A communications strategy sets out how you reach, engage, and convert your target audience, including:
- Who they are
- Why you’re talking to them
- How you talk to them
- What content should you create
- Which channels to share it through
Social media for government should form an integral part of any agency’s communications strategy, with 82% of Americans having profiles on at least one social platform. Yet many organizations struggle to align comms and social, leading to inconsistent messaging.
To help government agencies tie social media into their broader communications strategy, we organized a panel session at our recent Social Media Strategies Summit for Government. Jennifer Davies, Digital Content Supervisor for the City of Las Vegas, led the discussion, featuring expert insights from:
- Glorymar Rivera-Diaz, Social Media Manager at the National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Lauren Oxford, Digital Communications Strategist for Gilbert, Arizona
Our panelists discussed everything from building a social media-first communications culture to using social media as part of a strategic media outreach strategy. They shared some of their best and most relevant social media success stories along the way.
Read on for their top learnings.
Defining the Role of Social Media In Comms Strategy
Before you can effectively tie together your social and communications strategies, you must first define social media’s role in reaching and engaging your audience.
Naturally, that role will vary from one agency to another. But for Gilbert, Arizona — a young municipality where the average age is about 34 and one-third of the population is under 18 — there’s no question that social media is the most crucial element of the agency’s comms strategy.
With an audience that spends a lot of time on social, the town does relatively little “traditional” marketing. Social media takes the lead, with the agency using it to share events, roll out new programs, gather community feedback, and even for customer service. “When people have a question and are trying to contact their local government, it’s just a thousand times easier to send a direct message or a comment rather than having to pick up the phone,” Lauren Oxford explained.
The National Science Foundation is a very different agency from Gilbert, Arizona. Yet its approach to social media is similar, with Glorymar Rivera-Diaz describing social as “a flagship for the agency.”
People treat the NSF’s main social channels — which have more than two million followers — as a source of authoritative information, Glorymar explained. “With less traditional tools and a pandemic that shifted everything online, we’re relying on the power of social media to spread our message and increase our visibility.”
Therefore, the NSF frequently breaks news on social media before any other communication channel. A good example is its latest announcement of Nobel Prize winners, who the agency usually funds. “We released them first on social media on Twitter, and then later in the day, we did other platforms and traditional channels.”
Congratulations to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser, and Anton Zeilinger on their 2022 #NobelPrize in physics. NSF is proud to have supported Zeilinger’s experiments demonstrating quantum entanglement. https://t.co/3CUZqYBFA5
— National Science Foundation (@NSF) October 4, 2022
Building a Social-First Communications Culture
Many agencies would love to move to a social-first communications model but are held back by legacy policies and workflows. What can you do to place social media front and center in your comms strategy?
According to Glorymar, it’s mostly a matter of visibility. She says the NSF has come a long way in prioritizing social media, mainly because the social team is better known — and understood — throughout the agency.
“Other departments, other offices are including us from the beginning, giving us a heads-up that an announcement is coming,” she explained. “We’re making sure that there’s always a social media rep in every meeting that has some sort of external component to it.”
For Lauren at Gilbert, Arizona, the agency’s structure plays a big part in the shift toward social. The centralized communications team places PIOs (public information officers) into different departments. “It just helps us to be involved from the get-go on different projects that are going on.”
Relationship-building has been another crucial element, allowing Lauren’s team to capture behind-the-scenes, on-the-job content — think mechanics working on fire trucks and road workers sealing cracks in the street.
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Lauren always shares positive feedback on these posts with the departments involved, letting them know how well followers receive the content. This sharing, in turn, encourages people to get more involved in the future. “The word spreads organically.”
Press Releases: Still Relevant or Yesterday’s News?
The “traditional” formal press release seems far removed from the contemporary world of government on social media. Does it still have a place in a modern communications strategy? And if so, when should you publish a press release rather than simply announcing the news on social media?
Our panelists tackled this subject from different perspectives. For Gilbert, Arizona, press releases have been phased out entirely, with all communications now handled via social media — from news and announcements to emergencies.
However, the agency still has relationships with individuals in the media. “We let them know that we have [all the information] on our website and our digital newsroom,” Lauren explained. “A lot of times, they’ll look to our social media channel for that information and even embed our posts within their own news articles.”
On the other hand, press releases still form part of the NSF’s comms strategy — albeit playing a smaller role than they used to.
The agency sends press releases for major announcements, but its press shop is also leveraging new methods and tactics to meet the needs of the evolving media landscape.
For instance, Glorymar explained that the agency often creates web-based articles that can be shared on social media while also serving as traditional press releases. “That’s why it’s very important that the relationship between our media shop and our social media shop [is strong].”
Using Social Media Strategically In Media Outreach
Ever posted something on social media because you didn’t think the media would be interested, only to generate a ton of engagement? Suddenly, it looks a whole lot more attractive to publishers.
For instance, a new team member in Gilbert, Arizona, was recently on a ride-along with the police department when a garbage truck caught fire. She captured footage of the incident as the fire department tackled the blaze and turned the content into an Instagram Reel reminding people not to throw out hazardous waste in their trash bins.
“It got a ton of exposure on our own channels, but then it also got picked up by three different news organizations,” Lauren explained. “Then they came out to our household hazardous waste facility and helped to share that story too.”
Often, this happens by chance. But wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could use social media more strategically as part of your media outreach efforts?
One piece of the puzzle is to define when it makes the most sense to share a story via social media rather than through a press release.
“We do social media for these other stories that might not press to the level of a big splash announcement, but it’s still a really cool, very interesting story,” explained Glorymar at the National Science Foundation. That might involve sharing content that ties into popular trends and pop culture moments that resonate with the agency’s audience.
#StarTrekDiscovery fans know tardigrades are awesome!@NSF-supported researchers @uwyo discovered how these scrappy microscopic “water bears” survive being dried out and in suspended animation for years. https://t.co/H4qJc0UjrS pic.twitter.com/6qEjtbdtMc
— National Science Foundation (@NSF) November 29, 2022
Choosing What to Share (& Where)
Social media marketers have no shortage of channels and tools to share communications.
For the most part, this is a blessing. But it can feel like a curse when internal stakeholders expect their announcements to be dispersed across every platform, even though you know it will work best in just one or two places.
Left unchecked, this can lead to conflict if one department’s messaging seems prioritized. So what can you do about it?
This is a challenge for the NSF, which has seven separate internal divisions. Each deals with a different science and produces a lot of content. According to Glorymar, managing internal relationships and avoiding conflict means clearly defining the content types you publish on each platform.
For instance, the NSF publishes educational content on Facebook and Pinterest because those are the leading platforms for that audience. Twitter is the agency’s main news feed, home to breaking news and visual information written in plain language. Instagram is for scroll-stopping moments aimed at science enthusiasts and more general audiences.
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If a piece of content meets the requirements, they publish it on a specific platform. If not, Glorymar’s team will push back.
Glorymar always provides helpful feedback and suggestions: “‘This might not work for social media, but have you tried a newsletter? Have you tried our website? Have you tried an in-person event to reach this audience?’ It’s about keeping in mind the objective, what they want to accomplish, and the audience.”
For Lauren at Gilbert, Arizona, diving into the data is the best way to determine what to post (and what to reject). “That’s the great thing about social media: those analytics are available to look at.”
For example, the municipality used to post about recurring events, like council meetings and blood drives. These events happen monthly, so they were posting the same content repeatedly.
Inevitably, the engagement on these posts wasn’t great. So Lauren’s team stopped doing it, instead recommending that those announcements appear in the town’s e-newsletter. “We’ve gotten a lot more success with that. The blood drives are still filling up. That’s really the type of content that the audience opts into receiving.”
Leveraging Social Media In a Multi-Channel Comms Campaign
Naturally, we all think social media is essential. But it’s not the only communication channel. When reaching the broadest possible audience, you might have to leverage several other channels simultaneously while retaining a consistent voice and message.
The National Science Foundation is no stranger to making galaxy-scale announcements. The agency recently unveiled the first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, and it’s fair to say that was kind of a big deal.
Our own black hole! Astronomers have just revealed the 1st image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy using the @ehtelescope– a planet-scale array of radio telescopes that emerged from decades of NSF support. https://t.co/bC1PZH4yD6 #ourblackhole pic.twitter.com/pd96CH3V0m
— National Science Foundation (@NSF) May 12, 2022
The campaign was an agency-wide effort that touched on every possible comms channel, incorporating traditional tactics — such as a press release and an international press conference — alongside more “modern” tactics and tools, such as the NSF’s first-ever Instagram filter.
The announcement reached a global audience of 1.17 billion people, helping the NSF attract 16,000 new social media followers and establish itself as an authoritative source for media outlets that had never even heard of the agency before.
Gilbert, Arizona’s priorities are a little more down to earth, but it still relies on multiple channels to communicate information about bigger projects and rollouts.
For instance, the municipality recently saw its utility rates increase. Its goal was to inform as many residents as possible to prepare for the changes. “We tried to put it as far and wide as we could,” Lauren explained. Social media played a part.
Have questions about Gilbert’s proposed utility rate increase?
Join us for one of our customer workshops on January 24th and February 3rd to learn more and provide your feedback.
Workshops will also be available for virtual viewing.
— Gilbert, Arizona (@GilbertYourTown) January 11, 2022
But the campaign touched on various other platforms. The municipality built a web hub containing different resources for residents, including a utility bill calculator to estimate how much the increase would affect their future costs. It also published a data story to explain the need for the rate rise, discussing changes in the recycling industry and the importance of investing in the local water infrastructure.
Lauren’s team also leveraged offline tactics, including direct mail. “We don’t usually do mailers, but this was a big thing, and we needed to touch as many people as possible,” said Lauren. “We even put it on our customer service hold message and on displays throughout the town.”
How Social Media Strategies Have Evolved
The last three years have been a time of — cliche alert — unprecedented upheaval. The world has altered dramatically, and so has our approach to social media.
For Glorymar, the most significant change has been a shift toward TikTok-style content. These short, unpolished, vertically shot videos are now crucial to the NSF’s social media strategy. “They allow us to reach out to a younger, under-30 demographic, and we’re hoping to inspire a younger crowd and get them excited about science.”
To be clear, the NSF isn’t actually on TikTok — it’s not allowed to be. Instead, it uses Instagram Reels to share short-form videos. The results have been impressive, with the agency’s Reels generating engagement rates of 5.27% – 7% versus a reported average of 1.95%.
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Lauren at Gilbert, Arizona, has also seen a shift away from highly produced videos and live streams toward the type of rough-and-ready video content that plays well on TikTok and Instagram Reels.
With Instagram actively competing with TikTok in the short-form video space, Reels can effectively reach a wider audience. Indeed, the municipality sees at least 3X higher reach with Reels than standard Instagram posts.
As such, Lauren’s team is always looking for ways to communicate news and information in a Reels-friendly format. “Even if it’s just a quick 20-second Reel, we’re trying to put something together just so that we can reach as many people as possible.”
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Removing Barriers to Collaboration
Success is all about collaboration in the world of social media for government. You likely have subject-matter experts throughout your organization, people with helpful information to share, and fascinating stories to tell. It’s your job to make the process as simple as possible for stakeholders who aren’t social media specialists.
To this end, Lauren has created and shared a social media best practice guide, regularly updated to reflect the ever-changing universe of social media marketing.
She also relies heavily on Canva, the freemium graphic design tool. “You can put your branding in there with all the different colors, your logos, all of that stuff, and have templates available for people to use.”
For Glorymar, one of the best ways to remove barriers to collaboration is to create templates that set out exactly what her team requires to share an announcement on social: “I need a photo. I need one line. I need a photo credit.”
But it’s not all take-take-take. Glorymar also makes sure to share positive results with stakeholders throughout the agency so they can better understand the benefits of collaborating with her team.
She also doesn’t demand perfection from would-be collaborators. “It’s okay if what they send to you isn’t perfect; that’s what we’re here for. We’re the experts. We’re here to help them make it as pain-free as possible. Just make it easy.”
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