By John Simpson, Engagement Consultant
The use of social media by government organizations as a means to better reach the public is more often becoming standard practice. Guidance from resources like HowTo.gov and lessons from events like the Boston Marathon Bombing have taken the use of social media from “should” to “must.”
However, the rush to social media can cause the misconception that agencies now need an elaborate strategy for each digital channel. Proposing that you need a “Facebook strategy” is the same as a plumber saying that he needs a “wrench strategy.” If your office switched from Dells to Macs, it would not make sense to develop a “Mac strategy.”
Social media channels are only tools that help extend the reach of your message and engagement with the public. Just like your computer of choice, tools like Facebook and Twitter aren’t the end, just the means.
Although outreach tools have transformed from paper to digital, one thing has remained a constant: content.
Understanding what content your office has and how to use it to further your business goals are fundamental concepts that can be lost in the rush to embrace or avoid new digital channels. All of the online followers or subscribers in the world are not going to make a difference if you have not thought through your content’s goals or if it does not compel your audience to take action.
Many organizations may even have more content than they realize, but just don’t see the information as something the public would be interested in. Others are so overwhelmed with materials and requests for their use that they are unsure where to begin. In either case, the first step is the same: take inventory of all of your content. What content do you regularly produce? What should or could you produce?
- Basics – Most offices have press releases, announcements, or materials produced for public use. Ensure that each of these is being used across all of your channels with clear public calls to action.
- Events – Are there upcoming events with specific materials, follow-ups, or questions that could be pushed out to social media? Could you live tweet or blog the event? How can you keep the conversation going online after the event has concluded?
- Experts – Every organization has subject matter experts and experienced program managers. Would these people be able to tell the story of your audience and the work they’re doing to serve the public? If there is a big policy change on the horizon, could your experts be available for an online Q&A or town hall?
- Stories – Proving that your hard work paid off is not just important for retaining your budget. Your audience likely wants to hear how others are interacting with your office or making use of its resources. Share people’s successes and lessons learned so others can learn from their examples. By telling these stories, you’re allowing others to supply you with new and highly usable content.
While these are just a few examples, the important thing is to focus on the content. How you choose to reach out and engage with the public on this content is where social media and other digital channels come in. After you finalize your content strategy, determine which tools will help you accomplish that strategy. Repurposing your content should not be an “all or nothing” approach. Think carefully on what you hope to gain from each unique tool (feedback, increased outreach, attendance, etc).
Here are a few examples of public organizations crafting an all-purpose content strategy:
Stearns County, MN Sheriff’s Office works to both reduce crime in the area and raise awareness about crime prevention. To better communicate about available public services and receive information back from citizens, the Sheriff’s Office regularly sends updates on resources, crime updates, and alerts in the surrounding area in an interactive newsletter that allows for subscribers to easily submit tips via phone, email, or their online system.
CDC’s National Prevention Information Network (NPIN) collects and disseminates data and materials to support the work of prevention organizations and workers in international, national, state, and local settings. To better educate the public on its resources and involve their subject matter experts, NPIN hosts monthly Twitter chats using a common hash tag (#NPINchat) that encourage the public to ask questions of NPIN experts.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has one of the largest and most widespread audiences of any government organization. It is actively involved in many different issues, from fraud to policy changes. To translate these different priorities into clear pieces for the public to digest, SSA creates simple banner images with clear calls to action and posts them on Facebook for the largest possible chance that different audiences will interact and comment.
As your organization looks to become more involved in social media or improve its existing outreach to the public through digital channels, take a step back and think hard on what your content strategy should be. Without a clear idea of what content you are or could be producing and how to best use that content to engage with the public, you are setting yourself up to fall short of your full potential.