The Art of Government Social Media Management

Posted on February 18, 2020

Jordan Gilgenbach

This post was written by Jordan Gilgenbach, Digital Communications Coordinator for the City of Minneapolis, MN. It was in response to a very active Twitter conversation on Friday, February 14, 2020.

As public servants, we understand the thanklessness and invisibility of many of our jobs. When we do good things, and do them well, we get little or no recognition for going above and beyond. But the smallest error can result in major backlash. And it’s not just from the public – we’re contending with colleagues, leadership, elected officials, business owners, and more. 

Government communicators, and government social media managers like myself, are constantly doing more with less while trying to maintain this rosy appearance to external audiences.

All the while continuously trying to prove our worth, defend our existence and expertise, and getting leadership and elected officials to understand our value. It’s hard enough to do this without stereotypes being perpetuated in a national platform. This is why a recent article on Governing rubbed me the wrong way. 

What sparked my frustration is that the article oversimplifies government social media. I know there are so many government social media managers out there, doing their best every day, creating and curating content, trying to build an engaged online community, working all hours of the day and night, intaking personal attacks from the public (and, no, not just the trolls), getting called every swear in the book, and more.

In fact, there are more than 1,000 government social media managers that are convening at the annual Government Social Media conference in Seattle this March.

We’re a dedicated bunch. We work hard, and we’re proud of the work we do. 

The premise of the Governing article is that many local governments are missing the point of social media, using it as a bulletin board rather than an engagement tool. Don’t get me wrong, two-way engagement is important. Using social media as a one-way street is a poor strategy. But it’s also hard to do, and even harder to do it well. 

Government social media managers are often begging staff for content and ideas, convincing leadership and staff, and may need to fact-check or get approval before responding. I know a little about a lot of stuff in my organization. I am in no way qualified to answer detailed, technical questions without help.

We also need appropriate funding and staffing to support social media engagement. Imagine crafting a single tweet, to receive hundreds of replies. To be truly engaging, we should reply – or at the very least, answer those with questions. But that all takes time. And lots of it. 

Social media isn’t my only job duty. That’s probably the case for a lot of government social media managers. Even more so in smaller organizations. If there is one person in your organization whose full time job is social media, or if you have an entire team of people, consider yourself lucky. 

Instead of simply saying “City Hall is closed in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, garbage pick-up is delayed one day,” would it be better to highlight someone doing great work to advance equity? Absolutely. But it just isn’t realistic. 

I’m the only person in my organization (and there are a lot of one-person government communications shops out there!) whose full attention goes to digital communications (not just social media). We have more than 4,000 full time staff, 425,000 residents.

My primary City Twitter account has 193,000 followers, and we get thousands of mentions a month. That’s a lot for one person to manage. It’s unrealistic to think I’m going to develop an elegant narrative and engage in a meaningful two-way conversation around an office closure. 

That’s also one of many strategic decisions that need to be made before hitting “post”. Does this tweet need a better narrative? Am I choosing the right words? Does the accompanying graphic compliment the message? What could trigger people? What kind of backlash could I get from this? Does this violate any laws, ordinance or constitutional rights? Is the post accessible to everyone?

When you finally make the post, then monitoring and engagement beings, followed by measurement. Sure, we’ll track and pay attention to the typical metrics: reach, likes, comments, shares.

But will also pay close attention to click through rates (CTR), video views, video retention rates, demographics, engagement rate. And don’t forget about those harder to measure things, like comment/reply sentiment, what people are saying in shares and quote tweets, private messages. All of this data helps us determine the effectiveness of the message, graphics/art/video, timing, and more, and how we can make changes to make better content in the future. 

Government social media managers are highly specialized. We work in a stressful, mental health challenging world that is incredibly fast-changing. We’re professionals, many either college education and/or decades of experience working in communications, marketing, civic engagement or something similar.

And we use relationships with peers from across the country, and opportunities with Government Social Media conference, ELGL, City-County Communications and Marketing Association (3CMA), and many more, to share best practices, commiserate over recent failures, learn new ideas and skills, and support each other in times of crisis, natural disaster or other emergency. 

The idea that government social media managers are interns who love iced lattes from Starbucks, taking selfies, posting about their lunch, fawning over celebrities, and posting with complete disregard to its impact, is flat out incorrect. Sure, we may do those things personally, but we’re highly trained professionals. 

And there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each level of government, each department, all across the country, have different audiences, cultures, wants and needs. And each must be approached accordingly — with a customized approach and mutual understanding. 

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