Does social media represent an opportunity or threat for local government?
Social media has changed the way in which we work, socialise and communicate, but the level of its impact and implications for public relations practitioners is the subject of much debate.
Academics such as Gregory, Phillips and Young argue it has revolutionised the role and work of the PR professional while others, including the godfather of PR James Grunig, suggest this 'latest fad' will only revolutionise public relations if a paradigm shift in the thinking of many practitioners and scholars takes place. My study involving 78 local authorities in England investigated the impact social media has had on local government communications in recent years and whether this will continue in the future.
Just another channel?
I wanted to understand whether social media is simply another channel to communicate and engage with residents, or does it have deeper, more far reaching implications for the way local authorities interact withour stakeholders?
Should social media should be given more focus than traditional media channels, what are the limitations or potential dangers to reputations through misuse and what are the implications for those who do not embrace it? Also with local government bearing the brunt of the biggest post-war reductions in public spending, can already stretched communications departments find the time and resources to invest in this emergingchannel or could social media provide a better, more cost-effective way of utilising (two-way) communications with our stakeholders? My findings showed social media is alive and well.
An overwhelming majority of local authorities, 96 per cent, currently use social media and of the small minority who do not, 100 per cent plan to do so within the next year. In the majority of cases, 88 per cent,social media was managed by the communications departments; however, in around a third of local authorities it is managed across the organisation. When asked how authorities use social media, the most popular activities were posting news stories and information (96 per cent) and promoting specific events and campaigns (90 per cent). Interestingly, while 41 per cent of authorities monitored forums and blogs, only 28 per cent actively engaged in them.
Over two-thirds of authorities claim to use social media for both one-way and two-way communications while one quarter admit to using it for just one-way communication. Worryingly, just nine per cent of authorities said they used social media solely for twoway communications, which shows there is room for improvement if we truly want to engage with our residents rather than inform.
Around two-thirds of authorities have a social media policy; however around a third of authorities do not have one in place. This is despite advice from LG Communications, the Department for Communities and Local Government and others that having clear policies and procedures in place can help mitigate the risk of reputational damage through misuse. My study reinforces the growing emergence of social media as a credible communications channel within local government and reflects the changing nature of the way PR practitioners are using this tool to reach out to an evolving audience. As society changes the way it consumes information practitioners need to adapt the way messages and information are sent and received.
While respondents are quick to profess the virtues of social media, when asked whether it would ever replace traditional communications channels, 86 per cent said no. They argue good communication is about utilising an array of different channels and social media should be used to complement rather than compete with traditional channels.
Mutually beneficial conversations
As social media begins to mature, and the initial hype surrounding it subsides, it is clear that it should be regarded as a credible communications channel which complements the other more traditional methods available to PR practitioners.
Used appropriately to a targeted audience with clear messages as part of a planned, strategic campaign social media can be a very powerful, cost-effectivecommunications channel for reaching and engaging with stakeholders.
My research shows that social media works best if supported by traditional media channels creating mutually beneficial conversations which provide an emotional connection, and the return on investment will only be fulfilled if social media is incorporated into the communications mix.
Local government PR practitioners need to set aside their fears and embrace social media - experiment with it, make mistakes, learn and improve. Only then can they fully capitalise on the potential opportunities social media provides to create two-way mutually beneficial conversations.
Social media is not a fad, it is here to stay and the only threat is to those who do not adapt.