Public sector bodies versus online activists – Snog, marry or avoid?

Public sector bodies versus online activists – Snog, marry or avoid?

Here is a post from @MarkOneinFour about a joint workshop we are running together as part of Social Media Week on 28 September in London. Here’s his take on the topic:

Along with Victoria Betton I’m giving a workshop called ‘Snog, marry, avoid? Activists versus corporates in the public sector‘ as part of Social Media Week 2012.

The event is about the increasingly obvious new area of interaction between people and public services that is opening in social media and the challenges and opportunities it poses.

One of the things that I’ll be touching on is the idea that social media (twitter, facebook, tumblr, blogs) have become the coffeehouses of the 21st century.

This is hardly a controversial idea. During the 17th and 18th century ‘Age of Enlightenment’ coffeehouses were spaces where, for the price of a penny, people could meet each other and discuss things. See if this description by historian Brian Cowell sounds like social media to you: The coffeehouses were “places where people gathered to drink coffee, learn the news of the day, and perhaps to meet with other local residents and discuss matters of mutual concern.” The coffeehouses were places where, for the first time, a class of people were hashing out their own ideas and responses to what at the time was the eroding of autocratic rule by Kings and Lords and finding their own voice. As Cowan says “the coffeehouse was a place for like-minded scholars to congregate, to read, as well as learn from and to debate with each other, but was emphatically not a university institution, and the discourse there was of a far different order than any university tutorial.” Sound familiar?

For many of us that’s the experience of social media – a space where we meet with other like minds, discuss, share and learn.

As I said, this is hardly a controversial idea. Visions of the internet as a virtual coffeehouse have existed for as long as the idea that the internet brings people together has existed. What is new and novel is that the internet and social media are bringing together groups of people who have never previously been exposed to each other to such large degrees, and this poses interesting questions for people who deliver public services.

In a traditional model of corporate communications you have your organisation and then various means to communicate to an essentially unconnected mass of individuals (the public). If you are a public sector organisation you have your communications team and then routes to connecting with your ‘users’ or ‘clients’. The information flows one way for the most part; out from your organisation at the centre of the web via various routes which all end at the full stop of an individual. You message goes out to the people it’s directed at then stops. Nice, simple.  A no longer true.

Social media has changed things

What’s happened in the new coffeehouse of social media is that thousands of people who had previously been those atomised full stops have found each other, and having found each other are in the process of debating and developing a discourse and public opinion of their own and also choosing to make their own policy and practical interventions. If you have any doubt as to whether this is happening, have a look at

I’ll use the example of the group I belong to:  People with mental health difficulties who may or may not use services.

For many of us, our mental health difficulties have been misunderstood and in some cases shameful facts of our lives. We have tended to communicate vertically with public services and charities providing us mental health support (evaluation, consultation). Organisations that represent us have tended also to use similar vertical strategies to collect information and then to lobby on our behalf. What hasn’t happened for people in great numbers until the internet and social media arrived was the ability and the impetus to communicate horizontally, that is, to communicate with people in a similar situation.

Social media, with its role as a new coffeehouse, has created conditions where people who were previously isolated or marginalised can meet each other ‘face-to-face’ to share, debate, argue, build, destroy, criticise, praise, organise and develop.

Where it gets even more interesting is that the results of this getting together ultimately colour the version of reality that is presented by newspaper and television, or has the potential to. We are are increasingly seeing news media responding to stories and events that first ‘broke’ or first developed in social media.  If you doubt this, think about how many events are now covered on television news that result from camera phone footage that has been uploaded to social media sites.

So what has this got to do with public services and snogging, marrying and avoiding?

Social media is something that public services in the UK have been notably lagging behind upon for a number of years. This is because social media, while looking like a communications task to be given to comms teams as a cheap way of sharing press releases, is in fact something more complex with huge possibilities and also significant risks for the public sector.

Many areas of the public sector, mental health included, have for a long time struggled to find ways of capturing patient feedback and of drawing into patient ideas about how services might be improved. ‘Consultation’ has been a term that led to much debate, some cynicism and more than enough heartache for all involved. The question was ‘how can we get people to tell us what they think?’

Now, via social media, public sector organisations have the terrifying or exhilarating experience of being able to access what people think of them 24 hours a day. Not only that they can also witness glimpses into the every day lives of the people for they provide services and also what people may do in response to the services that they provide.

In the context of mental health, the most popular mental health bloggers (non professionals, people who use services rather than run them) have followers and reads far, far in advance of anything a NHS mental health trust has yet achieved. In this sense, in the social media coffeehouse, they have far, far more influence if far less practical power to make things happen ‘in the real world’.

While they don’t control the budgets or write the legislation they do have a significant influence of the way that constantly evolving public opinion lies.

This is a similar situation across many areas of human life and hu8man need. For some it feel like a load of brash new bloods have crashed an otherwise settled and sedate members club. Suddenly, the public and public services are competing to rise above the hubbub in the same space. Sometimes they are both singing together in harmony (witness social media responses to NHS reorganisation) and sometimes they are at loggerheads (the example of social media public opinion on the closure of the Remploy supported employment factories versus the welcoming of the end of their large scale subsidy and ‘outmoded’ vision of disability by some large disability charities).

The online activists, the debaters, the campaigners, the bloggers, the sharers, the discussers, the retweeters, the facebook frienders, they’re already there and it’s possible to argue they’re already better at this stuff than large organisations. Many want the world to be a better place than it is at the moment; some for personal reasons, some for political (both for small and large ‘P’), some with sectional interests. All having got the hang of social media are unlikely to remain passive, atomised full stops in the world of networks and influence.

There is a huge range of possibilities waiting in social media, all of which depend on people. Public sector organisations can harness the power of social media only where they can harness the action, respect and support of the people that make it up.

The challenge for the public sector is learning how to build relationships with people in social media, rather than just broadcasting at them in traditional vertical ways.

This leads to a question for public sector organisations: just how do can big established public sector bodies engage with these new bloods? What can you together that you couldn’t do separately? What would happen if the public sector just ignored this newly empowered public opinion? How do large organisations and activists work out who to snog, who to marry and who to avoid?

Come and have a go at finding out!

Snog Marry Avoid? Activists versus corporates in the public sector takes place on Friday, 28 September 2012 in London. It’s open to anyone who has ever sent a tweet, written a blog or thought about public services in the 21st Century.

Book a place here

Mark Brown is the editor of One in Four magazine and the development director of Social Spider.  He is one of Community Care’s Top 60 social care tweeters.  He is @markoneinfour on twitter

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