When citizens are “Googling” for information about tax credit programs, employment insurance or student loans, they often land on blogs, chat groups and discussion forums, and turn to Twitter to get complex questions solved.

Although these social media tools provide valuable and often extensive information, the complexities associated with many government programs leave room for false impressions, misinformation and confusion. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada identified half-truths on social networking and social media sites as contributors to some of the confusion around the parameters of the Canada Student Loans Program (CSLP). While most students were sharing correct information about loan applications, maintenance and repayment, others were not so well informed and put some students at risk of significant errors in applications, management of loan documents, or worse, defaulting on a loan.

Recognizing that social networks are a way of direct engagement with this audience, the CSLP started a “corrective blogging campaign.”

While blogging is topical within government circles right now, Tracie Noftle, director of Learning Communications at HRSDC, stressed that “a corrective blogging campaign must be part of the greater communications strategy.” One should not adopt social media projects for the “coolness factor.” Rather, one must start with the business drivers of the program or department and evaluate if social media would be an effective complement to traditional activities.

In the case of CSLP, the team identified misinformation on blogs as a challenge; correcting this misinformation would better equip students to manage the student loan process. However, since the department had never undertaken a corrective blogging initiative before, it needed a clear game plan to get senior level support. “Assessing the risks of participating in this medium and devising comprehensive risk mitigation strategies was a key factor in our ability to move forward,” Noftle stated.

The team leveraged the U.S. Air Force’s decision tree on blog assessment to evaluate appropriate opportunities. They then devised an “inject, correct, direct” strategy which detailed when they should “inject” pre-approved comments onto blogs, what “correct” information to provide and how to “direct” blog participants to the official CSLP website – CanLearn.ca.

Noftle emphasized that gaining buy-in was possible for two reasons. “First, we were particularly lucky to have the support of a visionary director general. Barbra Glover believed in the initiative and helped spearhead it among her colleagues and superiors. Secondly, we ensured that we made friends near and far. We briefed all levels within the organization on what mediums would be targeted, what messaging would be given and what effect was anticipated. We assured them that we weren’t recreating the wheel. We were simply applying our current media inquiries process to a new medium.”

The team then implemented a controlled pilot to test the social media waters. The results, while still being collected, showed an increase in traffic to the CanLearn site, better ranking on search engines like Google, and an increased level of connection to students, in fora of their choice.

Jennifer Savage is the president of WebDrive Canada, a leading provider of government web strategies and government-grade Web 2.0 solutions. She speaks regularly on the subject of social media for government and operates the Gov20.ca wiki.