Social media is changing the way government communicates with its citizens. A 2011 study by the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania found that 90 percent of cities and counties had established a presence on social networking channels such as Twitter and Facebook. In the intervening years, there has been a steady stream of reports about others working to close the gap.

Cities and counties have used social media to broaden transparency, increase citizen engagement and feedback, and improve public perception of what government does. As important as transparency and perception are, these somewhat intangible benefits are sometimes not enough to justify the investment to pursue anything more than a placeholder in social media.

The ability to save lives changes everything, including thinking about the return on investment for social media in government. There have been three headline-grabbing examples in the last year.

During Hurricane Sandy, a determined social media manager effectively transformed the New York Fire Department’s Twitter account -- @FDNY – from a source of safety tips to a hub for coordinating emergency response when phone lines were down and people couldn’t get through to 911 or 311.  It also helped squash rumors circulating after the storm.

Twitter also quickly became the most effective channel for the Boston Police Department to get the word out when terror struck the Boston Marathon last May. Fueled by national media coverage, the follower count for the @bostonpolice Twitter account surged from an already impressive 50,000 to an extraordinary 300,000, serving as became a beacon of clarity 140 characters at a time in a noisy and error-dilled chacophony. As with Sandy, @bostonpolice was used to dispell false rumors in the hours after the bombing.  It was also used to help ensure officer safety as out-of-town news crews descended on Boston, and announce important developments. In fact, the first official announcement that suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been captured was delivered as -- you guessed it -- a tweet.

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Every town experiences its share of emergency situations, whether it's a natural disaster or a crime that shakes the community. It is clear from the recent New York and Boston examples that in these types of situations, social media provides government with an incredibly powerful channel to squash rumors, disseminate official information and align community interests.

A social networking presence, however, is only effective as its reach. A city or police Twitter account created as a placeholder is just that: a placeholder. It is not at all equipped to create the type of immediate response we saw in Boston. It is also unlikely that a dormant presence can be kickstarted quickly enough at the time of need. Most situations simply do not receive the type of attention and media coverage that gave the @bostonpolice Twitter account such an enormous boost. The reality is, when the situation arises, we must rely on the network and following we’ve already established across our social networking channels.

That’s the urgency in rethinking government’s approach to social media. There is a hard ROI to be realized when communities are in crisis. The same is true for social media’s role in the early identification of public health concerns or even the mundane but important work of keeping traffic flowing after accidents and road closures.

The time and effort put into promoting your social networking presence -- and building a truly engaged audience -- is not just for fun and games. Nor does it always have to drive business metrics such as page views or building awareness, or even participation in government programs. Rather, public officials must come to think of building out a social network as a down payment on establishing the most rapid, viral and open communications link you can possibly create with your citizens. The type of communications link that can save lives -- and it has.  Your network keeps you safe and makes you strong ... if you have one.

To be clear, the investment required to build a social media following is non-trivial:

  • Staff must be trained on how to properly utilize new forms of media;
  • Once established, social network profiles need to stay active with fresh, relevant content; and
  • Agencies need to recognize that social practices and preferred networks are constantly evolving.

Moreover, there needs to be oversight to ensure consistent and appropriate messaging, especially as staff members outside of your traditional communications team speak on behalf of their agencies. And, of course, attention must be paid to legal policies and requirements such as employee conduct rules and record retention.

Creating an active social media presence is a significant undertaking for government but, given the changing nature of emergency management and crime response, the investment in social can serve the larger public policy priorities of public safety and emergency preparedness. It’s not simply about likes and followers. It’s about being able to communicate with your citizens in the most effective way possible in a time of need. It’s about the potential to save lives.

Anil Chawla is an experienced technologist and entrepreneur, with a proven track record of working with businesses to address challenges related to social media. He has over a decade of experience creating software products, and has focused the last four years developing social media technology. Mr. Chawla is the CEO of ArchiveSocial, which he founded to help government organizations navigate the important legal and regulatory challenges they face related to social media management.