Government and Social Media

How Does Government Social Media Use Compare to that of the Private Sector?

I’ve noticed more parallels between the public and private sectors than I expected to when I first read the question.

As we know, both small businesses and those in the corporate world are embracing social media in order to achieve a number of goals and increase their competitive advantage. At the same time, MPs in New Zealand have been establishing a presence on Facebook for some years. The NZ Parliamentary Library (NZPL) has compared various parties’ and MPs’ friend and fan counts, which is mildly interesting – what is much more interesting is the NZPL’s noting that two of the five most-followed MPs on Facebook entered Parliament after the 2008 election. This is not long at all when you think that MPs like Winston Peters are still around. Could it be that younger MPs are looking to social media to help build a support base, or even (forgetting for a second that correlation does not imply causality) that a higher number of social media followers might be an indicator of electoral success? MPs probably are trying to gain support in the same way that companies look for new leads online, but I’m leaning towards ‘no’ on the latter. As the NZPL points out, a lot of people follow others on social media in order to observe them, not necessarily because they agree with them. It’s hard enough to predict based on voter polls!

I tend to equate this support-building action from the public sector with the marketing and branding goals that inform corporate social media use, although political parties are probably going to be more concerned with building support than a government department would be. The goals are roughly similar, but the similarity doesn’t end there. Both public and private sector actors have to negotiate a number of issues which stem from the ‘opening up’ to the public that social media allows. Both must manage potentially negative interactions with members of the public, and both need to be conscious of how the content on their public social media pages fits in with their overall strategies. It’s not particularly surprising that these parallels exist, given that commercial and political actors are both seeking to persuade the public; whether it’s money or votes, they’re trying to convince us that they are the ones who deserve it.

It could be that government departments use social media in a manner similar to individuals: reminding followers about important dates, transmitting updates on breaking news and providing links to useful documents. Please note that this is pure speculation, and I’m happy for people to point me to sources that say otherwise!

Not Just External

Once again, I’ve gotten sidetracked talking about everything being one big branding exercise that’s designed to manipulate us into helping the rich get richer, man… But I have to admit, to think like that is to ignore a lot of the knowledge sharing potential that social media holds.

When I worked at a nameless company several years ago, we got this kind of internal Facebook knockoff – and it was pretty crappy, to be honest. My friends on this thing were all higher up than me in the company, so I posted a couple of half-hearted ‘excited about the company’ statuses and never really bothered logging in again.



We also had a wiki, but nobody ever updated it because with the kind of work we were doing, nine times out of 10 it was quicker to check things on Google.

The problem was that both solutions actually made it more complicated to do what we needed to do – but in a government department or other specialised environment, having a detailed wiki that’s maintained by people who work in the same area makes a lot more sense to me. There’s a nice wiki introduction guide for government departments at (triggers a PDF download), where the authors identify challenges similar to those in Bertot et. al.’s article: inclusion, digital literacy and so on. They have some interesting strategies for boosting adoption, which my old company could have used: thanking contributors, having managers use the wiki, and encouraging reference groups to bring people on board are some of their suggestions. It’s in plain English and has a lot of case studies and examples: definitely worth a read.

I’m keen to hear other people’s experiences with social media in the workplace – whether that means running a corporate Twitter account or contributing to an internal wiki, what did you like and what would you change? No real names required!


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