Social media called just another communications tool

Agencies should look at the technology as another way to interact with the public, experts say

Social-media tools provide a cheap and easy way for agencies to communicate with the public, but it won't be the sole way they do so, according to experts speaking today at the Government 2.5 conference in Washington.

Rather than conducting a scientific poll, government officials can use social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to gauge the public's opinion on a particular topic, said Rory Cooper, director of strategic communications at the Heritage Foundation.

Agencies can also use the technology to quickly become aware of and respond to the public's concerns, he said. For example, cities could use Twitter to enable drivers to report potholes, and city officials, in turn, could use the technology to update the public on the status of repairs.

Orange County, Calif., officials are using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to interact with residents, said Ted Nguyen, manager of public communications and media relations at the Orange County Transportation Authority.

After a crash between a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth that killed 25 people, Nguyen's department started using social media to increase awareness about safety issues, he said.

The agency is also using the technology to share information about a major highway construction project, Nguyen said.

"Not only did we invite the traditional media to cover the groundbreaking for the freeway, but we also invited social-media practitioners in Orange County to come cover the event," he said. "Now the social-media people are following the progress of construction, they are re-Tweeting information that we've broadcasted out about the construction, and we are able to respond to concerns on a daily and sometimes hourly basis."

Nguyen and a staff of seven are the primary agency employees who use social media to interact with the public. He recommends that other government agencies only allow employees who are already responsible for communicating with the media and the public to use the tools for that purpose.

"Not all public personnel should be on social media just because the technology is cool and they've seen successes using it," he said. "However, there is no question public communications people should be using social media."

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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