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Rirhandzu Shingwenyana
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Social media: promising arena for public debate

12 April 2018, 09:23

The Government departments and public service institutions need to wake up and smell the coffee. There are few government institutions that are active on social media. Therefore, government communicators need to realise that traditional communication is obsolete in this digital cultural age. The population of South Africa is becoming younger every day. For that reason government communication must move to the digital sphere.

To that effect, government’s mandate is to educate and communicate information of public interest.

It is vital that the information government communicate is compelling enough to convince young people to take part in public affairs. Therefore the communication strategy should be tailored in a manner that understands and engages young citizens.

Follow where they are. And where they are is social media space

There are few prominent government communicators who are active on social media, however, often than not these communicators are using social media for personal gratification. Those who are already active and have a big number of followers should collaborate with governments to identify what social media can deliver to support their departments’ mission. Through communicators, the government agencies will leverage on the popularity of its communicators and reach people on social media.

Population getting younger

The South African population is getting younger by age; two-thirds of the population is young people. According to the 2010 revision of the United Nations Secretariat’s World populations prospects, South Africa’s total population was 50,133,000 in 2010, 30.1% of the people were children under the age of 15, 65.2% were between 15 and 64 years of age, and 4.6% were older. Statistic South Africa tells us that overall South Africa’s population is setting at 54,960,000 with a 1.51% increase in 2015. The painted picture here is that indeed South Africa’s population is younger than ever before. From that 55.21 million, 15 million are active social media users, not passive users.

The above point says to government departments that they need to be responsive as a majority of social media users are active rather than passive. They like engagement. Engage, don’t broadcast. Most government social media platforms are merely digital notice boards.

It is an opportunity for government communicators to adapt to the world of technology and innovation of which social media platforms form part. This opportunity for governments is what Deloitte has called the creation of "Hyper-local social networks". By harnessing available data about where and how constituents are living, governments can distribute information precisely to those who need it most.

Government and public service institutions are under pressure to identify opportunities where new technology can result in increased efficiency and budgetary saving.

Government failure to understand target audience

The previous two elections both national and local, the government has failed to persuade young people to vote. Yet again, an opportunity arises for the government or public service institutions to persuade young people to register and vote in 2019. The first step must be to re-examine the communication strategy.

By getting a sense of who their target is, where he is found and what interests him will help communicators to tailor-made their message right. Of course, government services are for all constituencies. However, this cohort is the priority.

Recent I was invited to a focus group discussion. The topic was 'understanding why young people don’t register to vote and obviously if not registered one won’t vote'. This particular study was targeting both female and male young people between the ages of 16 – 24 years.

What I picked up is that most young people don’t know what Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is all about. Less than a handful know and understand its duties. Vast major don’t understand IEC and its duties. And also fail to separate ICE from political parties.

The above is a short version of how government and public services institution are not communicating efficient and effective.

Social Media in government and public service institutions

The current practice reveals the extent to which departments spend time and resources on operations that could be simplified or even automated through the adoption of new technologies like coordinated social media. Social media platforms present a major revolution in the way people interact and consume their news.

In order to communicate effectively with young people, using social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, should be prioritised. These platforms have grown proportionally and are predominately utilised by young people.

Government communicators need to keep up with the times and start communicating in a cost-effective manner through social media. There is no space for institutions that are operating in a stone age. Bureaucratic red tapes and government communication policies can still be amended in a direction that’s relevant to digital communication.

By getting this right, the government will see different results in the near future in terms of young people getting involved in their affairs. Social Media can drive efficiency when it comes to the important governmental role of public outreach, such as encouraging young people to register for elections.

The traditional communication and advertising of putting the message out there and wait for the result is old school. Of progression, it is also vital that communicators know which platforms their targets use so that they can provide tailor-made marketing communication to those platforms. They also need to move their messages to where citizens want to engage: on social platforms.

Traditional media still work to a certain extent. Radio, TV, billboards and other nausea communication elements cannot be ruled out. However, they are not working well with the new generation of youth. Distributing pamphlets and leaflets to young people is a waste of resources. The pamphlet will land into the next waste bucket. Rather design the same pamphlet but distribute it on Facebook or Twitter. If one wants to distribute messages via these platforms, one should avoid heavy content posts. This generation of busy-bee has no time for reading long paragraphs of 'boring' government information. So it’s vital that whatever message you want to communicate must be straight to the point, no dilly-dallying.

With social media, communication has become immediate – in real time – as events unfold. There no time for mistakes. One mistake, your department’s reputation is tarnished. Gone are the days of "any publicity is good publicity". So attention to detail is key.

Government and public service institutions must hire people with technical skills and crystal balls for social media communication to execute the duty.

I will leave this quote by Cory Booker, former Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, US: "When we embraced social media, we took more control of the Newark narrative. We increased responsiveness towards residents. We drew more of our constituents in to participate in government and improve our cities."

Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.


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