Social Media in Government: Benefits, Challenges, and How it’s Used

 In Hootsuite

Social media has been revolutionizing the way we communicate for years now. No longer is it a niche corner of the web reserved for early adopters and meme enthusiasts. Today, everyone from big brands to health care authorities are using social to bolster their profile through public engagement. And increasingly, that trend is also shifting the flow of discourse between government bodies and the public.

With 2.5 billion users, social media is now the dominant arena for global communications. Naturally then, social has also become one of the public’s favorite forums for engaging in government and public issues—the allure of which are many fold. Immediate and transparent, social media has provided the public with greater control, participation, and influence over governmental issues and initiatives.

From small municipal matters to sweeping revolutionary movements, social media is now very much the de facto voice of democracy. And with or without public sector engagement, citizens around the world are continuing to express freely their opinions towards the governmental issues that surround them. For governments of all levels, attention to this shift is critical.

In this post, we’ll look at several of the key benefits that social media in government can achieve—including social’s role in awareness building and during times of crisis. We’ll also explore some of the challenges of using social media in government and offer solutions for mitigating those risks.

The benefits of using social media in government

Building campaign and cause awareness

From the passing of new legislation to large campaigns, government success very much hinges on the swaying and control of public opinion.

To influence public conversation, governments must now actively participate in that conversation. In today’s digital world, that conversation is on social media.

And many policymakers are now taking notice of this trend. In a 2015 social media study commissioned by the American Congressional Management Foundation, 76 percent of American policymakers reported social media enabled them to have more meaningful interactions with their constituents.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the high-stakes game of contemporary political elections. Take, for example, the 2016 U.S. election campaign. Spanning some 24 months, the election was unprecedented in its active use of social media as a campaign tool. Utilized by politicians, pundits, and citizens, social media quickly became the visible battleground of the campaign trail.

Frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both prioritized social media as a primary means for engaging the public. Throughout the election, the candidates used social media to rally public sentiment and support for their campaigns. While their approaches were as divergent as their campaigns, both effectively rallied supporters through the use of targeted and concise social media messaging.

At times astute, at times fluctuating between the scandalous and asinine, the course of the 2016 election was undeniably influenced by social media.

For Clinton, social media helped to quickly connect with Democratic hearts concerned with issues facing women, ethnic and gender minorities.

Meanwhile, Trump used social to tap into the nostalgia of America’s disenfranchised working class — frequently sharing tweets to champion their cause.

Unlike past campaigns, where face-to-face appearances drove the campaign trail, social media has effectively helped both candidates reach audiences across the nation at all times. Throughout the campaign Clinton and Trump directly targeted constituents through social media, thereby expanding their reach regardless of their actual physical location.

Accurate poll forecasting via social media

As election day drew near, many polls posited Hillary as the decisive winner. But as history has since proven, those poll estimates were far off the mark.

In the months since Trump’s victory, analysts have concluded that the polls failed due to their inability to accurately capture public sentiment—particularly dissident voices. Further, they argue, that more accurate poll forecasting could have been captured if social media channels had been included in the forecasting algorithm.

Given social’s ability to provide real-time listening and monitoring, this conclusion bears consideration by policymakers.

Crisis communications

Social media has also transformed how government organizations communicate during an emergency. Take for example the devastating wildfire that ravaged the northern Canadian city of Fort McMurray in May 2016. Engulfing close to 600,000 hectares of land, the raging inferno quickly destroyed thousands of homes and valuable economic resources—ultimately forcing the evacuation of over 80,000 residents from their homes.

Due to shifting winds and dry conditions, the unpredictable wildfire posed enormous communication challenges to local government officials desperate to maintain public safety. Specifically, officials needed a communication means to:

  • Ensure the safe evacuation of close to 100,000 residents down limited highway corridors
  • Connect evacuated civilians with emergency relief resources
  • Provide up-to-date information to evacuated residents on the city’s emergency and status of homes within the fire-zone

In response, authorities at the Federal, Provincial and Municipal levels of government turned to social media.

Initial response: evacuation and response

As the convoy of evacuees slowly fled the city, the Alberta Government used Twitter to inform the public of roadside relief resources including fueling stations.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB)—Fort McMurray’s municipal government—also turned to social media during the disaster. As the fire spread, the RMWB provided ongoing fire location, safety, and resources status updates to affected citizens through Twitter. In the ensuing days, they also took to Facebook to keep the public informed.

Other government authorities, such as Alberta’s Premier, Rachel Notley, the province’s health authority, and the Government of Alberta all frequently communicated with the public via Twitter.

Nearby municipalities, like the City of Calgary, also regularly informed displaced citizens on the status of relief shelters and resources through Twitter.

For people fleeing the fire, the RMWB’s social updates became a vital source of information and comfort. Evacuees used Twitter to directly engage government authorities with questions and comments of gratitude.

Ongoing response

Months after the disaster, government officials continued to use Twitter to communicate with affected citizens. When conducting controlled fire burns in early 2017, the RMWB kept citizens informed and provided links to mental health resources in the event that the burns triggered flashbacks to the great fire of 2016.

The challenges of using social media in government

Staying secure

Simple measures can successfully safeguard government organizations against security breaches. The use of social media platforms, for example, are a great way to manage a social strategy across multiple internal teams without the risk associated with disorganized efforts.

With best of class platforms, organizations can quickly lock down their social media accounts from a single secure dashboard. A single management platform can also prevent the release of sensitive or classified materials to the general public.

Staying compliant

Remaining compliant to privacy requirements is critical for any government body. For large organizations with multiple social media users, establishing best
practices for social media use can help ensure the collective compliance of all
users.

Guidelines towards acceptable and forbidden content, data handling,
citizen engagement, and even tone are a few best practice examples organizations
can implement to keep their team in compliance.

If you manage social for a government or agency using Hootsuite, our partners’ social media archiving integrations make it easy to stay compliant with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other public records laws.

In recent years, government bodies and their employees have had to respond to dramatic shifts in public expectations to political and government discourse.

Innovative policy makers and their staff are quickly adapting by creating highly engaging social content to rally follower support—while also remaining fully compliant and secure. For any government body wanting to capture and maintain public sentiment and engagement, embracing the new era of social media discourse is critical.

Governments and agencies can use Hootsuite to better inform and engage with citizens. Our platform also makes it easy to measure public sentiment around programs and policies with real-time social media listening and analytics.

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This post was originally published on Hootsuite

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