Public servants must have a strategy for social networking

Twitter CEO Evan Williams is seen silhouetted against a screen as he shows off the newly revamped Twitter website. Public servants using Twitter must be ready to give instant solutions to their followers to gain  credibility and shun hate mail.  AFP
Twitter CEO Evan Williams is seen silhouetted against a screen as he shows off the newly revamped Twitter website. Public servants using Twitter must be ready to give instant solutions to their followers to gain credibility and shun hate mail. AFP 

Three days after being sworn into office the new Chief Justice Dr Willy Mutunga’s first order of business included establishing a presence on social media.

Dr Mutunga’s appointment had generated a lot of media fanfare that endeared the jurist to many Kenyans giving him a loyal fan base.

It therefore did not come as a surprise to Kenyans on Twitter when Dr Mutunga, under the handle @WMmutunga got over 4,000 followers within his first 24 hours on Twitter. With just about 11 tweets, the CJ currently has over 6,300 followers on Twitter and counting. His equally popular Facebook page is approaching nine thousand fans with dozens of comments and likes per hour.

The use of social media for advertising and brand promotion has been well adopted by many firms in corporate Kenya. Whether or not these firms properly utilise their social media presence is a subject for another day.

It is however clear that the public service is finally getting on board the social media bandwagon in a move that is likely to see major realignments in the way public servants conduct their business with the citizens emerging as the major winners.

Dr Mutunga’s debut in social media is the latest move by a high profile public servant to establish a presence on social media. Leading public figures on Twitter and Facebook include presidential hopefuls Raila Odinga, Uhuru Kenyatta, Martha Karua, and William Ruto.

The election of US president Barrack Obama into office was largely attributed to his successful adoption of an ardent social media campaign that appealed to young voters. Even after being elected into office, president Obama maintains an active Twitter account (@BarackObama) with over 40,000 active followers. Rwandan president Paul Kagame (@PaulKagame) is also an active user of Twitter with over 18,000 followers. The tech savvy president has been known to respond directly to questions raised by fans and critics alike.

It is perhaps these examples that are inspiring Kenyan public servants to embrace social media. Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta this year used an iPad 2 to make his presentation and using his official twitter account, @UKenyatta relayed updates on the developments of the entire process.

Experts are however cautioning that rushing into the world of social media without a properly laid out communication policy could be disastrous.

Social media strategy

According to Marvin Tumbo, CEO of Socialight Media, a company that offers social media solutions, an unplanned social media strategy usually leads to half baked initiatives that are eventually abandoned leading to bad PR for the organisation or individual.

“The easiest part of social media is joining and having a presence. But what next? Content is the currency of social media and many organisations fail to plan for what will be published on these platforms on a daily, weekly or monthly basis”, he says.

Corporate organisations are usually profit-oriented and their use of social media is geared towards promoting PR and customer relations and eventually raising the sales margins. This task is usually labour intensive as it entails constant monitoring and evaluation of enquiries and feedback from clients.

For public institutions, the task is twice as difficult as they have to deal with negative pre-conceptions from members of the public. Over the years, Kenyans have developed a negative attitude towards the government and public servants and this is not any different in cyber space.

“It is never easy to engage in social media as a public servant because of the negative stereotypes. However whether you engage or not, the negative comments keep coming”, says Mr Tumbo.

“The first part of any social media initiative is to show that you are listening. Acknowledging that you have heard them and taking steps to provide solutions always tips the balance in your favour. When you solve someone’s problem, the next time they engage you they’ll do it in a respectful manner”.

For Dr Mutunga and company, joining social media without elaborate media policies could present the proverbial case of “biting more than one can chew”. Given the fact that a great deal of the thousands of followers and fans are Kenyans in need of services, the public servants have opened up a new channel where they can be reached for complains and enquiries. “The objective of the public service includes, providing access to information, good public relations and open government. In this light an effective social media strategy will be judged by its ability to achieve these key objectives,” says Mr Tumbo.

To ensure success of a social media strategy, public servants are advised to develop elaborate information systems that have content that is relevant and up to date. Initially, a lot of the work to be done will be in response to what Kenyans want but eventually, public institutions can begin to develop a voice of their own.