In two previous posts I reflected on the use of social media by social workers and social work academics. I argued there were definite benefits associated with social media use by professional people acting in their capacity as individuals. In this post I want to turn my attention to the use of social media by social service organisations. This, however, is a more complex proposition. Why?
It is the nature of organisations to organise: to propose, plan, strategise and deploy resources (sometimes considerable resources) to achieve their purposes. Large for-profit and non-profit organisations can possess considerable resource power. Government agencies may wield both resource power and political power. The democratising force of social media may have thrown organisations from all sectors onto the back foot, but power has a way of adapting to change, even bureaucratic power. How have social service organisations been adapting to the new social media landscape?
The for-profit sector
The majority of business organisations are positively engaged with social media. Some are experimenting with the ways in which it might add value to their work; others have integrated it fully into routine business processes (Hanna, Rohm, & Crittenden, 2011; Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, 2010). Although there are many positive reasons for businesses to engage with social media, there is little doubt that one of the early drivers was the need to respond to a shift in power to customers, and a perceived loss of control over brand information (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010; Kietzmann, Hermkens, McCarthy, & Silvestre, 2011).
TripAdvisor is a well-known example of a website that transformed the travel industry by enabling any individual to review and rate a hotel, flight, restaurant or destination. The emergence of TripAdvisor, and other user review and rating sites, has made the proactive management of online reputation a serious issue. In many jurisdictions the care home industry forms a large and growing part of the for-profit social services sector. In the UK some providers of directories of care homes have adapted the TripAdvisor model to include the online submission of reviews of care homes by residents and relatives. Unsurprisingly, care home providers are now seeking to manage their online reputation by using social media to offer service users, and potential service users, direct communication and brand information.
For-profit social service agencies may not be early adopters of social media but it seems likely that their use will continue to grow, in parallel with the growth in the proportion of older people using the internet to search for health information (Statistics New Zealand, 2013).
The non-profit sector
Across the world non-profit organisations of all types are experimenting with social media to achieve their social mission and express their values. Many see social media as presenting new opportunities to engage with their publics, grow their support base, campaign, lobby and raise funds (Common Knowledge, 2012; Kanter & Fine, 2010).
Scores of New Zealand social service, non-profits have a presence on social media channels including: the Child Poverty Action Group, Age Concern, Deaf Aotearoa NZ, the Mental Health Foundation, CCS Disability Action, Blind Foundation, SPINZ, Shine, Family Works (and many, many more). All are combining their established web presence with more interactive and dialogical social media elements: the combo of Twitter (for news and announcements) and Facebook (for conversations and connections) being very common.
Some commentators argue that the networked non-profit is a radical new organisational form with the potential to enable more open, transparent and responsive relationships with stakeholders (Kanter & Fine, 2010; Young, 2013). It is, however, too early to reach firm conclusions on this prospect. Emerging evidence is mixed. One exemplary case study describes the use of social media by the American Red Cross to engage donors, inform the community and promote dialogue (Briones, Kuch, Liu, & Jin, 2011). Other evidence suggests that most non-profits do not make use of the dialogical potential of social media, using it instead as – yet another – passive one-way communication channel (Lovejoy, Waters, & Saxton, 2012; Waters, Burnett, Lamm, & Lucas, 2009).
The government sector
In 2011 the Gartner Group (a global IT research and advisory group) recognised the New Zealand government’s guidelines for public sector use of social media as “the best government social media guidelines so far” (Di Maio, 2011). Curiously, they seem to better known outside of New Zealand than they are at home (Office of the Auditor General, 2013). The guidelines go beyond the usual concerns with the inappropriate use of social media by public sector staff and explore the positive use of social media for the purposes of citizen engagement, consultation and communication, (Department of Internal Affairs, 2011a, 2011b).
A discussion document published by the Office of the Auditor General (2013) explores eight NZ social media case studies (seven public sector agencies, and one non-profit). Based on an analysis of these cases eight success factors are identified (adapted into recommendations for action below):
- Leadership: promote an organizational culture of innovation and openness to exploring the possibilities of social media;
- Strategy: use social media in a planned and purposeful manner;
- Implementation: invest in people as much as technology.
- Risk management: identify and manage risks without allowing them to become a barrier;
- Integration: integrate social media into day-to-day business operations;
- Adaptation: monitor, adapt and learn as you go;
- Measurement: know what success looks like, design and measure success indicators;
- Considered communication: make your terms of engagement clear, and consider the changes in communication styles that social media require.
Although these success factors are discussed in term of public service use of social media, they resonate strongly with the advice offered to the for-profit and non-profit sectors. The core messages are: align social media use with business purposes; integrate social media with routine business processes; and use metrics and analytics to assess need and measure outcomes.
It seems likely that social service organisations in all sectors will continue to experiment with social media. We can anticipate increasingly sophisticated uses as social media becomes more strategic, more integrated with business processes, and more driven by business analytics (Kanter & Paine, 2012; Mergel & Greeves, 2013; Mergel, 2013). In other words social services, and other organisations, will become better at navigating the social media landscape in order to support, influence, sell, persuade, recruit, campaign, cajole, control and predict our needs, wants and behaviours.
Should we welcome these developments? Do they herald the rise of new, open, transparent, and more people-centric social service organisations? Will they simply be used as another (less expensive) channel to pump out the same tired old messages? Or might the organisational use of social media develop into a more subtle and sophisticated tool to monitor, influence, control and predict the behaviour of citizens and service users: another form of government-at-a-distance (Rose, 1998)?
All three scenarios are possible, and the future is likely to include social service examples of each. There is, in other words, nothing necessarily liberating or empowering about the organisational use of social, or any other media. Citizens, community activists, social and community workers need to keep a critical eye on all of these developments. Lessons learned from more traditional forms of community participation and engagement need to borne in mind (Cornwall, 2008; Craig, 2007; Shaw, 2011). Social media does have the potential to empower and revitalise civil society and the public sphere (Shirky, 2011), but social media can also be used for less socially progressive purposes. Internet freedom, like other freedoms, needs to be defended.
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