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How agencies can leverage social media to build trust with constituents

Social media was once seen as a way to give a human face to government agencies. In the wake of the pandemic, engagement with constituents has become less about edgy social media posts designed to boost follower numbers and, instead, more focused about competent communication of news and information in trying times. Emphasis on follower growth has been replaced by overall messaging impact and reach, as government agencies pivot to social media to establish themselves as credible sources of information.

To some, this may appear to be a big step back from previous social strategies regarding citizen engagement where agencies celebrated viral social media posts even if that meant relaxing an agency’s media messaging playbook and standards. The impact of a global pandemic, and the collective shock to constituents, was a black swan for citizen engagement strategies. Although it became clear through 2020 and 2021 that citizens still want to engage with government agencies on social media, the content they expect has changed.

Here are a few tips to help agencies pivot their social media messaging and build trust with constituents:

Provide reliable updates on a consistent basis. The pandemic demonstrated that the public needed sober, dependable and reliable information. Agencies should use their official status to continue to combat disinformation and provide ongoing updates regarding the pandemic, whether they address vaccines, testing rates, reopening updates or other items. To help instill more trust with constituents, they should lean into their role as experts, focusing less on a sleek, highly visual presentation and more on a straight demonstration and reading of the facts.

Don’t fully abandon a sense of humor. If humor is already part of an agency’s social tone of voice, they shouldn’t be afraid to bring it back when it makes sense. Previously, social media messaging advice suggested creating humorous and light-hearted posts, using engagement rates as a barometer of success. At the height of the pandemic, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot continued to use humor to encourage her constituents to stay home and save lives.

These days, we still recommend agencies find opportunities to insert lightheartedness into their social posts, but they should do so carefully, and not in reference to any of the negative aspects of the pandemic -- constituents aren’t quite ready to have their government jest about it. A humorous take on reopening can be acceptable, if it’s in mostly a celebratory mood. Constituents are excited about the activities they can now return to, and government agencies should take pride in reopenings, even show that they are having fun getting back to a semblance of normalcy. The NYC mayor’s office, for example, is generating anticipation as part of #SummerOfNYC while New Jersey recently incentivized its residents to get their first vaccination in May by giving away free beer.

Evolve as the crisis grows. Agencies’ social media communications strategy should always be evolving. Sentiment analysis and survey/research tools can help them understand how the public feels about recent and local events. As concern fades around the pandemic, agencies should calibrate how they will focus less on the somber, sober updates and return to more humorous communications. These changes, however, this should be done in a measured approach.

Encourage questions. Providing reliable answers to citizens, in real-time, has proved to be a timeless strategy. When confusion and misinformation is at an all-time high, it’s important agencies help alleviate citizens’ concerns by providing real, verifiable answers on their response to COVID-19.

Show empathy. COVID-19 has impacted both daily operations and the personal lives of not just citizens but every government employee. Agencies should ensure that their communication and social media teams are also getting the support they need. They are answering more questions than ever before.

For inspiration, agencies might look to one of the many social media accounts associated with the New York City Health and Hospitals system. Since the onset of the pandemic these accounts have been providing accurate and reliable information on COVID-19 testing, vaccines, when to see a doctor and other mission critical information. As the crisis evolved, so has their tone and style of messaging. The accounts provided mission critical information early on and today serve as an advocate to achieving public health goals. Their posts receive high share rates, and they’ve continued to boost positive sentiment for the public hospital system.

Government agencies have a unique power and authority to inform the public and alleviate citizens’ concerns. By adapting to today’s new normal, and engaging authentically and meaningfully with constituents, agencies can vastly improve trust and strengthen constituent relationships with social media.

About the Author

Ben Cathers is the global principal solutions consultant at Hootsuite.


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