Reflections on social workers and social media in Aotearoa: Part 3


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.

[This post is cross-posted on the Learning Designs website, and is released under a Creative Commons attribution 3.0 license.]


Briones, R. L., Kuch, B., Liu, B. F., & Jin, Y. (2011). Keeping up with the digital age: How the American Red Cross uses social media to build relationships. Public Relations Review, 37(1), 37–43. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2010.12.006

Common Knowledge. (2012). 4th Annual nonprofit social network benchmark report. Retrieved from

Cornwall, A. (2008). Unpacking “participation”: Models, meanings and practices. Community Development Journal, 43(3), 269–283. doi:10.1093/cdj/bsn010

Craig, G. (2007). Community capacity-building: Something old, something new . . .? Critical Social Policy, 27(3), 335–359. doi:10.1177/0261018307078846

Department of Internal Affairs. (2011a). Social media in Government: Hands on toolbox. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Department of Internal Affairs. (2011b). Social media in Government: High level guidance. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Di Maio, A. (2011). The best government social media guidelines so far come from New Zealand. Gartner blog. Retrieved June 22, 2014, from

Hanna, R., Rohm, A., & Crittenden, V. L. (2011). We’re all connected: The power of the social media ecosystem. Business Horizons, 54(3), 265–273. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.01.007

Harvard Business Review Analytic Services. (2010). The new conversation : Taking social media from talk to action. Harvard. Retrieved from

Kanter, B., & Fine, A. (2010). The networked nonprofit: Connecting with social media to drive change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kanter, B., & Paine, K. D. (2012). Measuring the networked nonprofit: Using data to change the world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2010). Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons, 53(1), 59–68. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2009.09.003

Kietzmann, J. H., Hermkens, K., McCarthy, I. P., & Silvestre, B. S. (2011). Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media. Business Horizons, 54(3), 241–251. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.01.005

Lovejoy, K., Waters, R. D., & Saxton, G. D. (2012). Engaging stakeholders through Twitter: How nonprofit organizations are getting more out of 140 characters or less. Public Relations Review, 38(2), 313–318. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2012.01.005

Mergel, I. (2013). Social media in the public sector: A guide to participation, collaboration and transparency in the networked world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mergel, I., & Greeves, B. (2013). Social media in the public sector field guide: Designing and implementing strategies and policies. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nah, S., & Saxton, G. D. (2012). Modeling the adoption and use of social media by nonprofit organizations. New Media & Society, 15(2), 294–313. doi:10.1177/1461444812452411

Office of the Auditor General. (2013). Learning from public entities’ use of social media: Discussion paper. Wellington, New Zealand. Retrieved from

Rose, N. (1998). Inventing our selves: Psychology, power, and personhood. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Shaw, M. (2011). Stuck in the middle? Community development, community engagement and the dangerous business of learning for democracy. Community Development Journal, 46, 128–146. doi:10.1093/cdj/bsr009

Shirky, C. (2011). The political power of social media: technology, the public shere, and political change. Foreign Affairs, (February), 1–12. Retrieved from

Statistics New Zealand. (2013). Golden age no stranger to digital age -. NZ Official Yearbook 2012. Retrieved June 25, 2014, from

Waters, R. D., Burnett, E., Lamm, A., & Lucas, J. (2009). Engaging stakeholders through social networking: How nonprofit organizations are using Facebook. Public Relations Review, 35(2), 102–106. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2009.01.006

Young, J. (2013). A conceptual understanding of organizational identity in the social media environment. Advances in Social Work, 14(2), 518–530.


About Neil Ballantyne

Expatriate Scot working as a senior lecturer in social work at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. Internationalist and open Marxist, preoccupied with abolishing capitalism.
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4 Responses to Reflections on social workers and social media in Aotearoa: Part 3

  1. Deb Stanfield says:

    Hi Neil, thanks for this article; interesting thoughts about the creative potential of social media, and about its “ordinariness;” of it simply (and sometimes boringly) being another place we have to go to stay fully connected. Speaking of organizational use of social media and in the spirit (albeit questionable) of cross professionalism I found this intriguing story on CBC radio worth a listen:
    It ‘s a story about ISIS and its current social media offensive, the importance of which is described by war and counter-terrorist experts in this interview as being equal to that of its military offensive. It is described as the first social media war, in the same way Vietnam was the first televised war. The interview makes some good “transferable” points. Firstly, that technology of course is a double edged sword – it can both boost our message and make us vulnerable to attack. Secondly, when we do spread the word (ie, retweet or write in blogs such as this), we have to be smart about when and how we do it so we don’t inadvertently back the “wrong side.” And thirdly there must be something we can learn from the dilemma faced by government officials: shutting down a site because of its questionable content often leads to a greater interest in that content, (ie a proliferation of more sites), and a loss of any useful intelligence. In short, this is complicated stuff, which says to me that we need to talk about it and think about – a lot. Thanks for the opportunity!

    • Hi Deb,

      Thanks for the link to the ISIS use of social media audio. You’re absolutely right to draw on other disciplinary perspectives in order to reflect on the implications of social media for social work. It would be odd if social media used in the context of social work had a completely different dynamic from other domains. Some of the most interesting and useful concepts have been developed in sociology, anthropology, media studies and other fields (see, for example, the idea of networked public space or networked publics).

      The ISIS article is very interesting. It begins by highlighting that the goal of many organisations is to have a “persuasive, far-reaching social media strategy”. It’s precisely this strategic use of social media that we need to be aware of. Technologies of all kinds are almost always used to achieve a particular purpose or programme: whether to sell a product, promote a cause, or influence a behavior. Large, well-funded organisations (whether they are governments, private businesses, or military organisations) can, and do, invest millions of dollars in social media campaigns.

      You and I might agree that the use to which ISIS puts social media is propagandist and morally repugnant. However, it’s important to recall that modern ideas about marketing grew from wartime government propaganda: see Adam Curtis’ fascinating documentary series on the connection between Freudian theory, public relations and marketing: The Century of the Self.

      For an example of a government social media campaign aimed at influencing public opinions and attitudes see this case study of the NZ Transport Agency. They made use of social media, in combination with television and street level advertising, to influence public attitudes to drugged driving. Of course, we should commend such pro-social uses of social media and welcome similar initiatives on family violence and child protection. But I guess we can also imagine other policy areas where attempts to influence public opinion might be more controversial.

      In one sense this is all part and parcel of liberal democratic politics in the network society. Social and public policy debates (attempts to influence the hearts and minds of the public) have already migrated to the networked public sphere (along with a host of other trivial, amusing, offensive and illegal activities). Networked public space, and the activities of ordinary citizens, are increasingly regulated by employers, monitored by police, and surveilled by governments. Did you know that New Zealand police use one of the most advanced social media surveillance systems in the world? Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with police use of social media to catch criminals, but there are ethical issues about who regulates the regulators and the balance to be struck between surveillance and civil liberty.

      As you say, it’s complicated, and we really do need these spaces to debate and deliberate. Thanks for your contribution 😉


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