15 Nov 2017

Social360 caught up with Alex Coley, Managing Director at Alex Coley Digital, to discuss the role social media plays for government departments and how it has evolved the past year.

What role does social media play for government departments with regards to managing their own social media accounts?

To best of my knowledge government departments have always managed their own departmental social media accounts. Sometimes with a campaign or project an account might be white labelled or run by an agency team.

Have you seen this changing in the past few years?

I think there’s now a greater understanding of the role that social media plays in influencing and behaviour change. So while I wouldn’t expect to see the corporate Facebook account being outsourced it’s quite normal for a team of experts to either access that account to put out targeted messages or for a dedicated campaign account to be run by an agency. For example the multi-agency digital campaigns on health and wellbeing managed between the Department of Health, the NHS and Public Health England. The creative and technical elements will certainly have outside support.

What importance does government place on social media activity surrounding their reputation?

Historically this used to vary widely depending on the Secretary of State at the time. David Miliband famously came into the FCO and wanted social channels set up overnight and digital platforms overhauled. As a legacy the FCO has probably the most enviable social media management operation in government. Now that we’ve been through the digital revolution I think every area of government understands the power and value of reputation management online

What kind of effect has this year’s general election and its reliance on social media to disseminate information had on governmental social media policy?

Social media policy in government was really transformed in 2009 and 2010, which were vintage years for change. That work has improved incrementally. The recent election had a greater impact on political parties’ appreciation of social media. The Conservative Party has just put an advert out for a Digital Director for the first time. There were comments at the Conservative Party Conference that the party has a Filofax chairman but should have a Facebook chairman.

Many people see Jeremy Corbyn’s success in connecting with young people as being driven in social channels. What I don’t see right now is a clear strategy for listening and responding. Moving from broadcasting on social and digital channels into interacting will be a pivotal gain in the next election. At the end of the day politics is about the conversation and half of that means listening.

Which government departments are good examples of bodies using effective digital engagement with their audiences?

The FCO has a good history of digital engagement. When the government changed in 2010 William Hague was quick to build and improve upon the work of David Miliband. Hague’s Twitter chats were particularly ground breaking in government. The NHS and Public Health England have been at the cutting edge for a while too. The Stop Smoking campaign and One You campaigns have all broken ground in influencer marketing and behaviour change.

What methods of monitoring are used widely in government, do you feel government recognises a need to see beyond automated algorithms?

You could probably find representation of every social media monitoring software across government. There’s been a kind of “dashboard-it is” about it. Hand a dashboard to a minister/civil servant and there’s a general acceptance that something has been delivered and work was done to monitor something. Government is less skilled at thinking about data in new ways or dealing with intangibles. Dashboards have become like tomato ketchup in government, they’re served with everything. The big job is to encourage people to see beyond graphs and charts, they’ve become a comfort zone. The best way is to do this is with examples of great work, particularly in a crisis.

What’s the future for the government and social? What trends are we likely to see emerging?

I’ve worked on bleeding edge technology in multiple areas and you can never be sure which will take off. I was certain that research into sentiment analysis using a palette of 15 emotions that could be blended together would change everything. Written language was converted into a kind of mathematical music by software and then used valences to show the sweeps of mood. It worked beautifully, even on small batches of text like 140 character tweets, and the insight was incredible.

Sadly it seems to have sunk without trace (or the Pentagon seized it). I think software that can identify authorship from text on social media will be interesting. With so many bots and sock puppet accounts on social platforms authenticity has become crucial. Just as fake news is now a thing, soon people will realise that an apparent tsunami of voices can be puppetteered be a handful of people.

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