If you were to take a few minutes to think about where social media is in the public sector is right now, what would you say?
What would your first reaction be as a communicator be? Excitement at the possibility ahead of you? Or weariness at the reality you’ve been faced with? Maybe anger at your council who won’t reply to messages online?
That’s the broad question I’ve been reflecting on this week prompted by Glasgow City Council’s Vicky Kerr in her session for the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group.
As someone who has worked in the field, I’m not entirely sure that I like the answer that presents itself.
In short, public sector social media has evolved at times from being an exciting innovative field to at times being a leaking sewage pipe on the cramped wall of a North Sea submarine. It pumps effluent into the room and doesn’t appear to help.
It’s the place where people complain, shout and abuse people, isn’t it?
Yet, it needn’t always be so.
The days of militant optimism
In 2008, when I first got involved with public social media it was a time of excitement at the possibility. I worked under the radar to develop new ideas inspired by people like Sarah in Derbyshire,. Carl in Devon and Al in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. We connected through Twitter and we shared ideas and encouragement. We were a growing band. A force for good.
Ohio State Professor Everitt Rogers in 1962 mapped the innovation adoption curve. It applies in so many places and its language has entered the dictionary. The first 2.5 per cent are the innovators who would take the risks and work out how things could work. Early adopters came next, the academic said. Theis group makes up 13.5 per cent but are quick to see the possibility. Then come the early and then late majority then the laggards.
In 2013, I wrote and researched a whitepaper called West by West Midlands where we looked at social media innovation across the wider West Midlands. You can still find it online here. It’s an optimistic work. It brought together innovators and early adopters like fellow Kate Bentham in Shrophsire, Geoff Coleman in Birmingham and Pete Jackson at the IEWM. We all subscribed to the movement of militant optimism that we would do good things despite everything. It was better back then to seek forgiveness if things went wrong rather than permission.
Reading it now it feels lille a bulletin from another era. But I’m also reminded of a line from Dave Briggs who did some really important early work in the field back then. “It’s when these channels get boring,” he said, “is when it gets most interesting.”
He was right. The novelty of using live streaming or ebooks takes you so far. The real value is when people get used to it.
The days of change
All this brings me to today.
I’ve a feeling people at the coal face feel that social media is an extra burden. It’s a must have rather than a nice to have but too often its a source of annoyance and inconvenience. People are fed-up at the algorithm switches. Just put it on Facebook, people are told. Then we can tick the box and move on.
Then there’s Twitter which many think is locked in irreversible decline the plaything of a billionaire who keeps making wilfully bad decisions.
The tone has changed on social media. Maybe it was the pandemic or perhaps the signs were there before. Global trends have certainly shifted away from the open town square to safer spaces.
The militant optimist still sees how social media can be a powerful way to reach people. More than 80 per cent of UK people have at least one profile. Half of time spent on the UK’s largest channel Facebook is spent watching video. The average TikTok user spends 29 minutes a day scrolling and watching. The user data has never been better.
Yet, all this blizzard of data and numbers can be blinding.
Academics speak of the sensation of ‘heart sinkage’ amongst junior doctors when they are faced with family who expect miracles when the loved one is ill. That’s a sensation familiar, I’m sure to the comms person who posts the update and is greeted within a bin query.
In the pandemic, public sector social communications helped the Government and NHS keep people safe, got them jabbed and through the worst of it. Social media played such an important role in this. Some content was good and some was bad. On balance it worked.
That’s important to remember.