Social Media: Bridging the Gap Between Government and Communities in the Age of COVID-19

Digital connections throughout the world.

by Henk Campher

posted on 05-20-2020

In times of crisis, governments’ ability to provide their citizens with accurate information takes on added significance. We are certainly living through one of those times with the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the landscape is developing on a daily basis.

In a recent article on its website, Deloitte outlined government officials’ unique position: “As information swarms in from every direction, citizens look to their governments for information, guidance, and leadership.”

These days, many governments have risen to the challenge of keeping citizens informed about the coronavirus via daily press briefings and public Q&As. But these efforts are incomplete without social media, especially when consumers’ use of the channel is up nearly 50% in the first three months of 2020, according to a report by Hootsuite and We Are Social.

Extending the reach of official guidance

The most effective government agencies have realized they can truly connect with citizens to inform, engage, and reassure in a time of global uncertainty using social media. Even before the pandemic, 50% of US and UK agencies cited social media as part of their crisis-response strategies, according to Hootsuite’s “2018 Social Government Benchmark Report.” The report also found 90% of those agencies were active on social media, with citizen engagement and service delivery the top use cases, at 76% and 48% agencies, respectively.

Twitter has long been established as a prime platform for communicating short, digestible public-health directives, and of course now is no different. In March, for example, the World Health Organization turned to Twitter to encourage proper handwashing with use of the new #SafeHands emoji.

“Being responsive is critical in a time when many services are suspended and people can’t communicate in person with public agencies,” said digital consultant Yael Bar-tur.

With many unknowns still around the coronavirus, some leaders have adopted a highly personalized approach using Facebook Live to build trust and credibility with their citizens. We saw this early on in New Zealand, for example, when Prime Minister Jacinda Arden went on Facebook Live to “check in” with her country. She memorably began the first address by apologizing for her casual wear and saying she had just put her daughter to bed–immediately connecting with people on an authentic, human level.

Ras Baraka, mayor of the city of Newark, NJ, has taken a similar approach. His Facebook Live addresses are deeply personal: “We” is the pronoun of choice. Speculating recently on the opening of nearby recreational areas, he prefaced the risk not with reference to the law, but with his own concern for residents: “If you get in your car and go to those beaches, I’m worried you’re going to come back with something you didn’t leave with.”

Acting to prevent the spread of misinformation

Another critical role for governments on social media at this time has been the minimization of fake news and false rumors. The United Nations reported on the rise of agencies partnering “with influencers to disseminate accurate information about the COVID-19 outbreak, and to counter harmful misinformation.” The U.K. government, for example, worked with influencers on YouTube to combat misinformation around treatments for COVID-19. This is an interesting evolution of the influencer marketing trend that has been growing among commercial brands for years.

In addition, praise has been given to Norway Prime Minister Erna Solberg for a Q&A session she hosted specifically to ease the fears of young people. The UN cited this as an example of the “particular focus on engaging with youth and children, who are very vulnerable to fake news and might suffer from the burden the COVID-19 crisis put on parents’ social, economic, and mental well-being.” Sharing this information via social media is a crucial way to reach these younger audiences.

Staying human and authentic

Social media is playing a critical role in extending the reach of briefings and published guidance, as well as minimizing the impact of damaging misinformation. But regardless of the specific objective, the most successful efforts share a common theme: the ability to stay human and authentic.

While social media is a one-to-many channel, these examples show how some agencies are mastering the art of making it feel one-to-one. Social’s unique ability to meet people where they are–and connect with them on a human level–is bridging the gap between government and communities.

Interested in finding out how Hootsuite can help your organization realize the full value of social media? Our team has a virtual booth at the 2020 Adobe Digital Government Symposium on Thursday, May 21. We look forward to answering your questions then.

Topics: Social, COVID-19