In the years since public agencies first went social, the way they operate online has made strides, from mid-2000s YouTube experiments to fully fledged social media programs that drive citizen engagement.
Social media use in the public sector has come a long way.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time government agencies started getting involved on social media. You could argue that the first avant-garde governments experimented with social media back in the late ’90s by blogging or the early 2000s in the heyday of virtual-reality worlds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notoriously kicked off its presence on the online game Second Life around 2006.
There was also some public-sector experimentation when YouTube launched in 2005 and Twitter in 2006. But in my mind, 2007 was the most notable year for government social media. That’s when Facebook launched its Pages product. This pivotal change let companies and brands create a presence beyond individual profiles, breaking free of the requirement that people submit a “friend request.”
Use of government social media became even more palatable for the public sector when the General Services Administration negotiated with several social platforms to provide federal government-friendly terms of service agreements. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers did the same for state and local agencies in 2011 and 2012.
Fast-forward to 2019, and you’ll find that most cities, counties and states maintain some type of social media presence. The government social media management profession is a skilled role gaining its footing.
There will always be agencies that struggle with the concept of establishing a robust social presence. In my experience, they’re either worried about opening themselves up to criticism or concerned about getting into sticky legal situations with confusion about public records or deleting comments, among other less-prominent reasons.
The early days of government social media practices were frequently marred with questions such as, “Should we or shouldn’t we engage on social media?” Current problems facing social media managers involve much more sophisticated and complex issues, like how to balance free speech and comment moderation, or how to reconcile fundamental differences between agency and platform policies.
Ahead of the fifth annual Government Social Media Conference this April, I’m reminded why an event supporting professionals who manage social media in the public sector matters. Probably the most notable and important success stories in government social media are in the areas of public safety and public health.
However, there’s still a misconception that social media management is an unskilled profession akin to something an intern can handle. This mindset does a severe disservice to public agencies. When I write an update to this article in a few years, my expectation is that this hurdle will be behind us. I look forward to the day where the answer to the question “What do you want to major in?” just might be “social media management with a focus on public sector.”
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