Alex Aiken: More social, less media

One of Lambeth Council's press officers has recently caused a PR storm with an ill judged tweet about Streatham, apparently calling for the High Street to be subject to 'napalm'.

Alex Aiken: Central government is trying to catch up with social media
Alex Aiken: Central government is trying to catch up with social media

Surely an example of careless tweets costs reputation. How timely then that the government has released new 'Social Media Guidance for Civil Servants'.

This makes two central arguments. That social media is an important part of the new reformed civil service and second that it is cheap and effective when government is focused on austerity and cutting other PR spending.

But while both arguments are true, there is a hole in the case that the Cabinet Office is making. Social media cannot be cost effective unless investment is made in the channels, staff are given licence to engage and the results are evaluated. The guidance is silent on investment and evaluation and limiting on staff engagement with these channels.

Councils have come a long way and learnt much in developing their social media strategies, and with the release of this latest set of guidelines it appears central government is now attempting to catch up.

The Cabinet Office could have culled advice from Preston Council’s guide on the subject or looked at Coventry Council’s impressive Facebook page or the successful tweetathon’s run by Walsall and Greater Manchester Police.

In the guidelines, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude says social media must be used responsibly and only when it enhances the core work of civil servants. Head of the Civil Service, Bob Kerslake, adds that participating in social media is a good way to learn how a modern workforce engages and communicates. It’s clear from these two heavyweight introductions that the subject is important to government, but they come across as quite censorious.

On the positive side, the guidance tells us to use social media to be more transparent and accountable and to be part of the conversation. It also tells civil servants to have a clear idea of our objectives in using social media and not to engage with users who are being aggressive or abusive.

 But the main problem with these 18 pages of guidelines is that they seem to suggest that social media is a new and cheap social broadcast tool rather than looking at how we can use it to engage properly with audiences.

The paper says that social media enables government to communicate 'quickly and cheaply' and then implies this is a one way process, arguing 'that doesn’t mean we need to answer all the questions directed to us'. Civil servants need to think more creatively about how this can be achieved and properly engage, answering questions, consulting and explaining.

 The emphasis on social media as a cheap communications tool shows that the paper has been written through the prism of the new and austere plans for government communications.

 Sadly the paper throws up more problems than solutions in looking at digital communications in the round. In looking at the risks and costs associated with internet use it warns, for example, that it could lead to employees 'wasting time'.

But risks such as these can be put down to bad management rather than being the fault of social media. Hence the sensible policy of the Metropolitan Police Service which says: 'use of the internet is permitted up to the point where it impacts on an individual’s ability to deliver their directed tasks'. 

Governments across the world are still finding their way in the effective use of social media. But in the UK we need to liberate rather than censor civil servants to fully harness the potential of this new media. It is telling that the guidelines highlight 35 ‘risks’ and only 32 ‘benefits’ for improving the governments web presence.

These latest guidelines are only part of the solution, and hopefully the next version will be shorter, sharper and better in empowering government to communicate with the people it serves.

Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council.

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