When former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened his Facebook and Twitter accounts, his star power triggered state and local imitators across the country. Government officials saw the social media platforms as a hip way of informing citizens where they already were — on the Web. Administrations ordered individual agencies to start their own accounts, sometimes to the chagrin of those tasked with maintaining them.
A few years have passed since the phenomenon began, and the question of how useful these endeavors have been depends on one’s definition of authentic social networking. Many agencies are using Facebook and Twitter as venues for one-way, press-release style communications. But others insist that true social networking must consist of two-way communication. Each approach presents its own challenges. Debates about whether governments should even bother with social media are ongoing in many state and local agencies, especially since staff reductions have increased employee workloads in many jurisdictions.
A common challenge of government social networking is that refreshing the account can become inconsistent — or nonexistent — once the novelty wears off. Frequently a single employee in the public affairs office is charged with maintaining an agency’s social media presence. Given how busy such workers are in today’s frenetic news cycle, it’s not surprising some social networking accounts are neglected. Officials at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, however, say they have found a way around this pitfall. The agency’s Facebook account has roughly 36,000 fans, and six public affairs staffers take turns refreshing the account by alternating each week.
“When you are the admin, you take over at 8 a.m. on Monday, and it’s yours until
8 a.m. the next Monday,” said Nancy Ledbetter, the commission’s communications chief.
Social networking admins refresh the commission’s Facebook account often, knowing the responsibility only lasts for one week, explained Ledbetter. Once an admin hands off the job to another person, he or she enjoys a six-week break before retaking the reins. The short-term responsibility makes workers willing to post at all hours of the day, she added.
“If it just had been one or two people, it would have really burned them out by now,” Ledbetter said. “Our admins answer questions at night and on the weekends. I think that really helps our [Facebook] fans feel like we are having a conversation with them, and we’re not just available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.”
Another criticism of public-sector social media posts is that they read like excerpts from press releases — not surprising since public information officers usually are the ones in charge of posting. Ledbetter said rotating the personnel responsible for the commission’s Facebook account helps motivate them to write with more personality when they post.
“We have six different voices that can be heard,” she said. “I can look at the page at noon on Monday and even if I haven’t seen who the assigned admin is, based on the writing, I can probably tell you who the admin is.”
The agency also helps the admins answer complex questions by having subject-matter experts on hand to help.
Like other managers, Ledbetter heard concerns from employees about the time demands of maintaining social network accounts before the commission launched its Facebook page. The rotational approach helps with that issue. Still, keeping up with online comments can seem overwhelming during a crisis or unusual event. At the time of this writing, the commission was answering a barrage of questions from the public about wildlife kills, including an occurrence of blackbirds falling dead from the sky in one small town and fish dying mysteriously in another.
“We have been inundated with comments about theories on why these events have happened or trying to link them together,” Ledbetter said. “If this had happened in the first three months [of using social media], it would have been more overwhelming.”
The Michigan Department of Community Health found Facebook and Twitter to be useful forums for posting updates during 2009’s H1N1 virus outbreak. However, the process became stressful when citizens posted alarmist, contradictory claims about the crisis.
“Everybody was freaking out,” said Kurt Weiss, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. “We had all of these messages going out on Facebook, and it was very difficult to keep a consistent message.”
Weiss said it helped that the agency’s posts displayed the government’s seal so citizens knew the information came from an authoritative source. However, that wasn’t foolproof.
“You can have the seals, but people imitate them,” Weiss said. “There was a phony, phantom state police site on Facebook that nobody in state government knew about. By the time we figured it out, they already had a couple hundred friends on that site, and people thought it was real information from the state police.”
Weiss said orchestrating the state’s social network response to H1N1 was challenging. Michigan intends to improve the process with a newly created governance board for government.
“It has people from each agency,” Weiss said, “and they get together to talk about things like how many Twitter sites we should have. How many sites do we have? Should we have one from each campground or just one for the whole Department of Natural Resources? Who is going to monitor the content every day? Who is going to be the person who pulls stuff down when it’s
inappropriate, or when an employee puts something up there they shouldn’t?”
Public information professionals who are looking to formalize their social media policies may want to look at the policy California published on the Web in February 2010. The document puts stringent controls on who may post and requires that all communications are run through public information officers. Interestingly one of the people in state government who didn’t bother with this process was the official who helped start the government social media trend — Schwarzenegger. If you doubt that, ask Aaron McLear, his former press secretary.
“It doesn’t really work if you have people going through drafts and approval processes,” McLear said. “A lot of times I found out what he tweeted from reporters.
“I was trying to manage the news cycle for him on a daily basis, and sometimes the things he put out on Twitter weren’t necessarily in line with what the message of the day was, but that’s the beauty of it,” McLear said. “That’s why it’s so unencumbered. It’s just him putting out there what he wants to tell people.”
Schwarzenegger maintained his social media accounts as two-way communication, frequently answering questions from voters and sometimes low-level employees.
“There was a state worker who followed him on Twitter who said we had a bunch of cars sitting around that we weren’t using. The governor looked into it and said, ‘You’re right,’” McLear said. “We had a big garage sale, and got rid of cars and a bunch of other stuff we weren’t using.”