Stop Playing Games and Start Taking Social Media Seriously – A Call to Action for Public Bodies

Based on our discussions with around one hundred public sector employees over the last 12 months it has become apparent that too many senior people in this sector are approaching social media as a distraction or even worse as a nuisance.   The result is that the public sector  is at risk of falling into a social media time pit where staff are spending hours and hours working on social media tasks with no clear objectives in mind nor any chance of being successful.

Without a decent strategy these organisations will end up in a place where:

  • Everyone knows they need a social media presence (of some kind)
  • Some managers support it but some don’t
  • Leaders and executives are suspicious of it (because they don’t get it)
  • Staff  who just want to get on with it end up disorientated and paralysed into inaction (meanwhile the world moves on)

This is no good! Social media is making massive changes to the way people run their lives, find information and form relationships.  The British public are spending more time on Facebook every day than they are watching TV (2.5hrs vs 2hrs) for heaven’s sake.   Unless public bodies adopt a sound strategy for getting stuck into this, dare we say, revolution then they will be left behind as influencers and unable to shape change.

We don’t need to provide a list of social media facts here to support our argument that this is an important issue. Day to day news is telling us that social media matters.  Any Council leader, NHS Executive, Communications Manager (and the list goes on) who thinks that social media does not (or as one Councillor said recently “we don’t do social media [here]”)  is choosing to live in a bubble of blissful digital ignorance; only willing to hear messages from media they know and understand.

The Way Forward

Most organisations need to take a step back.  Most will already have launched into Facebook and Twitter and sadly not have many friends 😦 (in a social way) or followers: struggling to make any impact.   The answer is that they need to start with a social media strategy that includes much of the following:

1. Agree Your Objectives

What are you after?

  • 10,000 likes?  100,000 followers? 100 key influencers?
  • Do you want to influence behaviour? And/or influence the perception of your brand?
  • Do you need to engage and consult with citizens and customers?
  • Capturing feedback about local issues (in real time)?
  • Driving traffic to websites where people can get help or do good?
  • Reaching new audiences?
  • Socialising your customer/citizen relationship management (dealing with a query on your Facebook page for help costs a fraction of a call to your customer contact centre)?

2. Define audiences

Audiences come in many guises in social media

  • Influencers
  • Critics
  • Collectors
  • Joiners
  • Spectators
  • Inactives
Not to mention our traditional view of demographics and customer segmentation.
3. Start listening
Where are your audiences hanging out?
  • Blogs
  • Social networks
  • Twitter
  • Google+
What are they talking about?
What is their passion?
How are they talking?
4. Find your passion
What does your organisation care about?
What do you want to change?
Why do you want to change it?
Who needs to know?
How will you tell them?
What do you think is important and that people must know?
5 Learn how to be human
Culture change is a massive part of being successful at using social media.  Public bodies will not be able to harness the benefits unless they embrace the fact that this is social not corporate media (and that the times they are a changing).
Some issues you will need to talk about are:
  • Loss of control over your organisation’s brand and marketing messages
  • Dealing with negative comments (yes ignoring them is not an option)
  • Addressing personality versus organisational voice
  • Intransigents who think this is a waste of time
  • Avoiding fatigue and the social media time pit
  • Capacity to respond to emergencies and crisis management
6. Build your Social Tech Toolkit
Once you have the answers to most of the above you can build your kit.  There are many social media tools to choose from @participateuk can give you advice or just try Google.  Then you finalise your tactics for engagement.
7.Execute and Measure
You’ll also need to agree how to resource all of this.  You will need a member of staff  to be responsible (a community manager perhaps?)  You may not think it in the current financial climate but it is inevitable. So people’s roles will need to change if you can’t get new people.
Then you need to agree your metrics and how success is going to be measured.  So you will want to be measuring things like:
  • Network size
  • Visitors and sources of traffic
  • Quantity and quality of commentary about your organisation/programmes/projects
  • Conversions (e.g. more people recycling properly)
  • Loyalty
  • Activity ratio
  • Virality
8. Evaluation
Social media is evolving daily so risks will need to be taken. People will need to be allowed to fail as well as deliver ROI. So you’ll need to be prepared to have procedures in place to ensure that you ask yourself:
  • What has worked?  What has not?
  • Can we see the ROI from all this effort?
  • What will we change going forward?

Taking the Strategy Forward

Once the strategy is set it then it has to be executed.  Some organisations think that this can be done organically.  This is another express-way to the social media time pit.  Organisations that are serious about social media need a plan.  This plan will include:

1. Initial Goal Setting

Quality time spent defining your organisational goals to be achieved through your social media strategy.  This will include process goals, coaching goals and documenting your measurable achievements.

2. Assemble Your Social Media Team

The best way to integrate social media technology is to take a team approach.  This team will build your social media infrastructure and take forward pilot projects.

3.Build Your Social Media Infrastructure

There are many tools to choose from.  You will need to introduce a standards system to ensure only the right tools are used in your organisation.

4.Set Up Governance and Security Protocols

You should ensure that your strategy for using social tools is safe for staff and safe for the organisation.  For more about this  This part of the process also involves having in place an empowering social media policy.

5.Reputation Management

What is said about your organisation online and its staff matters.  During this task you will need to audit your current online presence, have an agreed engagement culture and start to measure your online reputation.

6.Intelligence Management

You will need systems in place for dealing with the volume of information your social media tactics generate.

7.Stakeholder Relationship Management

This part of the process will help to determine how social tech tools can help to improve your stakeholder engagement. It will help to enhance your reputation, how you engage interested parties, create a desire to support your initiatives (or get behind your passion) and get key influencers on board.


You will need to implement a process for measuring your achievements.  Committing resources to social media because it is topical and exciting has a limited shelf life.  Ultimately your social media strategy will need an demonstrable ROI.

What Happens Without A Strategy?

A lack of strategy will mean that public bodies will miss out on the amazing benefits that social media technology  can bring to citizen relationship management.  Things like the:

  • Ability to engage directly with service users (day to day, hour by hour)
  • Opportunity to listen to and respond to the raw and unfiltered concerns of residents
  • Chance to breakdown corporate silos and democratise local services
  • Possibility of saving money by socialising customer relations (a tweet is much cheaper to deal with than an inbound call)
  • Ability to hear what people think of local amenities and to respond accordingly
  • Chance to nudge people’s behaviour towards doing things for the greater good
  • Possibility that people can be more involved in local services and understand them better

Without a strategy public bodies  also leave themselves open to many threats like:

  • Difficult decisions about local spending priorities being at the mercy of the vocal minority, who are well versed in social media tactics and able to mobilise quickly
  • Stagnation in the planning system caused by local campaigning groups who will seize  control of social media to get their messages across at the expense of any other voice
  • Losing the agenda to third parties on local issues
  • Accusations that you were not listening and just let bad things go by through selective ignorance

Of course it is not all bad out there.  Indeed we have come across some pioneering public sector bodies already, the police in some areas seem to be rocking on at a good pace, but this is still around the fringes and our argument is that social media needs to become a core part of business transformation for a new era of social communications and the democratisation of public services.

What next?

We want to hear what you think of all this.  And if anyone knows of any good practice out there then we’d be delighted to spread the word.  We want to hear about organisations in the public sector who are  seriously embracing social tech to make a difference to their business and to their stakeholders.

For more detail on how Participate can help your organisation get better at social media please contact @participateuk or email


11 thoughts on “Stop Playing Games and Start Taking Social Media Seriously – A Call to Action for Public Bodies

  1. Brilliant! Thanks for a great list of the arguments. It’s not all bad, organisations are cottoning on to the need to ‘be where the people are’. Where I work (a council in Wales) all staff have access, guidance and encouragement to use social media. Here’s the social media special of our staff mag sent in January:
    We’ve found it’s been good to put a human face to public services and move from ‘broadcast’ to ‘engage’. 

    • Thanks Helen. Def agree it’s not all bad. I love this paragraph on your page “Why have we opened access to social media for staff? One of our values is openness and we trust our staff to make the most of the networks and conversations possible using social media. Social media is a great way for us to engage more effectively with colleagues, residents and partners so it’s an opportunity that can’t be missed.” If only more of this was encouraged. I am pretty convinced that social media will democratise services so this kind of attitude is great to see.

  2. Jon – this ‘Call to action’ is so timely. I know you’re leading our Summer Roundtable on this subject on August 2. Can we adjust the agenda so that we spend a significant part of the day discussing the issues you raise in this paper? I think it could materially help lots of public engagement people who have been on the TCI/Participate course move forward towards some genuine action planning to put some of the theory into practice.

  3. I’m quite passionate about this subject and wrote an article just the other week – I left a borough council over a year ago after only 9 months, partly because of the complete lack of interest in anything that wasn’t writing a press release to the local rag (17,000 circ).
    There is a huge fear of losing control of the message, a lack of socia media understanding and a misconception about resource and ultimately cost to the comms department.
    This is not true of all councils of course but I don’t see things changing until the 20/30 somethings of today reach middle management level or people in the private sector, who are capitalising on the social, move in and shake things up.

  4. Public bodies who place too much emphasis on social media are in danger of creating a Digital Divide between those who wish to use the medium and those who are unwilling or unable.

    For all the people that engage remember, by investing too much in one medium one is always danger of disenfranchising those that don’t.

    Public bodies’ social media strategy should acknowledge that though a presence on Social Media is necessary, it should never be the primary means of communication.

    I agree, don’t play games with Social Media and take the Digital Divide seriously.

    • I’m with William on the need to be very careful not to exacerbate the Digital Divide. However the gap between the have-s and the have-nots is unlikely to be addressed by suppressing the activity-levels of the have’s. The action that is needed is to help the have-not’s or to devise alternative ways for them to become involved.
      As others have stressed, its all about the channel miix, and social media is only one channel.
      Looking forward to debating these issues tomorrow.

  5. Thanks for a useful article and responses. What strikes me is that many (not all) public sector bodies are fearful of embracing social media because of both political and corporate issues (with the common ground being the challengs of controlling and managing messages). There are also a number of legal issues and considerations that public sector bodies have to be cognisant of which includes the requirement to remove any inappropriate material. However this isn’t insurmountable and I have come across a number of public sector organisations that have made investments in the use of social media. What is clear, as outlined in the article and comments, is that this needs a clear strategy. I also agree with the concerns regarding a digital divide, although you could argue that a similar divide is already evident where there are low levels of literacy within communities. In my view the use of social media should not replace more traditional approaches to communicating and engaging communities and service users, but should be seen as a mechanism of reaching out to those who prefer this method of contact and would perhaps otherwise choose not to participate in local decision making or civic life. if applied effectively (and consistently) social media has the potential to reinvigorate local democracy and establish a more productive partnership between public bodies and the communities they serve that we have witnessed in many cases. I’ll be watching with interest to see how public sector bodies respond to the opportunities (not threats) that social media presents.

  6. An excellent article which gives lots of useful tips. In our experience, local authorities are very variable when it comes to social media – some use it effectively to engage with communities but many others (far too many) have Facebook pages which clearly have not been updated for many months and even years. Even worse is that some have comments written by angry residents lamenting how bad the authority/a certain service is, without any return comment or explanation. So the worst PR possible…

    I agree with William’s comment that social media fits into the wider programme of activities and should be one element of a wider package – something we consistently promote at Counter Context. I’ve read a few (unpublished) research dissertations on the use of social media for consultation/engagement and findings have included that – despite some intention being to use Facebook etc to communicate with young people – younger people have not been interested in participating this way and the age of those responding via Facebook etc has been much older than expected.

    I think the above shows that we need to constantly review why we’re using social media, who for etc – and then monitor how we get on to check we’re using it most effectively.

  7. Great overview of social media. One thing I emphasize is to find the social media channel your audience is engaging in the most and put your efforts their if resources is an issue. Don’t feel you need to be everywhere…just where your audience is primarily engaging, and openly and sincerely engage with them, and MOST importantly, provide them with VALUABLE content. Do not waste their time, but instead use the channel to learn their challenges and goals, and respond with how your product or service can assist.

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