Social Media and Governments – Guest blog post by William Paul

Following Maree Aldam’s guest blog post last month, we’re delighted to welcome on our blog another valuable piece, this time from our advisory board member William Paul, Head of Digital Communication at Scottish Government. Social Media: what are the threats and what the opportunities for the governments? William gives us a sharp insight into the topic

The power and reach of social media was clearly demonstrated during the Australian floods Queensland in 2011. In real time, a former colleague living in the water-logged town of Toowoomba was keeping her friends informed with regular updates via Facebook.

But it was research conducted after the event that really brought it home to me. It discovered that ‘tweeting peaks’ coincided with flooding peaks, prompting a flow of information that allowed people to better prepare for the deluge. A simple finding perhaps but, for me, a revealing one – going straight to the heart of the matter.

In Australia, the surge of social media was shown to be a fully-fledged frontline disaster response mechanism. Since then governments across the world have been able to ditch the idea that Facebook and Twitter only deal in trivia and instead view them as effective, almost incidentally convenient, conduits for vital information.

Emergency has also translated into the everyday where Ministers and government officials tweet regularly, joining the conversations, following the debates. For Government, attribution is all-important. The tweeter has to be instantly identifiable – a real person or a representative of an organisation – so the receiver can take notice, judge the value of the contribution, and acknowledge or delete according to preference.

It is surely healthy that the Scottish Government has embraced social media. While Government can never be ‘personal’ in the true sense of one-to-one, it can add value to a debate even if its fate is to be ignored or shouted down.

For professional politicians, the one thing on the risk side of the equation to be avoided at all costs is the danger of ‘becoming the story’. A hungry media hangs on every tweet, ready to pounce on any suggestion of impropriety or controversy. Many have been hung out to dry as a result, and more will likely follow.

Don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t tell your granny is the normal homespun, and I have to say hugely insightful, wisdom.

When I am asked for advice, I like to refer to a pre-digital American cop series Hill Street Blues in which the avuncular Sergeant Phil Esterhaus takes the daily roll call of officers about to hit the streets, then pauses for dramatic effect before reminding them: “Hey, let’s be careful out there.”

Phil didn’t know it, but he was ahead of his time.

William Paul
Head of Digital Communications
Scottish Government

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