Why local government shouldn't be on Facebook

SimonGeneral, Homepage slider44 Comments

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.

44 Comments on “Why local government shouldn't be on Facebook”

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  4. I utterly agree with every word of this – however I do think where there are services that already engage with the public, a functional page is worthwhile. For example, Manchester Libraries have a facebook page from which you can search their catalog and see upcoming events – this is engaging and useful and would work because libraries are things you can be fans of – if waste management did this it would be less engaging and even if you could, say, look up bin times it would not be worthwhile. However, a “How can we improve bin collections in Placeville” group which includes a feed with bin collection times….as Simon says, it’s about looking at what engages people.

    1. thanks Kevin – it’s about engaging with people on things they care about, rather than what the org necessarily cares about

  5. Hi Simon

    Good post, couldn’t agree more.

    But doesn’t this create a new challenge? How do you go about giving your staff and members the skills and confidence to represent the authority in social media, where are the limits, how do people balance their personal use of the technology vs their professional?.

    I certainly know of several authorities where the approach to Facebook, Twitter et al is just to block access. That does not seem to be a sustainable approach.


    1. I think there needs to be a clear divide between personal and professional use of social networks – in just the same way as there are (usually) clear divides between use of a work and personal email account.

      And as for blocking…don’t get me started!

  6. I agree with regards to a corporate presence – there’s a lot about this stuff which is purely fashion and this annoys me because there’s lots of boring basics which are forgotten in the rush to appear, frankly, ‘tendy’.

    but for something like children’s services it’s a good fit, although there are probably better networks to be on than Facebook – I believe Bebo /MySpace has a better teen user profile.

    you could also make the argument for other services.

    1. good point about choosing networks according to fit with target audience – different networks do have different demographic profiles – which must be a driver of choice in where to engage?

  7. I’d challenge some of this, though I think the broad argument that the way Facebook presence has been done so far isn’t satisfactory is correct.

    This is down to the language employed by Facebook, and other SNSs, whereby people have to be friends, fans or members of local authorities. Nobody in their right mind would want to do this.

    However, there is a convincing argument for me that public bodies should be providing information to people in a format and in a location that suits them. There are many people who wouldn’t ever dream of visiting a council website who none-the-less might find the information available there useful. The trick is to present that information where they are likely to find it.

    ‘Go where the people are’ is an important maxim. That means Facebook, as it does other forums online. How that presence manifests itself is important though. I’m working up some ideas on how it can be done without the emotional commitment Simon mentions in his post. More soon – probably over at DavePress 😉

    1. interesting stuff Dave – agree re the language, but that’s just the rules of the game on some networks.

      Providing info to people in format/location that suits the customer, not the organisation, is a really sound underpinning principle I think.

      Will be interested to hear more about what you’re developing…

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  9. I’ve just had this pointed out to me via Twitter as I wrote something from the opposite perspective last week, – do councils need a facebook presence.

    Although that said, I don’t think we’re actually too far away: my main point was that councils shouldn’t ignore facebook, as they need to be aware what’s going on, and they should also look at pulling in information already pulled in elsewhere, so they aren’t wasting ongoing effort on something which may not be used frequently.

    Just my 2p’worth…

    1. Hi Jack – good to hear from you.

      I don’t think we’re too far away on our posts actually – agree councils mustn’t ignore – it’s just the way they use it needs to be a bit cleverer I think.

      There’s definitely something in pulling in info published elsewhere onto social network presences – I suspect this might be something we see more of in the next six months or so


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  12. Slight disagreement, but with an overall bias to what you’ve said. Facebook is a useful tool, but as with all tools it is flawed – Dave’s pointed out the language issue for example.

    However, I think it’s slightly dangerous to assume that there’s just one reason why people would befriend or join a fan group. It’s not just because they have an emotional bond, it may simply be because they want information, and Facebook is a good source for just that. I’ll join a group because I am into the band or author, but also will just want to find data, and if I’m already on Facebook I’m likely to stay there to search.

    I agree that Councils need to interact in exactly the way you have described, but surely if you’re going to be spending time on the site it makes sense to have a group as well? I’d find it odd if I was engaged with a Council on one level, tried to find information about them, yet didn’t find an appropriate page for them.

    If you’re going to engage, why not just do it properly?

    1. Hi Phil – thanks for joining the discussion.

      The provision of information where the users are rather than just on council sites is something I think is important – so I’d see the need for this to be delivered on social networks as vital.

      Maybe the current “options” for a council presence on Facebook are too restrictive – perhaps we need to think more widely about providing information to people in such places – what other alternative means of delivery are there/could there be?

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  21. This discussion is good.I am currently working on a proposal to setup a FB group for one of the local council. But before that, I urge the PIC to really study the pros and cons of doing it.

    I am not a big fan of FB, twitter and the rest. I thin I can communicate well with YM and SKPE. However, some of the functions in FB are quite amazing.

    Just look at their notification function, it can reach a lot of people; within the FB community as well as outside of it.

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    1. I am a member of a group of local government employees who are carrying out research on the role of social media in local government in Northern Ireland. We have followed the recent blogs with interest and used the information as a valuable piece of desk research. We are interested to hear if you think there is a role for social media in local government, what impact integrating social media has and also any barriers that prevent its use. We would also love to know why you believe that Belfast City Council has the most effective facebook page in local Government and how they achieved that. We look forward to hearing your comments.

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  25. Hi Simon

    I would like to contribute to your article by discussing the issue of openess.

    Some social housing providers Facebook profile is open to everyone to view, as opposed to other organisations which require you to become a friend first.

    There are ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments for taking either approach, I guess some organisation prefer to establish that people who request to be friends are actual residents, while others may choose to make their profile open to everybody hoping that once residents see the benefits of being a friend they will become one.

    I would personally be inclined to take the latter approach, but mainly because I think there should be nothing ‘secret’ about the organisation and the content of any site should be open to the general public. The question here is: Would you restrict access to your website only to registered residents?

    One of the key aspects of using social media methods to engage and inform residents is how to measure its effectiveness and outcomes. Most organisations seem to do this by just counting how many Facebook friends they have, although others claim attendance at meetings has increased.

    It is important not to just join the bandwagon, but the benefits of social networking websites need to be assessed and outcomes effectively monitored. But how can this be done?

    I have to admit that I was rather surprised to see that in most cases Facebook etc seem to be working well for some organisation as an additional communication tool. I was concerned that social housing providers, not being a brand people associate with, would attract complaints and abuse on the wall of any Facebook page or Twitter feed.

    Crucially, for such channels of communication to work, the organisations needs to be responsive in dealing with negative comments and be able to turn them into positives. This, however, would require a substantial amount of staff time which means that some organisations may decide to make savings elsewhere,
    for example by spending less time and money on the more traditional methods of involvement such as meetings.

  26. I am a member of a group of local government employees who are carrying out research on the role of social media in local government in Northern Ireland. We have followed the recent blogs with interest and used the information as a valuable piece of desk research. We are interested to hear if you think there is a role for social media in local government, what impact integrating social media has and also any barriers that prevent its use. We look forward to hearing your comments.

  27. Very interesting article. MidKent College is experimenting with Facebook, Twitter and other social media in a way of reaching a younger target audience. The personal versus corporate argument is apparent but I was most interested to read how you have considered using Facebook for individual events rather than promoting everything on the one official page.

    1. Hi Adrian

      There are quite a few post 16 colleges making differing uses of social networking.

      In my day job I’m part of a publicly funded organisation that advises on technology in teaching & learning, including these matters, the JISC RSCs. If your college is post-16, do you have contact with your local one? If not, email me and I’ll put you in touch.

      kevin at campbellwright dot co dot uk


  28. As Simon said

    Providing info to people in format/location that suits the customer, not the organisation, is a really sound underpinning principle I think.

    There is no hard and fast rules for social media its still in its infancy. What I do think is that local government should have a policy or approach on they are going to use social media, where does it fit into current media channels, how can benefits be derived from it, what kind of interaction is going take place on it and how does effect the LAs current online presence.

    There has been a lot of jumping in feet first and applying what has been learnt as an individual on social networks, which is not necessarily going to translate.

    But again as was said it all comes back to Providing info to people in format/location that suits the customer.

  29. Hi Simon,

    I think you have put a really good argument forward however i feel for councils to be able to reach all audiences that social media websites such as Facebook is the way forward.

    It has proven to be effective in Medway, as i too am from this area and have found that news about festivals is published on this, the majority of my friends also use social media sites to find out such information and we also feel it would be great to gain an insight on various topics and discussions that our local council are engaging in. I feel that the younger generation would rather visit Medway Councils Facebook page than the Medway Council website.

    Facebook is a easy way for young people to gather information about the latest news and take more of a part in the local commuinity and take pride in the streets of Medway.

  30. Hello Simon.
    Do you still hold this view? Has the ensuing 2+ years not changed your view.

    Here’s a piece I recently wrote about Twitter and Local Government.


    I’m working on a piece for Facebook and Local government at the moment so I’d be interested in any new view you may have.

    1. Hi Peter,

      Fundamentally yes I think everything I wrote two and half years ago still stands.

      I’d draw a distinction between organisations seeking to create an audience (a group of followers) on FB and those seeking to create more of a community – the former is probably a more effective strategy for FB than the latter for a council – but the approach has to be about engaging on a topic/subject/area of interest that people care about, rather than taking a corporate/organisational approach – as most councils don’t promote themselves per se – they promote what they do (services) or the places they serve.

      1. Hello Simon,
        Thanks for this.
        In the 2+ years since your previous article the growth in FB use has been huge ( I feel the need for a new superlative here. perhaps ‘Facebook’ should be that new word 🙂 ).
        It’s that growth in user numbers that should drive LG to embrace the medium. FB has a dynamic that can’t be avoided can it?
        I said I was writing a piece on FB for LG. You can see it here.

        I hope it’s of interest to you.

  31. With all due respect, I think your view is outdated. We’re not trying to replace the traditional means of communications here. Rather, Facebook is more likely to reach out to younger and to the more vulnerable audience.

  32. are you promoting a book, I did’nt get the negative message here. I’m putting together a social media policy for the council I’m a Cllr on. Intersted in why you think councils should not join

    1. Not promoting a book Jean! When I wrote the original post I was trying to argue against the tokenistic use of social media in local government without any real consideration of its purpose and use by residents. Things have moved on a lot since then!

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