Government Organizations and the Goal of Social Media

It may be no surprise to industry experts that government departments are notoriously behind the social media curve in comparison with private organizations. In fact, Congress and the media have “dinged” agencies for their lack of social media participation. At least one rationale for the criticism is likely the fact that social media platforms are inherently a way for the government to be transparent and proactive in communicating their policies, decisions and actions to the American people.

Because these decisions and actions so often have an effect on our livelihoods, it’s natural for the community to be interested in their rationale, their impact on the economy, and their implications for the future.

Fear not: The bureaucracy is listening and social media engagement is increasing.

As an example, the Department of Veterans Affairs released its new social media policy, establishing a path forward and encouraging VA offices to practice clear and transparent communication to Veterans and their communities. This is a significant advance in thinking about the value and importance of social media. It was furthered recently when Brandon Friedman, VA’s Director of New Media, along with several other members of leading government agencies, participated in a panel discussion entitled, “Can the Department of Defense Realize the Full Power of Social Media?” The panel reassessed DOD’s social media status one year after the release of a policy that opened the Pentagon’s doors to several sites, including Facebook and Twitter, that had previously been blocked.

As a Communications contractor working with VA, I found the discussion very interesting. While, as the panel agreed, the government has certainly made progress in social media participation, several unique circumstances should be addressed to maximize value, minimize risk and make even further progress.

To begin, a greater emphasis is needed on educating and training staff on social media practices to increase transparency. This would include heightening awareness and propensity for “over sharing.” One panelist said it best: “No one wants to do a bad job.” This particularly stuck in my mind, because social media can be so engaging as to cause you to lose your way, and in turn, your effectiveness. Likewise, although social media serve as a means for quickly challenging negative comments, in government agencies, information security remains a paramount priority. Participants in social media activity must always ensure that private information continues to be safeguarded when relaying information to the public.

The relative importance of social media in the hierarchy of communication within government agencies also continues to be an issue. Social media initiatives should be a proactive effort, but are often relegated to the backburner in a sea of seemingly more pressing demands. Often, agencies do not have personnel solely dedicated to social media, so metric tracking and leadership buy-in are difficult to achieve and maintain.

The panel noted the issue was not that the social media efforts thus far were “incorrect, but incomplete.” While one of the benefits of social media is access to data that can be presented to departmental leadership (Facebook fan numbers, Twitter followers, blog subscribers, etc.), it can also turn into a drawback. If multiple staffers are communicating on internal efforts, but the social media office is not aware of these individual accounts, it becomes difficult to track activity and bring accurate measures of success to the fore. It also becomes nearly impossible to ensure team members are following a consistent social media policy or responding to media requests in the correct manner.

But isn’t social media about sharing and establishing networks within and outside of your teams? As agencies grapple with this fundamental conundrum, they must strive to strike a balance between communicating and regulating.

While government agencies have certainly made great strides in social media participation, the effort is still relatively new. Public affairs teams need to work with information offices to marry social media and security to address some very valid concerns. If agencies are going to advance into the future of information sharing, social media participation will need to be an integral piece of the long-term plan. Moving forward with a solid social media plan ultimately will establish a strong and secure voice for organizations across the virtual space.

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