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The Government Leader's Guide To Social Media

The BrainYard's 7 Social Business Leaders Of 2012
The BrainYard's 7 Social Business Leaders Of 2012

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If you work in government, be prepared to lose control. If you don't go out and meet social media head-on, it will happen anyway, all around you. Loosen your tie and get ready to tweet, post your status and respond to posts from the voters.

That's essentially the prescription of the Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide by Ines Mergel and Bill Greeves. "To be clear, we are not suggesting a three-ring, no-holds-barred circus act at your service counters," the authors write, recommending "an innovative yet measured approach" to taking advantage of what social media has to offer. Their field guide provides a grand tour of the essential characteristics of social media and the most important sites and formats, along with details on government-specific concerns related to records retention, disclaimers and comment policies.

I had spoken with Greeves a few months prior to the publication of this book about archiving concerns in particular. Because social media posts are generally treated as public records, just like memos or constituent complaints, government agencies who make themselves available through blogs or Facebook pages need to be sure to capture not only what they publish but the comments and other feedback it generates.

Greeves is the chief information officer for Wake County, N.C. and has more than 12 years of experience in government technology leadership. In 2012, Greeves was named the most social government CIO in the U.S. by the Public CIO magazine. He is also the founder of the MuniGov 2.0 community for sharing best practices.

Mergel is assistant professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and also keeps a blog on social media in the public sector. The field guide is a companion to Mergel's Social Media in the Public Sector, a more formal peer reviewed academic text on the topic. I've only skimmed that one so far, but I can see it offers some distinct and perhaps more in-depth information. Still, the field guide stands alone as an introduction with lots of practical information. The authors say the field guide is particularly intended to provide all the basics for those who might be taking on social media management as a new role. I found myself dog-earing and marking up pages so I could find my way back to key insights.

Although many of the concerns of government agencies also apply to businesses, the authors note, "Government agencies rarely have the luxury of appealing to niche markets or captive audiences. Generally, by the nature of their mission, governments have to be all things to all people."

Criticizing government is also such a popular citizen pastime that government officials can be forgiven for asking why they should hang out a "kick me" sign by exposing themselves to social media. But just as product companies have discovered, if you don't provide the outlet for criticism, there are plenty of other places for social media users to express it. At least if you are part of the conversation, you have the opportunity to respond and perhaps correct rumors or other misinformation. Like the customers of a business, the constituents of government agencies have an unprecedented opportunity to make themselves heard, and they expect to be listened to.

Blogs and social media accounts are only effective when they allow and encourage commenting and discussion. To maintain a civil tone, you will want to have a comment policy stating what is acceptable, mostly for purposes of justifying the deletion of truly offensive material such as profanity. However, the authors say it's more often than not a mistake to delete citizen input. For example, in 2011 New York State Sen. Joseph Robach saw his Facebook page flooded with comments about his position on gay marriage -- an uproar that only intensified following a heavy-handed purge of all public comments from the page. "This action, taken without notice or explanation, left the senator's constituency feeling disrespected and with concerns that the incident violated their freedom of speech," the authors say.

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