose stereotypes, I’m merely reporting my own experience from my particular organisation. Things may be different in other organisations so it’s really worth managers taking the time to understand their employees’ views on social media and to listen to suggestions from employees regarding what’s appropriate and what isn’t, rather than simply imposing what might be seen as quite draconian rules from above.


Another challenge that my organisation faced was how to ensure that all the staff tweeting about us were on message. I remember that there were a number of senior managers who used their own personal twitter accounts (rather than official corporate accounts) to respond to criticism coming into their areas. Clearly their intentions were good but using a personal account like this is a very bad idea. Not only does it mean that the organisation as a whole can’t control what’s being said about it, but it also reveals the identity of the staff member to the public, which can be hugely problematic. Again, the best defense against this is proper education so that staff really understand the risks of social media as well as the benefits. Much current discourse is about how important it is for public sector organisations to be more accessible to the public, but this can’t come at the expense of staff members’ own privacy and, ultimately perhaps, their safety.


It never ceased to amaze me how quickly something that was private and confidential at 4pm could be global by 5pm. What I’ve learnt from this is that it’s a big mistake to ignore the power of social media. Public sector organisations need to invest appropriately into staff training and development to ensure that social media is used appropriately and for the good of all.
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