Who could have guessed 20 years ago that in 2010 the Russian president would create a Twitter profile that offered updates about the government and attracted hundreds of millions of followers? Fast forward a year later and governments around the world are realizing that social media helps to humanize governments and boost public support.
While few governments of any size are truly embracing all that social media has to offer, there are some strokes of brilliance that show what governments can do with social media, particularly with Twitter and Facebook.
This article focuses on three broad ways that governments use Twitter and Facebook to spread messages, connect with citizens, and make a difference in their countries, towns, and regions. Of course, governments still have a long way to go, but these examples show that they’re on the right track.
Embassies and consulates are quickly jumping on the social media bandwagon having finally realized how effective it is to engage with local citizens. For example, the Israeli Consulate in New York City has 15,000 Twitter followers, the President of Rwanda is active on Twitter (with over 40,000 followers) where he tries to speak honestly about the issues of his country, and the U.S. Consulate in Lahore, Pakistan even held a Facebook contest where winners received iPods.
However, when it comes to using social media for diplomacy, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia stands out from the crowd as the one to benchmark. The Embassy has nearly 500,000 followers on its Facebook Page, but that number didn’t happen by accident or overnight. A full-time employee leads the embassy’s Facebook effort, and that employee works locally out of the Embassy office in Indonesia.
There are several reasons why the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta Facebook Page is an example of a brilliant way that governments use Facebook:
- Producing content for the audience: The Embassy focuses on understanding its audience at a local level and creates content that its audience wants and needs. The Embassy understands that the majority of its Facebook Page followers are young, and they don’t respond well to serious messaging. Instead, the content found on the Page is meant to be primarily interesting and entertaining while effectively communicating more about the American way of life and values.
- Speaking in the audience’s language: The vast majority of the content published on the Embassy’s Facebook Page is in the Indonesian native language.
- Paying attention to what the audience responds to: The Embassy pays very close attention to how the audience engages with the content published on its Facebook Page. Content that doesn’t drive comments is considered to be ineffective.
- Making it fun: The Embassy uses contests and promotions to generate additional interest and excitement from the audience. For example, a Facebook and Twitter contest awarded winners with tickets to a public speech President Obama delivered in Indonesia. Not only did the contest drive excitement but it also increased the Embassy’s Facebook Page and Twitter Profile followers significantly.
- Committing to Facebook: The Embassy has demonstrated that it’s fully committed to its Facebook Page by giving a full-time employee the responsibility for maintaining the Page, keeping it active, and engaging with followers.
2. Emergency Response and Preparedness
In 2009, the U.S. State Department contacted Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and told him that a scheduled maintenance, which would make Twitter inaccessible for a short time, had to be postponed. At the time, there was an uprising in Iran following a questionable Presidential election, and people within Iran and around the world were relying on Twitter to communicate.
Despite the fact that the system upgrade was long overdue, Stone and his team followed the State Department’s request and Twitter stayed online. This marked the first time a global event, the government, the people, and Twitter came together in a time of crisis, but it would not be the last.
More and more, federal agencies are using social media to connect with the public. Hurricane Irene has been referred to as the turning point where Twitter and Facebook became vital communication tools before, during, and after national emergencies. During Hurricane Irene, more than 3,000 tweets were published per second.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) leveraged Twitter and Facebook in brilliant ways during Hurricane Irene. The agency published information about the storm’s path on Twitter and Facebook, and it used Twitter hashtags to make sure updates were easy to find. It has been estimated that 250 government agencies were actively using Twitter to send information to the public during Hurricane Irene.
State and local governments are also turning to Twitter and Facebook for crisis management. Many first-responder agencies now share information in real-time to help citizens during a crisis.
In fact, countries around the world are leveraging the reach of Twitter and Facebook during emergencies. For example, Israel held a press conference on Twitter about the situation in Gaza, and embassies in the United States and the United Kingdom used Facebook to provide evacuation instructions to people in Tripoli during the revolution in Libya.
With Twitter and Facebook, governments are realizing that they can leverage the power of the crowd to collect real-time feedback and to create and spread messages. In other words, citizens are given another way to participate in government through Twitter and Facebook.
For example, the South African government invited people to join a debate about values and ethics, which took place on The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa Facebook Page. Another example comes from President Obama who has held multiple social-media based town hall meetings to connect with citizens.
At the same time, citizens are providing content to governments through Twitter and Facebook, particularly on the state and local levels. For example, the city of San Francisco, California operates a service called the 311 Customer Service Center, which answers calls from citizens reporting problems, asking questions, and so on. In 2009, the city launched its 311-Twitter service and has reportedly answered over 7 million calls and thousands of requests through Twitter since that debut.
By leveraging Twitter, citizen requests are answered in a public forum. This brings transparency to government from the citizens’ perspective while streamlining processes and lowering costs for the city of San Francisco. It’s just one more example of brilliant ways that governments are using Twitter and Facebook.
Know any other great examples of governments effectively using Twitter and Facebook? Let us know in the comments below.
Susan Gunelius: Susan Gunelius is a 20-year marketing veteran and President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She has authored nine books about social media, content marketing, branding, copywriting, and blogging, and she is a marketing columnist for Forbes.com and Entrepreneur.com. Susan speaks about marketing, branding, and social media at events around the world and is often interviewed about marketing topics by television, online, print, and radio media organizations.