1.1 There are many benefits to using social media. Alongside other communications it can help Government to communicate with citizens in the places they already are; to consult and engage; and be more transparent and accountable. The Government wants to be part of the conversation; understands that it cannot do everything alone or in isolation and will work with those who can and are willing to help.
2 Communicate with citizens in the places they already are
2.1 50% of the UK population are now using Facebook. A recent study showed that people interact with their favourite brands on Facebook more than any other social media network. Increasingly, government is finding that social media has real value when communicating with the public.
2.2 However, the use of social media is not simply a numbers game. The quality of interaction and audience demographics should influence your choice of social media channels. Know who is using different channels and what for and you will know how best to engage with your target audience.
2.3 Sticking to the channels the majority of your audience use will save time, resource and money. But you should also keep abreast of newly emerging channels and use them if you are specifically pointed at them or they contain useful information for key groups.
3 Use social media to consult and engage
3.1 Understanding the engagement cycle on social media (shown below) can help to unravel where online engagement can be useful in the policy cycle. This could include asking questions to crowd-source views, but also something as simple as raising awareness of roundtables and consultation events.
3.2 Use social media to have discussions with your service users or the people whose behaviour you want to change. Ask them to elaborate on the issue, and if you know something that could help, share it with them.
3.3 On the flipside, if you’re receiving praise for work done within your team, make sure you pass it on. Social media is one of the few ways you can directly and instantly receive feedback on your policies and decisions.
3.4 Sometimes just listening is as valuable as engaging. Set up quick, easy and free searches to tell you when someone mentions your policy or press release using tools such as Addictomatic or Netvibes.
3.5 Decide whether you want to engage or not based on if one, or both, of you will gain something from the exchange. You don’t have to respond to everything.
Increasing the impact of your communications
3.6 You will get far greater traction with your audience if you add a social media layer to your communications – whether in an emergency, for a one-off or more regular events.
@GAOTG (Get Ahead of the Games) has over 20,000 followers before the Olympics has started – that’s 20,000 people awaiting updates from a press team who know something the public need to know. If those 20,000 people feel the update is valuable to them, they will retweet it into the stream of all their followers and the garden fence/word of mouth effect amplifies your message massively. You have a huge potential audience.
3.7 Buzz generated around communications on Twitter can very quickly escalate. Stories and discussions start on Twitter but are quickly picked up, firstly by amateur bloggers, then by professional bloggers, then via news websites and often make it onto the front pages of newspapers 12-24 hours later. You have a real chance to either reinforce or prevent those front-page headlines with the effective use of social media.
4 Use social media to be more transparent and accountable
4.1 Explaining what we do, how we do it and why we do it is already embedded in government through Parliament, public information on government websites and other communications. Social media adds a further level of transparency and accountability to the public.
4.2 It allows citizens to input into decisions, to question them and for replies to be broadcast to many instead of 1-2-1. So government can hear direct from those affected by its decisions – the positive and negative – and explain and/or defend its decisions in response to questions or concerns.
5 Be part of the conversation and all the benefits that brings
5.1 Being present in the conversation means engaging and a core part of any good conversation is listening. There is more value to be gained from engaging in the social media conversation than not – whether you are aiming for cheaper, more personalised service delivery or behaviour change.
The Highway Code Twitter account has over 10,000 followers.
5.2 Communicating 1-to-many rather than repeatedly 1-to-1 directly, quickly and cheaply is one of the major opportunities that social media offers. If you are not aware of rumours circulating within a particular citizen group who use a government service regularly, you cannot address that rumour. But if you are you can get the facts out there quickly and easily.
5.3 Being present in the conversation also allows us to provide a catalyst for the creation of online communities. The community may not exist until a government department or agency creates it. But the community can then evolve with some initial nurturing into a place that is shared with those outside of government who are interested in what you are trying to deliver.
5.4 The community itself can become an authoritative voice providing advice to its members, but in a space that is monitored by government to ensure that the advice given is sensible, relevant and timely.
6 Understand that we cannot do everything alone or in isolation and will work with those who can and are willing to help
6.1 The government wants to play an active part in the social media conversation and all the benefits it brings. But that doesn’t mean we need to answer all the queries and questions directed to us via social media.
6.2 Government should not, for example, try to assist everyone who asks a question of us on a Twitter stream. In some cases it won’t be appropriate for reasons of impartiality or legality.
6.3 The services and information that government offers exists alongside a network of organisations, such as Not For Profits, Non Government Organisations and others. Many of whom have digital and social media presences that users can be redirected to for information and assistance.
7 Government expects civil servants to adhere to the Civil Service Code online as well as offline
7.1 All civil servants are bound by terms and conditions including the Civil Service Code. The Code sets out the core values – integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – and the standards of behaviour expected of us.
7.2 The principles covering the use of social media by civil servants in both an official and personal capacity are the same as those that apply for any other media. Social media is a public forum and the same considerations apply as would, say, to speaking in public or writing something for publication either officially or outside of work.
7.3 In social media the boundaries between professional and personal can sometimes become more blurred – so it’s important to be particularly careful. You are of course free to use social media in your own time but you need to be mindful of your duties not to disclose official information without authority, and not to take part in any political or public activity which compromises, or might be seen to compromise, your impartial service to the Government of the day or any future government.
7.4 Take care about commenting on government policies and practices, particularly those which your own Ministers are responsible for. Avoid commenting altogether on controversial issues affecting the responsibility of your own Ministers, and avoid personal attacks.
7.5 More details are in the Political Activities rules set out in your staff handbook and the Civil Service Management Code. You must comply with any restrictions that have been laid down.
7.6 Remember, once you have posted something on the internet it is very difficult to remove. Check the accuracy and sensitivity of what you are saying before you press ‘submit’. Use common sense and if you are unsure about a particular post don’t do it and seek advice from your line manager, departmental head of digital engagement or HR team.
8 Ten tips for using social media
- Have a clear idea of your objectives in using social media (behaviour change/service delivery/consultation/communication)
- Learn the rules of each social media space before engaging
- Abide by the Civil Service Code and ask for advice if you are not sure
- Remember an official account belongs to the Department not the individual
- Communicate where your citizens are
- Build relationships with your stakeholders on and offline – social media is just one of many communication channels
- Try not to channel shift citizens backwards (move from email to telephone for example)
- Do not open a channel of communication you cannot maintain
- Understand when a conversation should be taken offline
- Do not engage with users who are aggressive/abusive