There is an on-going myth within social media circles that governments need more and better communication. The problem is that this is not true. Governments spend a large amount of time and money communicating with the public. They have annual reports, they have newsletters, they have Twitter feeds, Facebook accounts, and they have YouTube channels. They have minutes, they have agendas, and they have reports all of which are published in paper and electronic copies. Then within each government, the various departments have their own publications, their own media teams, and their own engagement strategies.
The issue is not communication nor is it the quality of the communication. The reports are well researched, written, and presented. The message is often consistent and repeated from the political leadership through the senior management down to the frontline services. The staff know their lines, their key messages, and they can explain them. The reports, papers, messages, and communication consistently stress the good news from the organisation’s perspective. Even when policies, projects, or proposals do not work as intended, the communication is couched in good news.
So, what is the real issue? Dialogue NOT monologue
Everything I have mentioned above is a monologue. It is the organisation communicating with the public but on the organisations terms and conditions. The public, however, want dialogue. They want to talk to and talk with the people who deliver the services. They do not want to be talked to. They do not want to have the press line or the management line. They want to talk to someone who can answer their questions no matter how far-fetched or obvious. They want to have answers and they want to ask question. They do not want to wait days for a non-response or a response that tells them what they already knew.
Social media may yet change the communication culture.
Social media is a technological approach that allows such dialogue. However, it is only a technology; it will not change a culture. The culture is not against communication. It is against dialogue that strays away from the monologue. What the public want is someone who can answer their questions. At the same time, they need someone who can tell them what can and cannot be done and, most importantly, why. However, the last part limits communication and dialogue. Why? It is the point where accountability and authority diverge. The people most likely to be given this role are middle managers. It is middle managers do not have the authority but will have the accountability for anything that goes “wrong” in the dialogue.
Risk aversion leads to dialogue avoidance
The culture is compounded by risk aversion. Government, local or national, is notoriously risk averse. Deficit thinking and deficit management dominate the view. As a result, any activity, like blogging or social media dialogues, will create a risk. To avoid the risk, the dialogue quickly becomes a monologue where managers repeat the organisation “line”. Consider the following scenario at the opening of Terminal 5 at Heathrow. The opening was not successful and there were a number of problems. Imagine a middle manager explains, in social media, where it will be permanent and easily repeated (unlike face-to-face or telephone), and the reasons why there were delays or a backlog. If that explanation does not match what has been “agreed” and provided in the press briefings, the following is likely to happen. The corporate communication “enforcers” will be on that manager faster than the Aurors in Harry Potter. The aurors will look like girl scouts in comparison. If they are not sacked outright, they will certainly be disciplined. One thing for certain, is that in the future they will not offer a perspective different from what is “agreed”.
Hierarchies political or organisational limit dialogue despite social media
Organisations, especially large governmental ones, are hierarchical structurally and functionally. Large business firms can move, to some degree, away from hierarchy by devolving authority and responsibility. By contrast, government have dual accountability and dual hierarchies. They have the organisational hierarchy and they have the political hierarchy. The officer or civil servant who consistently flouts the “party line” of the political party in charge in a sustained or consistent way in public will not stay for very long. At the same time, social media will not subvert the hierarchy because the hierarchy sustains the internal structure and its external delivery. To that extent, the hierarchies are networks and competing to control anything that could challenge it.
Management fearing loss of control encourages monologues.
The final problem is that social media challenges the normal managerial relationship. The technology challenges their control of the situation and their employees. Moreover, there is always an implicit fear, in periods of rapid change, those employees who are “good” at social media may make them look bad or make their role redundant. Why do we need the manager if we can go straight to the employee for the answer? Drucker famously argued that most middle managers could be removed and the social media appears to carry through with that idea.
At the same time, control makes sure that good news is reported upwards. Social media can appeared uncontrolled, either internally or externally, with “bad news” emerging to challenge the perceived or accepted view. If social media fixes the bad news, then it will work. However, it is more likely to be seen as something that challenges the entrenched communication system. If the entrenched communication system filters the communications to meet senior politicians or senior management expectations, it will resist. What Chief Executive is going to be happy to read on an internal blog or, worse, an external blog that project XYZ is actually behind schedule? The problem is compounded when all the reporting layers have stressed the good news. Therein, we see why an internal communication culture will want to cut either an internal or an external dialogue.
Leaders have to overcome these implicit, or explicit, biases within the culture. If government is to “communicate” better, it has to accept and nurture dialogue. The process has to start inside the organisation. If the dialogue and openness are not occurring in the organisation, it will not happen externally. For this to work, the senior managers and the politicians have to see and understand the benefits. They need to understand the benefit of an internal communication system that can communicate critical information upwards. At the same time, it has to see how the external dialogue can improve the organisational reputation. The dialogue will be based on direct experience and not corporate communication context. For more on this topic see this excellent MA thesis.
- To really understand social media, you must also understand online communities (freshnetworks.com)
- Overcome 3 Common Roadblocks to Social Media Adoption (radian6.com)