How should communicators in public services be using social media to make effective connections with people on issues that matter?
We recently had the privilege of supporting the How Do Public Sector Communications Awards 2011, and preparing our part in the event set me thinking about the ways in which those in public service communicate with the people they serve and more importantly the ways in which they conduct these conversations. It never ceases to amaze me that despite best efforts status quo cannot be preserved, things move on and the change of pace – particularly in our online world – seems to increases broadly in line with the arcane calculations of Moores Law. In the mid ‘60s Gordon Moore, one of the co-founders of Intel, forecast that the processing power available to us in our computing devices will double every two years, which has proven broadly true. With this increase in speed and power – my current phone has more capacity than the first incredibly expensive and frankly massive “personal” computer I ever got to use – the ability to connect grows in reach and power for an increasing number of citizens. For public sector communicators this creates unique challenges both in terms of reach and accountability in new arenas and dealing with new audiences whilst not losing sight of the needs of the established audiences and traditional media, which don’t appear to offer the same levels of interaction as the new.
As researchers this was too much of a challenge for us to resist and to explore this further Ci Research polled more than 10,000 social media users to understand how they expect to converse with public service providers, either to receive or to give information. The top 10 responses to our poll – in reverse order – were as follows:
In at number ten:
- A way in which I can have input into local discussions in the belief that my views will be listened to (10%)
At number nine:
- To provide my input into designing, delivering or assessing a local service (12%)
At number eight, tied, were:
- To provide my response to a particular local issue or hot topic (13%)
- To respond to an article of direct communication (13%)
In at number six – not as high as many would have thought:
- To complain about a local service (15%)
At number five people told us it was:
- As a way in which I can contact them (18%)
Following the theme of closely tied views joint third was:
- To communicate my views or opinions on local matters and services (21%)
- As a way in which I am able to actively participate in local decision making on key issues and services (21%)
The second most popular response from our respondents was:
- To find out what other people think about a local issue (26%)
Finally, the most popular response was:
- As a way in which they tell us what is going on locally (42%)
So feeling pleased with the insight produced, I presented our findings to the captive audience of mainly public sector communicators. To add a little difference to the process we followed the great tradition of the TV game show and asked the audience what they thought respondents’ priorities were. We used a simple double sided voting card with a green tick and a red cross for obvious purposes allowing us at the front of the stage to clearly see what the panel thought. This strategy revealed the first obvious flaw in the process, everyone in the audience was reliant on our assessment of the responses and allowed no direct feedback to those voting, or even real-time feedback of this closed voting system. We even had comments from the audience indicating a contrary view of the outcome from the response they could see.
Of course what this really indicated was one of the real difficulties faced by any communicator using online social media in that it offers a two-way, symmetrical, conversation which people are used to and expect. For example, for Facebook users it would be as pointless as posting a status on your wall with no way of your friends commenting or liking it. In reality the use of social media by public sector communicators purely as a broadcast mechanism represents the opening unbalanced or asymmetrical communication with citizens which greatly weakens the place and value of its application. The world is changing and apart from Moores Law the influence of digital natives – young people who have grown up with the technology – has seen an increased willingness, even amongst newer “older” converts to express and share their views in a manner that would previously have never have occurred adding to the richness and understanding these contacts bring. Most effectively this has seen an increase in the value of and context generated by online communities which provide continuous / contiguous exchanges with a loyal group of contributors who invest in a topic, brand or area. Confirmation of this comes from our poll in which the second most common reason people expected see social media used in public sector was “…to find out what other people think about local issues…”
All well and good and after presenting our findings to the audience at the awards and getting the audience to join in I was asked, in a really nice but firm way, “… if I don’t use a computer, how do I get in touch?!” Well that fine comment put the whole thing into context; social media is only one tool in the arsenal of public sector communicators who ignore those who are not digital natives at their peril, while offering a low cost channel with a real immediacy it is clear that social media remains only one of the many tools available, the trick is using experience backed up with insight to identify the best application in any given situation.
For more information, please contact Andy Wright on +44 (0)1625 628000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
A copy of the presentation is available to download on the Ci Research website – www.ci-research.com