Reluctant Governments: First Steps to Engaging on Social Media

Social media is a valuable way to engage constituents in an ongoing dialog and build support for legislative/agency initiatives. So why’s everyone so afraid of it? For years, government didn’t have to engage constituents on an everyday basis – they could rely on communications efficiencies (the lack of social media) to effectively limit discussion. 
Today that’s no longer the case, but lots of government managers and directors are afraid to hop online and engage with constituents via social media. This guide is for those of you with reluctant bosses who know you need to get your agency/cause/boss online. 

Limit your topic

First, pick a small topic. It’ll be tough to prove that your agency should have a general blog, Facebook page, or Twitter account, but it will be fairly easy to prove that those things could help a specific and current initiative. If my experience is any guide, they’ll be worried about public comments and discussion. There are two great points to counter this:

  • First, that discussion is going to happen anyway. It’s better to take it seriously and play an active role in hosting it than it is to ignore it.
  • Second, by creating a limited scope of discussion around a relatively non-controversial topic, you’ll show that it’s not the end of the world to host a discussion and that it won’t sabotage the larger goals of your agency.

At the Department of Education, I created “Going Green in NYC Public Schools” because we’ve got some great green initiatives going on and it’s a topic that I think the public can rally around without getting mixed up in the larger world of City politics. It was also a way for me to create content outside of the normal bureaucratic world, hopefully setting an example for more personable future engagements with the public.

Finally, I got approval to start using our dormant Facebook and Twitter accounts (though I’m now thinking we should be on MySpace) to promote the blog.
Promote the heck out of it
Once you have some initial content up, start promoting it within your agency and community. Internally, leverage the heck out of your Intranet, employee newsletters, Facebook networks, etc. You want your employees to be your best and most fervent evangelists. Chances are they’ve been wondering why you *haven’t* been on social networks, so they’ll jump at the chance!
With very little promotion, our blog posts were getting a few thousand hits a day, our Facebook page was hopping, and we had 800 followers on Twitter. 
Curate and Participate
Authoring content is one role of managing social media, but your primary role is to curate and participate as an official representative of your agency, both internally and externally. I found that there was *a lot* of pent up energy in our community – as soon as I opened the door, people were excited to talk to me and know that there was a person on the other end. So even though my primary role was in product management, I quickly became the de facto “spokesblogger” for the DOE. 
The majority of my time spent on social media is watching and learning what conversations people are having and trying to add some value to those conversations. For instance, some of our schools use biodegradable sugar cane cafeteria trays, and parents were rightly asking why all 1,500 schools don’t use those trays. The answer was simple – we give schools the choice to pay for the more expensive biodegradable trays if they choose to do so – but it was an answer the public never would have gotten. I think it even convinced some additional schools to begin using sugar cane trays.
Participating isn’t the only aspect of this – you’ll need to curate the comments and audience contributions. My advice is to try to be liberal with your curation policy; respectful discussion and a diversity of views is valuable. Part of this is picking a topic that you think will self-limit the scope of discussion, but you’ll have to gently guide the discussion in order to keep your community on topic. If worse comes to worse (and it sometimes does) you’ll need to delete a few comments and remind the the community to keep things on-topic and above-board.
Measure your success
You can talk all you want about social media, but your bosses will want to see some measurements of success. I measure the classic metrics – traffic, “joins,” etc, but I also try to provide some measure of engagement, which is a lot tougher.
If a blog post gets 5,000 views and no comments, I don’t consider that a successful effort. But if a blog post gets 1,000 hits and 20 comments, that’s a big success. I don’t use numbers to measure engagement, but I like to see the following:

  • Citizens engaging with each other. I shouldn’t have to keep the discussion going; people should do that amongst themselves. I represent one perspective.
  • A dynamic discussion with varying points of view. I don’t just want people to agree with us – I want to know the real opinion of our constituents and hopefully convince internal stakeholders to pay attention and possibly adjust policy as a result. 
  • Lots of signal and little to no noise. “DRILL BABY DRILL” and those sorts of things should be kept to a minimum. I started by not deleting any comments, but eventually got rid of the useless stuff. 

These are subjective measurements, but that’s ok – you’ll know when you’re building Whuffie.

Prove it to your bosses
Your bosses were probably skeptical at first, so once you’ve built some Whuffie online (social capital), it’s important to prepare some materials to prove to your boss and their bosses that your work is having a positive impact on the agency’s operations and public image. I prepare a one-page summary of our web operations every month to remind everyone that we’re so gigantic (18+ million page views per month) and can have a huge impact. Now, I include our interaction rating on Facebook, number of Twitter interactions, followers, etc. 
Expand and Repeat
Once your non-controversial pilot project is proven a success, it’s time to start looking at expansion plans. What other topics will generate public interest in your agency’s work? Who should author those efforts? How can you leverage your initial work to create more successes?

What was your first step engaging on social media? How did you prove to your bosses it was worth it?

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