How Public Institutions Should Reach Out Proactively to the Public

By: Sofie De Beule

November 21, 2014

Afraid of making mistakes that would damage their reputation, many governmental institutions are often daunted when it comes to tapping into conversations and addressing public concerns on social media. However, governmental institutions are missing out on important opportunities. What could really make the difference is for public institutions to reach out proactively to the public, and go a step beyond simply responding to their community’s complaints.

But how exactly do you bring this about?

We had an inspiring talk with Dieter Van Esch, Digital Director at Belgian communication agency RCA, that works for numerous governmental institutions. At our second Engagor Day in September of 2013, he also gave an eye-opening presentation about how Belgian pubic transportation company, De Lijn, kicked off on social media. He opened up about the issues governmental institutions struggle with on social and shared some practical tips with us on how governmental institutions should approach social media engagement.

What holds governmental institutions back from engaging with their audience?

Governmental institutions often fear the vox populi, or the public voice. They are afraid of making mistakes that could ruin their reputation when responding to their community. Most of the time, they are concerned about the consequences. However, Dieter Van Esch strongly believes it’s important to change the mindset of public institutions:

“The public sector shouldn’t fear reaching out to the public. In each problem lies an opportunity. It’s up to your public institution to seize it.” – Dieter Van Esch, Digital Director at RCA

Governmental institutions shouldn’t fear responding and reaching out proactively on social media at all. According to Dieter, it truly is the most ideal place to address public concerns, manage your reputation, and strengthen it. Have no fear, in each problem lies an opportunity.

Introduce Structure and You Can Make Anything Work

What really helps governmental institutions ace engagement with their audience is providing structure. By introducing structure into a company, you can make anything work. Companies in general really need to have a structure in place to fall back on, so they can immediately feel more empowered to respond to complaints.

Once you ace social media engagement, don’t forget to share your own success stories to make them visible to the entire organization and show how your efforts are paying off.

To make sure social media runs even more smoothly, introduce two teams (i.e. a team that listens to incoming messages and a team that replies to social media mentions):

  • For every mention that comes in, analyze the type of mention first, and decide upon a concrete response.

  • To optimize the process of listening and responding, create flow sheets with standard replies or “scripts”. These replies have been approved in advance and help boost your social media team’s confidence.

  • For each question that isn’t yet accounted for with a script, create a new script to grasp the complete picture and respond seamlessly in the future.

The ‘listening’ team has a great responsibility: they not only analyze the social media messages that directly address the public institution, but also proactively look for interesting keywords and conversations to tap into.

Involve All Departments & Avoid Narrow-Mindedness

A great way to make sure you are on trend with relevant topics in the public sector is to organize monthly meetings with people from different departments in your company (HR, Sales, IT, and even your office manager). These people have a great overview of what truly matters at your company and what is relevant to your community. Leverage this valuable pool of precious information to proactively address your community’s issues.

Always ask yourself “why” you are publishing or responding to ensure you are meeting the right goals. If someone mentions your brand, take action. Don’t forget to include these scenarios in your response flow sheets. Make sure you understand what the relevant keywords are for your industry (e.g. health care, local government, public transport, etc.) and monitor them closely.

Bear in mind that every beginning has its ups and downs, especially when it comes to changing a company’s mindset. However, have faith in your employees that they will achieve your goals. Once you have managed to subdue the insecurities of your employees and boosted their confidence (e.g. by creating flow sheets and organizing monthly content meetings), reaching out proactively to the public will grow naturally.