Three steps to effective local government social media relations

SimonGeneral24 Comments

This is the second in a two-part series of posts. Yesterday’s post explored some background into social media relations in local government and local public services.

This post sets out a three-step model to effective social media relations in local government. It’s focussed on the business of proactively and reactively managing reputation through social media channels.

Step 1: Monitoring

The first step to doing social media relations properly has got to be to have a good understanding of the environment in which you’re operating – just as you’d undertake an environmental audit at the start of any communications project.

I think there are two parts to this when it comes to social media (and indeed the online world more generally).

The first is to undertake an audit of the local internet scene. This involves deep research into local websites and local presences on key social media platforms. The purpose is to identify key influencers and networks that exist online and relate to a local area. Try to understand who the key players are in these networks – what are their positions on issues that your organisation rates as important? How do these people link into existing offline networks of influence?

This audit can be quite a time-consuming piece of work and is only a snapshot of a particular time. The nature of the social web means new networks and influencers can emerge rapidly, but I don’t think that negates the importance of doing a proper online environmental audit on a regular basis.

Once you’ve got the audit out of the way, it’s time to think about setting up some regular online monitoring. There are plenty of paid-for solutions out there, but here are a few free services that can be used to set up a basic online/social media monitoring service:

  • Google Alerts – particularly good for “normal” websites, blogs and online news sites. Provides web interface, email alerts and RSS feeds.
  • Twitter Search – keyword and advanced search of Twitter messages. Provides web interface and RSS feeds. For email alerts try Tweetbeep.
  • Facebook search – search people, pages, groups and places. Main issue here is that I haven’t yet found a reliable alerting system for Facebook so regular manual searching seems like the only option (this is probably because FB want to keep people on their site as much as possible – so search results aren’t exposed much through the site API).
  • Backtype – good for tracking conversations in comments on blogs. Email alerts only, no RSS.
  • Technorati – blog-focussed. Used to be one of my favourites, but doesn’t seem to pick up keywords as quickly/widely as Google Alerts on blogs now. Web based search and RSS feeds available.
  • Icerocket – quite a broad search engine, but particularly useful as it includes MySpace results. Web based search and RSS feeds available.
  • Socialmention – billed as “Google Alerts for social media”, this sites covers a broad range of social media properties, including bookmarks. Offers web-based search interface, RSS feeds, email alerts and downloadable results. Also has some sentiment and other metrics, although haven’t paid a lot of attention to these so far.
  • Social media firehose – a raw Yahoo Pipes mash-up allowing you to search a whole bunch of social media sites effectively. Web-based search, RSS, email alertts and other options available.
  • Nielsen Blogpulse – blog-focussed, but with plenty of trend and other analytics. Includes RSS feeds and email alerts.
  • BoardReader – forum-focussed search engine. Offers RSS feed and email alerts.

(I don’t claim this list is by any means comprehensive, but these are the services that I’ve used over the past few years. If you have any more must-have free social media monitoring services, leave them in the comments below.)

When setting up alerts, it’s worth thinking broadly about the terms you need to monitor on. Consider places, issues, names of key people, organisations – and learn how to write more advanced search queries on each tool to eliminate unwanted results from your searches.

It’s also worth thinking about having accounts set up on key social networks that you can use to join groups – so that you receive notifications of group activities that don’t show up in normal searches. However this can be uncomfortable and potentially risky if officers need to use an identifiably personal account (that they may use primarily for their own personal home use) to join what could be controversial issue-related groups on a social network.

However even with this wide range of tools at your disposal, there’s no substitute for manually reviewing the results. There will often be overlap between results from different sources that arrive at different times that require careful reading and intepretation.

Step 2: Assessment

So you’ve got a pretty refined alerting system in place and you spot some social media coverage that sets alarm bells ringing. What happens next?

It can be tempting to leap straight to the conclusion that a response is the right solution, but now’s the time to sit back and assess what’s been said, by whom and how.

Is the person involved a troll (someone with a history of persistent narky, abusive, critical comments)? If they are, is it worth responding? In my experience it probably isn’t and tends to just incite further critical coverage.

Similarly if the content is obviously a joke, taking the mick or satirical, a response probably isn’t the right solution.

The assessment also needs to take account of that person’s influence – how influential are they in the networks you’ve identified in your local online audit? The more influential they are, the more likely your need to engage with them online to achieve your communications goals.

You also need to consider whether you can engage online – in local government there are restrictions on, for example, officers engaging in a political debate. If your assessment is that a particular issue could be construed as politically sensitive then remember the limits to your ability to respond as an apolitical officer.

Having thought through all these factors, there are three outcomes to consider:

  • ignore and do nothing
  • monitor and review regularly – and maybe if the content spreads or develops consider a different outcome
  • actively engage

Step 3: Action

So if your assessment is that you need to act, it’s time to think about the appropriate way to do this.

I’m assuming here that as a communicator a mandate exists for you to engage with social media participants – which ideally would be something specifically enabled in the organisation’s social media or communications protocol.

In my experience the best way to deal with an “angry mob” situation, where there are a large number of people critical of the organisation, isn’t to wade into the public discussion to try to advance your case. It’s better to try to take the conversation forward with key influencers in the group either privately or on other channels.

For example this could mean asking for someone’s email address so that you can have a more considered and lengthy exchange of messages than is possible or practical on say Facebook or Twitter. Indeed for some tricky situations I think it’s preferable to try to have a direct telephone conversation with the person involved – this can help eliminate some of the misunderstandings that can creep into written electronic communications and can help establish a more personal relationship than is possible purely online.

Sometimes if the purpose of responding is to correct misleading or incorrect information, it may be the right course of action to post directly in response, either in the same place as the original coverage or on your own social media presence (and then placing a link as close as possible to the original coverage).

However if you do this, I think you need to be prepared to then engage in the inevitable subsequent online conversations that follow – to not do so could give the impression that the organisation isn’t prepared to genuinely engage and undermine the intent and purpose of the original intervention.

Regardless of the type of response you choose to make, I’d suggest a few principles that you must keep to:

  • Transparency – disclose who you are and who you work for. To not do so is unethical, breaks professional codes of conduct and will most likely backfire when someone traces the comment back to you or your organisation
  • Timing – social media moves fast and if not addresses quickly enough, the story can develop well beyond its original scope. This means having the organisational processes in place to respond quickly and accurately – who needs to sign off social media responses?
  • Considered – once you’ve made your response, it’s out there on the internet and there’s no retraction – so you must be happy that what you’ve produced might be published in public (even if it was sent as a private message), quoted, interpreted, forwarded on and thrown back at you. Don’t publish in haste and take out unnecessary passion – if in doubt, ask a colleague to read it before hitting send.
  • Tone and style – it feels like heresy saying this as someone responsible for corporate style, but you need to match the tone of your response to the environment into which it’s being published. YouTube has a different feel to its language than say Facebook or Twitter – your response needs to acknowledge this in the way it’s written. And the chances are writing in corporate style or (even worse) unintelligible public sector jargon won’t be at all appropriate.

Once you’ve completed your response, it’s time to tweak your monitoring to include potential impacts of your response and then start the whole cycle over again.

This three-step model is my initial stab at setting out a methodology for handling social media relations in the local public sector. It oversimplifies a lot of pretty complex and judgement-based decisions but hopefully provides a basic framework on which more complicated processes can be developed.

I’d be really interested in readers’ thoughts, comments and challenges to this model in the comments below.

24 Comments on “Three steps to effective local government social media relations”

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  22. I agree with your final point Simon in the sense that at some point in time local government has to engage in the conversation – even if it is merely to distribute much-needed information or clarify issues.

    One has to be extremely careful with taking what some might interpret as underhanded offline tactics to deal with online phenomena they can very easily backfire and add fuel to the fire. And, as you rightly point out, there are times when it is simply better to keep a low profile. Timing is, once more, fundamental.

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