Anyone who works in social media for government agencies understands the importance of public trust.

Generally, agencies do fantastic work and are rightly proud of their efforts. However, as marketers, you can’t afford to assume people will take your words at face value, with just two in 10 Americans saying they trust the government to do what’s right “just about always” or “most of the time.”

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At the Social Media Strategies Summit for Government, Russel Lolacher, Director of Web and Social Media Services for the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in British Columbia, Canada, discussed how government agencies can acquire, build, and maintain public trust.

Why listen to Russel’s advice? Because these same tactics have helped his agency achieve substantial and sustained growth in social media engagement over the past five years:

Check out the key takeaways from his presentation.

1. Focus On Operational Comms

Think of all the different ways you communicate with your audience on social media.

From Russel’s perspective, we can boil those methods down into three broad types of government and public sector comms:

  • Political: Very divisive, us-versus-them style messaging. This approach might win you support from people who already like what you’re doing, but it will also alienate a large portion of your audience, and that’s not building trust.
  • Promotional: Things like news releases, events, and podiums. According to Russel, this form of comms effectively says: “We’re in power, we’re responsible. Let us keep doing that for as long as you let us.”
  • Operational: Day-to-day customer service — answering questions, directing people to websites and landing pages, and helping them fill out forms. This is all about helping your audience.

Russel says types #1 and #2 are one-way streets that don’t prioritize your audience. “They’re only talking to you when they have something to say — they’re the narcissist at the party that only talks about themselves.” On the flip side, operational comms is much more customer-centric.

Almost all government agencies do a mix of those three communication types. However, Russel believes agencies invest the most time and resources into the first two.

There’s a problem with that strategy. According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, 48% of respondents view the government as a divisive force in society, and 46% say the same about the media.

In other words: government agencies aren’t trusted — and journalists, the people they usually use to engage with the public, aren’t trusted either.

For that reason, Russel urges social media marketers to focus more on operational messaging.

On the face of things, that might sound tough. You may get dozens of comments that require a response each day. Is it worth it?

The simple answer is “yes.” And fortunately, it takes relatively little effort on your part to impress your audience.

For instance, Russel shares an example of a Twitter user who reached out to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure in British Columbia to find out why they moved a particular road sign:

In response, Russel’s team returned with a holding message straight away, then spoke to internal subject matter experts to get some context for the decision.

It turns out three clear, safety-related reasons informed it. So they shared the reasons with the original poster, who was delighted with the response.

“The bar is so low when it comes to doing this,” Russel says. “It doesn’t take much to make people happy.”

2. Set a Clear Purpose for Your Team

Building public trust is ultimately about external communication, but it begins with how your team feels about themselves and the broader organization.

Or, as Russel puts it: “You’ll never get the public to trust you if you don’t start getting your own organization to trust what you’re doing and what you’re trying to do. You have to love yourself first.”

That means defining a clear purpose for your team.

To this end, Russel developed a manifesto he proudly displays on the wall of his office based on his team’s commitment to customer service.

“Any content we create, any conversations we have, if they don’t fit within this purpose and this manifesto, then we don’t do it,” he says. It’s very important that we have an understanding that our work matters and why it matters to those that we’re trying to serve.”

3. Build a Team of Platform Specialists

Social media sites are complex beasts that require specialist knowledge to master. They also have diverse audiences, many loyal to a specific platform. Someone who sees your posts on Twitter isn’t going to hop on over to Facebook to message you.

For that reason, Russel recommends building a team of specialists dedicated to a specific platform.

“They own the knowledge; they own how the platform changes; they have to keep up to date with strategies, techniques, different ways of using hashtags,” Russel explains. “They’re responsible for their own learning — and they love it because then they become the subject matter expert.”

They get to build a deep knowledge of the platform’s technology and a closer connection with the audience they speak to daily. And they also learn how to answer questions promptly. “Because truthfully, social media needs responses fast.”

How fast? Research from Sprout Social found that three-quarters of consumers expect a reply on social media within 24 hours of posting a question, while one in eight believe average response times should be less than one hour.

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Do you think those numbers are unachievable? Unfortunately, that just won’t cut it. “It does not matter if they’re unrealistic; those are their expectations,” Russel says. “You’re either meeting them, or you are choosing not to.”

4. Demonstrate Your Long-Standing Commitment to Service

Unless you’re a brand new agency, you likely have countless examples demonstrating your commitment to serving the public.

Highlighting these examples can be a highly impactful way to build trust with your audience, especially if you do it creatively.

For example, Russel points out that one member of his team — Kristen Reimer, Information Officer for Social Media — is a real history buff who loves discussing the agency’s heritage.

One day, Kristen discovered a bunch of old reel-to-reel video tapes hidden away in a corner of the office showing home movie-like frames of agency staff driving the highways of British Columbia. The agency created them in 1966 to help engineers check the condition of pavements across the province.

Driven by her passion, Russel’s team transformed the old footage into social media content.

“For us, it was like, ‘This was what it was like to drive here 60 years ago,’” Russel explains. “It shows our history of helpfulness; we’ve been there since then. So it really gives that nostalgic feel.”

5. Get Buy-In From Subject Matter Experts

Your team can’t do it all alone.

To serve your audience effectively and build trust through social media, you need support from subject matter experts across your organization. The trouble is those people may not be social media natives and might even think social media is a total waste of time.

So how do you get them onboard?

Russel says it’s all about sharing positive feedback from the public.

In one recent example, a member of the public reached out to Russel’s agency because they noticed antisemitic graffiti spray-painted on an underpass.

That might not sound like an ideal opportunity for positive feedback. But Russel’s team passed on the information to the local district, then shared images on social of staff cleaning up the graffiti — as well as tagging the original poster to let them know the agency had taken action.

Not only that, but they also shared the photos with agency employees who carried out the work and with their bosses too. “It shows they worked with us, it showed our responsiveness, and we passed the kudos back to them,” Russel explains.

Examples like this help demonstrate social media’s value and its vital role alongside other service delivery channels. “We are operationally not only helping people and fixing problems, but also being recognized for that work,” Russel adds. “So we are not just an outlier; we are part of the operations and part of the success.”

6. Create Evergreen Content That Answers Common Questions

Your social media managers likely find themselves answering the same types of questions, day after day and week after week. So why not use those questions as the basis for creating evergreen content?

“We try to be as evergreen as possible because we don’t have a lot of time or money,” Russel explains. “So we create content that we know we’re going to use year after year after year.”

For example, people regularly ask his team why a bridge hasn’t been built to connect Vancouver Island to the Canadian mainland.

There’s a good reason: it would be extraordinarily long and cripplingly expensive. “We’re never building a bridge from the island to the mainland, ever. But people keep bringing it up,” Russel explains. “We wrote about it because it kept being asked. So we dust off that blog every year, and it gets picked up in the news.”

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This strategy isn’t just about saving time; it also drives real results. “It’s funny; we’ll have content we wrote six years ago that gets more coverage, more engagement now than it did the year that we launched it.”

Featured image by Freepik.

Want to leverage social media to humanize your agency and engage your communities? Find out how in our next virtual government social media conference!

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