Thursday 31 August, 2017
Risk reward

Another day…another social media ‘gaffe’. Why is it that so many individuals and organisations seem to get it wrong? Actually, I’m okay with the mistakes. In fact, I’d say an absence of them is a sign of something even more worrying.

(Just to be clear, I don’t advocate people posting deliberately offensive, inflammatory, discriminatory or other obviously dodgy content. There are lines that shouldn’t be crossed, so let’s assume we’re not talking about those kinds of errors.)

The only way to communicate free from the risk of criticism is not to communicate at all (and that in itself creates a different set of risks). Any organisation that wants to use social media positively, inevitably takes a chance that sometimes its posts won’t hit the mark.

This applies to all organisations, but can be a particular issue for the public sector, which arguably has the greatest need to engage with audiences through social media, yet is most under scrutiny and is – ultimately – accountable to us all.

One recent example was Police Scotland’s Edinburgh division and their recruitment update featuring three officers who weren’t ‘just pretty faces’.

I’m not getting into the rights and wrongs of that specific post. What concerns me more, for the purposes of this article, is that some in public bodies can over-react to criticism that they receive, undermining the good work that they do elsewhere in the digital world.

I spent many years in a former role trying to convince risk-averse colleagues and our political masters that social engagement was a good thing. I had some success, but it could often feel like pushing water up a hill. Thousands of others public sector comms people have had the same experience, and many still face that challenge on a daily basis.

It’s all human nature of course. It’s easy to mock and it’s even easier to feel stung by the mocking. The benefits of a positive approach are rarely as blatant as a front-page splash where your organisation is being ‘slammed’, and they certainly don’t stick in the mind so easily.

There are so many excellent examples of how public bodies are getting it right for the good of the people that they serve, but they will never get the headlines, and nor should anyone expect them to.

Standards are improving all the times, and it’s great to see. So, my sincere hope is that the powers-that-be will continue to trust their comms people, and their wider staff, and accept that sometimes it doesn’t all work out.

A sense of perspective, and proportion, is essential for seeing the overall benefits that accrue from having more engaging and direct conversations via social. Yes, learn the lessons from the mistakes that happen, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Stewart Argo is Head of Integrated Media in Edinburgh, and previously worked at the City of Edinburgh Council (where he led the creation of its corporate social media channels), Scottish Environment Protection Agency and NHS Grampian.