Everyone likes someone with a personality. The same is true of government agencies, and there’s no better place for an agency to establish a strong personality, a “voice,” than on social media.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]But to use it effectively, agencies need to build their reach and engage with their followers, and typical government-speak isn’t going to get the job done.[/pullquote]
These days, most agencies use social media mainly to let their followers know of events and public meetings. As a powerful tool for community engagement, it can be much more than just a calendar – it can be a way to get feedback and ideas, provide customer service and disseminate information in an emergency.
But to use it effectively, agencies need to build their reach and engage with their followers, and typical government-speak isn’t going to get the job done. This is where an agency’s distinct voice comes in.
“But this is government!” you might be thinking. “We can’t have a personality; we have to be professional. We have to maintain the public trust.”
Think about the leaders who win elections. They don’t do it sounding like robots. They have personality; they earn the public’s trust, and they win elections. The point is, you can have a voice, and still be professional, factual and build trust with your community.
Two Bay Area agencies are doing just that, each with its own unique approach, and its own unique voice.
The Lieutenant’s Voice
Meet Lt. Zach Perron of the Palo Alto Police Department. In 2012, he established the department’s social media accounts, and has been in charge of them ever since. If you’d like to get to know him, visit @PaloAltoPolice on Twitter. Why?
“The voice is my personality,” Perron said. “I’m the only person that moderates our page. I have one backup, and he has a similar sense of humor and personality.”
That voice is key to engagement with the community. For any organization, but especially for public safety and customer service, developing a following that actually reads your agency’s posts means you can get key information out in times of crisis, and can be sure of reaching a good number of people.
Put them off with jargon and bureaucratese, and you’ve lost an important tool to communicate with, listen and respond to the public.
“Early on, I realized nobody wants to hear government-speak,” Perron said. “If we want to engage our public, we have to talk like regular people. They make jokes, use emoticons and engage in banter.”
Even though the posts reflect Lt. Perron’s own voice, that voice can be summed up simply, in one sentence, so that consistency is possible even if more than one person is posting.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Put them off with jargon and bureaucratese, and you’ve lost an important tool to communicate with, listen and respond to the public.[/pullquote]
“We are always professional, but we are going to be funny and human whenever we can,” he said.
That specific description serves as a guide that allows the department to have a consistent voice no matter who is posting. The public wants to know what they’re going to get when they check a social media account, and dissimilar voices can be jarring and off-putting.
In order to gain – and retain – followers, it pays to invest time and thought into determining the agency’s voice ahead of time, and then into each post’s content and tone.
The Community’s Voice
Meet Shonda Ranson. She’s the Communications Coordinator at the City of Mountain View, and her approach is a little bit different from Lt. Perron’s.
“It’s not really my voice,” she said. In fact, the personality of the city’s social media accounts reflects the community itself.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Ranson notes that one mistake some agencies make is to launch their social media accounts and just start posting without much research into what people want to see.[/pullquote]
“Our personality is a lot about being responsive, and that goes to being responsive about what people care about,” she said. “Like any good conversation, we echo back to them a little bit. Your personality really comes from the people following you.”
Ranson notes that one mistake some agencies make is to launch their social media accounts and just start posting without much research into what people want to see. That research is done by “listening.” That is, monitoring the accounts and reading and responding to comments from people willing to interact on social media and noting what they have to say.
How much listening? A lot. Ranson said generally the formula is about 80 percent listening to your public, 20 percent posting.
It’s a matter of trust
Getting back to the question municipalities might be asking about how to have a voice when they need to maintain authority and trust – in fact, both Ranson and Perron agree that social media is an important tool to build both those.
“Your two goals,” Ranson said, “should be that you are always truthful, and that you’re always reliable. That gives you a voice of authority.”
She said that while Mountain View tries to keep posts neutral and factual, they don’t necessarily try to keep them devoid of humor or humanity. The important thing is accuracy because “you’ll definitely hear about it if it turns out to be wrong or false.”
While that can hurt an agency, it’s important to try not to let posts get bogged down in an approval process, because then you run the risk of not being timely. Still, as Ranson said, “never sacrifice reliability.”
Don’t leave them hanging
Remember, social media is a conversation, and good conversations involve everyone listening and speaking, not just making announcements and ignoring questions and comments. They’re relationships built on a civil exchange of information and ideas.
That means you should definitely respond to your public. It can be something as simple as giving them a phone number to the right department, or letting them know that you’ll look into their question and get back to them. The key is to let them know you’ve heard them.
Perron suggests thinking of social media as a digital version of a city council meeting.
“What you’ll never see at a city council meeting is members standing up while someone is talking and turning their backs on them,” he said. “This is the same thing. (Agencies) can continue to let their voices grow by responding.”
No matter what voice your agency decides to go with, both Ranson and Perron agree that support from the top levels is key to building a social media presence with a distinctive voice.
As Perron learned, you also need support from the lower levels of the organization. By law, he has to get the permission of each officer in a photo that he posts on social media. That was a little tough to come by at first.
“Because I hadn’t communicated how we were going to use this, there wasn’t as much buy-in, and there was a lot of fear and trepidation,” he said. “I had missed the boat on internal communication.”
Perron fixed that by going to every briefing and explaining how social media would be used, showing the positive comments from the public and the support that the department could get from the public.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]No matter what voice your agency decides to go with, both Ranson and Perron agree that support from the top levels is key to building a social media presence with a distinctive voice.[/pullquote]
For Ranson, content, or the subject matter that she posts online, comes from other departments. That means she needs buy-in from them as well, and that can require changing mindsets, which is easier with thorough communication and explanation.
“There has to be training to explain the difference between digital and traditional communications … to help staff understand what messages fit which medium and how to be successful with that medium.”
That step can help social media managers avoid trying to condense pages of content into 100 words max — or better yet, 80 words plus a link.
Putting it all together
So what does this all mean? How can your agency do to develop a voice on social media?
Decide on a voice. How will your organization interact with the public? Will you use humor? Will you be serious? Describe in one sentence what you’ll sound like to your community. If you’ve already launched, you can still take a step back and examine where you’d like your online presence to go.
What kinds of posts does your community like? What do they respond to? Do more of this than talking, and you’ll get a feel for what your community wants. That will help your posts and tweets do well, with likes and shares, and can gain you more followers, which is important to getting your message out.
Get support. If you need to, explain carefully to all levels of the organization what you’ll do and why, what your agency will sound like online and how having a voice or personality will help engage your community.
Consider every post. Is it accurate? Is it professional? Don’t post in anger, and don’t engage in spats. If you wouldn’t say it to somebody’s face, don’t say it on social media.
Be original. Don’t ding yourself on Facebook’s algorithm, or with your community, by just reposting other people’s content. That can have some value, but there’s a lot going on in your city or your agency. Find the interesting stuff, and post that along with your events and public meetings. Ranson suggests taking your community behind the scenes for various jobs and processes. It puts a face to something the public might not know much about, and makes a government more human.
Be responsive! As Perron notes, social media is not a bullhorn to make announcements, it’s a way to build a relationship with your community — one that can pay dividends for everyone.
Be yourself. Remember, a government is made up of people. Social media for government agencies is just a conversation between people.
Build your voice, and followers will come, and your relationship with your community will be better for it. Do it with thought and preparation, and remember: have fun!
If you’d like to have Lt. Perron or Ranson come speak to your agency about using social media and getting engagement, contact them at Zachary.Perron@cityofpaloalto.org or https://www.linkedin.com/in/shondaranson