By Suzannah.Brecknell

23 Jul 2013

Suzannah Brecknell hears Facebook’s policy chief Simon Milner discuss how government can use social media more effectively

If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world, with over 1bn users. It has 33m users in the UK alone – about half the population. Yet its attraction, for many public and private organisations, is not its ability to reach a mass audience, but the opportunities it creates to target relatively narrow interest groups – building a network for a particular community, and using people’s connections to spread messages among like-minded groups.

The work of government stretches from global concerns to highly localised and specific problems. So the flexibility of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter should make them very interesting to civil servants – whether to support a policy aim such as improving uptake of a particular service, or to communicate with specific stakeholder groups. But while lots of government departments have shown interest in working with and through Facebook, according to Simon Milner, director of policy for Facebook UK and Ireland, there have been “different levels of action” across government.

Milner singled out the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as doing “fantastic” work through its Facebook ‘page’: a public microsite which allows organisations or communities to share information and content, and allows Facebook users to point their contacts towards this material. The FCO posts articles by global political leaders on its page “to demonstrate [its] connectedness”, and also encourages other organisations and stakeholders to share FCO content: Milner pointed out that the US embassy in London has posted a speech by foreign secretary William Hague on its own page. All this, said Milner, “really creates that sense of the UK talking to the world”.

He also spoke about the power of social media to engage on a very local level – citing Staffordshire Police, which uses its Facebook page to disseminate news and support crime prevention campaigns. This is “engaging with the public in a direct way,” said Milner. “You don’t have to do it through the media.” This message may attract civil servants keen to share their policy messages without allowing national or local media to distort them.

Judging by the amount of people who attended Milner’s session, and the practical questions they asked, there is a real interest across government in making better use of these channels. Questions included how much resource should be allocated to managing a page – not much, said Milner: less than one full-time person – and how to measure success: it’s all about audience size and quality, he replied, though he acknowledged the argument that ultimately success will be determined by whether policy outcomes are achieved rather than by the audience reached.

The questions also reflected the challenges that are slowing departments down. One delegate, for example, asked Milner whether organisations can control the adverts which appear alongside their page. No, was the response, since Facebook adverts are targeted to individuals, not content. So the adverts I see when I look at the FCO page depend on my profile details and past behaviour on Facebook, and will be different to the ones you see.

Another delegate asked Milner whether there are challenges specific to government when it comes to using social media. “I honestly don’t think that your problems are any different from [those of] another big organisation,” he replied. “You want to have control of your brand.” Departments might be reluctant to create another channel for criticism of government, he continued, but “I’m afraid that’s the nature of the conversation: if as a government you don’t want to hear criticism, then you shouldn’t be in your jobs. You need to hear that feedback.” He did offer reassurance, however, noting that as a department builds up a community on social media “you get balance. The best counter to people criticising you is people saying: ‘Well, actually, I think they’re doing a good job’.”

For those ready to take the plunge into social media, Milner offered some general advice. Update your page regularly (at least twice a week), but not too regularly (don’t be “spammy”). Share only relevant, interesting content, ideally along with some sort of call to action. And don’t be too text-heavy: images work well, and getting the right ones – particularly for things like the main profile pictures – is important to creating a page which reflects your organisation or messages effectively.

For departments which remain cautious about engaging with social media, Milner had this warning: “The key thing is: if you’re not there, somebody else is – somebody else is connecting with people.” If government wants its messages to be heard, it needs “to be there; and to be part of the conversation”.

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