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05 August 2013

The Relevance of Social Networks to Public Sector Agencies

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The emergence of social networks has radically changed communication paradigms. The public is no longer a mere recipient of messages. It can now take an active role in debating the same. Just as this paradigm alters how media and businesses communicate, public sector agencies need to keep up.

In Spain the public sector is still largely absent from social media. With a few notable exceptions (such as the police’s Twitter account), most state bodies are taking their first steps in the world of social networks. They need to recognize the public’s demands and requirements and each public sector body must identify the correct channels for their messages, which social networks they need to be positioned in (and which they should not), which messages are received best, which attract the most citizen participation, etc. In short, public agencies need to shape the best possible communication strategy for effective use of social networks.

The presence of public sector agencies on social channels can be interpreted from two perspectives: first, public agencies are improving their messages and making them more accessible to the public; two, the public can now communicate and interact with state, regional and local bodies.

Why is it important for public agencies to be on social media?

Let’s look at some of the benefits that social networks offer the public and the public sector, based on those two perspectives:

  1. Transparency → all the latest news, laws, actions, reports, information, etc. can be made public, showing how public agencies use their resources. This provides the public with constant, accessible and ongoing information. Communication generates credibility and gives agencies a more modern image.
  2. Public conversation and participation→ citizens are able to pose questions, submit suggestions or debate matters dealt with by public bodies. They can also offer public sector agencies an insight into whether their initiatives have been a success, whether there were any unexpected results or whether they meet public expectations.
  3. Partnership between public agencies → one of the current system’s weak points is represented by overlapping tasks and duties, and an absence of collaboration between the different agencies. Social networks can be used to centralize, share and support cooperation between the local, regional and state bodies.
  4. Segmentation → messages can be aimed at different segments of the public, adjusting for content, age groups, regional origin, etc. For example, there is no question you are more likely to engage with a younger public via social networks.
  5. Virality → providing the public with information using new communications channels allows them to share said information with their contacts, thus helping to spread the message. Public bodies must strive to ensure that their messages reach the largest possible audience.

We could list more benefits that new communications channels offer public sector agencies, but we must also emphasize the importance of establishing a good communications plan before attempting to communicate via social networks. It is not mere child’s play. These communications channels have their own characteristics, tempo and progression. Many public agencies are reluctant to use these new tools, either due to unfamiliarity, a fear of new technology or because they are unaware of their relevance in the current information society.

Finally, the goals of public agencies on social networks can be summarized in three aspects:

  •  Connecting with the public
  • Understanding their needs and demands
  • Verifying whether actions are coherent with public requirements

What is your opinion on the current presence of public sector agencies on social networks? Are their messages effective? Do you follow any public sector agency? Tell us about your experiences!

María L. Núñez

Journalist, Madrid (Spain)

More publications about María L. Núñez

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