Explaining social media to senior managers

ByMichele Ide-Smith

Explaining social media to senior managers

This week I had the opportunity to present to senior managers in my organisation (a local authority) to explain what social media is, how it is affecting us and why we need to develop a social media strategy. The key message of the presentation was:

“People are having conversations about us online, but we are not part of those conversations.”

For me this was a great opportunity to get buy-in from the very top of the organisation to the development of a social media strategy. We already have a project underway to develop a social media framework (strategy, policy, guidelines and tools) which has arisen as a result of demand from services and growing awareness of the usage of social media tools by citizens.

My presentation included a definition of social media and some statistics about social media growth and usage, to show it is not just a fad. I pulled together statistics from Mashable, E-consultancy and Socialnomics.

To demonstrate the popularity of social media, as compared to traditional printed media, I included a pie chart similar to this one:

Media comparison

The chart compares the readership of our main local newspaper (sourced from JICREG), registered users of a popular local discussion forum (sourced from the site’s own published statistics) and people with a Facebook account within 25 miles of two major local towns. This is clearly not an exact science, as I have no idea how many registered site users are actively reading or contributing. The Facebook statistics were identified by creating an advert on Facebook (but not actually putting it live) as explained by Carl Haggerty.

I defined the type of conversations that were going on as broadly related to:

  • Service delivery – queries, comments, feedback, complaints
  • Policy and decisions – discussion about consultations, petitions, campaign groups
  • Local issues – discussion about local concerns such as crime or disorder

The presentation then included various screenshots of different ‘conversations’ about the Council from local online communities and forums, social networking sites like Facebook and niche online communities like Mumsnet. I also introduced some of MySociety’s e-democracy tools like Fix My Street, What Do They Know and Number 10 Petitions and some creative examples of user generated content about Council services on Google Maps and Wikipedia.

I anticipated some of the questions I might be asked, so pre-prepared a ‘crib sheet’ of questions and answers. I did quite a bit of research beforehand and pilfered plenty of useful tips from Social by Social (check out my recent review). The section I found most useful was the initial chapter and a link to a collection of tips on selling social media to your organisation. I also had some helpful tips from my Twitter friends.

Inevitably there were some unexpected questions from the floor, which I have also included below. Please feel free to re-use any of this if it’s useful.

Why should we be bothered?

  • People are having conversations about us online, but we are not part of those conversations.
  • There is a proliferation of free, or low cost, tools that enable people to publish information rapidly, to a wide audience.
  • Although only a small proportion of people online actively contribute, a large number observe online conversations and are influenced by what they read.
  • Usage of social media is growing exponentially and will continue to do so.

How do we control what people say? How we will govern social media?

  • We cannot control what people say. Social media is democratic – it empowers people to say what they want, where, how and when they want.
  • If we ignore conversations we may be risking more than if we get involved.
  • Social media will require a new way of thinking and new ways of working.
  • We can use social media to help empower communities and build social capital.
  • Service delivery is no longer about doing things to people, it’s about helping people to do things and help themselves.

What if people criticise us, or behave in a way they wouldn’t offline?

  • People are already criticising our services and we are ignoring their comments.
  • There are many case studies showing that concerns about people behaving badly online are often not substantiated.
  • We need to choose our channels carefully. People behave differently on different channels.
  • If we host the channel or site, we can moderate offensive comments.

When and how should we get involved?

  • Engagement will be very dependent on context and what our goals are.
  • For some services social media will become a central part of their communications activities.
  • Services working directly with neighbourhoods or communities cannot afford to be left out of conversations about local issues.
  • We can tap into a wealth of valuable customer feedback.
  • We need to start small and share our experiences internally and with colleagues in other authorities.

How are we going to resource this?

  • Firstly we need to listen to what is being said about our services online using automated media monitoring tools, to search for keywords. Some of these tools are free e.g. Google Alerts.
  • We should always have a business case and evaluate outcomes, so we can measure the success of engagement and the return on investment (ROI). For example services could reach a wide audience more cheaply and quickly than with print communications. We can consult via social media and receive valuable feedback which will help inform service design. If we target our engagement activity, we can reach the right people in the right contexts.

How will we cope with the volume of service requests which might be generated via social media in the current financial situation?

  • We are already receiving a larger volume of requests because of easy to use e-democracy tools.
  • We need to transform services to be more efficient. If more customers can help themselves using online self-service, officer time can be redirected to deal with frontline services and vulnerable groups.

Is it safe? What about vulnerable groups (e.g. children, young people, vulnerable adults)?

  • When we talk about social media, remember that it doesn’t have to be a public social networking site. It could be a site we own and manage.
  • The NHS is already active in using social media to engage patients. Some successful healthcare initiatives are: Patient Opinion (where people share stories of NHS care); NHS Unlocked (which has groups for different conditions and hospital ratings); Patients Know Best (a secure initiative for patients and healthcare staff to communicate and share information, enabling patients to take control of their healthcare); Patients Like Me (discussions about diseases and symptoms).

Will some people be digitally excluded?

  • Use of social media is growing fast, but as a communications technology it is still not accessible to many people as more mainstream technologies such as mobile phones. However, for some people writing letters, speaking English and having a fixed address are exclusions to engaging with the Council.
  • We need to be able to reach people via the media that suit them.

Will it cost the earth to train and develop our staff? How do we manage the culture change?

  • Many of our staff members already use these tools in their personal lives.
  • The best way to learn is to try things out.
  • By introducing an internal business social networking tool we could develop staff skills whilst at the same time improving efficiency, collaboration, joined up working and sharing of best practise.
  • The IDeA Communities of Practise (CoP) for local government already has 30,000 members and over 800 separate online communities.

How does online activity transfer to offline?

  • Existing offline groups use online spaces to coordinate activities.
  • People with shared interests or circumstances who would not have otherwise had the opportunity to meet (e.g. because they are time poor, or socially/geographically isolated) can come together online. Often the online communication transfers to face to face meetings.

How do we ensure our staff all speak with the same corporate voice?

  • By providing guidance and policies and nurturing digital mentors, we can support staff to use these tools consistently, effectively and safely.

In case you were wondering, the presentation was well received, despite the fact I revealed some uncomfortable truths about the shift in emphasis from broadcast to user generated media, and potential impact on local government. The big question was “how exactly do we get involved?”. I’ll be working on this thorny issue with colleagues over the next few months, so will keep you updated.

This content is published under the Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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25 Comments so far

nickbPosted on5:32 pm - Oct 10, 2009

social media plays a very important role in business today.

It is a very important tool, and needs to be utilized by every business today.

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on5:56 pm - Oct 10, 2009

I agree Nick. Local government has a slightly different set of challenges to business, but not entirely dissimilar. We can certainly learn a lot from the commercial world.

Russell TannerPosted on6:35 pm - Oct 10, 2009

Great post Michele – answers a lot of the questions senior managers in many types of organisation have.

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on6:37 pm - Oct 10, 2009

Thanks Russell. As I mentioned in the post, the key is going to be figuring out how and when to get involved!

CllrMikeObrienPosted on7:17 pm - Oct 10, 2009

Excellent paper, just trying out and building up social networking at present, I think that it is the way forward for social media.

Found/interesting: 11 OctoberPosted on10:58 am - Oct 11, 2009

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Michele Ide-SmithPosted on11:07 am - Oct 11, 2009

I have to stress that many of the phrases used in this post were re-mixed from Social by Social http://www.socialbysocial.com/

Andy GibsonPosted on5:01 pm - Oct 11, 2009

“People are having conversations about us online, but we are not part of those conversations.” Very nicely put, Michele – you should write a book! 🙂 It’s tempting to see all these new tools as creating something new, dangerous and uncontrollable. But, in fact, they simply make the informal networks and conversations that have always been there visible, and therefore possible to engage with. It’s an opportunity to be part of things that we previously didn’t know were even there.

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on5:19 pm - Oct 11, 2009

Thanks Andy! I can relate this to my personal experience…

Recently I had a debate with a sceptic in my organisation about social media. Her feeling was that online conversations were like what would have happened outside school gates, or in pubs, so why should we bother listening or joining in now? I pointed out that the conversations were previously verbal and (to an extent) private, but are now published and in the public domain for others to see. Some online conversations, when they gather momentum, become directed at an organisation as a form of activism. If a conversation leads to a campaign group then you really do want to know about it.

A good example of this is a Facebook group I found, which was campaigning to save a local bus service that the Council wanted to stop. The Council was aware of growing support for the campaign offline, but were not aware of the Facebook group which was helping to mobilise the campaign. The bus route was saved, so the online group most likely had an impact. If the Council had known about the Facebook group it probably would not have changed the outcome, but it might have better informed our discussions with the community which was affected by the proposed closure of the bus service (improving our community relations and customer service).

Wonder DogPosted on7:07 pm - Oct 11, 2009

Another excellent post Michelle! Thank You.
I work for the youth service of a local authority, we are constantly struggling against Corporate ICT or (‘the corporate entity’ as the firewall manager likes to call it,) to use and enable social media tools. Have you seen Us now? http://www.usnowfilm.com/ An excellent look at the shift of publishing/communication power! Good Luck!

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on8:10 pm - Oct 11, 2009

Thanks for the link – I haven’t watched Us Now but had heard of it and have been meaning to watch it on for ages. Just watched the first two parts on YouTube and plan to watch the rest later!

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Matthew DoddPosted on8:35 am - Oct 14, 2009

Incredibly useful, but I would also add to the arguements that most organisations are already using a huge social media tool – e-mail! The down side to e-mail is that the conversations tend to be more private and rely on an exisiting network of contacts.

I too have been doing a “sales” job on this and found that using an offline example really helps. An authority I worked for had a project to engage with young people in areas with a high rate of anti-social behaviour. What did they do? – They sent youth workers out into the area and had conversations on the street corners with young people. Social media to me is the online equivilent of a street corner, so we need to engage there in order to influence the conversations.

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Tim LloydPosted on8:25 am - Oct 15, 2009

Great post, and very assuring.
I am involved with a similar process at the moment. I have found it very helpful to draw comparisons with mainstream media, and make it clear that social media complements, not replaces, newspapers, TV etc.
There seems to be an underlying fear that somehow what ‘we’ are presenting is a threat to senior manager’s comfort zone and the media that they have worked with a great number of years.

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Cameron MoonPosted on3:10 pm - Nov 18, 2009

I am a bit concerned by you comments on digital exclusion.

As a developer for a local authority our priority is to use technologies which are inclusive and accessible. I am unsure how you can justify the use of such technologies in an inaccessible format if they are the responsibility of a local authority.

Clarification would be appreciated.

Michele Ide-SmithPosted on11:02 pm - Nov 18, 2009

The thing about social media is that people use it to talk about your organisation, whether you choose to use it or not. The point of my presentation to Senior Managers was to make them aware of how social media could affect us and the risks of not taking any action (even if all we do is listen to what is being said about us). With relatively little effort we could monitor what people are saying about us and our services and learn from that. Social media also provides some great opportunities to engage with our citizens, which would help us achieve objectives of our community engagement strategy.

All that said, you are right that accessibility of social media is a problem. Sites like Facebook and YouTube are not accessible. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires public service providers to make “reasonable adjustments” for people with disabilities. An interpretation of the law could mean ensuring you don’t rely on just one inaccessible channel to provide information or services. This is not ideal and seems to contradict the emphasis in recent years on making public sector services accessible (and effort expended by development and content teams trying to make their web sites accessible). I am certainly not one to dismiss the importance of ensuring your web sites and services are accessible. I have been interested in accessibility since 2001 – at that time I worked in a digital agency and met with a fair bit of resistance from colleagues, who couldn’t understand why it would be beneficial to advise clients about web accessibility. Social media is evolving though. There are some alternatives, e.g. Easy YouTube is an accessible version of YouTube’s service.

I won’t go into lots of detail here as Jack Pickard wrote an excellent post on this subject. Nomensa have also written some useful information on the subject. I suggest you read both as a starter.

SOCIAL MEDIA: Your EIGHT step guide to getting started… « The Dan Slee BlogPosted on11:15 pm - Jan 26, 2010

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john culkinPosted on11:51 am - Feb 18, 2010

Great post. I’ve had to do something similar recently (wish i’d found this sooner…) but the one thing I’ve found it hard to demonstrate is the idea, as you say, that “although only a small proportion of people online actively contribute, a large number observe online conversations and are influenced by what they read.”

This for me is key. You might have only 50-100 regular posters to your site – not an indication of great success by any means, especially for a public sector audience with a large target audience. It would be easier to justify using social media if you could quantify how much the readers who don;t contribute have been influenced, but this is very hard to do. If anyone has a solution, I’m all ears..!

Emma SalvesonPosted on10:56 am - May 14, 2010

Hi Michele, really interesting article. Wondered whether you would mind if I linked to it in the Recommends section of our website? If you could let me know that would be great.

Thanks, Emma

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