Why local government shouldn't be on Facebook

SimonGeneral, Homepage slider

Over the past six months I’ve picked up an increasing interest in social media among public sector communicators. I’ve met more people, had more calls, emails and tweets about this than I did this time last year – there’s clearly a recognition that social media has an important role to play in local government and more generally public sector communications.

Most councils are still dipping a tentative toe in the water with social media – trying to see what they can and can’t do and see what’s working for others.

In particular at the moment it seems that Facebook and Twitter are the two social media tools that are attracting most attention. More on Twitter soon, but I’ve been thinking about how local government should be using Facebook.

There are already many councils that have set up a page on Facebook for their council – and have attracted “fans” with varying degrees of success. Their pages usually feature a mix of aggregated content from other sources, photos, videos and a scattering of comments and the odd response from the council.

I’m not going to mention names here, as my observations are about councils generally rather than any specific council – and to be really clear, I think it’s better that councils are trying Facebook rather than avoiding it altogether.

But my real concern is that I don’t think councils should have a presence on Facebook for themselves as a council.

I think it’s the wrong approach and I think it misses the point about the way people interact on social networks.

People using social networks befriend (or fan, whatever the appropriate phrase is) organisations, movements, clubs etc on Facebook and other social networks because they have an emotional bond of some description with that entity.

They might be fans in the muscial or film sense (eg by signing up to a band’s page), be replicating membership of an offline group (eg by signing up to a sports club’s page) or be part of a shared interest movement (eg by signing up to a campaign or political group’s page).

All of these conscious choices by individuals using social networks are done because they have some empathetic or emotional relationship with the entity to which the page belongs. They become a fan because they want to and because they care in some way.

How does this sit with a local council? In the real world I’m not convinced people have such a bond with their council as a corporate body – yes, they have that emotional or empathetic reaction about many of the services that their local council provides them, but not about the council as a whole. There’s no real world basis for the creation of an online community.

And that’s why I think councils that set up corporate pages on Facebook aren’t going to experience much success. I’m sure they’ll get a growing number of “fans” as the numbers using the social network grow, but I’m not convinced of the worth of corporate pages as a communications and engagement tool.

So what should councils do on Facebook?

Well I think there are two areas that councils should be focussing on:

1) Create Facebook pages for things people care about

Think about those things your council does that people care most about. Which do they feel most involved or engaged with? Where might there be a shared interest that would naturally lead to the creation of an online community? What do people care most about? What are the most active issues that are concerning residents in your area?

In Medway we’ve not created an official Facebook presence for the council, but we have used Facebook groups to promote festivals and theatres – as we know that the customers for these services do have a sense of belonging with the service and so there’s a basis for an online community to form.

Once you’ve created a page there’s lots more to think about – like how you’re going to manage and develop the community and ensure the council is actively engaging with the page’s fans, but more on that in a later post.

2) Reaching out to existing users

The oft-repeated adage about “build it and they will come” is as wrong on Facebook as it is anywhere else on the web.

Just because you have a presence on Facebook (whether it’s as a corporate body or for a specific service area), that doesn’t mean you’re automatically using Facebook to its greatest potential as a communications tool.

Try searching out people in your area using Facebook already. Look for groups that are concerned with your area. Try to spot activists among the groups – who seem the most active and vocal?

Once you’ve done this think about how to engage with these people appropriately – and I don’t mean send them a message saying “I see you’re from XXX, why  not join our group?” – the skills and subtleties of engaging with residents through social media are as complicated as the more traditional media relations that councils are so familiar with.

If handled sensitively, most people will be impressed their council is engaging residents directly through social media – and once you have established a relationship with key activists or players in the local social network scene, then you have the platform to start using that network to spread council messages in a credible and effective way.

There’s far more to it than creating a page and loading it up with council content I’m afraid – but the rewards for doing it properly will include reaching and engaging with parts of the community that traditional council communications struggle to reach.