Social Media: A Public Expectation
If you're still debating whether to dive into the social media deep end, heads up: It's time to swim with the rest of the public-sector fish. 2012 was the year that using social media to reach citizens became business as usual. People expect government to use the communication outlets that they do, and social media's growing user base (56 percent of Americans have a profile on a social networking site, according to Edison Research) illustrates that using the popular platforms is a good way to engage the public.
In 2009, 25 percent of the nation's 75 largest cities used Twitter. Research from the University of Illinois at Chicago said that percentage rose to 87 in 2011. Eighty-seven percent of the cities also used Facebook last year, compared with 13 percent in 2009. And those numbers continued to rise this year as more cities, counties and states started using social media to spread their messages.
But even as agencies flocked to social networks, they often struggled to use these new communication channels effectively. And that's where 2013 comes into play. Going forward, social media use needs to become more sophisticated. Truly engaging with residents means more than simply posting links to press releases -- it means two-way communication and keeping social media pages active with current content on a regular basis.
An indication of social media's rising importance in government is the creation of new positions charged with determining how best to use these platforms and encouraging dialog with the public. New York and Chicago added social media director positions over the past several years. Similar posts have been established in small communities, too, including Roseville, Calif., and Oak Park, Ill.
"The worry that hiring staff in social media roles will look like a waste of government funds is lessening," said Kristy Fifelski, new media director of e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company. However, in most agencies the social media duties are still being assigned as an add-on to existing positions like public information officers and webmasters, she added.
Social media should be viewed and treated the same as rolling out any other new platform in the government space. Training about best practices is critical for everyone using the platforms. It also requires the development of strategies and understanding how it fits into an overall master plan -- something that will continue to be explored in 2013.
"Governments need to be more sophisticated in their social media strategy, melding it with their overall digital strategies and agency training programs," Fifelski said.
2012 showed that governments are ready to embrace the benefits that social media provides: reaching many constituents directly, on a platform that they're comfortable with and providing an easy way for them to reply or directly ask a question.
"I don't think that you will need the advocating as much as we go forward, it is just part of how we do communications," Ben Niolet, North Carolina's director of new media, told Government Technology earlier this year. "You wouldn't hire someone to just write press releases."
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