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

All agencies are struggling to learn how to be relevant in the modern media world. Learning from the inevitable mistakes is critical if government is to be an authentic participant in a complex and disorganised world, writes Tom Burton.

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.

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  • Agree with your points Tom, however there are ways for government agencies to better manage the blazes they light on social channels.

    There’s still unfortunately a low level of understanding of the potential far reaching consequences of negative social media commentary, particularly at senior bureaucratic and political levels – which leads to a view that online discussions are just lights and noise.

    At more junior levels in government there’s still very uneven capabilities across government – with several agencies exemplars in their effective use of social channels to meet their organisational goals, many others ordinary or below average, and a few that still treat social media as a fad that will go away any day now.

    The issue is that unless, and until, agencies take social seriously, the resourcing, training, support and attention paid to the area will remain inadequate, exposing agencies to significant public and political risks that can damage their reputations for years, lead to lower public compliance or co-operation, derail government policies and even end careers.

    Until agencies internalise social as their primary engagement approach – internally and externally – they will continue to see ‘Border Force’ like events, and continue to damage the governments for which they work – directly breaking their obligations and making it harder to work with politicians as well as the public.