The recent Network of Public Sector Communicators conference showcased several great case studies of social media use from what I would call “digital engagement entrepreneurs” in New Zealand’s public sector.
The step change from last year’s conference was obvious. Last year there was a lot of interest in digital engagement but few local real world examples. A year on several agencies have taken their first steps with social media and are rapidly gaining experience in what works and what doesn’t in the New Zealand context.
But I’ve been worried by an ongoing theme that these first steps had to be taken “under the radar” - without telling, or asking approval, from senior leaders.
Don’t misunderstand me. I admire these early adopters’ entrepreneurial spirit, spotting opportunities, pursuing them and, ultimately, succeeding. That should be celebrated. What worries me is that they had to go it alone without their organisation’s senior leadership behind them from the outset.
We should be able to expect senior leaders today to understand the importance of social media to their organisation’s engagement with the public. Social media should be able to be used “above the radar” with senior leaders actively supporting, if not driving, their organisations efforts to use it. That clearly isn’t happening.
Of course, leaders can’t be experts in everything and we shouldn’t expect them to be. They don’t need to be social media experts themselves - although beautiful things can happen when they are - but they should understand the value of new business tools like social media and trust expert advice on how their organisation should be using them.
In wrapping up the conference, head of the government communications function, Michael Player, noted that social media is now part of the modern communications professional’s toolkit and that there are clear practical uses for it in the public sector. (Even if how, and to what extent, it is used will vary from agency to agency.)
Michael also noted in his written report to the conference that chief executives “have made it clear that they are having difficulty seeing where social media fits in with their agencies’ communications”.
There is clearly a gap between the profession’s growing understanding of digital engagement and its role in delivering public services today and that of public sector leaders.
This gap must be bridged or public sector use of social media risks becoming haphazard and limited to isolated pockets of activity. Ultimately, the public sector risks being seen by the public as increasingly out of touch, inaccessible and irrelevant.
Work is underway on a guidance document for chief executives which hopefully will go some way to bridging this gap.
However, we should also be asking whether we - as a profession and as trusted advisors in our organisations - can also do more to help bridge the gap?
Do we have a clear enough understanding ourselves of how we could or should be using social media? Are we confidently and clearly articulating that to senior leaders? If not, how can we do that better?
Posted by Tomas Kriha on Tuesday 27th Sep 2011