Social media is no longer optional but an essential tool that must be used by ‘communitarians’ offering value

Interest across the public sector in social media is growing exponentially. Organisations big and small, national and local, responsible for policy making and for delivery, are all seeking to understand what social media is and what it can do for them and their service users, stakeholders and influencers.

Many have already dipped their toe in the water but most are still hesitant, unsure how to go about developing and implementing an effective social media capability.

Ofcom research published in July shows that social media is here to stay, with significant and ever-increasing adoption. This is particularly so among 19-24 year olds - a notoriously difficult-to-reach group for many public sector organisations. 

According to Ofcom, social networking is used daily to communicate by about one third (32 per cent) of adults and is the biggest claimed increase in communication methods used in the past two years among 16-24 year olds (31 per cent net claimed increase).

Cogitamus was invited by the NHS Confederation to conduct a three-month study on current use and future trends in social media, including an online survey, plus in-depth interviews, with social media leads for 25 leading organisations. The results were striking. 

We found that to avoid falling behind, organisations have no time to lose. Almost all are actively reviewing their use of social media, often in conjunction with a review of overall communications strategy.

In particular, organisations need to move from what we call “broadcasters” to “communitarians”. Broadcasters see social media as simply another channel through which to continue traditional habits of speaking “at” people. For a broadcaster, social media is little more than a reformatted press release or traditional report to be consumed by passive recipients.

In contrast, a communitarian sees its role as engaging, listening, responding, and supporting communities of individuals, of which there are broadly two types: communities of practice and communities of interest.

The former equate to organisational structures or work area. The latter are more closely aligned with specific policy imperatives or professional disciplines.

Organisations should not try to create or invent communities of individuals. Communities exist out there already. The power of social media derives from its ability to tap into these communities and genuinely enhance their ability to communicate and collaborate. The move from broadcaster to communitarian is not simply “nice to have”. It is what is happening on the ground, being actively appreciated and pursued by existing and experienced social media practitioners.

We asked about 21 possible purposes for which organisations may use social media currently and in the future, grouped into three categories: broadcaster, listener and communitarian. At present, the majority are regularly using it for broadcasting activities (talking at people), only occasionally using it for listening activities and hardly ever for communitarian activities (engaging with people).

However, almost all say they are planning to adopt this full range of communitarian activities in the future.

We also found social media use is dominated by the “four musketeers” of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube. These four co-exist because they serve complementary purposes in different ways. Organisations need to appreciate the different purposes that each of them serves if they are to use them efficiently and most effectively;

Ninety-four per cent of respondents said their organisations used Twitter for corporate purposes, 67 per cent used YouTube and LinkedIn, and 61 per cent Facebook.

In addition, one strong theme which emerged during interviews was a recognition by practitioners of the significance of the cultural and organisational challenge in harnessing and using social media to greatest effect.

Crucially, to ensure it remains valuable and relevant, social media strategy must be closely and explicitly aligned with core aims and outcomes, embedded in key activities, adequately resourced and explicitly performance managed.

Our report includes useful tips for organisations interested in establishing social media, but unsure about how to do so. It also contains observations and real-life examples of good and poor practice.

To those about to set out on their own social media journey, we offer best wishes and good luck. Contact us with your own successes, lessons learned or questions.

Joe McCrea is director - health practice at Cogitamus, and former adviser to the 10 Downing Street Policy Unit.


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