Friday, March 15, 2013

Social Media In Government - Legitimate and Illegitimate

Social media is legitimate when it helps people access government services  and to reinforce social marketing messages from government.

But if you can't bake the cake in the first place (write informative content) then don't bother putting on frosting with sprinkles (social media). Maybe someone will take a bite, but they will soon realize that the calories aren't worth it.

I don't think poor writing is the problem. The government is full of outstanding writers actually. 

The problem is also not lack of social media skill because again, the government has lots of techies as well as clever Tweet writers and Facebook page-makers.

Rather, the problem is fear. Legitimate fear and illegitimate.

* The legitimate fear from a managerial point of view is that we lack sufficient management controls. We've got a car - who is allowed to drive it? How fast? What is considered appropriate versus inappropriate use, and by whom? 

* The legitimate fear from a leadership point of view is that we lack a strategy. Where are we driving that car? Are we tweeting just to be heard? 

The illegitimate fear, from where I sit, is that people will actually use social media the way it was intended to be used: to speak truth to power.

It's fine and good to have fun and friendly outreach and for Facebook to be an arm of that. (Actually it may not be fine and good - one could question where education becomes puffery.)

It becomes uncomfortable to have the outside world talking back, not just in a spammy way but in a substantive way that takes issue with government policies and activities - a way that challenges the dominant feelgood narrative.

It becomes uncomfortable to have employees or ex-employees talking back, not just with tweets but with an entire alternate blog site. (Examples of unofficial blogs - CG Report, Chuck Hill's CG BlogTaking Sense Away)

The truth of the matter is that really brilliant leaders WANT to have true social media engagement because that is REAL participatory government - it gives them credibility - it builds up public trust which therefore increases compliance.

There is nothing a social media person hates more than propaganda. Nothing we respect more than honesty.

But very few people (government leaders) have the guts to handle it. Even if they do, their bosses don't or there is a colleague nervous and nervy. This is actually true in the private sector too. People think, "Oh no, we're not perfect, things are going to get out of control, let's just shut it down."

It's a shame, because in my experience government is much more complicated than people think. People in government work much harder than people think. There is a lot more drama and the issues are worth engaging in. It's easy to make fun of the TSA - do you want to be the person who lets a bomber on the plane? I wouldn't. 

The real work of a government communicator is not to be internal paparazzi. It is to simply pull the curtains back and let the public engage. To the extent that social media tools can facilitate that I say fantastic. But the more we try and aggrandize ourselves and live in fantasyland the more we we will continue to be the butt of jokes - from Hollywood movies - to Saturday Night Live - to those Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: emails that say "Must Read" etc.

* All opinions my own.