Like, click, follow: a look at the UK government’s social media tips for civil servants

By on 09/08/2022 | Updated on 09/08/2022
Photo by Tracy Le Blanc via Pexels

You may be surprised to learn that the UK government keeps a book of etiquette and best practice for running its social media channels. But then again, given the vast numbers of people who use social networks, perhaps it is not unusual that the government sets out a plan on how best to use it.

First published by the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2014, the UK’s playbook in its current iteration consists of 12 parts and gives unique insight into the job of community managers in Whitehall and the work that goes into developing a government’s voice online – from choosing the right channels, to building and engaging with audiences, working with influencers and dealing with detractors.

Establishing government’s audience

The first part of the playbook asserts that: “From open policy-making through to customer service and user insight, social media is a valuable tool for the public sector.” This was expanded upon at Global Government Forum’s webinar on how the public sector can keep pace in the digital age by Peter Heneghan, deputy director of digital communications for 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office. Heneghan said that at a time when “media has been replaced by medium”, government communications has come to see itself as proactively “editorial”, rather than a purely reactive organ of the state.

“I do think it needs a complete shift in how we communicate and how we think about the strategies that we’re introducing,” he said.

Government can sometimes underestimate how big its audience really is. But as Heneghan explained, when you add up every follower of every government account on Twitter, say, what you get is an audience that outnumbers that of The Guardian and BBC News UK respectively.

“Audiences have become more and more niche. And this is really important, because when you’re trying to communicate to large audiences at that sort of scale, you don’t need to think about the formats in which they get that information. And that’s become much more of a big challenge for us in government, but also across the board in all industries.”

Watch: Communication breakthrough: how the public sector can keep pace in the digital age

Social media objectives

To make the most of social media, GDS champions what it calls an OASIS model, focused on helping departments establish their Objective, Audience insight, Strategy, Implementation, Scoring/evaluation.

Knowing the best platforms with which to reach the right people is key to the day-to-day management of social customer service. The playbook stresses that less is more: that it is better for managers to run one channel well than spread communications poorly across several.

It then lays out a suite of community management tools that can be used by civil servants responsible for social communication and engagement, including  Sprout Social (which allows GDS to assign community managers and ensure a good response time), Falcon Social, Sprinklr, Buffer, Conversocial and Hootsuite.

“It’s important to research options to find what best suits your needs and complies with any requirements set by your information assurance or data protection team,” the playbook says.

GDS currently manages “four different Twitter accounts, as well as having a presence on YouTube, Instagram, Flickr and LinkedIn”. This may sound like overkill, but GDS says that each channel it uses is very much an informed decision based on its team’s objectives.

“We considered the role social media needed to play to deliver our messages, the audiences we needed to engage and the corporate priorities or campaigns we needed to deliver.”

And, as has been demonstrated conclusively in recent years in the face of the pandemic and economic crisis, how government responds to unprecedented events is vital to citizen confidence. The GDS playbook highlights that it is important for departments to have a system in place that enables community managers to make decisions about how to communicate that response quickly and effectively.

“Community management takes judgement. Sometimes it’s difficult to know which social interactions demand a response. And, if they do, what kind of response is appropriate.”

Winning over the people by collaborating with influencers

Influencers – people whose social media activity attracts substantial followings and even income – can be a powerful catalyst for social change. For governments, working with influencers can help political campaigns and initiatives reach wider audiences and make key messages go viral. In 2020, Manchester United and England football star Marcus Rashford launched a campaign to provide children from low-income families with free school meals during holidays. This wasn’t a government campaign – in fact, it  highlighted the failings of existing government policy but it was successful in getting policy changed, proving how powerful influencers’ messages can be. Similarly, in 2022, Kwajo Tweneboa, another British social media campaigner who exposes poor quality housing across the UK, met with then communities secretary Michael Gove, to advise on housing policy changes and tenants’ safety regulation. Tweneboa’s work has since helped shape the government’s housing white paper.

The commercial nature of influencing makes unpaid partnerships difficult to secure. However, an influencer whose key interest is to bring about social or political change may well see compatibility of values over financial gain and ask only for a small fee, if any.

To discover influencers, the playbook recommends tools such as BlueNod and Hashtagify. “Social listening tools” that pick up on key words are another method. The essential criteria for finding someone is to “look at who is engaging with your content consistently, and spend time reviewing user feeds, networks and forums”. If the person or group expresses views directly counter to those of government, or is an advocate for the ruling party’s political opponent, this could undermine the value of impartiality of the civil service. If, on the other hand, a team identifies someone whose following, content, engagement and tone reach high standards and are compatible, this could lead to a partnership, though clear ground rules would need to be set first.

“Establish whether they are creating content for your channel that they will be tagged in, or will it be created for, and hosted on, their channel? What analytics will they share with you? Establish these parameters in a contract to provide both sides with security,” the playbook advises.

Whether or not an influencer is in fact the right fit for a campaign, GDS urge community managers to take the rise of the influencer seriously, and never to write them off as a passing fad.

“Vuelio’s 2020 Influencer survey predicts the influencer industry will more than quadruple by 2024, so expect influencers to play an ongoing role in integrated, multi-channel ‘PESO’ (Paid, Earned, Shared, Owned) campaigns,” it says.

Community management

A universal rule for  government social media is to only populate your feed with posts and shared content that reaffirms the message you want to put out. Not everything a department retweets need be from an influencer, nor even a person or group with a large platform. Provided a post speaks to the interests and aims of a campaign, it can come from almost anywhere. The playbook describes how some departments’ audiences are and always should be their biggest collaborators. For example, the Department for Work and Pensions’  Twitter and Facebook accounts host Q&A sessions with followers, working together with policy colleagues to give accurate responses to queries and challenges.

“Positive experiences like this can build the reputation of and trust in an account,” the playbook says.  

Interaction is the ultimate form of online engagement as it enables community managers to deliver a real-time public service. For those whose job is to deliver that service, the hours are often relentless, and the work thankless. It can involve abuse from angry members of the public or those seeking the thrill of online provocation. Staff must be allowed to take regular breaks from their screens and be offered wellbeing support. The playbook advocates “mental health ambassadors, any employee assistance programmes, talking to [a staff member’s] line manager and seeking peer-support from colleagues” as among the kind of support that should be offered.

Protocol for dealing with detractors is also detailed in the playbook. Detractors are defined as online users who “talk about your account in a derogatory way for no good reason” and without valid complaints or questions. Simply “recording disruptive users who routinely breach community rules so other staff know not to respond to them” is one way it suggests enquiry handlers prevent a toxic exchange. However, detractors work in a variety of ways, often using manipulative and deceptive ploys to reel in their targets. The playbook provides a list of signs someone online might be a detractor. Posts from these users may be:

  • Abusive, violently graphic, defamatory or obscene
  • Fraudulent, deceptive or misleading
  • In violation of any intellectual property rights
  • Promoting other social media channels, websites or content considered spam
  • ‘Flame-baiting’ – in which the aim of the post is to provoke heated and emotional responses
  • ‘Trolling’ – in which the aim is to use off-topic, insulting or threatening remarks to upset another user or group of users

Some people post unpleasant material online because they think it is harmless, but the playbook maintains departments should set out rules of engagement somewhere on their account to let users know what can happen if community rules are broken. And while blocking or banning people online should only be used “as a last resort”, it says that “if a user continually breaks our rules of conduct or is abusive, we do report or block them”.

Managing your escalation policy in times of crisis

Another source of stress for communications staff is one that is often shared with their audience. A crisis such as a pandemic, a major weather event, or the outbreak of war can be overwhelming for the messenger as well as those receiving the message. In such circumstances, it is crucial teams have a system in place with which to field questions from a public desperately seeking answers.

“We use a traffic light system to identify the levels of severity for an issue and outline the mitigating actions we will take to minimise them as part of our wider approach to strategic communications. These risks are reviewed and discussed quarterly,” the playbook says.

For each risk, GDS outlines a pre-prepared crisis response that includes:

  • Who takes charge of information
  • Which stakeholders the team should notify (and crucially, their up-to-date contact details)
  • Who will lead the crisis response
  • Holding statements and responses
  • Actions to take to protect accounts in the event of a breach
  • Follow-up actions including incident reports or training updates

Civil servants are also citizens, and just as they can feel panicked in times of crisis, they also risk becoming complacent in periods of relative calm. To combat this, GDS retrains staff with regular refresher sessions, such as running scenario-based exercises, to keep their protocol knowledge sharp.

Top tips to cover the bases

Our last pick of the playbook lays out GDS’s eight top tips for video content. These are:

  1. Ensure the content is titled and tagged correctly for SEO
  2. Consider whether you want your video to be visible only to users with the link
  3. Add content to the relevant playlists
  4. Upload regularly and consistently
  5. Ensure your video is mobile optimised. More than 70% of YouTube views come from mobile
  6. Always add a ‘call to action’ (CTA) to share
  7. Consider accessibility. Make sure videos are captioned or embedded with a transcript
  8. Add a thumbnail to your video so it encourages users to watch it

Social media increasingly acts as an auxiliary public service, and government departments that limit their social media use to only a light-touch presence will allow other media to run roughshod over their agenda and message. As the playbook makes clear, departments can use social media to help their mission be understood, and build meaningful bonds with citizens that can boost public trust in government.

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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