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

SimonGeneral

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?