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The 5 Biggest Challenges of Doing Social Media in the Public Sector

The case for the presence of the public sector on social media no longer needs to be made. Social media is where the public is, so social media is where public sector organizations (PSOs) need to be if they are serious about service to the public.

This doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing for the public sector. Social media presents some very real challenges that will need to be faced head on if we are to use this new way of communicating effectively. Here are what I see as the 5 biggest challenges PSOs are presently faced with:

#1: Speed

PSOs are notoriously slow. Slow to react, slow to adopt and slow to adapt. There are a couple factors that contribute to this:

  • Outdated policies that are in dire need of freshening up for the digital age.

  • Overcomplicated approval processes that bog people down in red tape.

And while PSOs will never be able to be as fast and loose as the private sector, there needs to be a middle ground where PSO can interact on social media within a timeframe where the information posted is still valuable. This means that PSOs need to take a serious look at how they go about their business.


#2: Loss of control

Let’s face it: PSOs have pretty much made it their business to control the message so for many, the idea of having the public contribute, comment, even criticise their organization on their own site is very nerve-racking. Yet, PSOs need to learn not only to accept this new reality but also to embrace it.

“In the Midst of Chaos There is also Opportunity.” – Sun Tzu

The point here is to recognize that letting go of control is not always a bad thing and that in fact can be a blessing in disguise!


#3: Security

Okay. Time for a reality check. No one will believe you if you claim your accounts were hacked, even if they really were. Too many people have cried wolf and now it is just seen as a pitiful excuse to cover up bad judgement or bad management of the accounts.

There are of course security risks related to the platforms themselves. There is always the risk that a flaw could exist in a platform that would make you vulnerable. But most of the time, accounts are hacked because of employees who fail to follow good password etiquette, or fall for phishing scams.

Security concerns can be mitigated somewhat with by the use of rights management where you can (a feature of some Twitter clients), and by limiting access to the account to trusted individuals.

No matter what mitigation measures you put in place, you need to plan for when those measures fail.


#4: Privacy

Do I even need to mention those events if the past few years that have greatly eroded trust in the public sector and heightened the public’s sensitivity to privacy issues. This growing mistrust is not limited to a few spying organizations. The public is generally suspicious of any data collection by a PSO.

Unfortunately for us, “listening” on social media is a key factor of success in order to deliver useful content to the public. This is the proverbial catch 22.


#5: Fear of Failure

I saved the best one for last. The biggest thing keeping PSOs from succeeding on social media is a patent fear of failure. We are conditioned to not fail and for many, that translates into not taking risks. On social media, this often translates into ”death by boring” and boring, unengaging content will kill your accounts faster than most mistakes you could make. and speaking of mistakes, the reality is this:

Somewhere down the line, someone in your organization will screw up.


So what should you do if you do make a mistake?

Accept it! Embrace it! Own up to it when it happens! Do not try to cover it up. Do not make excuses. One side effect of social media is that it had made the public’s bull¢¤£t meter ultra-sensitive and any attempt to deflect blame, any insincere response on your part will only fan the flames and turn a spark into a brazier.

At the same time, social media tends to respond well to honest, contrite admissions of failure. Mistakes on social media, as is the case in many other fields, should be seen as an opportunity to grow and improve and perhaps even deepen your connection to your audience.

Alain Lemay is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Maribeth Pusieski

Here at Smarsh we understand the concerns, especially around #3. The interest from local government has significantly grown lately regarding how to reduce the time to fulfill FOIA requests and meet the many data retention regulations around social media. Happy to chat with you about this further if you have questions, or you can learn more about us at http://www.smarsh.com.