Implementing Social Media in the Public Sector

by Ines Mergel

The world is moving swiftly into social media, and state and local government agencies can’t lag behind. According to a recent Pew study, more than 72% of all U.S. Internet users are participating in at least one social networking site. The demand for real-time feedback is pervasive: citizens want to reach their airlines when they are grounded on the tarmac, their local grocery stores during food emergencies, or their utility companies during power outages. The fast responsiveness people now experience in all aspects of life are putting pressure on government agencies as well. Social media has increased people’s expectations about reaching government on Twitter and Facebook around the clock.

It is therefore not surprising that according to a recent Fels Institute report, 90% of all local government organizations are using Facebook and 94% have set up a Twitter account. Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, or other types of interactive online platforms, are designed to create bidirectional interactions between government and its audiences. However, social networking services were originally created to enhance communication and interactions between private citizens, not as a formal professional communication tool for organizations. Government communication itself has never followed a 24/7 interactive pattern. Instead, government is usually communicating only when necessary or when it needs constituents to listen to create direct attention to specific updates. It is therefore a major challenge, especially for regulatory agencies, to fulfill the expectations of the public for frequent and immediate access to government officials.

Regulatory agencies underlie ex parte laws and have the challenging task of juggling the demands of the public while staying true to the law. Although many other government organizations can use social media in all phases of the policy cycle, regulatory agencies need to focus on their mission and the laws guiding their online and offline interactions. These limitations prevent agencies from actively seeking out input or reusing social media updates from citizens. Nevertheless, social media can be used to share information, educate the public, and direct updates and notices to the audiences and constituencies who need to receive them and who have potentially no access to them otherwise. As an example, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin has found a way to use social media for information sharing only, and has moved comments from the public page to a specific commenting page instead of mixing two purposes on its social networking pages. Social media can still be used to publicize programs, provide eligibility requirements, inform citizens, and educate them about their rights.

Professionalizing social media implementation is therefore imperative for regulatory agencies. There are three steps to take: (1) design a social media strategy; (2) regulate employee and citizen behavior with an appropriate social media policy; and (3) plan online tactics and interactions.

Designing a Social Media Strategy

The initial social media strategy focuses on answering the questions of why an agency should engage on social media and who might find social media content of interest. How can social media activities support the core mission of an agency, and what content can easily be created or recycled from other sources to push out through the additional social media channels? Given the widespread use of social media, the expectation is that most parts of the citizenry—but also professional organizations—will be available on social media, and government agencies can increase public awareness for services and programs by delivering the information directly into the online awareness streams of their constituents. After it is clear why an agency should use social media and who the audiences are, the right tools and platforms can be selected.

Managing Online Behavior with Social Media Policies

A social media policy’s main purpose is to manage and regulate online behavior of both employees and citizens. First, internal rules help guide employees who are creating online content and managing social media platforms on behalf of their agency. What content is suitable for circulation? Who is responsible for online updates? What is the proper tone, frequency of updates, and netiquette to respond to citizen requests on social media? Managing the public’s expectations of prompt responses and regular posts is the second aspect of a social media policy. Often, rogue citizens respond with inappropriate feedback or off-topics, or use a government agency’s social media presence as an invitation to post comments using inappropriate language, and government agencies shy away from deleting or omitting these comments. As long as the language is appropriate, however, all updates should remain online to create a high degree of transparency and accountability. In cases where updates are clearly derogatory or don’t follow the established netiquette, deleting them after publicly reminding citizens of the rules is an appropriate measure. The social media policy should be posted regularly as an update in the newsfeed, or by linking to it on an agency’s website or having it prominently linked from the social media account description.

Planning Social Media Tactics and Daily Governance

Social media platforms can be used for many different types of online interactions. Depending on the mission of the organization, these platforms can range from informing and educating to participation and innovation creation. Government organizations are using social media to push out information and use social media as a broadcasting mechanism to increase awareness of their programs. As an example, the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin explicitly states in its social media policy that the commission’s social media outlets are only used to inform and educate the public about its mission, news, meetings, cases, or projects. Other organizations are using social media updates on Twitter to create awareness and to educate the public about issues they are representing.

Social media updates are also an important mechanism to create awareness for existing programs or the rollout of new programs, and to pull citizens to longer content available on an agency’s website where they can inform themselves about eligibility.

The workload of updating social media accounts can easily be reduced by using a scheduling mechanism. Employee time does not necessarily have to be tied up in daily interactions, especially for agencies that only infrequently need to communicate with the public.

A word of caution: Be aware of your own schedule, and interrupt automated updates in cases of emergencies to provide reliable information. This is important especially during emergency situations in which scheduled social media updates might be misinterpreted as ignorance of an evolving situation during times of crisis, and it will help to ensure that citizens will still trust your formal updates. Monitoring citizen opinions online is an important task that should not be neglected. A great example is the use of social media by the utility company Con Edison during Hurricane Sandy. The company listened to distressed citizens online, answered every single request, and provided minute-by-minute updates about power outages and repair progress as necessary.

Dr. Ines Mergel is Assistant Professor of Public Administration and International Affairs and a social media researcher at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. She is the author of two books on social media in the public sector.