A case study featuring the Home Office on the appropriate use of a corporate social media account.
The Home Office tweeted this photograph and text on 03 July 2013. It caused a mini-fire storm on Twitter – one that featured a number of Puffles’ followers, a few of whom tweeted asking for my opinion. One of the reasons this interests me is that I was one of the external contributors to the civil service guidance published in 2012 [Look for the mention of @Puffles2010] – guidance that Home Office corporate accounts are bound by.
Now, the guidance itself is a very high-level document that does not go into the specifics. Nor should it. It assumes that civil servants are able to make judgement calls according to the situations that they face. Hence not going down the route of trying to account for every possible scenario.
What was the issue with the Home Office’s tweet?
In terms of the content, it is a photograph of what appears to be the detaining of individuals by immigration enforcement officers. The caption is “There will be no hiding place for illegal immigrants with the new #immigration bill”. [Updated to add: I’ll tackle an extraordinarily flawed policy proposal within it in a separate blogpost – but take it from here, the policy is as flawed as the consultation itself, leaving the Home Office open to a legal challenge amongst other things if they go ahead on the basis of the results of this]
The reaction on Twitter demonstrated that the image, the text and the combination of the two were controversial. Twitter users responded accordingly. My questions are on whether the post concerned meets the aims set out in the civil service social media guidance, and if not where does it fall short. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find the pre-Gov.uk web pages the Home Office had that explained its social media approach. Hence I’ve thrown a few requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 inviting the Home Office to publish them. The reason why I’ve explicitly stated law enforcement functions be outside the scope of the requests is that it reduces the likelihood the department will apply an exemption and withhold disclosing the information I seek.
In the meantime, I’m using the existing guidance to inform my conclusions – and I refer to the paragraph numbers in the guidance.
Section 2) Communicate with citizens in the places they already are
My interpretation of 2.2 is that departments need to consider how best to use the social media tools at their disposal. This can also be cross-referenced with the tips in paragraph 8 – in particular the first one. Does the posting of that the tweet concerned help meet the department’s aims and objectives of using social media? Is Twitter the best medium for raising the profile of whatever the policy concerned is? (In this case, a proposed Immigration Bill).
My view: Assuming raising awareness of the introduction of a new piece of legislation into Parliament, posting an image and a statement in this manner is not the best way of doing so. Far better to state that ministers will be introducing legislation and provide a link to the web pages detailing the policy and the text of the draft bill.
Section 3: Increasing the impact – social media to consult and engage
In this section I’m not looking at creating a firestorm to ‘raise awareness’. That might be something politicians want to – and are able to do. Departmental accounts are required to be run by civil servants who are bound by the Civil Service Code. Does this post clearly feed into a wider social media engagement cycle within the policy area? Does the social medium allow for a debate that civil servants can take part in? Are you risking creating rather than preventing a negative front page with this specific post?
My view: The problem here is that the Home Office is using a social media account that is a ‘broadcast’ account, not a discussion and engagement account. This is the sort of account that media organisations will follow to quote any ‘lines to take’. This was probably the mindset of whoever posted/authorised the post. The problem with posting such a statement is civil servants are unable to respond/engage with the debate that has now been created: The pre-Gov.UK social media policy page said that the Home Office was using its Twitter account for broadcast only. Therefore, for this sort of statement the social media tool, as well as the post itself were inappropriate. Far better for the Home Office to post a link to a departmental web page containing quotations from a minister.
Section 4: Use social media to be more transparent and accountable
My view: on section 3 apply here too – the Home Office has used a social media tool, (Twitter) – and a specific corporate channel where they have already tied their hands. People can respond but there is no way they will know whether their comments will have been taken on board. Therefore, an inappropriate channel, tool and post for raising the profile of a new policy or piece of legislation.
Section 5: Be part of the conversation and all the benefits that brings
Does the post invite conversation? How will that conversation be maintained. How will information from the conversation be fed into decision-making processes to improve policy, delivery and/or legislation?
My view: Earlier comments apply, and the posting of a statement does not invite conversation. The mindset is one that feels fixed in a media environment of the 1990s. “A departmental spokesman said there is no room for…etc” – using Twitter to send the message rather than ‘the wires’ of old.
Any other issues?
There might – though happy to be corrected – be data protection and/or privacy issues. In particular whether individuals pictured are guilty of any offences or not. It might be the case that persons pictured could be identified by other social media users. It may also be the case that the individuals pictured are innocent. We have no way of knowing. There’s far too much innuendo from this single post. It implies that the people being detained are guilty of immigration offences and that they have been deliberately concealing this. As far as the facts go, we simply do not know – nor are we told. As a result, the use of social media – and the specific tool – is completely inappropriate for the aim of raising awareness of a new policy or new piece of legislation.
Does this mean the Home Office should shut down their Twitter account?
In the grand scheme of things I’m prepared to give civil servants the benefit of the doubt. I used to work with people in hard-pressed press offices and communications teams. I know how difficult it can be if you have a very influential manager, special adviser or political adviser leaning over you, or if you are working in an environment that has developed a culture to be ‘robust’ against critics of a given policy. It doesn’t excuse it – it just seeks to understand to see where behaviours, systems and processes can be improved.
There doesn’t need to be a massive inquiry or an internal witch hunt either. What does need to happen is that policy and communications officials need to sit down and ask how best the different social media channels can be used to achieve policy objectives. Just as importantly, civil servants need to ask how they can use constructive feedback from social media exchanges to improve internal behaviours, systems and processes.