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Social media may seem like a fun platform for sharing birthday wishes and connecting with friends, but for the Australian Public Sector, social media presents a critical set of challenges that may often be seen as negating its vast potential.

By Shishir Rana & Dante St James

And while we might not see much personal impact from social media in our own lives, there are a few concerns that keep public sector agencies up at night. There’s a fine line between maintaining public trust and navigating online negativity, the ever-present risk of misinformation, and the complexities of ensuring responsible online conduct for staff.

In this report, we explore the challenges of social media for the public sector, along with the opportunities to face them.

In Short: The top concerns for public sector agencies when it comes to social media

  • Maintaining Public Trust and Avoiding Reputational Damage
  • Blurring the Lines Between Personal and Professional
  • Managing Online Trolls and Misinformation
  • Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • Keeping Up With the Ever-Evolving Landscape

Specific problems faced by the public sector when it comes to social media

There are five key areas the public sector in Australia is focusing on when it comes to moving forward in a world where social media is almost universal.

1. Maintaining Public Trust and Avoiding Reputational Damage
Balancing transparency with confidentiality

Public sector agencies must be transparent, but they are also responsible for protecting sensitive information. Striking this balance requires careful consideration and clear communication guidelines.
Social media use during elections: Public servants need to be particularly cautious about their online activity during election periods to avoid any perception of bias.
The impact of social media on whistle-blowing: Social media can be a powerful tool for whistleblowers, but it also raises concerns about anonymity and potential breaches of protocol.

Target Audience sketch

2. Blurring the Lines Between Personal and Professional

Managing personal attacks on colleagues or government officials: Social media can be a platform for personal attacks. Agencies need clear protocols for how staff should respond to such situations.

Disclosing conflicts of interest: Public servants with personal connections to organisations or issues relevant to their work should disclose these connections to their agencies. Both the media and the public can be unforgiving of anything that could be seen as contributing to either corruption or bias.

The use of social media for personal branding: While some public servants may wish to build a personal brand online, their agency may not be so enthusiastic about it. Depending on how high-up their role is, there could be concerns that their personal brand overshadows or conflicts with their government role. Yet at the same time, agencies shouldn’t simply blanket-ban social media activity from their staff as this is both a free speech and human rights violation.

3. Managing Online Trolls, Misinformation & Disinformation

Identifying and responding to misinformation & disinformation campaigns: Public sector agencies need to be able to identify campaigns that spread false information and develop strategies to counter them effectively. And in the last decade, social media has become the primary source of these types of campaigns.

The mental health impact of online negativity: Frontline staff responsible for managing social media accounts can be exposed to significant negativity. Agencies should provide support mechanisms to address potential mental health issues.

The role of social media listening tools: These tools can help agencies identify emerging trends, track sentiment, and respond to issues before they escalate. Products such as Meltwater, Brandwatch, Mentionlytics, Digimind and Mention are made for this purpose.

4. Legal and Ethical Considerations

Data privacy concerns: Social media platforms collect a vast amount of data. Public sector agencies must be aware of their obligations regarding data privacy and ensure they collect and use data responsibly. On top of this, government agencies are constantly targeted by bad actors seeking to gain access to official social media accounts of governments and agencies. So security processes have to remain tight.

Copyright infringement: Sharing copyrighted material online without permission can have legal consequences, even for government agencies and their staff. Agencies need to be vigilant about copyright issues and provide clear guidance to staff.

The potential for online harassment: Public servants can be targets of online harassment. Clear reporting procedures and support mechanisms should be in place to address these issues when they come up.

5. Keeping Up With the Ever-Evolving Landscape

The rise of new social media platforms: New platforms emerge constantly. Public sector agencies that are adaptable and willing to explore new avenues for communication will benefit the most from these new destinations. Agencies such as the Australian Government’s Human Services agency were early adopters of Facebook as a feedback and question engine. With Bluesky, Threads, TikTok and Mastodon starting to get momentum in Australia, agencies are well-placed to begin exploring the opportunities on these new platforms, instead of the usual “it’s too hard” reaction that is typical of highly regulated and bureaucratic organisations.

The impact of artificial intelligence on social media: AI-powered chatbots and social media management tools are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Public sector agencies are already beginning to consider how they can leverage these tools effectively. Many private sector firms have already moved up to 70% of the traffic in their call centres to interactive chatbots on websites, social media and on phones. And so far, the response from the public has been positive since wait times for those issues that cannot be solved by AI have decreased significantly.

The ethical implications of social media algorithms: Social media algorithms can create echo chambers and filter out opposing viewpoints. Public sector agencies must recognise these biases and strive to provide balanced and accurate information. Understanding that whatever appears to be popular on X today isn’t necessary a reason for panic, is a skill held by an experienced social media manager.

Strategies for the public sector to move forward confidently with social media.

While the social media landscape presents challenges, it offers immense potential for Australian public sector agencies. Here are some key strategies, with additional details, to navigate the online world with confidence:

Develop Clear and Comprehensive Social Media Policies:

These policies should address acceptable online conduct for staff and outline protocols for managing online negativity.

Consider including guidelines for using humour, sarcasm, and emojis in official communications to avoid misinterpretations.

Clearly define the process for reporting and addressing online harassment or abuse directed at staff members.

Target Audience sketch

Therefore, The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) provides guidance on developing social media policies for agencies. This includes the need to strike a fair and reasonable balance between preserving the integrity of the public sector and preserving employees’ right to engage online.

Monitor and Analyse Your Social Media Presence:

  • Track key metrics such as reach, engagement (likes, comments, and shares), and website traffic from social media posts.
  • Use social media analytics tools to gain deeper insights into audience demographics, interests, and content preferences.
  • Regularly review and analyse your social media performance to identify areas for improvement and adapt your strategies accordingly.

One specific case study from the public sector highlights how agencies can effectively engage employees on social media, including the use of analytics to gain insights into audience demographics and content preferences.

The study emphasises the importance of monitoring and analysing social media performance to identify areas for improvement.

Embrace Transparency and Open Communication:

  • Use social media to foster a two-way dialogue with the public.
  • Host live Q&A sessions with relevant officials on pressing issues.
  • Encourage citizens to share their feedback and suggestions through comments and direct messages.
  • Be responsive to comments and questions in a timely and professional manner.
  • Provide clear and accurate information, addressing public concerns directly and transparently.

A research paper on “Social Media for Government Services” examines case studies of how the Australian Government Department of Human Services has used social media to foster two-way dialogue with the public, respond to comments and questions, and provide clear and accurate information on Facebook.

Leverage the Power of Visual Content:

In most cases, visual content for the public sector follows the same design language as those from the private sector. So it’s unsurprising that many of the same guidelines apply.

  • People are more likely to engage with visually appealing content.
  • Use high-quality images, infographics, and short videos to capture attention and effectively communicate messages.
  • Explore live streaming capabilities to connect with audiences in real-time and provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse into agency operations.

The “State of Social Media in the Public Sector – Australia” report identifies successful government agencies, such as the Sydney Opera House, New South Wales Police, and Queensland Police, that have effectively used visual content like images and videos to engage their audiences on social media.

Partner with Influencers and Community Leaders:

Collaborate with trusted influencers and community leaders to amplify your message and reach a wider audience.
Partner with local organisations to co-host social media campaigns or events.

A case study from Swinburne University of Technology explores best practices in Australian government social media, including examples of agencies collaborating with influencers and community leaders to amplify their messages and reach a wider audience

Thus, by implementing these comprehensive strategies, Australian public sector agencies can leverage the power of social media to:

  • Enhance communication and engagement with citizens.
  • Build trust and transparency with the public.
  • Deliver essential information and services more effectively.
  • Foster a sense of community and collaboration.
  • Improve public perception and brand image.

Remember, the social media landscape is built on frequently shifting sands. Australian public sector agencies that stay informed, adapt their strategies, and embrace ongoing learning will be best positioned to harness social media’s full potential for positive public engagement.

Shishir Rana is a researcher, writer and content creator for Clickstarter.

Dante St James is the principal and lead trainer for Clickstarter and regularly delivers social media training for government agencies in Queensland, Northern Territory and via the Public Sector Network (PSN.) – Follow on LinkedIn