Last year, when an earthquake hit Melbourne, Twitter was the first on the scene. Within minutes, the subject became the top Twitter-trending topic worldwide and even caused the Geoscience Australia website to crash as people went online to see what had happened.
The power of social media is beyond doubt. Social media is more than a passing trend and its immediacy, ease of use and pervasive nature means it will continue to displace other forms of communication as it becomes more embedded in everyday life.
For federal government agencies, social media represents a compelling opportunity to share news, receive information and opinions from citizens, generate real-time awareness and debate and improve service delivery.
And according to a recent Sensis survey - completed with the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association - the number of people using social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter to engage with government is on the rise.
But the federal government may find it difficult to fulfill this demand due to inconsistent adoption and use of social media across federal government agencies.
While there are pockets of excellence and innovation where agencies have incorporated social media into their everyday operations, there are some agencies that have only recently started putting social media to use, often driven by the fear of being left behind.
The Australian Taxation Office (ATO), Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) and Department of Human Services (DHS) are examples of agencies that proactively use social media to engage with the public.
The ATO uses Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to share information about recent tax changes, initiatives, products and services. It customises messages based on the specific social media application and its targeted constituents.
It uses Twitter to communicate the latest updates and reminders of due dates, Facebook to foster interaction with its constituents and YouTube to provide videos on various tax administration topics.
DIAC offers another example of using social media to good effect. It provides not only the more common applications such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but also a multitude of other services including Facebook chats, Flickr, Blog, Storify and an online newsroom to distribute information to the public and promote interaction on migration issues.
The success of DIAC's social media effort is reflected not just its number of Facebook fans and Twitter followers but also in the amount of reciprocal interaction it generates (e.g., comments, points of view shared, suggestions).
On last viewing, DIAC had over 1600 "talking about this" counts on Facebook, an indicator of the number of unique users that have engaged with the page over the past seven days.
Although not the only measure of success, the result indicates how well DIAC is inviting new content, participation and ongoing communication with its constituents. By way of comparison, the "talk about" count on DIAC Facebook page is three times that of equivalent US immigration Facebook page.
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