Social media relations for local government

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This is the first of a two-part post on social media relations in local government communications. Read the second part tomorrow.

For many councils and other local public services, “traditional” media relations remains the mainstay of their communications efforts.

I’ve been thinking about how transferable some of the skills of “traditional” media relations are into social media relations, which led me onto thinking more broadly about what social media relations means for councils.

So here today and tomorrow, for what it’s worth is my guide to social media relations for local government…comments, thoughts, criticisms and debate all welcomed in the comments.

Defining social media relations

For me, social media relations is a discrete practice of public relations which involves influencing reputation through direct two-way communications using social media.

The important element of this is the fact it’s two-way – just using social media as tools for broadcasting messages without being prepared to engage in a dialogue with the recipients of those messages misses a key facet of social media. Indeed not listening and engaging in social media can backfire for organisations and risk reputational damage itself.

Just like traditional media relations, there are proactive and reactive elements to social media relations. The proactive side involves deploying a planned approach to online PR with specific objectives, target audience and messages.

The reactive dimension of social media relations involves dealing with online content concerning the organisation, place etc and engaging if appropriate to try to put forward counter-views, arguments or correcting misinformation.

Why bother with social media relations?

So why should a council, the police or a local healthcare organisation be concerned with social media?

My first reason is that even if you’re not concerned about engaging with people through social media itself, it’s a very small step from a damaging story online becoming a damaging story in more traditional offline media.

Any local journalist worth their salt will be using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites as a rich vein of sources for local interest stories. As soon as they pick up an issue from there, they’ve got a ready-made story and will be on the phone for a comment right away.

But thinking beyond this, the public sector needs to think about social media relations as the online conversations people have on social media sites will be key influences on their perception of a particular place or organisation.

There’s plenty of evidence that one of the strongest drivers of perception is word of mouth, particularly from trusted sources. Those kind of conversations have always taken place in the “real world” yet organisations have never had the opportunity to hear what’s been said and been able to potentially join in the conversations too.

Social media, and in particular social networks, provide the opportunity for these word of mouth networks to function more quickly, grow rapidly and extend beyond the practical geographic boundaries that face to face networks experience.

And reputation and perception are increasinly important to the public sector. Increasingly the sector is being measured not on what it does, but what it achieves. Often these achievements are measured on people’s perceptions, not just what actually happens.

For example it’s not enough for crime rates to be falling, success or failure will be judged on whether people actually feel safer – and that’s about their perception (and all the factors that influence it) not just what happens on the ground.

Challenges for social media relations

Effective social media relations can be a real struggle for public sector communications teams.

At a fundamental level the organisation needs to be prepared to engage in two way conversations with its publics – which is a big cultural step for organisations that are more familiar with one-way or at best asymmetric two-way communications to take.

Practically this means getting buy-in to the approach before an issue arises – senior people are probably familiar with the “rules of engagement” when dealing with media enquiries, but before it all hits the fan on social media, they need to be equally comfortable with engaging on social media too.

That means it’s encumbent on the communicators to educate and prepare people for this eventuality before it happens, and take a leadership role when it does.

But the challenges for social media relations aren’t just internal. The external environment can pose some traps too. While some social media relations can be conducted without a dedicated presence or channel of your own (for example commenting on a blog or participating in a forum discussion), arguably the most powerful weapons in the social media armoury are those that you control yourself – your Twitter feed, Facebook page or blog for example. Without those channels set up and an audience (or more accurately a community) in place, an organisation’s right to reply or platform for participation in a debate is pretty limited.

Back in the early days of the internet, cybersquatting was a big issue (and for some people still is). The same’s the case now in the social media world. Anyone can go and register your council’s name on a social media site – and then do and say what they wish with it. As the legitimate organisation there’s very little you can do about it.

So getting out and taking possession of key names on the main social media sites is an important bit of digital land grabbing. Even if you’ve no immediate plans to use the sites, just having them prevents others from using them and means you can use them in the future if plans do change.

However it’s not practical to register for every single permutation of names, so it’s also important to prove the authenticity of your social media presences by linking to them from legitimate places on the web.

In my experience for councils the .gov.uk domain suffix is known and trusted by residents – so linking clearly from the council’s main website to genuine social media presences is important for achieving authentication (as well as making good marketing sense anyway).

Sometimes though the challenges from social media can come from within the organisation yet show up very visibly outside the organisation.

Social media gives a voice to those that previously may have not had the ability to reach large numbers of people with their messages. When those people are disaffected staff, the impact on organisational reputation can be huge – check out this example in the private sector.

This challenge has implications for both an organisation’s internal communications and the policies it expects its staff to abide by both at work and at home when discussing work-related topics online.

What do you think are the key challenges for delivering effective social media relations in the public sector?

What can be done to address these challenges? What can the sector learn from early adopters in the private sector?

In the second part of this series (published tomorrow) read my three steps to effective social media relations in public sector communications.

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