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Governments Struggling to Get Social Media Right

Social media is the ultimate government transparency, which is why public officials need to not only get used to it but also get good at it. Here’s how.

Sexual assault is always avoidable.” Far short of the 140 characters allowed by Twitter, but enough to cause an immediate “twit storm.” The unfortunate tweet -- generated by a consultant hired by Massachusetts to handle its Twitter communiqués -- was meant to cap off the state’s recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. If awareness was the tweet’s goal, it achieved it in spades. The tweet immediately set off a firestorm of controversy.

Joe Fitzgibbon stumbled into a similar twit storm. The Washington state representative tossed off a flippant -- but arguably amusing -- tweet after the Seattle Seahawks lost to the Arizona Cardinals in a football game last fall. “Losing a football game sucks,” Fitzgibbon wrote. “Losing to a desert racist wasteland sucks a lot.” The reference to Arizona’s arid climate and less-than-liberal immigration laws set off an interstate uproar, testimony to the power of a handful of words moving through the ether.

Words aren’t the only way Twitter can do damage. The New York City Police Department in April created a hashtag -- #myNYPD -- allowing citizens to quickly and easily post pictures to the department’s Twitter page of NYPD’s finest in action. The public largely responded by tweeting the department’s less-than-finest moments: a veritable gallery of the city’s men and women in blue clubbing, tear gassing, handcuffing and tackling Gotham citizens. “It was unfortunate to see what happened to the NYPD,” says Anil Chawla, author of an online white paper Twit Happens: How to Deal with Tweet Regret in the Public Sector. “It probably gives other government agencies pause.”


But a pause may not be a luxury government has. The positive communication through social media tools during such crises as Superstorm Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing have been well documented, but the real story is how social media is beginning to infuse (some might say “subsume”) the day-to-day lives of public officials. Social media may be a perfect way to bypass the not-always-reliable or malleable mainstream press. It offers a government or public official a way to connect quickly and directly with citizens and gauge the pulse of the populace. It is the ultimate in government transparency.

Which is why the future of public-sector communication lies in clouds and ether -- Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and their ilk. Public officials had not only better get used to it, they’d better get good at it.

“The first Obama campaign was the real eye opener for a lot of politicians,” says Michael Klein, a Saskatoon, Canada-based communications consultant who focuses on social media. “It illustrated for politicians that social media isn’t just for Bill Gates and nerds. It goes beyond getting a message out. It’s a way to get feedback, engage in discussion and even to help form policy.”

But social media -- unscreened and unedited -- has its obvious drawbacks. Setting aside the occasional “shoot from the hip” tweet by a public official, “Participation in social media makes organizations vulnerable to both internal and external crises,” wrote Missy Graham and Elizabeth Johnson Avery in an issue of Public Relations Journal. “On an internal level, organizations have to be concerned about online behavior that could potentially damage the brand.”

Sometimes the damage flies in all directions. During Austin, Texas’ internationally renowned South by Southwest (SXSW) festival last March, the city’s Office of the Police Monitor helpfully tweeted, “Welcome #SXSWers! We know you’re loving Austin but if you experience a problem with police, let us know. 512-974-9090”

For strangers to Austin, the tweet suggested that the Austin Police Department had a longstanding problem with how it treated visitors, and the Office of the Police Monitor intended to be right on top of the problem, ready to pounce at the earliest sign of trouble. Predictably, some in the Austin Police Department were not amused, including union president Wayne Vincent. “That message is clear to 1,700 police officers that work in this city,” he is quoted as saying shortly after the post. “It was a virtual slap in the face to every single one of them.”

Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo decided on a lighter response with his tweet: “ If you want to commend a member of the @Austin_Police please drop me a line at Enjoy ATX!” (ATX being Austin, Texas, naturally.)

The beauty of social media is that while it allows officials to mess up in a fabulously efficient and widespread way, it also allows rapid, blanket and unequivocal mea culpas. Realizing that its original missive sent the wrong message, Austin took the monitor’s tweet down and posted a revised one, saying that police were doing “an extraordinary job under extraordinary conditions” and apologizing “if [the Office of the Police Monitor] message gave wrong impression.”

Similarly in Massachusetts, the state quickly verbalized its regrets for the comment on sexual assault and suggested that the author had meant “preventable” not “avoidable.” For Washington Rep. Fitzgibbon’s part, he, too, quickly admitted his lapse in judgment -- he got a little carried away with what he viewed as some standard fan “trash talking.” The whole matter seemed to blow over in a “twecond,” suggesting that rule No. 1 for recovering from errant action on the social media front is to fess up quickly and completely.


The case of the NYPD is more complicated. While social media stands as a dynamic way to connect with citizens, it requires a few of the things that government doesn’t do well. First, there has to be a tolerance for risk. Unintended consequences abound in the social media world, especially when a high-level public organization is opening itself up to the broadest range of citizenry possible. Second, to the extent that it’s possible in the Wild West of social media, it takes a sophisticated and nuanced approach to shape and manage government’s message. Third, when done really well, it requires intra-governmental communication. Such communication, unfortunately, flies in the face of how government is actually structured and how bureaucrats typically behave.

“We’re trying to break down the ministry silos so that our Twitter accounts are more topic or theme based,” says Jeff Armstead, who handles digital communication for the province of Saskatchewan, Canada. “It’s a ‘one-government’ approach.” But getting siloed agencies to think in terms of shared responsibility and mission isn’t easy. Then there are the simple, silly bureaucratic details. “Every minister’s office has a different level of comfort with how much approval is required when you respond to a post,” Armstead says, “and that has caused some tension.”

There’s also the issue of consistency, which is directly related to control. One agency that’s been held up as a national model for using social media in a sophisticated way is the Palo Alto, Calif., Police Department -- not for crisis response, although it’s ready to use it if necessary -- but for day-to-day community relations and general citizen goodwill building.

Palo Alto tweets with a tight fist, and that fist belongs to Lt. Zach Perron, a garrulous exponent of social media, who heads up the department’s division of investigative services and public information. He is the only one -- besides the chief -- who puts out messages on social media, which helps ensure a distinct and consistent tone. The approach reduces risk and lends uniformity to the department’s missives. As Perron notes, “Every piece of information you put out on a social media account amounts to a press release, and once something goes out and you screwed it up, you can’t take it back.” But that isn’t as fraught with risk as handing the keys to someone who understands the technology, Perron says, “but doesn’t have the sense of what’s going out in your agency or community. If they issue a tweet or post something on Facebook without that in mind, it can be very damaging.”

So far, Perron’s department has avoided any such damage. To the contrary, the department seems to be using social media with commendable energy and savvy. For example, Palo Alto Chief Dennis Burns has won community accolades for his “ride along” tweets, where the chief jumps in a squad car with his beat cops and tweets about his experiences along the way. That’s really not so unusual in this day and age. Other chiefs in other departments were doing it before Palo Alto, which speaks to the medium’s penetration. According to figures compiled by the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Center for Social Media, nearly 96 percent of all law enforcement agencies now engage in some form of social media activity. While most departments use social media for crime fighting, nearly 75 percent say that it has had the corollary effect of improved community relations.

Asked about the NYPD incident in that regard, Perron, who lectures nationally on law enforcement and social media, thinks the NYPD’s solicitation of photos was actually a gutsy move. He argues that at the end of the day it probably boosted the department’s followers on Twitter.

While law enforcement seems to be leading the way on social media uptake, other government agencies are clearly following suit. In their Public Relations Journal article, Graham and Avery note that 70 percent of local governments now engage in some form of social media activity. However, “they seem to predominantly be using it for Facebook postings and not two-way communication,” says Avery, an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

“You can’t be afraid to engage, to have a conversation,” Perron says, adding that the choice in Palo Alto has been to “have voice and tone that’s human and even humorous when appropriate, and antibureaucrat/government speak.”

It’s clear that social media has the power to humanize government, to open potentially promising channels of communication and to offer citizens direct access to their government and to public officials. Rep. Fitzgibbon adds that it’s also a very good way to stay connected to the mainstream media.

While Fitzgibbon, who chairs the House environment committee in Olympia, laments the shrinking statehouse press corps, he says social media has helped offset the impacts. “We don’t have a very large press corps in state government,” says Fitzgibbon. “It has diminished over time, but social media is a way to communicate with press throughout the state. It’s very efficient instead of sitting around waiting for a call.”

What is less clear, however, is whether the new media will, as some predict, be influential in shaping policy or budgets anytime soon. While examples of Twitter-fueled revolutions around the globe abound, so far there’s not much evidence that tweets or Facebook posts have revolutionized the state or local budgeting process. “As far as impacting budgeting, that’s still on the horizon,” says Fitzgibbon. “In part, that’s because it’s hard to know if the folks you hear from on social media are really representative of your constituents.” A tweet, Fitzgibbon points out, can come from anywhere and anybody and so doesn’t tend to carry much weight. He does, however, use social media to both gather and share information about policy with his colleagues and other interest groups. At the same time, more legislators are using Facebook and other platforms to mobilize citizen support for legislation.

As far as widespread use of social media by his colleagues goes -- either to communicate with constituents or stay abreast of key issues -- Fitzgibbon says it covers the spectrum. One thing he does know is that social media isn’t going away -- although uptake may be a bit slower in Olympia after his Arizona tweet. “Seeing me screw up is a cautionary tale,” Fitzgibbon says. “They probably think they can do their work without that sort of notoriety.”

A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.
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