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Frequently Asked Questions about Gov 2.0: How do we convince risk-averse management to say yes to social media initiatives?

This is the second in my series of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) posts to address some of the ‘persistent’ questions related to social media and Government 2.0.

The question I am addressing is “How do we convince risk-averse management to say yes to social media initiatives?

This is one of the most common questions I am asked, particularly by mid-level managers frustrated by resistance to trying new approaches, even where it is clear that existing practice no longer meets their organisation’s needs.

It is also a common reason given to me as to why people leave an agency – normally to go to one more willing to consider the use of modern approaches.

(Notably I have never been asked by managers “how do I convince risk-averse staff to say yes to social media initiatives?” – though I have been asked “how do we equip staff unfamiliar with social media with the skills necessary to engage effectively online?”)

This challenge with senior management is, in my opinion, partially generational, partially cultural, partially based on priorities and partially rooted in lack of knowledge.

Senior managers have many priorities to consider and often are focused on “managing inwards” rather than “managing outwards”, with their priorities being serving a Minister, managing staff and services delivered by an agency and managing the compliance and governance burdens that fall on public agencies.

Their capacity to focus on newer approaches to community engagement and communication is often restricted due to time, often to their direct experience, or the experience of their peers – who are often struggling with the same issues.

Often social media is something they may associate with their children, grand children or what they read in newspapers (usually the horror stories and failures, or ‘cute’ human interest pieces). They may focus on the ‘social’ aspects of ‘social media’ and have not had the time or experience to fully considered how online tools can be used in professional ways.

Getting senior management buy-in for social media often involves educating them past the myths and misunderstandings – it isn’t only about Facebook and Twitter, social media channels can be secured and managed, it doesn’t mean ‘opening the flood gates’ to time wasting by staff, it can provide access to stakeholders and citizens who cannot be easily reached through traditional channels, it doesn’t replace traditional media but does amplify reach.

Any education process requires a good run-up, so it is worth beginning early to educate senior management by providing case studies and reports on how online media has been used by other agencies, overseas and in Australia, to achieve organizational goals.

In my time in the public service I used to send out semi-regular emails providing information about online initiatives – including providing positive examples and examples where organisations had been challenged (with tips on how they could have avoided issues via good governance or different approaches).

This approach begins to inform and educate senior management, allowing them time to read and consider what their peers are doing and build a level of comfort with a social media approach.

Next I recommend identifying an initiative which could be enhanced through online engagement – preferably a non-core or low priority initiative where there is less potential for embarrassment and therefore more tolerance for perceived risk (not that social media is necessarily more risky, however it is often perceived that way).

At this stage it is worth writing a short business case with clear governance around how online media (rather than ‘Social’ media) will be employed, clear approval and management guidance and examples of how other agencies have successfully deployed online channels to meet similar goals. Include links to the government’s priorities in relation to innovation, FOI and Gov 2.0 (such as the Open Government Declaration).

This provides a formal proposal for senior management to review. Even if they reject it, you will raise the potential in their minds and highlight that you’re not attempting to rush into the area, rather are employing a risk-managed process and have done your research.

At this stage ensure you are engaging with your peers across the agency, sending them the same enewsletter of online media initiatives and building their confidence in considering social media in their projects. Having many people suggesting an online component to senior management, not just you, will help senior managers understand that this is an area they need to begin considering seriously – it is a real channel for the agency, not simply one person’s flight of fantasy.

Following this approach, at some point your agency will start listening and senior managers will begin accepting, then supporting and then suggesting the exploration of social media in various departmental activities. You may even find them beginning to take credit for social media idea – particularly if the Minister’s office notices and supports the approach.

If you find the approach above isn’t working, another tactic is to learn what the key gatekeeper enjoys – their sports interests or hobbies. Then find one or two good online groups discussing these topics and drop them an email note about them. Once they learn that their favourite topics are being discussed, in a thoughtful and helpful way, some of the barriers may begin coming down.

A final approach, though often less effective (as cost is rarely the reason given for excluding online), is to demonstrate the cost-savings regarding the use of online channels versus flying people around the country for consultations or paying for TV, radio and newspaper spots.

A single 30-second TV spot can pay for an entire social media campaign – which, in conjunction with the other TV ad spots, amplifies the effectiveness of the campaign. Radio and print, while cheaper, are demonstrably far more niche than online and the cost per contact is much higher than the cost of running a Facebook page or Twitter account.

Finally, if you can’t change the minds of your senior managers, you can always vote with your feet, leaving for an organisation more willing to consider social media channels in its overall marketing, communication and engagement mix.

There are many agencies in government who are quite assertively and effectively using social media in their engagement efforts – and have experienced little or no downside in their experiences. Equally there’s many corporate employers actively engaging via social media, though there’s a mix of willingness and readiness to engage here as well.

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