Communicating through the red tape

A 8 minute read written by Erika October 31, 2013

linked In, twitter, and facebook logos covered by red tape

Social media has evolved to be something that people have come to expect from friends, corporations, and government agencies. Have you ever met someone and found out that they weren’t on Facebook|Twitter|LinkedIn? Wasn’t it kind of shocking?

We are living in a world of increasing transparency and having open lines of communication between citizens and government agencies will definitely build trust and encourage participation within communities.

A lot of public sector agencies are nervous about entering the world of real-time communication, and see the level of bureaucracy and stages of approval as a huge deterrent. With proper preparation, planning, and resourcing, social media can prove to be a true ally to any communications team.  

Understanding the need

If you begin flirting with the idea of setting up social media accounts, the number one thing you need to do is define the purpose of this endeavor. Why are you doing this? What’s the main goal and objective? I ask this, not to deter you from participating in social media, but to give you some perspective. So many companies and agencies join a social channel with the sole reason of, “well, everyone’s doing it, so I better get involved too.” This is not a good reason to join Facebook, or sign up for Twitter. If this is your reasoning, I’ll bet you a steak dinner that your channel will be lame for content, and even worse for engagement. This can actually harm the credibility of your organization.  

So once you have your goal in mind, decide what information you need to communicate to achieve that goal. This offers your channel some focus and clarity. If you are in the health sector, you may have the goal of promoting physical activity and proper nutrition to parents and educators. This will focus all messaging towards this purpose. Make sense?

So what does success look like to you? This is all about making your goals measurable. So if your objective is to promote physical activity and proper nutrition, a measurement would be increased attendance at your events, and recreation centres. There’s nothing wrong with having the follower number be a metric, but it shouldn’t be your only one, or even your main one. Did you know you can buy followers on Ebay? Perfect example of quantity of quality. The executive team will be more interested in changes to bottom line than how many Twitter followers you have.

Examples of real world social media effectiveness:

  • Decreased call volume in your customer service centre due to increased conversation through social mediums

  • Mayoral candidate mentions, retweets, engagement

  • SEO keyword ranking

  • Brand mentions - Samsung Canada has a great success story you should check out

One trap many public sector agencies fall into is having bad content. The message is important, but the delivery is boring. Social media is all about being social. Who’s your audience? Is it academics? No? Then stop writing scholarly tweets! And please, pretty please, don’t write as if you are in advertising. You will get blocked so quickly it’ll make your desk clock spin.

A small sampling of content that you may want to avoid:

  • Non-relevant - post content about information that makes people feel, think, or want to act but keep it relevant to your business

  • Impersonal - people want to talk to a person, not a corporation

  • Insensitive messages - don’t piggyback off of tragedies to boost your ratings

  • Grammar and spelling errors - social media is a bit more casual communication tool, but it still represents your brand, and your organization’s reputation

Who’s going to take this on?

Public sector organizations need to be very cost conscious. So it’s a common problem to not have the resources available to devote to social media full time. I have worked on social media plans that clearly need a full time resource to properly achieve the goals we’ve set out, but it’s just not feasible to hire another staff member. So this is an issue you need to address. Who has time to manage the social media communications effectively, and based on their time available, how ambitious do you want to get? You will soon find out that this is more than just the occasional tweet. It may be easier to get budget to contract this service out rather than hire a full time staff member. Hiring a specialist to monitor the channels, help with metrics reporting, and strategy building can provide incredible value for your organization.

Understanding the risk

I have one client who is quite risk averse. The social updates need to go through rigorous approval points and as a result the message is never timely. This certainly isn’t ideal, but given the parameters that they have to work in, it’s a start!

We were playing with the idea of hosting an “Ask the Expert” segment every week where we would encourage our followers to send us their health questions and our resident nutritionist and fitness experts would then answer them. This seemed like a fantastic way to get people engaged and talking to us. But after weighing the risks we realized that this also set us up for some serious privacy issues. The client brought up their fear of having citizens communicating very personal health details about themselves that would compromise their own personal privacy. This is a legitimate concern and as a result we reconfigured the entire idea so that we had more control over what the message was going to be.

The overused metaphor for social media is that it’s the online wild west. You can’t control what happens and therefore a lot of organizations are terrified to dabble. There are ways of controlling the message to a point. In the case of my above example we switched the format so the experts were feeding out questions and then basing their blog posts on the engagement that followed. Less risky, everyone’s happy.

Another reality of social media in the public sector are trolls. I don’t mean the somewhat creepy jeweled belly-button ones. An internet troll is an online bully. Their main objective is to cause problems, argue, and sometimes verbally attack people. There are three ways to deal with trolls:

  1. Try to answer their question, if applicable, and turn it into a positive experience
  2. Ignore them
  3. If they are being particularly offensive, delete their comments and ban them from your page.

I would never encourage you to delete someone’s comment as it then looks like you are trying to hide problems instead of addressing them, but there are certain exceptions to this: racism, hate speak, sexual harassment, threats.

Here’s a good example for when to ignore a troll:

One of our municipal clients had a change in bicycle transportation laws that created a massive reaction within the community. It seemed as though everyone was upset and they were incredibly vocal about it on the social channels. The client did a great job communicating with them, explaining the reasoning, the benefits, etc. But months later, no matter what message they would post on their Facebook page, trolls would redirect the comment to how stupid the city was for making that decision, etc etc.

In this case, you need to ignore it. Even people who were once angry with the same issue will tire of the constant negativity. It will slowly go away. Patience and perseverance!

Do as the boy scouts do and prepare!

Proper preparation is absolutely vital when setting your organization up for success.

Here’s what you want to create before you get started:

  • A terms of service

  • Social media policies

  • Voice and tone guideline

These will ensure everyone knows who owns the content that is written, how they should conduct themselves when representing the entire organization on the channels, and how they should write all communications so it’s consistent with the brand and personality of the organization.

Like the client I referenced above, approval channels are going to be incredibly important. If you have an incredibly rigorous process like they do, it’s going to present the challenges of inflexibility, and lack of timeliness. For some content, this isn’t as important, but it’s much more challenging to be engaging when you are thinking an entire month ahead for content.

So map out the process your organization requires, determine the risks of pushing for less red tape, and enforce the social media policies and procedures to help ensure smooth sailing,

Strategy, strategy, strategy

It’s interesting to me when organizations don’t want to invest the time or money into a social media strategy. This makes all of that stuff I’ve spoken about above SO MUCH EASIER! *ahem* Sorry.. hit a nerve…

ANYways, strategy is one of those overused words that doesn’t mean a lot to many people. But a social media strategy is simply a communications plan for your social channels. It works in conjunction with your marketing and strategic plans to ensure that you are all working together towards the same goal. It helps if you are imaging the song kumbaya while reading this part. Everyone working together, knowing what each other is doing… sounds heavenly!  

A solid strategy should set you up with the following:

  • Goals and objectives - Why the heck are you doing this in the first place? What do you want to achieve?

  • Message map - This ensures your messages are clear and targeted. Here’s a great tutorial.

  • Editorial schedule - Who’s posting what and when? This is more important for blogging since it’s less instantaneous than a tweet.

  • Baseline metrics and KPIs that directly tie into your goals and objectives. What are you measuring? This is where you check in with those points.


I know. I talk a lot. But this is important stuff! There are a lot of public sector organizations out there that would offer so much value to the general public if they embraced social media and utilized it intelligently. Citizens want to engage! Learn from the people! You have real power to change lives. Why not get to know those whose life you’d be changing?

The Edmonton mayoral election that just recently passed created a lot of buzz on the social networks. Friends were begging each other to get off their Gameboys and go vote. The #yegvote hashtag celebrated first time voters, candidate retweets, and encouragement of fulfilling your civic duty. It was deemed “the most social media tuned race ever.”  And we manage to do it without a single Carlos Danger incident! So the time to get active and educated on all things social is now. This is something that is not going away!

As always, if you have questions about this, are in the public sector and having some trouble getting started, or just want to chat about how great social media strategizing is send us a tweet! Talk soon!