Social media is becoming increasingly prevalent in public discussions. Governments, like business and not-for-profit organisations, need to embrace social media as a legitimate discussion tool.
If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world with a population of 955 million. Twitter with its ability for quick messages and fast re-tweeting is increasingly being considered a valid news source for journalists.
Social Media is part of Web 2.0, which incorporates the development of feedback and discussion through the Internet. Several social media tools have been developed, including Myspace and Friendster, but more recently Facebook and Twitter have entered into mainstream conversation. Like many aspects of the Internet, new tools are just around the corner, including Google+ and image sharing through Pinterest.
Social media can enhance public policy by encouraging broader participation, including discussion and the ability to explain decisions. Encouraging this discussion can increase transparency and provides a sense of ownership over policy. In particular, social media can be useful in reaching demographics that tend not to respond to other forms of consultation, or are able unable to attend traditional consultative meetings.
In Australia, the community safety authorities are increasingly using social media to reach younger people, given that traditional media is having a lesser impact. For example, the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) is heavily utilising social media to influence behaviour by demonstrating the adverse effect of speed in motor vehicles. Recently, Metro Trains embarked on the Dumb Ways to Die Campaign to generate cut-through for a rail safety message.
Social media is ultimately a form of media and its use should be considered as an extension of media management. The public sector should utilise social media to convey information and engage members of the public, just as spokespeople would utilise television, radio or print media. Policies governing the use of social media are particularly important with official spokespeople being clearly identified.
The designated spokespeople should be the only members with access to official accounts and should always deliver new announcements. Other staff should be allowed to comment within their area of expertise, once they have undertaken appropriate training. The training content should include acceptable use of social media and an understanding of public domain information. Secondary spokespeople should only comment within their appropriate areas of expertise and alert the official spokespeople of adverse comments.
The Victorian Department of Justice has prepared a video guide on its social media policies. Typically, we would recommend a similar approach and find this works well for government, as well as businesses and not-for-profit organisations.
It is important to maintain a positive approach to social media and this means there are times you need manage negative comments.
There is a difference between negative and offensive comments. Offensive comments, such as discriminatory or hateful remarks should be removed immediately. Negative comments should be engaged rather than removed, showing that their concerns have been treated seriously. Where possible, it is often advisable to work through negative comments in person or through the telephone. Providing an offline response enables you to convey detailed information that may be difficult to discuss through social media.
As your community develops there may be members that respond on your behalf and assist in providing positive feedback. Community engagement and participation is a positive sign and shows the sense of ownership and belonging that has been created through social media.
Used effectively, social media can increase transparency while providing insights into governance processes. Like any method on engagement, it requires policies and guidelines for acceptable use.
Social media is no longer an instrument that can be ignored, but must be considered as a tool requiring engagement and participation. Social media is being used to convey opinions and it is better to be a part of this, rather than simply ignoring the discussion.