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Tom Burton: know your social media risk and learn to love the noise

I recall in a previous government life authorising the republishing of a tweet of someone who had tweeted that Alan Jones’ 2GB audience were “a bunch of douche bags”.

Jones was in regulatory hot water over some provocative statement and my young social media producer — far more sensible than me —  asked my advice if it should be included in a Storify compilation showing the range of opinions about the issue. I went to the source of all wisdom, the Urban Dictionary, and convinced myself the term was often used as slang for know-it-alls, and that it was OK to be included as part of the suite of different views on the topic.

2GB’s regulatory affairs people didn’t share my same sense of humour and the predictable lawyers’ letters followed.

Managing public affairs these days is a fraught business. On any day there is some organisation trying to recover from a so called gaffe — be it Woolworths and its ‘Fresh in our Memories Anzac Day’ promotion, or just last week, the Australian Defence Force anti-ISIS Twitter account getting a hard lesson on what is on and off the record.

Which is why I have some sympathy for the Australian Border Force’s media team, who are now bearing the brunt of the political firestorm of their ill-advised media release about Melbourne’s Operation Fortitude.

In the digital world everyone has a megaphone (AKA smartphone). At time when this newly empowered citizenry is literally flipping government on its head, public agencies are desperately trying to learn how to effectively engage in a meaningful and timely manner. As anyone who has been involved in any media knows, it is a wild ride out here.

Witness the reactions to Joe Hockey’s completely harmless republican friendship group. Public agencies (and corporates) are literally learning on the job how to be effective and relevant in this world. As part of its push into the digital world, the UK government has retrained almost all its communications people to operate in the world of digital media — a very different space to the sleepy hollow of public affairs that till very recently was characterised by endless media releases, which more times than not journalists filed in the trash can. Expect to see the new Digital Transformation Office follow suit.

This new world demands agencies be authentic, timely and useful. But while the mantra is to be agile, iterate and fail fast, the vast amount of public sector communications professionals in government find themselves fighting through administrative treacle that would send any normal person spare.

The actual sentence which caused the ruction was this:

“‘ABF officers will be positioned at various locations around the CBD speaking with any individual we cross paths with,’ Mr Smith said.”

It was the sixth par of an eight-par release and on any given day could have easily slipped past without notice. A lesson for everyone — politicians, brand experts, communicators, marketers and reporters — is that context is everything.

By my observation, Melbourne is easily the most politically and socially aware city in the country; witness the almost daily stream of protests. Victoria recently had a public sector week, a five-day, highly intelligent discussion about public administration. In Sydney you would struggle to have a public sector breakfast. Throw in a  well-organised community sector, an often vitriolic response to anything coming out of the security apparatus of government, and the highly contentious debate around border security, and you have the makings of a perfect media storm.

The debate about how countries think about sovereignty and security — in a increasingly globalised world — is challenging everyone, and to date there is no real consensus about the appropriate model. The issues are heartfelt and emotional for many and fuelled by charges of racism and human rights atrocities. The new Australian Border Force is at the epicentre of this very challenging issue.

Manageable social media risk

Experienced social media practitioners are fond of saying that if the content is fire, then social media is gasoline. And my observation is you will get burnt. It is inevitable. Does that mean public agencies should withdraw from the heat? Emphatically no. In the digital world your learn from doing, and the dirty little secret is that government through its overwhelming resources, authority and intelligence can very effectively play in the modern communications world.

Yes, it is noisy, but the reality is the vast majority of the debate and discussion that happens, day-in and day-out, is quite reasonable and balanced and exactly where government needs to participate. Vacate the field and important issues are left to the digitally savvy chattering classes to drive (it would be hypocritical to claim not to be part of that group).

The difficulty all Western governments are having, to win the confidence of their constituents, suggests this is not just an Australian issue. Governments everywhere are struggling to come to terms with this paradigm shift in power to citizens. In the mean time we have to find ways to manage overstatement and ill-decision. Blaming an APS Level 6 media officer in the Department of Immigration and Boarder Protection is probably not the way.

Author Bio

Tom Burton

Tom Burton is publisher of The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He has served in various public administration roles, specialising in the media and communications sector. He was a Walkley Award-winning journalist and executive editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He worked as Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review and as managing editor of smh.com.au. He most recently worked at the Australian Communications and Media Authority.