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« learning, learning, always learning | Main | how to improve public sector social media impact »

is comms getting too obsessed with social media?

by Dan Slee

Golden bullets are great: shiny and powerful, they make you feel like you're bang in the middle of a James Bond film. The downside is, like 007 himself, they don't really exist no matter how much you really want them to.

So, here's a bit of digital iconoclasm. I don't think social media is a golden bullet. Not only that but pretending it is doesn't help anyone, least of all those pressing for change.

Social media is an increasingly powerful channel. Right now, not everyone is at home using it. People since the 1870s have had to get used to the telephone and we're still not really there. For me, there's a middle ground that involves talking to newspapers, using the web, using social media more, and even print when necessary.

Should we be obsessed by social media? Right now, we need to be sensibly obsessed. Think of how much time and effort local government up and down the UK spends servicing newspapers. Even with plummeting sales the local paper front page still commands attention.

Where I work in Walsall, in 2005 there were more than 20 people involved in the print media and four newspapers based in the town. Now, after rounds of cuts, there are no journalists based in the town and the number working to put the local news together has more than halved. That's a seismic shift, but one we need to communicate internally every day.

Plymouth-based GOSS has carried out a public sector social media survey. It found that only 63% said their organisation were using it, and just 60% had a policy on its use. Meanwhile, 67% said their own lack of skills was a worry to them, and a 46% pointed to restrictive IT regimes as a major barrier to using social media.

Worryingly, less than half of the public sector employers asked were using social media to gather feedback.

Last year, former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell spoke of how engaging with radio, TV and print does not guarantee airtime. "There's no such thing as dominating the news agenda anymore," he said. "The agenda is more chaotic but that's a good thing."

We need to recallibrate how we do things. For now, we need to be good at the old things while making ourselves busy doing more to learn the new ways of working. We need to obsess at how to create a range of good content across a range of platforms, not just be obsessed about social media.

Dan Slee is senior press officer at Walsall Council.

First published The Guardian 

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Reader Comments (4)

Dan, with respect, I think you could be muddling some issues up. The needs of comms teams and the press are one thing, and your frame of reference is clearly local government. The needs of "public sector employers" (if any such generalisation has meaning) to gather feedback is quite another. Of course GOSS were going to present a poor picture. They exist to sell the public sector golden bullets, don't they?

Yes, the newsprint media is dying, but news-gathering isn't. Every day, I see my local news people tweeting requests for input, reaction and stories. I'd call that evolution or adaptation, not obsession.

100% social media use isn't the target. Even if it were, it would be a pipedream. As you allude, we've never got there with the 'phone, nor e-mail, nor..... This is the second piece I've read recently that seeks to make its point by suggesting people are "obsessing" about social media. Are they? Those who are working on widening its commonsense use more often say that it's people NOT taking it seriously enough that is a hurdle.

The bigger issues are about what social media does to organisations, and the struggles many will face to adapt to these things. In many parts of the public sector (in its widest sense - not just local government) openness, transparency, public accountability are just not part of the DNA. Thus, social media become threats and challenges, no-go areas, to be regulated or suppressed within. In my view, it will quickly become as laughable for an organisation not to have a social media presence as it has already become for them not to have a phone number, e-mail address or web page. That'll happen without any "obsessions". It's called reacting to demand. That's an evolutionary process. The same process under which dinosaurs died off, of course.

May 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Phillips

Hey Tom.

Thanks for reading and commenting.

The blog is from the perspective of comms teams, so no muddle. But you are right to say that local government - like al organisations - needs to use social media for better listening. That's a wider point not touched on.

You're quite wrong to say the post argues that comms people are 'obsessing' about social media. That's plain not what it says. It simply asks the question and makes the point that if comms people are they need to remember that it's one of several channels open to them. I'd be making that point just as robustly if someone was only thinking press release too.

There's absolutely no question that social media is important and will grow in importance. The trick today is to re-callibrate and to move time and resources from old media gradually to the new. That's something we all face.

May 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Slee

Dan, I'm not sure where I said I thought the post related to any obsessions comms people specifically have about social media? I just said "people", in keeping with the general approach you'd taken - even if, as you say, your piece was written from a comms team point of view.

I know comms teams who do obsess about it. Usually they obsess about how to control it. But equally, I know comms teams who don't.

Your final para is, however, very comms team specific, and I think the issue is worth widening out. Transition from one method to another may be a particular point comms people will be grappling with. Elsewhere, social media gives opportunities to do entirely new things, not just re-bottle old wine.

May 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Phillips

IMHO it's not about the tools it's about the culture. Social media haven't just changed our organisation because we use them in isolation, they've changed our organisation because through them, we're beginning to understand the expectations of the people we serve. We're moving from being at the top looking down, to being on the ground, in the mix and part of the conversation. The rapid adoption of social media by the general public is a clarion call for organisations to adapt, evolve and innovate.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJon King

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