A view from the other side … a social media perspective

Blog by October 13, 2010

Canberra can be a small place.  Having been with Threesides for just a few weeks, it was great to hear that Todd was giving a presentation with one of my former colleagues from the Department of Health and Ageing, Gov 2.0 guru Craig Thomler, on the growing role of social media in government communications.

The presentation was at the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research as part of its Graduate Development Program.  The guys spoke about how prolific social media use is in Australia (everybody’s doing it!).  Todd talked about the thinking behind social media and the ‘nuts and bolts’ of getting involved, whilst Craig provided an outline on the innovation that’s been happening within our government departments.  You can find the presentations (and a video of the guys doing their thing) on the DIISR blog here.

Just for my two cents, and having spent the better part of the past decade working in a range of communications roles in government, it’s been my experience that whilst the majority of communications people know social media is important and cost-effective and potentially very powerful, it can be very hard to get it across the line and make it ‘business-as-usual’ communications, particularly in government.

Now that I’m safely ensconced in the private sector, I feel I have a bit of perspective to discuss the issue and think it’s a result of a few different factors:

1.      Old habits die hard. I have found it slightly strange how a single letter to the editor in a newspaper criticising an organisation can cause senior management to run around looking extremely concerned and serious, with closed-door meetings and carefully crafted responses and briefing notes, and yet the organisation could be absolutely SLAMMED in a blog read by tens of thousands of people and it would just slip under the radar, never to be mentioned.

2.      Organisational structure (read ‘turf wars’). Social media clearly spans multiple areas of communication — online, PR, marketing etc.  Which is fine if you have just one area handling all of these functions.  But if you have these areas segmented (as so many organisations do), the lines of responsibility are blurred and it can be easy for social media to either fall in the cracks or for resentments to arise.

3.      Risk-averse (to put it mildly). I have regularly worked with areas where every single sentence on every media release was analyzed extensively for any possible signs of misinterpretation.  Sentences were re-written, re-written again, and then taken out altogether.  And this was a process that would take days and days.  Social media needs quick responses, relaxed language, real people, and this freedom is completely at odds with the regimented, anonymous approval processes that so many government departments are used to (and feel comfortable with).

4.      Lack of resources. Government marketing and communications people are busy people. Forget the stereotype of the lazy public servant – people in government communications WORK HARD.  It can be a challenge just to accomplish the essentials. And social media continues to be seen by some senior managers as a bit of a luxury, a ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we had time/the people to do that’ kind of thing.  Getting extra resources for staff to undertake this function is just a pipe dream for some government organisations.  But without it, their social media efforts are likely to be either misguided or potentially damaging.

Disgruntled former public servant?  Perhaps, but what do you think?  Are things improving out there in government land?