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Public Sector Social Media: Five Key Insights

July 11, 2016
Satyamoorthy Kabilan
National Security and Strategic Foresight

The use and role of social media within the public sector continues to be debated globally. Many within the public sector are seeing the merits of this communications platform, but a lot of uncertainty still exists around social media. Through our work with all levels of the public sector in Canada, as well as the research and events the Conference Board of Canada has carried out, we have developed a broad understanding of some of the challenges that come with social media use. There are numerous lessons to be learned, with five key insights that public sector social media users should consider:

1. The social media train has left the station.

It astounds me that there are still some public sector organizations, with major public-facing roles, that are debating whether they should be on social media or not. That train left the station a long time ago. The fact is that Canadians love social media, with over 80 per cent of Canadians on some form of social media network and 58 per cent of them actively using those networks. Additionally, over 60 per cent of Canadians believe that emergency services should respond to a call for help on social media, with about 30 per cent believing that help would come if they asked for it on social media. With over half of Canada’s population actively using social media and the growing public expectation around responses on social media, public sector organizations—with their mandate to serve Canadians—cannot afford not to be on social media.

2. You need to build your social media presence in advance.

While acceptance of the need for public sector organizations to be on social media seems to be growing, there are those that want to hold out until an incident arises where social media is needed before they get on board. Unfortunately, you cannot simply create a social media presence and expect everyone to flock to it immediately. It takes time to build a presence and a level of trust with your audience so that they will turn to you or listen to you when needed. This has played out in a number of different scenarios, but one of the best examples is in emergency management, where established, trusted social media accounts have proved their effectiveness time and time again. If you are going to use social media, start establishing your presence well before you need it as it takes time to build trust with your audience.

3. Social media is about being social.

Many large organizations in both the public and private sectors have official social media accounts. Unfortunately, in the rush to create a controlled social media presence, these accounts can be stale, generating boring policy or marketing messages, and forgetting about the social aspect of social media. At the Conference Board’s 2015 Public Sector Social Media conference, several speakers brought up this issue. The ability to seem genuine on social media, in many cases through individuals representing an organization in addition to official organizational accounts, is key to building a trusted presence. While it is important to have an official social media feed, don’t forget the need to be social and leverage your most important resources for doing this: the people within your organization.

4. It’s not just about Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook and Twitter are the two most active social media channels used by Canadians. Instagram use by Canadians (14 per cent) is not far behind that of Twitter (16 per cent), with Google+ (13 per cent) and LinkedIn (12 per cent) following closely. But the growth of some of the major social networks is starting to plateau with new social media networks such as Snapchat emerging. In addition to its rapid growth, Snapchat users are predominately younger with 60 per cent of its users aged 13–24. The emergence of new platforms that appeal to different audience segments is something that public sector social media users need to be aware of. Your social media strategy needs to take into account the audience you want to engage and what platform(s) would be best suited to achieve this.

5. Social media is not the silver bullet.

With the various capabilities offered through the use of social media, there is the danger that some may assume social media is some form of magical silver bullet for their communication and engagement needs. On average, Canadians spend more time viewing television than they do on social media. In addition to this, the use of social media declines with an increase in age of the survey sample. While social media offers some unique opportunities, it does not reach all Canadians. Traditional media still has a significant role to play. When building a social media strategy, you need to understand that social media is one of the tools in your toolbox, not a magic bullet to solve all of your public communication and engagement needs.

Social media offers a unique approach to communicating and interacting with the public that we simply cannot afford to ignore. While this list of insights will be useful to many, it is not exhaustive and we fully expect it to grow and evolve over time, just as social networks themselves do. The challenge for those involved in social media in the public sector is to be able to keep up with a medium that demands you to think, work, and interact in a manner that is well beyond the speed of government.

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