In the beginning social media was uncharted territory for the Government of Alberta. Many thought of it as a free-for-all, an ungoverned wild west where the first thing lost was control of the message.
As social media use increased, the government recognized that despite the undercurrent of concern, social media offered a new way of invigorating the dialogue and engaging Albertans.
“Certainly there was an appetite to explore what role social media could play in Alberta communications,” says Lee Funke, managing director of Alberta’s Public Affairs Bureau. “But it is an evolving medium with different challenges than traditional communications. We had to identify those challenges and plan for them. We had to make sure we were mindful of the minefields, if you will.”
Some got in the game early, including Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach. He signed on to Twitter in November 2008 and gave updates from an overseas mission to Europe. He also used YouTube to answer questions from Albertans in November 2009. Other government departments and programs, such as Sustainable Resources Development and One Simple Act unveiled Facebook groups and pages and took advantage of YouTube and blogs.
However, there was still a lot of reticence and legitimate concern about social media. How could we participate, yet still adhere to communications policy? How would we address issues concerning privacy, copyright and information technology management?
A social media policy provided parameters for official and private use. Anyone tweeting or blogging on behalf of the government had to be approved by their communications branch, just like Government of Alberta communicators speaking to traditional media.
Public Affairs Bureau staff also met with internal stakeholders – legal, freedom of information and privacy, CIOs, IM and IT – to ensure that the risks were clearly understood, and to examine ways to mitigate them.
Additionally, a strategy was developed that outlined, in broad strokes, how to participate. A guiding principle is that the use of social media has to be reasoned, rational, and justified – no tweeting for the sake of tweeting. Does it make sense to post a blog as part of a particular government initiative? Can details be tweeted? Is there a forum to engage interested parties in an online discussion? Is the social media aspect ongoing or program-specific; should it wind up after the initial goals are met? Answers to these questions can be found in the strategy.
“Those conversations are happening, so we felt it made sense to be a part of them. As with traditional media, that means choosing our spots – establishing a presence where it makes sense for the government,” said Funke.
There was one further critical step to success.
Despite the regularity and ease with which the term is used these days, social media means different things to different people. To clarify and educate, in-house courses and online resources cover topics from a basic introduction to more advanced discussions on using social media to enhance public engagement. These further enhance acceptance and understanding of social media and how government was trying to maximize its use.
Among Alberta’s social media successes was Alberta@Vancouver2010, showcasing the province’s athletes, artists and activities at the Games. The website received more than 46,500 visits during February alone, up 344 percent from January, and international visits almost doubled during that period. Social Mention, a website that measures the quality of one’s social media presence, showed that the campaign’s reach grew to 17 percent – not bad when the whole world was talking about the Olympics online. This project and others showed that social media could be manageable.
That’s not to say it’s clear sailing into the social media future, however. Alberta is still working through implementation plans and seeking, developing, and applying best practices. There’s work ahead as social media continues to evolve, but the Government of Alberta will be a part of that future.
Alberta@Vancouver2010 by the numbers
- 67 blog posts
- 118 Facebook fans
- 481 photos uploaded to Flickr and received over 6000 views. Two photo releases were issued during the Games
- 485 followers on Twitter, 1205 click-throughs on 251 tweets and 194 mentions. Twitter Gradr score of 93%.
- 39 videos posted to the AlbertaVan2010 playlist on the YourAlberta YouTube channel, including 17 daily updates, posted every morning and highlighting Alberta-related athletes and artists for the day. By noon, February 27, the update videos had been viewed a total of 2437 times, and YouTube Channel subscriptions increased by 20%.
Social media policy: http://bit.ly/GOA-SMpolicy
Social media directory: http://bit.ly/GOA-SMdirectory
Comment policy: http://bit.ly/GOA-CommentPolicy
Tom Olsen is the director of New Media and Internet Communications for the Government of Alberta and spent three years as media relations director to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.