Build your ‘big box store’ of information
Social media has been a part of our lexicon for almost two decades, yet it is still a hot topic among government agencies who may often find themselves asking, “Is it really worth it, this seemingly uncontrollable, barely manageable, Wild West frontier form of communication?” The answer is unequivocally “yes.” Why? Because that’s where the people are.
I know what you’re thinking: “But our agency has an awesome website.” And I agree, your agency does. I know how much time and effort goes into building and maintaining a good government website, and your website does play a very important role in your communication strategy. But your website is no Walmart; it’s no Target.
You see, social media [insert whichever platform you want here], is the ultimate in one-stop shopping for information. It’s convenient, and it doesn’t ask much from the user.
Just like you can go into a big-box store and grab socks, cereal, curtains, pet food and a new TV all at one place, social media allows users to get updates on Grandma, see their friend’s vacation pictures, get the latest celebrity gossip, learn a new DIY craft, catch highlights (and lowlights) from their favorite sports team and skim through local and national news topics of interest. Just open up the app and start scrolling. Easy peasy.
The question isn’t should you be, or should you stay, on social media. The question really is, are you using social media correctly? Whether your agency has been using social media for years or your team is considering dipping their collective toe in the murky water, here are some tips and things to think about as you move forward.
Acknowledge that social media is a legitimate platform for communicating to residents. You personally might not like or use any of the social media platforms, but that doesn’t discount the millions of people who do (182.3 million on Facebook, 77.75 million on Twitter, 123.1 million on Instagram and 86.9 million on TikTok, and 66.8 million on LinkedIn).
The very definition of communication is the imparting or exchanging of information or news/information/ideas, which is exactly what these platforms do. Social media as a communication tool should be right up there with news releases, webpage info, interviews, etc. and it is a tool that needs to be taken seriously and have appropriate staffing to do it well.
Understand social media users
Regardless of the platform(s) you choose to participate on as a government agency, it’s crucial you understand the platform: Its strengths, its weaknesses and most importantly, its users. People who primarily use Instagram use it because they are picture people. Twitter brings in word people. Facebook is often folksier, while LinkedIn is more about professional news and advancement.
I’ve seen agencies hop on a platform just because it’s there only to struggle to effectively communicate with constituents via that platform because the agency doesn’t understand the users’ expectations from the platform. In other words, if you don’t have a lot of pretty and interesting things to take pictures of for your agency, Instagram probably isn’t for you.
Define how you will use social media
Along with understanding the platform, it is also good to define how your agency plans to use the platform. For example, the Weld County, Colo. Facebook and Twitter pages are where news, board openings and events are posted; our LinkedIn page use is geared toward showing our core values as an organization as well as a place to highlight the work of our employees and post job openings. As we gear up to launch Instagram, we will use that platform to pull back the curtain, if you will, on the human side and day-to-day work of county employees.
Develop a content calendar to ensure a consistent flow of information to your audience on each of the platforms you use. While there may be some crossover of content, the content built for each platform is specific to that platform. And remember, social media is a lot like a plant: If you don’t feed and water it regularly, it will wither and die.
After your agency has decided which platforms it wants to use and knows what type of content it wants to push out, it is important to have policies or guidelines in place to help staff navigate how to respond to content pushing back in via these platforms — namely, public comments.
Talk with your legal department, talk with your communications staff and develop a strategy for public engagement. How will your agency handle trolls? (A troll is a person who intentionally tries to instigate conflict, hostility or arguments in an online social community.) How will your agency navigate misinformation or even solicitations posted on your page? If you’re just starting out with social media, set these policies in place before you launch your page. If you’ve had your page active for a while, consider reviewing and updating your policies to ensure they give your team the support they need to manage your page well.
Finally, keep it all in perspective. Regardless of what social media platforms you are considering using, it is important to remember this: You’re playing in somebody else’s sandbox, and they get to make up the rules.
Don’t like the changes to the algorithm? OK. Don’t want to pay for verification? OK. Don’t agree with why your boosted post was denied? OK. While frustration may be warranted, remember your ultimate goal of using the platform is to communicate with your residents. If your desire to meet that goal outweighs the contention staff feels about the platform, then participation on it may still be a good use of time and energy.
According to a Pew Research study, half of Americans get their news on a digital device (versus television, radio or print), and on that digital device half at least sometimes get their news from social media sites. Social media is a valuable tool in your agency’s communication toolbox and should be treated as such. So, go ahead, build your big box store of information and take it to where the people are.
Jennifer Finch is the PIO for Weld County, Colo., and 1st vice president of the National Association of County Information Officers (NACIO).
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