Analyse and apologise – the six golden rules of social media in the public sector

A range of organisations from across the public sector share their thoughts and experiences on commuters, creativity, and the pros and cons of ‘Manc humour’

There is no longer any question that the impact of social media – for good and ill – expands way beyond the confines of the apps and websites in question, and out into the world at large.

Every day, powerful movements are born out of individuals using technology to find people like them locally, then regionally, then nationally, then globally. Meanwhile, careers are routinely made – or ruined – on the back of what is said or shared on social-media platforms. 

The technology brings huge potential for public sector organisations to connect with citizens with greater immediacy, responsiveness, and reach. But the responsibilities that come with a duty of public service also bring greater risks if social media is used badly, or inappropriately.

At the Public Sector Social Media Conference – hosted in London last month by PublicTechnology parent company Dods – a range of communications and technology professionals from across the public sector shared their insights on how to get the most out of social media. This included numerous examples of what works and doesn’t work for organisations in central and local government, the NHS, education, law enforcement, and public transport.

PublicTechnology went along to find out more. Here are six key things we learnt about how public sector organisations and individuals can post, share, tweet, and like in a way that best supports their work to serve citizens.


Find your voice
From the grandeur of Guinness to the playfulness of Pot Noodle, there are numerous examples of companies and brands that have worked to cultivate a distinct voice with which to speak to consumers – in a tone they can immediately recognise and, hopefully, relate to.

Until as recently as 10 years ago, finding your range inevitably required expensive broadcast and print advertising. But, of course, the advent of social media makes it much easier for organisations to talk to – and, more importantly, listen to – customers, and find out what works best for everyone.

Public sector entities can learn from some of their counterparts in the commercial world when it comes to finding their voice online, believes Alicia Custis, head of communications at Stockport NHS Foundation Trust. She points to smoothie-maker Innocent and bookmaker Paddy Power as examples of companies that have used social media to find a distinct and recognisable voice that best resonates their desired identity and message.

Likewise, organisations in the public sector should examine ask what comprises their identity and, when they have found an answer, should try to speak consistently with the voice that best suits them – and the citizens they serve. 

Although, as Custis notes while sharing a slide of some of Paddy Power’s social-media posts and campaigns – many of which are decidedly provocative – there are limits to the lessons that can be learned from the private sector.

“They can get away with using the word ‘t**t’ – but we can’t in the NHS!,” she says. “But they have a strong identifiable brand. So does Innocent.”


Make time to be creative
om Freestone, head of social media at HM Revenue and Customs, understands all too well the difficulty of maintaining a creative edge while meeting the daily demands of publishing necessary information in a timely fashion.

“Being creative is great – but I would much rather have average content that goes out at the right time and is accurate, than really creative content that goes out three weeks late,” he says.

While it may sound anathema to a freewheeling spirit of inventiveness, Freestone advocates scheduling dedicated time to explore new or more leftfield ideas, and trends in the wider social-media landscape. In an approach borrowed from peers at the Department for Work and Pensions, the HMRC social media chief assembles his team for regular two-hour get-togethers dedicated “to talking about non-HMRC stuff”.

“We take turns in setting a theme – it could be the latest things happening on Snapchat [for example] – and just take some time away from the corporate feeds,” he says. “Nine out of ten times there is something that comes out of it that feeds back into the corporate work and what angle we are going to use to talk about tax rules.”


Eighteen months ago, Justin Clark, head of social media for Transport for Greater Manchester, took over responsibility for the Twitter account for the city’s Metrolink service. He and his team inherited a service that was staffed from9am to5pm on weekdays.

“There was a policy not to apologise to people, and we had very low response rates and very slow response times. There was no personality,” he says.

Since then, Clark (pictured right, speaking at the event) has overseen the implementation of “social customer service” via Twitter. The account is now active and responsive until 8pm seven days a week – starting at 6am on weekdays, and 8am on weekends.

The focus is on remembering that, behind each online enquiry or gripe, is a person – quite possibly one who is justifiably stressed about being late for work or meeting friends. 

Having ditched the no-apologies policy, Metrolink now says ‘sorry’ to Twitter users about 6,000 times a year – which Clark is proud to say was, until recently, an industry-leading figure.

“We have an average of 18 per day. I walked into a room [of senior managers] and said: ‘this is brilliant’. And they looked at me as if I was an alien,” he says. “My team cannot have any impact on a transport network, and they are not to blame if a tree falls on a track. But what they can control is how they respond to people. We can see them as a person, not just a social-media profile.”

The result of this commitment to contrition has been more appreciative customers, and fewer complaints. But, alas, the Metrolink account is no longer the public-transport world’s biggest apologiser.

“We are not leading anymore,” Clark says. “Southern Rail is smashing it!”


When assessing the success – or otherwise – of a social media account, the first and most obvious metric is to look, simply, at the top-line number of followers.

On top of which, one may examine the volume of likes, retweets, shares, or comments. But a more analytical approach can give a better picture of how effectively an account is engaging with citizens, according to Nana Crawford, social media manager at HM Land Registry.

Crawford says that she measures each of the organisation’s social accounts against three key metrics: applause rate; amplification rate; and conversation rate.

A figure for applause rate is calculated by totting up all the number of likes or positive reactions to posts and dividing by the total number of followers. Amplification rate, meanwhile, is measured by dividing the amount of retweets or shares by follower numbers. Conversation rate takes the number of comments and responses and divides that figure by the number of overall followers.

Crawford explains that there is no overarching strategy – but rather that she and her colleagues look at social channels – as each will likely have a different purpose and, therefore, a different measure of success.

“It is a balancing act between the applause rate, the amplification rate, and the conversation rate,” she says. “We do not have a strategy – I look at what each of the channels is there to do, and we break down the rates per channel.”

Crawford adds: “We might have a high conversation rate on Facebook, but not on Twitter – but what we need on Twitter might be a good amplification rate. One of the important things is not to try and measure channels against each other, but look at percentage changes within each channel.”


Empower your staff to be ambassadors
ne of the benefits of being a social-media or communications professional in certain parts of the public sector – particularly the NHS – is that the brand you are representing has accumulated the goodwill and appreciation that comes with decades of public service.

The latest annual Ipsos MORI poll of trusted professions put nurses in top spot, with doctors and teachers completing the top three. Judges and police officers also scored well, and are trusted by a strong majority of citizens, the research indicates.

Having a workforce comprised of these trusted and respected public servants is, potentially, a far more powerful tool than any number of celebrity influencers. Custis of Stockport NHS trust says that, with a few safeguards and stipulations, her organisation enables its employees to serve as ambassadors – and encourages others to do the same.

“We have thousands of employees, and our doctors and nurses are very highly trusted,” she says. “Just make sure you have social media policies in place.”



Don’t be afraid to have a personality
One of the key features of the new-look Manchester Metrolink Twitter account is that the staff who run it are encouraged to allow their personalities to come out.
“We have a friendly, personal tone,” says Clark. “I can look at the feed and know [from the tone] who is manning it.”

This means not shying away from being playful, when appropriate – such as the main Transport for Greater Manchester account instigating a sportswear-related pun-off with a customer who complained a fellow passenger had stepped on their new trainers. Clark has encouraged his team to deploy “Manc humour”.

For which he provides attendees with the following definition: “We look at that line of what is acceptable and what is not – and we sort of go up and down [across] it.”

Clark adds that he trusts his team to locate where that line lies – and indulges them in making the occasional error of judgement while doing so.

The team’s personality is not only expressed through jokes; on the anniversary of the Manchester Arena bombings, the Twitter account’s sign off for the day was an unplanned and heartfelt message from calling for Manchester to “keep standing strong together and look back in pride, not anger”. 

The volume of likes and retweets showed that the sentiment was clearly appreciated and shared – in all senses of the word – by Mancunians. And that a little personality can go a long way.


The Public Sector Social Media Conference is coming to Manchester on 26 September, with a range of speakers from central government, local government, the NHS and local government already confirmed. Click here to find out more.


Sam Trendall

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