According to data from the Sprout Social Index, 12.8% of people consider government content on social media to be the most annoying form of content online. However, social media has had an enormous impact on the accessibility of politicians, civic officials, and even entire government agencies. With constituents and stakeholders able to reply directly to the content an agency posts, they can ask questions and receive insight in real time. This shift not only allows government officials to respond to the people they serve and to their needs; it also enables officials to have a direct relationship with them.
CONTAINING THE SPREAD
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a significant amount of uncertainty across almost every aspect of the public sector, especially communications. With public information officials being required to report regular updates to an anxious public, it’s more important than ever to communicate information efficiently and address any concerns the public may have in order to prevent the propagation of misinformation.
National public agencies like the Center for Disease Control (CDC) release daily updates on COVID-19 case statistics, research, vaccine progress as well as other pressing public health issues. Even though these major accounts are less likely to respond to direct replies as they have a large following online, social media allows them to distribute their essential information to the public and to local government agencies.
For example, the Orange County Health Care Agency releases daily updates on COVID-19 case rates for all cities within the county, the county as a whole, and case numbers nationwide. By utilizing other public agency social media sources along with their own data, local governments can keep their constituents informed in a faster, more public manner instead of waiting for more pressing updates to be published in a physical newspaper.
HOW DO YOU MAKE SURE YOU’RE USING SOCIAL MEDIA EFFECTIVELY DURING THESE TIMES?
Since so many people are glued to their screens at home awaiting updates, any misleading messages can cause an unwarranted panic. The public is looking to the government for both direction and guidance on how to cope. Agencies, therefore, need to deliver their messages in a clear, calm, and professional manner.
It’s also an ideal time for public agencies to discuss mental health. With increased uncertainty, loneliness in isolation, personal and professional stress, many people have been struggling. According to the CDC, 40% of people have reported increased mental health concerns amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to talk about mental health and encourage others to look out for themselves. For example, LA County’s Department of Mental Health used their platform this summer to inform the public of coping techniques for stress. A simple graphic like this tells the audience how they can take care of themselves at home. It also validates their emotions and reassures them that their struggles are shared by many.
While graphics effectively convey important information, video is another excellent medium for capturing the public’s attention. LA County utilized social media to release an informative video to encourage its residents to wear masks amidst a COVID-19 case surge. This type of video message checks all of the appropriate boxes when delivering a message to a COVID-anxious audience. No flashy music, no excess punctuation, just a clear and concise message to inform the public on how they can keep each other safe.
AN INFORMED AUDIENCE IS A HAPPY AUDIENCE
Aside from case numbers and positivity rates, there are a lot of different aspects that the public sector has had to cover: from school reopenings to dining restrictions. While some of these topics may best seem suited to long-form television or newspaper journalism, social media posts can spread the message more widely and efficiently.
This basic principle isn’t limited to just pandemic-related news. For instance, information about a freeway closure needs to reach people even if they don’t watch or listen to that day’s traffic report. Government agencies such as Caltrans commonly report major accidents, construction, and freeway closures to keep their citizens informed.
Obviously, not everything covered online has to be informative and on the more serious side. Celebrating holidays, milestones specific to the specific audience, or uplifting news can give your audience something to look forward to that is not the usual news. The official Orange County government account shared a fun, viral video of two men handing out free face masks in Huntington Beach during a COVID surge.
This video is entertaining and appropriate for the audience, and it gives the audience a break when scrolling online. Even though government accounts should remain informative and keep news content as a cornerstone, a “fluff” piece every once in a while can give the audience a much-needed break.
The most important aspect of a public agency’s online presence is building trust with its audience. Social media fits into this endeavor by providing more transparency at a time when public confidence in the government is unfortunately declining. According to a survey conducted by Open the Government, more than half of voters want to see more government transparency.
Many local governments are stepping up to meet this challenge. For example, Anaheim City Council meetings are typically open for the public to attend, but with COVID restrictions in place, the meetings couldn’t be attended in person. City officials allowed residents to be a part of the city council meetings by making them available online. Like in a business, the ability to remain authentic and honest with your audience is crucial to building a good relationship.
Whether it is a local public agency, such as a city’s official social media page, or a national agency, such as the Food and Drug Administration, the audience follows the account to stay informed on that specific sector of information. Keeping the information relevant and concise – and occasionally allowing space for fun – allows your audience to stay informed on everything important that could affect them, as well as the good things happening around them.
Sarah Kacmarsky contributed to this post.