In this post I’m suggesting four different of role for social media within local government communications.
The roles are meant as mutually supportive steps for local government to take to develop the use of social media as part of an overall communications mix.
Role one: environment scanning
Regardless of whether a council is already using social media or not, there will be user generated content on the web already about the organisation or its area. Councils should use commercial or freely available tools to monitor social media to help aid their understanding of public perception within their area. Such monitoring could also help councils in identifying issues that may cross over into mainstream media – this is increasingly useful given the emerging relationship between coverage in social media and the mainstream media.
Role two: public information
In this role, councils can use of social media tools as one-way broadcast channels. The nature of such one-way communications will be familiar to councils given the ubiquity of the news release, but will become increasingly important given the decline in penetration of traditional local media and increasing reliance on online sources for news and information.
This is also an opportunity for councils to reduce the role of local media as a gatekeeper. It’ll be particularly relevant where a council has a local traditional media environment dominated by one or most inherently hostile media organisations.
However this role fundamentally under-uses the potential of social media to create dialogue between an organisation and its publics, as well as between members of its publics as well.
Some social media enthusiasts would also probably argue that use of social media as a public information tool is not genuinely social media as it doesn’t satisfy the shared or collaborative nature of some definitions of social media. However being pragmatic, I think this step is important even thought it’ll probably upset some purists.
Role three: public communications
Here social media is used in external communications to its greatest extend, enabling publics as well as the organisation to create a conversation that is mutually beneficial to everyone participating
This role is a significant opportunity for councils to engage with publics and benefit from increased participation and subsequent benefits to reputation from increased resident satisfaction.
However doing this means that councils must accept the potential for reputational risk from critical or difficult conversations.
The degree and speed of scrutiny that social media can demand will be a new challenge for council communicators to meet. It’s vital that communicators in councils prepare the council as a whole for engaging in a more open and transparent way than may have happened previously.
Role four: internal communications
I can also see a clear role for social media in improving organisational performance through more effective communications among employees. For example Kent County Council has done some interesting work creating Communities of Practice; effectively internal social networks focussed on knowledge sharing, innovation and communication. Think about how a microblogging platform could be used to share information and create short employee-to-employee interactions.
As I’ve said before though, effective deployment of social media within local authorities needs a supportive culture where use of social media tools isn’t seen as a potential risk of timewasting and more as a productive type of business communication.