Social media specialists hope for better government communications under Liberals

Some attendees of a conference on social media in the public sector say they hope the incoming Liberal government will loosen restrictions federal departments face when using Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the public.

'It's getting people to relax and be comfortable with expressing themselves,' says conference attendee

Prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau poses for a selfie with a supporter as he takes part in a welcome rally in Ottawa last week. Some attendees of a social media conference for public sector workers said they hope the incoming Liberal government will loosen some rules around government communications online. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Attendees of a conference on social media in the public sector say they hope the incoming Liberal government will loosen restrictions federal departments face when using Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the public.

"Some departments here have six levels of approval for a tweet, where a tweet is supposed to be spontaneous," said Chantal Bechervaise, who works in the Privy Council Office and moonlights as a social media marketing consultant with her company Take It Personel-ly.

Government communications on Twitter and Facebook have to adhere to a large number of rules and policies, says Mike Kujawski, a social media consultant. (The Canadian Press)

"Now it's getting people to relax and be comfortable with expressing themselves ... just being able to be themselves and take their own personalities and infuse that in what they do. ... I think that [prime minister-designate] Justin Trudeau seems to be very open to using social media ... It's an untapped resource that the public sector is not using and they're kind of last to react on things, so it's a way to bring them on board."

Bechervaise is one of hundreds of public sector workers from the federal government, municipalities, hospitals and more attending the two-day conference in Ottawa, which wraps up on Wednesday. It's run by the Conference Board of Canada.

Trefor Munn-Venn, another social media consultant who owns Rhapsody Strategies, said in an interview at the conference Tuesday that the policies governments have to abide by can get in the way of social media that resonates with people. 

"When you're trying to create a genuine connection with someone, to say, 'By the way though, you need to comply with all of these [rules] in a consistent, coherent way,' there are two possible messages: one is, wow, are we ever going to get this right? And the other is, don't do it," he said.

'Very real and genuine policy restrictions'

But at the same time, the public has to appreciate how much risk management has to go into government messaging, said Mike Kujawski, another consultant at the Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing.

"They [government departments] have all these restraints, and they have very real and genuine policy restrictions that they have to abide by: outdated legislation, official languages, special interest groups; all these things that the private sector and the citizen mind aren't necessarily acquainted with," Kujawski said.

While he didn't want to get partisan, Kujawski said he does get a "general sense" that there's going to be a bit more leeway about social media under the incoming Liberal government.

But he said the possible change may not necessarily be entirely the result of a new government. 

"Who knows? It could have to do, obviously, with the personality and the way the PMO was run. That being said, it also perfectly correlates to what's going on across every industry right now in terms of this movement from a command and control, centralized structure of [communications] ... into a hub and spoke, and empowerment of various branches," he added.

Either way, the director of communications at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario said she hopes federal social media messaging improves.

"I think there's a lot of promise, especially if it's about being more human and being real about the issues,"
 said Adrienne Vienneau. "I think that's what Justin Trudeau's platform has been projecting, so ... time will tell."


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