Features: February 19th, 2010

By Rob Marcus

The public sector, councillors and MPs are lagging behind other European countries in the uptake of social media initiatives. The author looks at the benefits social media has to offer to councils and local and national politicians.

The government sector in general is currently failing to impress on its level of engagement in social media initiatives such as discussion forums and blogs. These so-called ‘e-government services’ can be an effective way for local councils, councillors and MPs to publicise a more positive and transparent image to their constituents. Public perception of MPs certainly over the last few years has been very mixed. Often they are associated with negative attributes such as dishonesty, distrust or even having a secret ‘hidden agenda’.

Gaining trust and respect

By adopting a more engaging, open stance via social media, the likelihood of gaining trust and respect to a wider community of people is increased. Although it may appear that by indulging in social media councillors and MPs are opening themselves up to public scrutiny the potential knock-on effect of appearing more approachable and less guarded could be very rewarding. Social media can also help those in the public sector to reach out to people in the community that might be disillusioned by politics, with the Government anticipating that social media will help to facilitate access to the wider community that government is currently unable to talk to.

With recent research[i] suggesting that only 23 per cent of MPs are actively promoting their presence on social networks and, even though some MPs have taken the leap into social media they are still not using it effectively as a tool to encourage dialogue with their constituents.

With so few MPs using social media and only 11 per cent having their own blog, this shows that the sector in general still has a long way to go. Although engagement through social media can hold potential risks and be viewed as time consuming, many MPs still feel that they need to be participating in it but are unaware of the technologies available to them. This may be a reason why so few have actually used social networking as a communication tool in their campaigns. Another reason may be that they are less technology savvy than younger social media users that have grown up with it, and there are still misconceptions that need to be dealt with. It may save time in the long run, but people can take a while to feel confident and get to grips with new ways of communicating.

The risk of negative submissions

“With most MPs (92 per cent) using email, social media also offers another route for constituents who wish to get in contact with them. Members of the public often feel that their local councillors are unapproachable, but having a presence on Twitter or adding a discussion forum onto their website could help them become more visible and easier to converse with. However, when embarking on social media MPs will have both different but (in many ways) similar issues to brands when it comes to receiving negative content. The higher profile the MP is, the more they become ‘a brand’ in their own right and when people feel passionately about an issue they tend to get personal. For large blue-chip brands this is less of a problem but when dealing with an individual public figure like an MP the chances of negative submissions are higher. Having said that an MP is less likely to receive large volumes of submissions on a daily basis as a large brand might, but a higher percentage of the submissions will be negative which increases the very real need for moderation. It is vital for a stringent moderation process to be put in place in order to protect all parties involved.

Getting started

Some ways that the public sector can get started with social media………

• Do some research and see what other local councils or MPs are up to. There are resources such as Tweety Hall (http://tweetyhall.co.uk) that list all local councillors on Twitter and by searching for local councillor’s blogs you can get a good idea of how your peers are taking the social media plunge.

• Ensure you update and communicate through your social media initiative regularly so it becomes a success. Some initiatives, such as blogs, are more high maintenance than others such as tweets, so choose wisely. Perhaps you could share the burden with a colleague?

• Your existing website can be a great platform for social media. Although there are numerous third party platforms within the social media sphere such as, Facebook, Flickr and Bebo, recent figures from the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) have found that just five per cent of people had joined branded groups and communities on social networking sites. So your own website can probably make a great home for social media initiatives too.

The main piece of advice to councillors and MPs looking to set up a social media initiative is to seek help from a professional agency, expect that there will be negative comments appearing but to go ahead and give it a go anyway with your eyes wide open.

Rob Marcus is director of the social media moderation company Chat Moderators.

About Chat Moderators:

Chat Moderators is a service that takes the management and risk out of allowing user-generated content (UGC) to be published online. Chat Moderators monitors all forms of UGC that are published on a website’s community such as discussion areas, forums, chat rooms, picture albums, comment areas, blogs, social network profiles and more. Allowing UGC online can bring many benefits to a business’ brand and reputation provided it is managed responsibly. Other services provided by Chat Moderators include consultancy, community management and insight reporting.

For more information visit:
www.chatmoderators.com and www.targetedmoderation.com