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Social Media in the Government

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Recently, I attended an event in which various presenters spoke about different ways social media has changed parts of life. There were the obligatory things, such as “marketing” and “networking” and the less expected things, such as “parenting.” What really threw me for a loop was “government.”

Government? According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 83 percent of people disapprove of Congress. President Obama’s approval is now lower than it has been in the past two years. In fact, according to a Reuters poll, the only thing less popular than our federal government seems to be invading Syria. Social media may be changing the government, but is it for the worse?

At least, that was my initial reaction. Then Raleigh City Councilman Bonner Gaylord stood up and gave an excellent speech about innovation and government’s attempt to engage citizens through social networks.

“Social media is changing the way we interact with our government,” Gaylord said. “It’s changing from a top-down hierarchy to a bottom-up citizen-led democracy.”

He then listed a variety of programs, such as CityCamp Raleigh and Triangle Wiki, which revolve around getting citizen feedback and proposals. You’ve heard of crowdsourcing funds. How about crowdsourcing ideas?

“I think the reason that we don’t trust government is because we don’t feel powerful,” Gaylord said, acknowledging my initial cynical reaction. “We see government like this vending machine, where we put in our tax dollars and we expect services to come out. And when the services don’t come out like we think they should, our idea of citizenship is shaking the vending machine and screaming at it.”

Social media, according to Gaylord, is distributing power back to the citizen.

Don’t worry; this is more than just an editorial about Raleigh, and I’ll get to the nitty-gritty in a second. I just wanted to first point out that government isn’t exempt from social media at all. It can also be used for far more than town hall meeting announcements or to respond to angry citizen tweets. Government–especially local government–can benefit from the dialogue social media generates, perhaps even more than corporations.

How, exactly?

Remember, the overall goal of a government body is to be in tune with what its citizens want from it. That government can avoid the metaphoric vending machine scenario that Gaylord mentions by responding to these requests. I realize this sounds elementary, but for the purposes of this post, it helps to officially have a type of goal.

Now let’s talk about getting there. Listed below are practical tips, some small and some more grand-scheme, for government bodies that want to improve their social media use.

  • Contact Information:  Make sure your contact information is extremely easy to locate on your Facebook “About” section and your Twitter profile. List your website address, your phone number and, if you can, the name of the main contact person. Every now and then, be sure to tweet/post out there that you’re always available for feedback … and then list your contact information again.


  • Visuals:  One of the reasons that citizens sometimes feel as if government isn’t giving them what they ask for is a lack of publicity. Social media makes it easy (and free!) to show your citizens what you’ve been accomplishing. Think about starting an Instagram hashtag associated with a new campaign. Upload documentary-style YouTube videos of ongoing projects, complete with interviews with local residents or government officials giving updates. Encourage your citizens to visit these project sites and tweet/post/instagram updates of their own (including their opinions).
  • The more the merrier:  If you’re a prominent government official, it may not be a bad idea to start a Twitter feed of your own. It will help if you take pictures of current projects or events that you can spread to your followers (or have staff do it for you). People will be impressed with how engaged you are. Be prepared to take some heat, but citizens will automatically feel better when they feel you’re accessible.
  • Event planning:  Don’t just rely on traditional media relations to announce your upcoming events. Pretend you’re a wedding venue or restaurant (two types of business I’ve noticed that do exceptionally well at this) and blast your messages across social media. Facebook pages will allow you to create events, and Facebook albums make a great location to store all those photos of people enjoying themselves.
  • Social media chats:  When he organized a Google+ hangout, President Obama demonstrated even he realized how beneficial social media could be. Think about hosting a hangout of your own or a Twitter chat (Social Media Examiner provides some great tips on how to host one) as a way to ask citizens for their input. Is it too much to hope that public forums could be a thing of the past?

If you’re in government, your social media goals are different than those of a corporation. You aren’t selling anything (well, not all the time, at least); instead you’re informing and seeking to be informed. Boil down your online actions into one word, and that word should be “conversation.” Similar to the way in which we now have access to mainstream media 24 hours a day, you can have access to your citizens’ needs and wants all the time. Talk about being plugged in to the community.

As a citizen, it’s sometimes easy to slip into an “us vs. them” mentality with governing officials. Help keep this from happening by creating a “we” environment through social media. You’ll never rid yourself of complaints from people, but at least they won’t be able to say you’re not trying.

About the author:  Joseph Havey is the Director of Social Media for the Triangle-based Shelten Media, LLC, a start-up company specializing in social media marketing. He is a member of N.C. State’s PRSSA chapter, and writes for the school newspaper, Technician. In his free time, he trains for triathlons. 


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