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Staying Agile in the Changing World of Government Social Media

At the 2024 Government Social Media Conference, officials shared their insight on how to operate in the changing landscape of social media. They also discussed what to expect as AI comes onto the scene.

Illustration features people putting social media icons on a large, 3D browser
As the social media landscape evolves, so must the strategies of government officials who use these channels to communicate with constituents, a group of experts said last week.

Government social media can be a great tool for communication. But, said several panelists at the 2024 Government Social Media (GSM) Conference, it is one that is quickly evolving, from the fall of Twitter through the rise of artificial intelligence.

Social media is a powerful communication tool for governments to reach constituents, King County, Wash.’s Digital Engagement Manager Warren Kagarise said during a session April 16. As he explained, social media is valuable not just for communicating with the public — but for the public to communicate with governments. And compared to traditional forms of collecting public feedback, social media is much more cost-effective.

Kagarise cited research that found half of U.S. adults now use social media to receive their news. With this understanding, he underlined the value of social media as a communication channel, especially for smaller agencies that do work which may not be covered by other news sources.

He explained that existing public comment policies can inform an agency's social media strategy development; and social media teams can help build buy-in among leaders by showing how social media work can align with the agency’s mission, vision and values.

However, as Iowa Department of Natural Resources Social Media Specialist Jessie Brown detailed in a separate session April 16, social media is rapidly changing; and with it, so must an agency’s strategy to reach its audience. This rapid rate of change has reshaped Brown’s strategy. She stated that she no longer maintains quantitative goals, such as obtaining a specific number of followers each year, because she doesn’t know which platforms will come and go with time.

For example, when Elon Musk purchased Twitter, changes in verified accounts caused problems for government agencies on the platform. In the wake of these changes, some governments began to ask whether the platform was still useful for them; hundreds of government agencies have since moved to rival platforms like Threads and Bluesky. And as new platforms keep emerging, Brown recommended not taking on more than one can handle by trying to adopt every possible platform.

Because platforms come and go, meeting the quantitative goals may be beyond social media professionals’ control; instead, Brown recommends focusing on qualitative goals, like doing things that serve the agency and the target audience.

Brown argued that, for those who have worked in the public-sector social media space for a while, content creation today is not the same as it was 10 years ago: “We have to evolve with social.”

While changing platforms is something many government officials who work with social media have likely already experienced, the newest change in social media is the emergence of AI.

“This really isn’t the first time that we’ve seen a new technology change the government space or the social space,” said Ariana Donley, GSM social media manager during one session.

During that session, GSM founder Kristy Dalton explained that there are similarities in government's adoption of social media and that of AI, in terms of the adoption curve; some agencies adopted and experimented with the tools earlier, while others took a more cautious approach. A primary difference, she said, is that with social media, people could not see transformational opportunities for process improvement in the same way many now do with AI.

However, she also argued that at this point, AI is still in early phases of adoption: “My sense is that we’re still at the very beginning.”

At the Central Utah Water Conservancy District, Zack Seipert serves as the marketing and communications specialist. He argued in his session that AI can be a productivity partner for governments when it comes to social media.

“Adoption is very early, but it’s accelerating,” he said Thursday, arguing that those who have not yet adopted it are not behind the curve. But by learning about this tool and how to use it, government employees can become leaders in this space.

In his own social media work, Seipert has used AI in areas including image creation. He highlighted potential AI use cases for government social media, from content creation, to research, to mimicking an organization's brand voice, to creating a social media strategy. He touched on many available AI tools, noting that the data on which tools are most commonly used is rapidly changing. Seipert said he doesn’t expect that trend to change, but he hopes that as people learn about AI, they will find creative uses: “If you think it's moving fast, it's only going to get faster.”

One other noteworthy change in public-sector social media is the focus on diversity, equity and inclusion — an area that is growing in the digital government space.

As Jeff Selby, interim director and communications manager at the Portland, Ore., Office of Equity and Human Rights, said in a session Wednesday, inclusive communication is an important piece of government work. Assessing where implicit or explicit bias might exist, and how that bias may come through in government communications, helps governments take steps to ensure they are equitably reaching constituents.

“We work for the government; we have a responsibility to make sure, especially as communicators, that we're reaching everybody in our community,” Selby said.

To do so, he recommended taking a data-driven approach to understanding audience makeup and measuring the reach of social media communications. He also recommended using plain language, captioning videos and continually self-educating on changing best practices for inclusive language. Greater accessibility benefits everyone; he cited research findings that reveal 80 percent of people who use captions when watching videos do not have any hearing impairments.

As the social media landscape changes, continual learning is imperative. But the need to self-educate is a shared one, Selby said: “We are all learning.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.