Many local, state and federal government agencies have taken the plunge into the social media environment, finding new ways to reach the public and our stakeholders. But are we using these new platforms in the most beneficial way? Is there room for improvement to make sure government communications don’t lag behind what the private sector delivers?

I recently attended the Social Media for the Public Sector conference in Melbourne, where marketing and media representatives shared their ideas for how government-as-a-whole can make better use of social media. So, here are the top four ways to learn from successful government campaigns and improve your engagement with the public.

Go where the people are

Engaging in social media is not just about joining the most popular platform in an effort to reach new audiences. Although writing a 140-character tweet may sound easy, do the people you want to target even use Twitter?

Family Update, run by the Department of Human Services, is a Facebook page to support families who rely on Centrelink, Medicare or Child Support payments. Following social media criticism from everyday Australians about how hard it was to claim payments, DHS developed its Facebook page so users could ask questions directly and find relevant information. They found where their target market was interacting online and established a presence in that same space.

Content from and for the people

Arguably, the most successful government brand on social media is Tourism Australia. Putting budgets aside, what TA does best is user-generated content. TA’s Instagram account shows off the best images of Australia taken by their fans and it currently has 730,000 followers.

Whilst TA is a great brand with highly relatable topics, other government agencies and councils can still follow suit by giving their users the right content. ‘Relate what your organisation does to people’s everyday lives,’ says CSIRO’s Vanessa Hill. CSIRO’s Twitter account features facts on energy saving, health and science that are easy to understand and share. At a local level, Redlands Council features a ‘weed of the week’ so residents know how to tend their gardens and protect native plants.

Airservices Australia, which manages 11 per cent of the world’s airspace, publicises its work by mapping Santa’s route on Christmas Eve and releasing it via a series of videos. The interesting gimmick, made for parents and children, is a great example of developing audience content with the message of ‘what we do’ in the background.

Social media as a customer service tool

Only 45 per cent of comments made on government-run social media platforms receive a response, according to Social Pulse statistics (provided by DHS’s Gina Ciancio). This is surely something we can improve!

Social media must be seen as not only an engagement tool to publicise your own messages, but also a customer service tool that can be used for two-way communication. Moreland City Council, for example, primarily uses its social media sites for customer service, according to Iona Salter, member of their communications team.

People turn to social media channels for immediacy and because they are no longer satisfied with traditional channels. So it is imperative that we recognise these changes in behaviour and provide timely responses.

Trust your staff

Matt Murray from Redlands Council asked the audience this question: ‘If you trust your staff with public communication via email and phone, why are they not trusted when it comes to social media?’

If your agency employs creative people in a marketing and social media role, don’t bog them down with legal clearances and ‘no sharing’ rules. Instead, develop a social media strategy and risk management matrix that allows the representative to share content, update users on a variety of news and develop content for a specific audience.

‘Trust’ does not mean free reign, but it does allow staff to develop ideas and explore new ways of engaging the audience.

‘Government and social: Four steps to improved engagement’ was first published on the ACMA blog on 8 July 2014.

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