It has incredible power to involve people in conversations and generate action, which we have seen in recent days ranging from organising riots to rounding-up hundreds of residents with brooms and marigold gloves to clean up the mess.
But social media is still a channel. What it is able to do better than any other channel, however, is allow for unmediated and direct communications between people.
It connects like-minded people which can lead to powerful outcomes.
There have been scores of examples of public services harnessing the power of social media to interact with their communities in an effort to calm the situation, but more importantly to provide timely and regular updates on a fast moving situation.
However, many local public services still fail to grasp the importance of opening up their organisations to its full use.
Furthermore, public service comms teams didn’t do enough to tap into the community goodwill that was growing in opposition to the looters.
For example, local public service comms teams could have tapped into ‘OperationCupofTea’, which is an ‘anti-riot’ campaign launched on Twitter and Facebook and now has some 300,000 fans. In addition, ‘fans’ are encouraged to donate money and all proceeds are given to those communities affected by the riots.
Comms teams could have backed these types of grass-roots campaigns to build momentum and connect with the community. This type of communications is about helping to harness citizen goodwill and fostering positive public sentiment.
Instead many local public service comms teams were focused on broadcasting their messages rather than listening to conversations online and participating in them. They continued the traditional model through modern means.
While traditional broadcast has its place, the new challenge is to invest in new resources to leverage the conversations their citizens are engaged in. This level of interaction strengthens relationships and builds community goodwill.
In order to achieve this communications need to be devolved across the organisation down to the front line.
Staff at all levels need to be advocates for the organisation, but to do that they need to be empowered with the tools and trusted to get on with it.
The communications role should be the guardians of the brand and reputation – curators of content and architects of message – the real communicators are the organisation’s staff.
This approach enables the organisation to connect with its public in a more meaningful way and gives the organisation greater credibility.
It also enables the organisation to become agile with its communications because staff will have the information to provide instantly without having to go through a bureaucratic process to convey what is often a simple message.
The best example is Sussex Police who encourage their staff to tweet on the street as and when things happen.
This level of eyewitness account from a police officer provides instance reassurance and credibility to the public.
For example, earlier this year a Sussex police officer on the ground was able to quash a rumour of police officers using tasers against students during the demonstrations against cuts to tuition fees within five minutes of it being posted on twitter.
Sussex Police should be commended for their exemplary efforts in using social media to convey important information to the public – but most importantly for allowing their staff to have conversations with citizens.
Their recent effort to reassure the public during the riots was first-class communications.
What Sussex Police did was place policing at the heart of their communities and gave the organisation a ‘human face’.
More people tuned into Sussex Police than the local media for their information about the riots.
Sussex Police did everything right to promote their reputation as working effectively to keep an anxious public informed of the situation.
This should be a lesson to all public services at a time when the sector badly needs to restore its reputation.
John Shewell is the head of communications at Brighton & Hove City Council