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Social Media in Public Sector Communications, Customer Service and Community Relations Programs

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.

J. Paul Blake

Recent applications of technology in the public sector and the rapid development of social media will compel government agencies to enhance existing use of technology and accelerate the introduction of these tools in their communications, customer service and community relations development programs.

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and his election as president of the United States were remarkable for many reasons including the use of technology. As president, Obama has, through the use of cutting-edge communications technology and social networking, already changed the way a president interacts with the citizenry.

Rep. John Culberson, Houston, says “We’re moving very rapidly into an entirely new era where Americans will be empowered beyond their wildest dreams because of information technology becoming more pervasive and easy to use.” As a matter-of-fact, President Obama and Congress have allotted $7.2 billion in stimulus funds (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) for the high-speed internet highway.

The current administration, like others in the future, will be in a position to bypass traditional media outlets, including the already struggling newspaper industry. Research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project supports that likelihood. Pew found that 46 percent of Americans used the Internet to get information about the 2008 campaign compared to the 34 percent who read daily newspapers, 39 percent who watched cable news or the 24 percent who viewed network news.

While the question remains whether the Obama Administration can access the more than 10 million email addresses gathered during the campaign, it’s estimated that more than 50 million will sign on to the president’s www.whitehouse.gov website.

The ability of our national leaders to communicate directly with the citizenry and their constituents has enormous implications for local government and municipal services. Specifically, functions like customer service, communications and community relations, will face rising expectations from citizens including timely response to and the resolution of service issues, instant access to information and a greater degree of public involvement in the decision-making process.

In his book Move the Mouse and Make Millions, author Matt Heinz, writes about connecting with customers via the Web. “The Web has evolved in a way that allows us not only to promote ourselves, but also actively initiate and engage in conversation with our customers (and other related audiences/ stakeholders) in a way that generates interest, engenders credibility and loyalty, and can drive a ton of new business your way.”

Heinz believes the following questions should be addressed in formulating any organization’s Internet plan:

• What value and/or service do you provide to your customers?

• How do we define success in our work?

• What do we want the department to look like in five years?

Recent changes in the Communications Office in my department, Seattle Public Utilities, have enhanced the staff’s ability to employ web-based tools to improve our employee communications program. The changes will also allow staff to consider the possibilities of integrating more tools and social networks into our communications program. The City of Seattle’s recent transition to Outlook is the most recent major change in communications technology. Future adjustments may provide the opportunity to enhance the City’s Web-based abilities to interact with customers while protecting their privacy as well as the City’s network.

At the risk of alienating some customers, the application of technology in customer service is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Emily Yellin, author of Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us, wrote “As newer channels are adopted in the customer’s world, such as video messaging on cell phone and computer phone lines and phone call migrating to the Internet, contact centers are having to keep up with how their customers prefer to communicate. In the not-too-distant future, live video interactions with agents on the Internet will likely become common in contact centers.”

However, Yellin also notes that “for all the Internet and self-service innovations, studies show that customers still prefer a live phone conversation.”

The United Nations forecasts that by 2030 three out of five people will live in cities. Of the 25 largest mega-cities, 19 are in developing countries. Demographic changes and advances in technology will significantly change the way we view “community.” Authors Chris Brogan and Julien Smith in Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation and Earn Trust, state that contrary to the notion that the “community” as we’ve known it is disappearing, it is “slowly, quietly making its way online.” They believe people are choosing to “gather” based on shared interest instead of relying on chance or geography. Also, people are communicating through writing based on shared interest.

How social networks will be effectively integrated into public participation/public outreach programs is not yet evident. However, the core values of public participation, including transparency, trust and the promise of meaningful engagement, will put pressure on practitioners to find successful avenues.

Social networks and applications available through technology are here to stay in one form or another. Applications in the private and public sectors are increasing. Puget Sound Energy has “joined our customers on Twitter and in the blogosphere” with Twitter.com/PSETalk and AskAndy.PSE. Social networks, by their very nature, have been and will continue to change. The ability to control the message tops a number of advantages including ubiquitous presence of the Internet, low-cost, broad reach and more. However, among a number of negatives and cautions are those who have no access to computers, avoiding information overload and the inability to measure effectiveness.

With the reality that change is constant, I encourage communications, customer service and community relations practitioners in the public sector, to work with their technology and finance professionals to think strategically, provide the necessary funds, and develop the appropriate mix of technical tools that allows for timely and effective communications with stakeholders.


Blog: essentially a website (Blogger.com or WordPress.com).

Podcasts: blogs in audio format (Hipcast.com).

www.Twitter.com: a real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices.

www.Squidoo.com: network of online experts with specific interests and willing to share.

www.Ning.com: a community of communities providing the Web-savvy with the opportunity to create and run personal online social network, essentially a big discussion group, with the creator as facilitator.

www.Digg.com: allows users to add stories they find interesting. Stories are ranked by the number of times readers “digg” them by voting for them.

www.Technorati.com: founded as the first blog search engine, Technorati has expanded to a full service media company.


Flickr.com: aggregates photos and provides opportunity for comment.

http://www.DailyVitamin.com: newsletter composed of content previously published in another blog, sometimes referred to as an “aggregator.”

: video conference tool featuring text chat and large file sharing.
www.Gotomeeting.com: a Web conferencing tool that allows you to meet online rather than in a conference room.

www.youtube.com: a video sharing website on which users can upload and share videos.

Tools such as Squidoo, Digg and Ning exponentially accelerate the exposure of ideas, issues and critical information from the source to customers and others who access the service.

ASPA member J. Paul Blake is president
of the Society’s Evergreen Chapter and director of community relations
development for Seattle Public Utilities. Email: [email protected]

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