Public Service Communication Series PART I: Social media for public service communication

CATEGORY: Communication | Digital Marketing | Online Reputation Management | ORM | Social Media | Strategy
Public Service Communication - ORM best practices for managers and agencies

“Be warned. Am I your father’s mate?”

When General Chris Olukolade, the former spokesperson of the Nigerian military, joined Twitter, the general consensus was that it was a great development. At the time, the country was going through the worst internal armed conflict since the civil war, with the military seemingly beaten on multiple fronts, and military ratings were at an all time low. Having the military spokesperson on social media to engage with active citizens on the ‘war effort’ seemed a good idea.

Perhaps a little more thought should have been given to the manner of welcome going on social media would attract. Shortly after joining twitter, the major general’s mentions were flooded – questions, comments and insults. All the pent up anger, some built up since the days of military rule, now had one single target – @GENOlukolade.

There was a welcome, but it’s highly doubtful that it was the welcome the Defense HQ media team expected. The general must have had it to the throat with Twitter insults when he eventually spilled one of the most famous lines ever ascribed to a Nigerian General: “Am I your father’s mate?” In the days that followed this incident, many ‘tweep’ with seeming opposition views were blocked from following or engaging with the general’s handle.

Olukolade Anakle Remember these words on marble?

It has been argued that the military spokesperson did a good thing by braving the storm and joining Twitter so Nigerians could get reliable updates of the Military’s activities, especially in regions where insurgency was rife, but this task was already being performed by two other military Twitter handles, @DefenceInfoNG and @HQNigerianArmy.

The DHQ and Army accounts are faceless, official, command a certain reverence only anonymity can confer. They also allow plausible deniability for military authorities. When something goes wrong, it is easier to blame ‘staffers’ behind a faceless, official handle, than deny for a personal account. General Olukolade’s tweets could be quoted as his personal opinion, but the DHQ’s could not.

The spokesperson of the military institution is not expected to be popular. They are not expected to be paragons of truth, yet they’re not expected to be liars either. They have a critical job description – information management. And in General Olukolade’s case, the DHQ and Army Twitter accounts were the perfect cover to say what needed to be said, and nothing more.

General Olukolade’s handle, which still identifies him as the “Nigerian Defence Spokesman”, has since stepped down on engagement, another trophy for the “children of anger”.

There is an explanation for the general’s experience on twitter, and why it was so easy for him to get riled. While the older generation of Nigerians seemed to take things more as they came – a legacy of military rule – the new generation of Nigerians are more inclined to questioning every move of the government.

This generation, fearless, and less aware of government’s history of civilian suppression, is more engaged, and actively follows government activities. Social media has made this very easy. News travels fast, and is coloured by influencer opinion, before the traditional sources of news are able to control narrative. This is why it may seem a good idea for public services/servants to adopt social media as a means of getting closer to the people, and more importantly, manage the narrative.

Is it really a good idea, though?

Yes. And No.

No because, stories similar to General Olukolade’s happen all the time. Public servants/services break all the rules of strategic communication and become objects of ridicule. Some of them lose credibility and goodwill because they said the right things at the wrong time, the wrong things at the right time, and generally become a ‘joke’.

But the question needs asking (again) – is it a good idea for public services/servants and government institutions to be on social media?

Yes! With good reason too.

With the increasing use of social media, government institutions, and public servants are increasingly looking to leverage online media to improve the quality of government services and enable greater citizen engagement. Being on social media also elevates public services, improves performance by providing constant feedback, and much more.

But joining social media is only a small step. Using social media for public service communication goes beyond a Twitter and Facebook accounts.

While brands have taken to social media to promote their products and improve customer experience, public services should also be on social media to provide authentic information, promote their services, improve efficiency, get feedback and ultimately ‘flourish’.

Getting social media right for public service communication:

Join: Well, you need to join first. What platforms are the people you’re targeting on?

Participate: Identify the issues that are of interest to your audience, and relevant to your mission or services.

Engage: Social Media is a two-way street. Communication must flow from one end to the other to keep it social. Send messages, and respond to feedback. It is important to be open to feedback.

Prioritize: Determine which social media interactions to respond to and the ones you should only take note of. It is also important to not only respond to praise – constructive response to criticism wins respect.

Integrate: Conversations should be consistent across media – discussing A on Facebook and B on Twitter may confuse your audiences. While both platforms have their peculiarities, followers cut across. Integrate social media channels and ensure communication is in sync.

In the concluding bit of this piece, we will discuss ORM best practices for managers and agencies.