Our guide to how to use social media in government

This guide provides an overview of a number of social media channels available to government and how they may be best used to support government and agency goals. It is also available as a downloadable white paper.

What is social media?
Social media refers to internet services and mobile phone applications used for the generation, dissemination, and discussion of information in textual, pictorial, audio or video formats. It includes all forms of current and future tools used for digital interactions between people. Social media channels allow people to interact online in a ‘social’ manner, whether for personal and professional reasons, or for official business.

Current examples of social media tools include, but are not limited to, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn; blogs and blog publication platforms such as WordPress; discussion forums and bulletin boards such as Whirlpool and Aptaclub; micro-blogs such as Twitter and Yammer; wikis such as Wikipedia and Wikispaces; virtual worlds such as Second Life, sharing sites for documents, video and audio such as YouTube, Scribd and Slideshare, prize sites custom built for hosting mash-up competitions and finally, real-time chat and liveblogging tools.

Social media is becoming an increasingly popular set of channels for organisations to use in their communication and engagement mix because:

  • they provide a cost effective means of engaging with an audience;
  • more and more people across different demographics are using social media; and
  • they are perceived as simple to set up and use.

The Australian and UK Governments support the use of social media and have released several guides and primers regarding its use, including:
UK Cabinet Office Social Media Guidance
COI Engaging through Social Media
APSC Code of Conduct in Practice
Declaration of Open Government
The AGIMO Government 2.0 Primer

Risks of social media use
This paper does not discuss the risks and mitigations for specific social media channels. Risks should be determined based on individual program goals, the specific channels (social media and otherwise) used and how these channels are being utilised.

In many cases the use of social media can reduce risks for engagement programs, through increasing the reach of information or a consultation. This allows a more tightly moderated environment than achievable through a town hall meeting and may reduce costs and timeframes.

Social media channels
The channels detailed in this paper are only a sample of those now available, however these should provide a good overview of the main types. There are many variations, combinations and new channels developed each year, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and considerations.


Blogs

Example blog from Julia Gillard, Australia's PM
Example blog from Julia Gillard, Australia's PM

A blog is a regular list of articles (‘posts’), usually organised in reverse chronological order (the most recent at top). Blogs usually, but not always, allow readers to comments on posts. They may be moderated before publication. Blogs may also contain content pages, link lists and navigational tools, similar to regular websites.

Blogs are often operated by individuals as personal or professional information-sharing channels. Blogs may also be managed by teams, who post regular or semi-regular articles.

While specific blogging platforms are available at little or no cost to simplify blogging, most web content management systems can support blogging, albeit in a less managed fashion and with less support for comments or rich content.

When to use them
Blogs are best used for disseminating information or holding structured discussions with audiences on specific topics (similar to an online town hall meeting). As a blog is managed by the blog owner, and only those with administrative rights may post to it, this provides a measure of direction and influence over any discussions.

Blogs are often used to discuss the progress of a project, discuss a particular topical area or provide rapid, but structured, news updates during a crisis.


Discussion Forums / bulletin boards

A screenshot from the Whirlpool IT Forum
A screenshot from the Whirlpool IT Forum

A discussion forum, also called a message board or bulletin board, is a website where people can hold conversations by posting text messages and responding to messages from others.

Discussions in forums take place over time; though on rare occasions can move quickly. They differ from blogs in that a single user doesn’t define the terms of each discussion (via blog posts).

Like blogs it is possible to moderate forum posts before they are visible; however this approach tends to significantly restrict the level of interaction and the overall success of the forum. Indeed, strong moderation may be required to manage the behaviour of some participants, although this isn’t always the case and well-established forums are largely self-regulating.

When to use them
Forums are best used for unstructured discussion, support requirements and broad community-building and engagement activities.

As forums provide an almost level playing field for supporting free-flowing conversations, they are effective in supporting communities who need to actively share information between all participants.

While forums can support structured discussion and the owner of a forum can manage the breadth of a discussion, it is significantly more difficult to control the flow of conversation than with a blog.


Microblogs

Delib's Twitter page
Delib's Twitter page

The term ‘micro-blogging’ refers to using a service which allows users to distribute short messages very quickly to groups of followers. Twitter is the best known and most used micro-blog platform (about 200 million users worldwide), although competitors exist, particularly for use within intranets.

These services operate by allowing users to ‘follow’ or ‘friend’ other users and thereby are able to view public messages from them. Twitter-based search tools allow you to establish networks based on interests or topics rather than on pre-existing offline relationships. Most micro-blog tools also allow private or direct messages to be sent that are only visible to the sender and receiver.

Most micro-blogs support some way of grouping messages by topic, in Twitter using ‘hashtags’. A hashtag is a method of tagging messages with a specific topic by simply placing a # in front of a keyword (such as #egov or #gov20). This allows information sharing and limited discussion on particular topics, issues, television programs, conferences and other notable events.

When to use them
Micro-blogs have proven extremely effective at breaking news and providing alerts and have been extensively used during various crises and emergencies to disseminate and share information. They are also becoming useful for Q&A and other customer service/support activities, allowing more rapid and direct contact then via phone or email. Finally, micro-blogs have proven effective for sharing information and knowledge rapidly, particularly around conferences and television programs. Micro-blogs are best used for disseminating information quickly, linking back to full details in sites or blogs.

An excellent guide for getting started with using Twitter in a government setting can be found here: Twitter: A Quick Start Guide for People in And around Government.


Prize sites

Canada's MintChip currency challenge site
Canada's MintChip currency challenge site

Prize sites are used to operate user-driven competitions, where the public, or specific groups, are invited to submit a design, application, website or service into a competitive process, then through a public voting and/or internal judging process winner(s) are selected.
Prizes are particularly popular in the US, with a recent prize announced for the development of an algorithm to model health risks having a US$3 million award.

Prizes have been used to stimulate interest in and reuse of government data, such as Australia’s Apps4NSW. Canada’s MintChip Challenge asked developers to create a new digital currency.

When to use them
Prizes are best used when the goal is to involve and empower audiences and promote innovative development at a low cost. Inviting the public, or stakeholder groups, to develop material, then reused by the Department, both builds awareness of the activity and can produce cost-effective outcomes. They are not suitable for policy input or other discussion-based processes.


Social networks

The NHS uses Facebook for a wide variety of community engagement activity
The NHS uses Facebook for a wide variety of community engagement activity

Social networks are systems that support connections, or ties, between entities based on common characteristics, interests or goals. Often the emphasis is placed on ‘social’, with social networks identified as being casual or personal networks of friendships and acquaintances. However ‘social’ actually refers to a broader definition – the characteristics of an entity and interactions between entities, whether on a personal or professional basis and irrespective of whether they are aware of these interactions or not, or whether the interaction is voluntary or involuntary.

Professional networks such as LinkedIn are also considered ‘social networks’ as they involve interactions between entities. In the context of the internet, social networks are websites that support connections and interactions between people for any purpose (personal, professional or official).

Online social networks are often person-centric, with each individual connected to others based on their relationships, shared interests and activities. They may also centre on other commonalities such as employers, organisations, nations, sports teams, topics, products or services.

The best known social networks are Facebook (over 800 million active users) and MySpace (around 230 million users), however LinkedIn, a professional networking site, now has over 150 million active users and other services.

When to use them
Social networks are very versatile tools for amplifying information sharing and building collaborative audiences as short or long-term assets, such as for high-profile programs and both campaign and non-campaign communication activities.

They are best used when there are clear connections between audience members that encourage them to group together based on shared interests and then share information about those interests.

Social networks are in wide use by companies to monitor and build sentiment around their profile, products and services. Many government agencies use them to monitor public opinion on key topics or to extend the impact of campaign messages from other media and to build a retainable audience for campaigns over extended periods.

One of the most effective uses of social networks is to build ongoing relationships with interested stakeholders. Managed correctly, they can be used to retain audiences between campaigns or maintain effective communication with a particularly vocal group.

They can also be effective for two-way communication, like an ‘always-on’ focus group, although one of their inherent risks is that participants may critique activities even when an organisation isn’t explicitly seeking feedback.


Virtual worlds

The US Government's vGov project
The US Government's vGov project

Virtual worlds refer to immersive online 3D environments which allow users to interact with each other and with objects and constructs as they can in real life, as well as visualise information in ways impossible in the real world. Virtual worlds are in widespread use around the world for educational, crisis management, consultation, tourism and gaming purposes. They are often used as effective spaces to convene gatherings, hold meetings and discuss issues, as well as to visualise information in a 3D graphical manner.

Some notable examples of virtual world use include for treating stress-related mental illness in soldiers; facilitating mobility and activities for people suffering mobility and/or mental impairments from conditions such as arthritis, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and mental illness; training doctors using virtual patients; and conducting medical research.

The US Government has developed vGov, a virtual world to be used for disaster and emergency management training, medical simulations and to collaborate, train and study cyber-security operations and rehearse response scenarios. Similarly, the US Army uses MOSES as a military training simulator.

Several of the most popular virtual worlds are designed and secured specifically for children and teenagers, such as Club Penguin and Habbo Hotel, or for teen and adult gaming, such as World of Warcraft and City of Heroes.

A number of commercial providers offer solutions that can be used to rapidly deliver a virtual environment, such as Linden Lab, the commercial provider of the persistent Second Life virtual world.

When to use them
Virtual worlds have the capability to represent immersive 3D real-world environments, making them ideal for training simulations. They are ideal for multichannel educational experiences, involving both audio-visual material and ‘physical’ activities, where people must negotiate a situation through physical manipulation of objects – such as for training health workers on the use of new equipment or allowing a walk-through of new health facilities before they are built.

Virtual worlds can also be used as real-time collaborative spaces, for ‘virtual town halls’, conferences and presentations for geographically dispersed audiences. Companies like IBM maintain persistent virtual worlds with conference facilities and small meeting rooms to support both scheduled and impromptu meetings between their staff and external parties on a global basis.


Wikis

Wikipedia is the world's biggest wiki
Wikipedia is the world's biggest wiki

Wikis are collaborative workspaces used to co-develop material and to store knowledge in an updatable format.

The best known example of a wiki is Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopaedia, built collaboratively over ten years. It had 91,000 active contributors in February 2011 (and a total of 14 million registered users) working on over 17 million articles in 270 languages (3,597,000 articles in English).

Wikis may be completely open to edits from anyone, restricted to registered users, or support a combination of approaches, including approval processes for some or all content.

Effectively, wikis take the process of collaborative creating and approving content and move it completely online.

The largest concern expressed about wikis is their apparently open nature, which create the potential for inappropriate updates and vandalism. In practice this has proven to be a minor and easily managed concern, based on applying appropriate editorial guidelines, limiting access to edit controversial topics and using wiki software with full roll-back and user logging – meaning that every edit is identifiable to a user and is reversible.

When to use them
Wikis are very useful when authors of material for public or internal use are geographically separated and the material requires updating on a regular basis. In particular this has proven effective in crisis situations or where expectations are changing rapidly and each iteration must be recorded.

They have also proven very useful as knowledge management tools, allowing a group of highly knowledgeable people to store their expertise in a central repository, allowing faster dissemination and reducing issues around corporate knowledge loss when skilled individuals leave an organisation. For example the Australian Taxation Office maintains an internal wiki on different tax jurisdictions around the world, a resource that allows specialists on particular nations to more readily share their knowledge with colleagues. This protects the organisation against the loss of an expert on a particular topic.

Wikis are in widespread use across the Australian government via the Govdex service from the Australia’s Department of Finance and Deregulation, which is essentially a wiki with a few extra functions. This is used for collaboration between agencies and external parties.
The UK Government has hired Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to help them create a research wiki.


Sharing sites

The Scottish Government uses Flickr to share important images
The Scottish Government uses Flickr to share important images

Sharing sites are designed to support the sharing of public content such as video and audio material, photos, documents and presentations.
Examples of sharing sites include YouTube and Vimeo for video, iTunes for audio, Flickr for images, SlideShare and Scribd for presentations and documents.

They are generally free to use and offer functionality such as the customisation of their interface to suit particular organisations. They allow for reporting, embedding of content into any website, various rights frameworks to manage copyright issues and closed captioning for video and audio material. Sharing sites generally include various community

capabilities, allowing people to follow an organisation, alerts when new presentations become available and even rate or comment on new material (if allowed by the organisation).

When to use them
Wherever public content needs to be distributed widely and to be easily discoverable or presented in an accessible manner, it is worth considering the use of these sharing websites.

While organisations can host this type of audio/visual and documentary material on their own websites, sharing sites leverage the value of these assets by exposing them to a broader audience, providing improved search capability and offering enhanced functionality, usually at no cost.
Sharing sites are also valuable when on a budget as they offer substantial cost savings, particularly for video and audio material, as the material is hosted externally, meaning that the organisation doesn’t pay for the storage or distribution of content.

Organisations can embed the content back into their own websites, generally with better reporting and functionality than is possible to deliver within their own cost constraints.


Real-time online chats/liveblogs and Twitter chats

A recent #commschat liveblog
A recent #commschat liveblog

Real time chat refers to an approach whereby people congregate on an online channel and engage in a real time discussion around a given issue or topic.

Chats can be restricted access or public, and can also involve moderation, such as to facilitate a question and answers session.
There are many ways to hold real time online chats, such as through the use of chat services such as IRC, via a ‘liveblog‘ which is written during an event and allows people to comment and ask questions (potentially in a moderated way), or by holding a regularly scheduled conversation on a service such as Twitter, using a specific ‘hashtag’ (keyword) to aggregate the discussion into a discrete group.

For example, the UK National Health Service hosts a Twitter chat each week using the hashtag #nhssm, to discuss social media trends in healthcare.

Facebook also has a chat facility.

When to use them
Real time online chat is best used for time-restricted activities where there is an aim to attract a significant audience and hold a public conversation over a given period of time.

They work quite well when structured around physical launches or events (which are time-restricted by their nature) or, on a one-on-one basis, for online support.

Regularly scheduled real time online chats can substitute for some regular face-to-face meetings or similar engagement activities.

They are particularly useful in coordinating online activities between several authors and editors who are geographically dispersed. They can also be useful for participants who might not want to voice their concerns out loud in an office environment, i.e. discussing personal health issues, and for providing technical support.

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