Advertising, Marketing & PR and Government

Is the government really interested in online dialogue?

December 27, 2012
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Is the government really interested in online dialogue?
Ottawa County offers residents a wide variety of services directly through its website, miOttawa.org.

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article recently about the District of Columbia using social media analytics to grade each governmental department based on citizen comments. You can see for yourself at Grade.DC.Gov.

This was interesting to me for several reasons, including the fact that customer service is the most common category of citizen comments (42.8 percent), far more than things you would expect like policies (14 percent) and services offered (3.1 percent).

It also grabbed me, because it illustrates a trend coming to government public relations and communications that is changing conventional wisdom about how PR is practiced in government agencies. PR educators and professionals who have formally studied public relations know there are four models or ways of practicing PR:

  • Press agentry/Publicity: Characterized as one-way communication, largely through the news media, to get attention to advance an organization’s goals
  • Public Information: Another one-way attempt to disseminate information to an organizations key publics, through news media and directly with organizational communication vehicles
  • Two-way asymmetrical: A form of practice in which feedback is considered, but the organization listens primarily to adapt its message and still pushes its own agenda
  • Two-way symmetrical: Considered the most evolved form of practice, in which an organization listens and adapts to its publics’ feedback in an effort to form mutually beneficial relationships

It has long been understood that PR practitioners in government practice the public information form of PR, because they are obligated to provide information to citizens and taxpayers. It’s the “people have a right to know” idea. That’s why PR professionals in the public sector are often called PIO — public information officers.

But as GradeDC.gov shows, the Internet and social media are transforming even government communications. More governments at the federal, state and local levels may no longer be able to just put information out there. It may become more expected that they are to seek, listen to and adapt to feedback from citizens. Yes, it’s hard to believe that would be a revolutionary concept in the U.S.

However, there is still a way to go at all levels of government. For example, at the federal level, www.usa.gov has a surprisingly clean interface and navigation for something as large and complex as the U.S. Government. There are also prominent links to social media and blog accounts and a handy tool to verify that they are the voice of government.

But all this modern communication is still one-way, public information. I went back a month on the Twitter feed and found not one reply or other sign of acknowledging citizen input. The U.S. Government's official Twitter feed has nearly 120,000 followers, but only follows 380 (then, again, few of us may want the feds to follow us!).

The White House, which just this week joined Pinterest, also has a blog. Kudos to the Obama administration for moving a little closer to the people with a blog. However, there is no way to comment on any posts. People may share and link them on social media, but they would be talking among themselves and not really having a sense of input to the White House. It still feels very one-way.

The State of Michigan also has an easy-to-navigate website and a social media presence. But while finding information and even conducting business online is nice, there is little public input or discussion.

Here in West Michigan, it is much the same. Kent County and Ottawa County both have nice websites for one-way information about services, key dates, reports and other public information. But Ottawa County goes an extra step by embracing another PR concept of “transparency” and offering a series of online “dashboards” for citizens to see how the county is doing in various areas. While these rankings are a good way for citizens to get a sense of how their government is doing, they are third-party metrics on categories chosen by government officials. There is no citizen input as with Grade.DC.gov.

Governor Snyder has called for Michigan municipalities to offer more financial transparency at the local level and has provided free online software for local leaders to do so. That’s a good first step in providing data to citizens. But listening to them would be better still.

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