Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dealing with a social media backlash in government

In the last week there's been several Australian government activities or announcements which have lead to large community responses via social media - both good and bad.

Gov 2.0 Taskforce draft report
On 7 December the Gov 2.0 Taskforce released their draft report 'Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0' for public comment.

Over the course of the last week the blog post announcing the release has received 48 comments, including from Andrew McLaughlin the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer.

There were at least several hundred tweets about the report, 12 other Australian blog posts about the release and five articles in major online sites. The report was also covered on several radio programs and extensively discussed overseas in the US, UK and New Zealand.

Overwhelmingly the view has been that it's a good report and the government (and the independent Taskforce) have received a great deal of positive social media feedback, largely through viral promotion of the report.

Realising our Broadband Future Forum
On the 10th and 11th December the Realising our Broadband Future Forum was held by the Department of Broadband Communication and the Digital Economy, hosted by the Prime Minister and Senator Conroy.

As I've discussed in a previous post, this involved roughly 300-350 physical participants, 120 taking part in remote locations ('nodes') and roughly 380 tweeters, plus other online participants.

The forum made extensive use of online video, twitter and wikis to distribute and collect information from participants in order to build the conversation.

There were over 3,800 tweets using the event's hashtag (#bbfuture) over the two day event and 10,000 words were added to the wiki during the event. A Google Wave was set up with over 20 participants and at least four blogs covered the event.

Internet filter
On Tuesday 15 December Senator Conroy stimulated even more social media discussion with a media announcement that the government intended to proceed to legislate for all ISPs to filter content on a ACMA blacklist (which is to remain secret). A mandatory filter on all Australian internet users, the release indicated that the enabling legislation would be introduced into the parliament before the next election.

Released to the media at approximately 5pm on Tuesday, within five hours there had been over 8,100 tweets on the topic by almost 3,000 people using the hashtag #nocleanfeed - used by those opposed to a mandatory filter based on a secret blacklist.

Image taken at 10PM AEDT from http://wthashtag.com/Nocleanfeed

The level of tweeting has led to it becoming an internationally trending twitter topic, further increasing the level of public and media interest and further increasing online discussion - generating a negative feedback loop.

Over two dozen blogs have posted about the topic (none that I've yet seen supportive of a mandatory internet filter) and several organisations have moved to re-invigorate or establish websites to form the basis of a movement to oppose the plan.

So how should government departments address these different online reactions?

Firstly it is critical to monitor the conversations going on online. If your organisation is unaware of views  expressed online you will be unprepared when they translate into other media and require a high level response. Many reactions now start online and tools like Twitter and Facebook have become effective early warning systems for potential media situations.

Secondly, whether the views being expressed are positive or negative, it is important to engage online through the appropriate channels (those through which the views are being expressed) to manage community sentiment.

As has been demonstrated through a series of corporate incidents in the US, UK and even in Australia, organisation who refuses to engage actively online in response to significant reactions or fast-spreading views are risking losing control of their message and brand. They also lose public credibility and trust in their senior management (or Minister in a public sector context). Essentially an organisation that refuses to engage online is actively 'disrespecting' its customers and the community will respond accordingly.

When an online reaction is positive and supportive, engaging online helps reinforce and build further positive perceptions, building up trust that can be drawn on should the organisation stumble in the future. it also allows an organisation to manage expectations and guard against incorrect perceptions that can lead to future issues.

When an online reaction is negative in tone it becomes even more important to engage to ensure the correct information is getting out to the community and counter any incorrect information with facts. Engagement also builds trust, so even when people agree to disagree, respectfully disagreeing with them online preserves reputations and can build a future positive relationship.

Finally, engaging online is important for building ongoing relationships with online communities. By cultivating working relationships with online 'stakeholder groups', just as they currently do with physical stakeholders, the department is better able to source quality feedback quickly on potential initiatives. This provides an ability to gauge public sentiment before a controversial decision is made and allows organisations to adjust their decisions or communications approach to help communicate the intent of the decision and cut-through any initial resistance.

Who is doing online engagement well?
In my view the Gov 2.0 Taskforce has gotten the online engagement approach right over the last six months and is a fantastic model for government departments to use.

Rather than shying away from conflict or falling back into bureaucratic heavy handiness the Taskforce has treated every comment - good or bad - with respect. They have empowered their community to self-manage while simultaneously stepping in when required to clarify, support or seek a deeper understanding of views expressed on their blog.


  1. It's 4:30am where you are in the world Craig, and #nocleanfeed on Twitter has now had 11,662 tweets. These have come from 4,100+ unique users, and 38.3% of them are retweets.

    Be interesting to see how, if at all, DBCDE addresses community opinions on this issue.

  2. Yep it's up to 15,414 from 5,387 contributors now at 1pm AEDT on 16/12. An average of 2,202 tweets per day (1.5 per minute) since 5pm last night.

    The Department's Twitter account (@Departmentbcde) remains inactive and it appears that the Realising our Broadband Future Forum wiki has been closed.

  3. And now 31 hours later, 20,737 tweets, 7,010 contributors, 2,962.4 tweets per day (http://wthashtag.com/Nocleanfeed).

    That's just #nocleanfeed btw - doesn't include #openinternet, the other commonly used tag.

    The rate of discussion is increasing, as are the number of blogs and media reports discussing the matter.

  4. I'm seeing more Social Media efforts in the Government Sector and I like it. It's interesting to see how the Government is re-branding itself and more importantly, how people are interacting with Government 2.0. You make a good point about how some sites don't really need massive visibility in search engines.