July 24, 2008 by Colin
Let’s assume you work for a government body that is deeply involved in highly contentious issues – issues that are very interesting (and frustrating) to communities both online and offline. Let’s also assume that your organization has very little chance of changing the fundamental policies and procedures that frame these issues in the public’s eyes.
In other words, you’re largely a punching bag, buffeted by public opinion, proposals and criticism from activists and civil society groups, and general incredulity from the public. Is it worth developing a proactive social media program? It’s always worthwhile to put passive social media measures into place – extensive monitoring of the conversations and debates taking place online, the measurement of shifting opinion and perception among your various communities, perhaps some element of limited participation in comment fields and on discussion boards.
But is it worth the effort to launch a blog or similar long term initiative if your comment fields will get filled with criticism, claims that your social media work is simply parroting or reinforcing your traditional media work, or growing references to critical reports, video clips and commentary that undermines the very point you were trying to make (see this post from the Transportation Safety Administration blog post where they try to explain the relatively small numbers of people actually stopped by no-fly lists)?
What if your efforts to keep comment fields relevant and abuse-free means you effectively build in discontinuity into your so-called “conversation”? Take, for example, the purgatory established for non-serious comments on the UK Identity and Passport Service consultation blog, mylifemyid.org? Or the cutting criticism found at the foot of the launch posting for the same site?
What’s the real question when considering your options? Is your organization ready to take a beating in the name of consultation, openness and conversation? After all, if your daily business is to argue the benefits of an unpopular policy or program, do you have the tools, the staff or even the operational flexibility to reflect and absorb any of the criticism or constructive commentary you are sure to receive as part of a social media campaign?
Or should your approach to social media be more self serving? Forget all those promises of access, change, conversation, progress and participative government touted by aspirational and inspirational social media consultants – why not just create a blog and accompanying campaign as part of an effort to engage your critics on as many battlefields as possible?
After all, you can’t rebut the argument if you don’t even have a ticket to the debate.
In some cases, it may be useful for a government organization to create a blog and implement other social media tactics to argue their side – even if the readers and commenters will have no hope of effecting any change AT ALL.
The key, as always, is use the tool effectively and understand the terrain upon which you have chosen to engage your enemy. It’s go big or go home. It’s time to break out of your institutional language, your ingrained reticence to confront opposition and your dependence upon senior administrators to speak on behalf of the organization. That’s probably why the TSA blog recently called out all its lurkers – the large majority of the 4000 unique readers per week* that the TSA blog receives – to submit questions to be answered in coming weeks.
It’s almost the Rocky School of Social Media (trademark pending) – when faced with overwhelming odds, continue to engage your opponent, seek out their weak spots, and hope that the more supportive members of the general public help push you through to the end. Paint the benefits of your issue in the most positive light possible, and simply be seen engaging your detractors.
After all, if they’re going to criticize you anyway, why not draw them to a site where you control the colour scheme and the blogroll?
*there’s a metric for you – compare your uniques and comment traffic to that of the TSA blog, which is undoubtedly a lightning rod for criticism on public policy issues.
[tags] govt 2.0, egovernment, corporate blog, government blog [/tags]