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This article is part of a Special Section on Web 2.0 and Social Media that ran in the Summer issue of PA TIMES. See the end of this article for links to others from the Special Section.
If Facebook were a country, it would be the third largest in the world. Palm-sized phones can now do more than room-sized computers could three decades ago. Knowledge–all types–can be retrieved from the comfort of one’s home at the stroke of a few keys. And the power to reach millions has slipped from the hands of a few media companies into those of the masses, faceless and nameless but becoming just as powerful.
These are the challenges, and opportunities, public administrators face. On one hand, the power to communicate with the public is at everyone’s disposal, not just the media’s. This “new” media, also appropriately referred to as social media, presents unprecedented opportunities to instantly reach constituencies at practically no cost. On the other, the state of journalism is in disarray. The line between citizen and professional journalist is quickly dissipating—and the public does not always know the difference. Bloggers and Twitterers are slowly replacing professional journalists in town hall meetings, budget workshops and planning sessions, and their writings, perhaps unsophisticated or inaccurate, are gaining large followings.
The power to do good, however, far outweighs the concerns that come with new media, especially for public administrations. Now more than ever, governments should embrace the media, new and conventional, and adopt an aggressive communications policy that leaves no stone unturned in its dealings with the fourth estate. Doing so will improve not only the relationship governments have with their constituencies, but also the quality of public service that administrators seek to achieve.
A progressive media policy sends a clear message that a government is transparent, accessible and responsive. Public administrators must understand that our society is a demanding, fast moving one that hungers for immediate and accurate information. Conventional media understands this, too. They understand that their readers, viewers and listeners are more hooked to their computers than their newspapers, televisions or radio stations. And that these constituencies want quick answers–a demand that the media will then project onto governments.
It is in fact a vicious food chain of information. The public sits on top, hungry for facts and answers. The media acts as both predator and prey. It hunts for that information among the newsmakers it covers in hope of satiating the public’s appetite. And the newsmakers, in this case public administrators, must react quickly or fall prey. This food chain has never been so pronounced as now–and it will only worsen as the line between conventional and new media blurs.
Numerous examples of the power a Twitter or Facebook campaign can wield come to mind. Many observers credit President Obama’s rise to the presidency to his campaign’s mastery of social media. Politicians and Hollywood stars alike now use these forums to make announcements or share opinions. And actress Betty White would not have appeared on Saturday Night Live were it not for the all-out Facebook campaign that urged producers to invite the 88-year-old to host the show.
Too often, public organizations find themselves on the defensive. Officials sometimes feel apprehensive about speaking to reporters, fearful that they may be misquoted or that they or their organization portrayed in a negative light. It is true that some members of the media may seem aggressive. Indeed, their role serves as an important check and balance in our democracy and many take this responsibility seriously. And it is also true that some public administrators may have had a prior encounter with a reporter that may have left a bitter memory. Perhaps they were misquoted, or the reporter misrepresented themselves or the tone of their story.
But these fears cannot become a public organization’s culture. Now that almost anyone with a blog or a Twitter account can report on the news, the tactic of “no comment” can spell disaster for a government’s attempt at passing sound public policy. In the age of social media, public administrators must wipe clean their misconceptions and begin a new era of participation and interaction. No longer can they rely on newsletters, town hall meetings or community groups as an avenue to gain public support and relay their side of the story. In this new model, governments must use this opportunity to turn new media into a powerful tool to maximize public support behind their policies. Most students of public administration understand the value of public buy-in before a government implements a particular policy that will affect its constituents. It is taught early on that stakeholders must be brought to the table as laws and policies are drafted. These new tools, more than any conventional community outreach tactic, can maximize the way policy makers speak to their stakeholders and ultimately enhance public service.
To achieve this, public administrators can no longer sit back and wait for media representatives to contact them. They must be the ones announcing their successes in a coordinated and responsive way. From the city manager or mayor down to department heads, administrators should all have Twitter accounts that they regularly update with their area’s news. Facebook accounts should be filled with photos, small blog items and announcements. Online forums should be formed so that the public agency’s constituency can openly discuss pressing concerns. Each department head should receive training in not only how to navigate this new technology, but also be encouraged, perhaps even required, to interact though these social networks.
Here at Florida International University in Miami, a state school with more than 40,000 students and 8,000 employees, the communication team has set up a variety of social media accounts to interact with the press. Twitter helps us to determine what the press is interested in covering on any particular day, enhancing our ability to be proactive in placing our professors and experts in the media. We disseminate our press releases on Facebook and Twitter, where we “follow” and are “followed” by members of the press. And we produce our own videos that we then offer to media websites as a way to enhance our story. Our mission is to not only create a positive, interactive rapport with the media, but also take ownership of our story and our message.
When conventional media calls, one must not forget that along with the viewers and readers the outlet has, there are now untold others following on their websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages. Officials should forget the bitter feelings of the past and remember that speaking to reporters will ultimately, and almost always, benefit their work. Coupled with the self-powered media machine just mentioned, a government that quickly responds to the needs of conventional media sends another reassuring message that public administrators want to connect with their constituency at every opportunity.
These initiatives, among others, should be engrained in a government’s communications and human resources policies as well as in the job descriptions of department heads whose work affects the public. The end result will be clear and simple: a modern, transparent government that is in tune with its population and its needs. Ignoring this new reality could send the unintended message that governments just can’t keep up.
Jean-Paul Renaud is assistant director of media relations at Florida International University in Miami and a graduate student in the Department of Public Administration at FIU. Email: [email protected]