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Overcoming Obstacles to Social Media Use in Government

Participants in the Government Social Media Class offered by Digital Government University’s recently compiled a list of common arguments they’ve heard against the use of social media in government. How do you counter–firmly, but politely–these arguments? Are there any others that you encounter and have had to defend against?

Please respond to these and add your own in the comments section!

Audience – It’s about them.

  1. Ordinary citizens don’t care about the inner workings of government.
  2. Ordinary citizens don’t have time to devote to federal government issues or initiatives (that’s why we have bureaucrats in the first place!)
  3. “How do we know who we are talking to? Are they are customers? Are they U.S. citizens? Is there any way to control who gets the information we post?”
  4. Our agency’s mission is too mundane to have much to “write home about” (on social media or otherwise.)
  5. 8% of Americans tweet –& the follow those who tell them what they want to hear – so we are all basically talking to ourselves!

Resources and Permissions– it’s about us

  1. Facebook is not in our portfolio.
  2. Lack of resources to keep the conversation active
  3. I’m not sure whether to use my government or personal e-mail and after a while I can’t keep it all straight.
  4. Who am I to speak for my agency. Only the high and mighty ones with a hundred approvals can use it. Defeats the purpose of spontaneous social media.
  5. Getting internal ‘permission’ for govt staff to use social media is a significant impediment to progress – even participating on a twitter-chat!
  6. “We don’t have the resources to monitor and maintain all that.”
  7. Fear of increasing workload (what if we get a lot of responses, who will answer them all? Yes, that would be a problem we’d all like to have).
  8. Fear of change (we’ve always done things this way, it’s worked, so why try something new?).

Control – it’s about the message

  1. Difficult to control the direction of the conversation
  2. Posts may lead to unwelcomed press stories
  3. what if someone says something bad?
  4. So far …. unless you are on Facebook … government social media seems to be a very carefully scripted one-way conversation
  5. “What if someone hijacks our message?”
  6. Fear of what others will say about the agency on our page (as if they aren’t saying it on other pages).
  7. Fear of what could happen politically if we advocate for certain programs (fuel efficient cars? that’s un-American!).

Medium – it’s about social media

  1. Twitter is just for teenagers to post what they had for breakfast.
  2. Fear of the unknown that it is an effective communication tool for specific constituencies.
  3. If I’m at my desk doing twitter or facebook or whatever, in my boss’s eyes, I’m not working.
  4. When we tweet — it’s a guessing game of what will be useful to the readers. We don’t know who we are talking to — or exactly what, or how, to give them the info they want.
  5. Fear that if we can’t do what public brands/companies can do, our product will be seen as “less important”

Security – it’s about safety

  1. Users are concerned about “Big Brother” knowing too much about them. For example, if they make a comment on your FaceBook page, you can look at their profile and learn just who they are!
  2. The security implications are too risky.
  3. “You can’t C&A the cloud!”
  4. It’s too hard to remember all those passwords.
  5. Whatever I say will go on my “permanent record

Final Thought from one participant:

I’d also like to take a slight tangent to the question. Rather than just discussing the arguments against it, I would also like to open it up to the problems of using it, such as:

While management wants a channel to broadcast on, they don’t take the time to go out and listen to what people are saying on their channels, such as blogs. We need to be looking further than our own backyards to see what is being said out in the real world.

Resources!!! Giving social media out to people as part of “other duties as assigned” is not allowing enough time to properly manage the channels that already have been created. Also, social media is frequently managed by people who do not understand it or how to use it.

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Valerie Kushnerov

Governments are afraid to be non-governmental in their approach to information. With years and years of being a highly controlled, one-way communication channel, it’s hard to change the course of information sharing. People in government need to loosen up and be more transparent and willing to have conversations, even difficult ones, through social media. If someone posts something negative and you can turn it into a positive, it’s even more powerful when others can see that response.

Deb Green

Brilliant: ” Giving social media out to people as part of “other duties as assigned” is not allowing enough time to properly manage the channels that already have been created. Also, social media is frequently managed by people who do not understand it or how to use it.”

Similar Corollary – Find random person in Home Depot. Bring to your home. Hand them spackle, hammers, drywall, and tape. Walk away. Come back two months later and wonder why your basement isn’t finished. Crazy right?

So why would anyone think that because “all them young folk do social media” that the job of representing the agency can be done without skilled labor?

Marjie Brown

Ugh. Where to begin. I agree wholeheartedly with Deb and Valerie. Now that I see all of these often heard perspectives all lined up, it seems that all of them circle back to the control issue. “We can’t control it”.

I work in the sector of federally funded science research. It’s my job to communicate the science findings via social media. Sometimes the resistance against what I’m paid to do is staggering. Among feds and academics alike, there’s a persistent attitude that more control over information/opinion/public dialogue/ policy can be maintained by NOT using social media, and that engaging in social media is a liability more than an asset. My reply is – what is the cost of NOT engaging? What is the liability of ignoring it? Time to swap the concept of ‘information control’ for ‘information curation’. And you can’t curate from inside a broom closet.

Eric Koch

Good points, as I agree with what everyone has commented on (like the Home Depot analogy Deb). I was actually talking with someone last night who works at the White House on a topic related to this and his remarks were similar to what this post mentioned.

In terms of audience and if “there is a way to control the message that we are sending across?” Absolutely there is. A colleague of mine actually wrote a good blog post on this not too far back on being able to control the message in the social media realm versus traditional PR (http://cparente.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/content-marketing-delivers-traditional-pr-value-too/).

I noticed the word “FEAR” several times in this post.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Thanks to everyone for commenting.

There are a few parables that emphasize the nature and value of social media in government. The first is the Parable of UNGA. Like the US Government, the UN General Assembly can be seen as a platform. And on this platform, countries can make use of a number of media. There is they keynote address. And breakout sessions. Official dinners and parties, of course. Finally: after-parties.

  • The keynotes are like Web sites: you get to say what you want to say and everyone else is limited to two options: sit there and listen (and clap at the end) or walk out.
  • Breakout sessions are like blogs. You get to say what you want and other people can comment on it. Then they get to say what they want, and you get to comment on it. The format itself is somewhat rigid, but it allows for give-and-take.
  • Official dinners and parties are like Facebook. People who attend are likely to have been vetted (like one’s friend list), but many people determine the conversation. People can post on the dinner’s wall simply by speaking up and conversations can thread, be abandoned, and picked up again later. Communities form and disband, and the conversation can be profound, or can simply be social.
  • After-parties are like Twitter. Lots of people can interrupt, Rude things may be said, and people can be retweeted out of context. The conversation is not controlled, and some participants–even those who might know better–are often not as careful as they would be in other venues.

The important thing, however, is this: issues of vital importance are being discussed at each of these venues by people who matter. Your agency doesn’t have the option to shut the conversations down, they have only the choice to participate in those discussions or not. It takes certain skills to navigate each of these environments with grace–the pose and diction that a speaker would use behind a podium is completely wrong for an after-party, and vice versa. But increasingly, the conversations critical to agencies are occurring in all of these media, not just a single one.

Erica Schachtell

great article, Gadi, i can soo relate. when we started ourforestplace.ning.com, we got heaps of support from our partners, – and tons of resistance internally.