Why I'm fed up of talking about social media, really

SimonGeneral23 Comments

I’m just back from eight days in the caravan in sleepy Cirencester, without laptop, blackberry and mobile signal – enjoying spending time with Jo and the boys and generally chilling out. It’s always nice to switch off from work for a while – as well as being great fun and getting back to what life’s really about, I do find it gives me a renewed sense of clarity when I get back to work and my professional life.

One thing I’ve been mulling over for a while, but couldn’t quite get straight in my head was a sense of frustration around social media and local government communications. To put this in perspective I’ve spent a lot of time over the past four years exploring, talking, researching and learning about social media. I’ve taken a real focus on what role it could play in local government communications and have tried to ensure I have a very broad range of learnings from beyond the sector to draw on.

I remember when I first went to a conference and talked about social media it was still seen as a geeky, niche kind of thing which many communicator thought would go away. But it hasn’t gone away, and for some demographic groups it has become an integral part of their day-to-day lives and their main way of keeping up with their friends.

Yet I’m frustrated with local government’s approach to social media. Sure it’s great that lots of councils are interested in social media and what it can do for their communications. But what is really starting to annoy me is that too many councils are asking the wrong questions. As communicators we shouldn’t be pushing social media as something we must do – it’s something we can do, where it’s an appropriate tool for the communications objectives we have. And if we don’t have clear, measurable objectives that contribute something positive to the lives of local people, we should be relooking at the communications strategy not working out how many people like a particular Facebook page.

On one level social media is just another tool in the communicator’s toolbox. Communicators need to have the practical skills to use these tools and to recognise when it’s appropriate to do so – as well as the more traditional skills that we all recognise, not as a substitute. We need to learn how to monitor the conversations that happen on social media and learn what to do about these to help safeguard the reputations of our organisations.

The bottom line is that we’ve got to learn how to use social media strategically as part of the communications mix.

But that’s it. As communicators we’ve got a lot of other challenges – not least driving up the quality and accountability of communications so that we can truly demonstrate what we contribute towards organisations. And I’m not talking about counting how many followers we’ve got on Twitter – I’m talking about the real headlines that are important to the organisations that we work for and the communities we serve.

Don’t get me wrong, digital/social communication skills are very important. But social media seems to be treated as a must-do priority in too many places, ahead of many of the more fundamental initiatives that we need to do to drive up communications performance across the mix.

And in taking this very narrow focus on social media, I fear communicators, as well as neglecting broader performance issues in the wider mix, are contributing towards organisations overlooking the greater potential for real innovation in service delivery through social technologies – in the drive for Facebook pages or Twitter feeds local public sector organisations are missing the bigger picture.

While for communicators social media is another tool in the box, for public sector organisations serving communities such tools are an opportunity to redefine relationships between organisations, officers and the residents they serve. The public service climate over the next few years will demand radical shifts in how we approach delivery of services and organisational relationships with residents, groups of residents and the third sector. It’s here that social technologies – people connected in effective, communicative and productive relationships through technologies and shared interests – can make the biggest difference to delivering services and changing people’s lives in a particular place.

Yet in many councils I’ve seen in the past few months, this broader and far more powerful use of emerging technologies has been subjugated to a desire to stick up a Facebook page and be done with it.

There’s a role for social media in local public service communication and a need to research more what impact it has on the things that matter. But what would be really heartening to see would be more examples of councils grasping social media as an opportunity for genuine innovation on a greater scale – maybe that’s a year or two off yet, just as when I first starting looking into social media its inclusion in the communications mix seemed like a stretch, but the context seems right for it now.

Or do I just need another holiday?

23 Comments on “Why I'm fed up of talking about social media, really”

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  2. I completely understand. I went through a similar realisation with Enterprise 2.0 and after I decided to mostly shut up about it and leave it to the people who do all the talking an no implementing I saw my blog go from no.2 in Google to somewhere on the 2nd page 🙂 Like you I still believe in it all, but the echo chamber got to me and I reverted to just ‘doing’.

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  8. Think too many people in local government jump to the idea that social media are vehicles for publicity rather than using them for full participation and engagement. My general experience has been that workers on the ground are often the best people to communicate with the wider public, but that policy and structure (official or otherwise) has often deskilled them in doing so due to organisational fear of embarrassment or desire to keep the corporate line. This often misses the point that many people are suspicious of ‘corporate’ marketing, especially in government. Social media can be quite liberating as it level the playing field – i.e. a council facebook site has no more innate importance that one set up by a 13 year old at home – which is often likely to be much better managed – much appreciate the support you’ve given in enabling investigation into the use of SNS

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  10. Nice post. I like the insights provided, and concurrent with what I’m trying to do. All comes back to thinking about what you want to achieve, and only then choosing the right tools…

  11. There should be objectives to everything we do otherwise it’s… well, pointless – however from a Library perspective I can understand the frustration when authorities are prevented from exploring these tools, their true purpose is easily forgotten. p.s. just spent a week in Cornwall with my family – and I can tell you 3G is a marvellous thing, was still able to connect via my smart phone – I’m addicted!

  12. A timely post. As you know Simon I’ve been arguing for a while that the real benefit of social software doesn’t sit within comms, marketing or PR.

    I do remember the good old days, probably only two years ago, when we all celebrated Stratford Council being on Twitter – a time when just doing *something* was enough. These days though, as you note, organisations and individuals need to be more strategic about what they are doing, especially in times of budgets cuts etc.

    But while some of the debate about social media use in local government may be starting to feel a little stale, don’t lose your enthusiasm! You’ve been one of a handful of practitioners to really innovate with communications within the sector using the web, and have inspired a lot of others through your blog and event appearances. Keep it coming!

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  18. Interesting post, too many organisations jump into social media and probably don’t have any real strategy behind their social media involvement only that ‘everyone is doing it’ lots of organisations also underestimate the time it takes to monitor their channels of social media, so don’t do it properly therefore are missing the point. Take a real look at the statistics of users of social media and they will force you to approach your involvement in social media more strategically.

  19. I agree Simon – lots of valid points in there. ‘As communicators we shouldn’t be pushing social media as something we must do – it’s something we can do’. Exploring our options and identifying the appropriate tools is key to delilvering our messages with as much impact as possible.

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  21. Simon, I think you deserve another holiday!
    It’s not just you public sector folks who have this issue.
    The strategy should be the focal point; Objectives and goals
    We (my team and I) are involved with a private sector B2B, they are chomping at the bit to get involved with SMM, but they are not sure why, other than they keep being told they should be ‘engaging with their customers’ on facebook.
    One thing struck me when someone was trying to show me a competitor’s social effort; their network restricted access to all social media websites!
    So I asked given the fact that they have a restricted network, would their customers face a similar issue and if so how can the two ‘engage’?

    Has anyone noticed this as an issue in the public sector?

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