Social media, social media, social media! Any PR practitioner, marketing insider, or even curious business owner who’s picked up a trade pub, gotten online, turned on the news (or even crawled out from the rock under which they’ve been hiding) has heard the phrase and reacted in curiosity, fear, or a wholehearted embrace.

Those who have done the latter, congratulations! You’ve done it. You’ve joined the future of online customer-business communication: direct, instant, and huge. But what does this mean for the public sector? What about those who don’t work in public relations, but public affairs? Ya know, the municipal?

Well, first, let’s assess why the public sector should even embrace social media.

Businesses, for one, have something to sell. Even public relations people, who cling to “the importance of conversation,” either intentionally or unintentionally are opening the way for marketing people to reach customers, just happy customers.

The public sector, on the other hand, has a little bit more of a mandate. We talked to Deidra Langstaff, owner of Langstaff Marketing and wife of Albany, GA city commissioner Bob Langstaff, Jr, who said “that local government, no matter the political implications, has an obligation to communicate with the people that it’s working for.”

“It’s a real opportunity for local governments to get to the hearing level of the average citizen because it doesn’t really have that far down to stoop.”

So, now the who, what and how. I’m identifying three categories of those in the public sector who could (and really should) use social media, and some examples of how they are using them. I’m picking Albany, Georgia, an average town with a MSA population of almost 200,000 people.

1. Elected Officials

We’ve seen a large amount of social media adoption by the national politicians; social media strategists love to claim that the 2008 presidential campaigns were made and broken by Obama’s online presence, but we haven’t seen much online involvement at the state or local levels.

“This is because it’s more personal with state and local politicians,” Langstaff says. With Barack Obama’s Twitter account having nearly 5,000,000 followers and thousands of @replies a day, negative comments get mixed in with the positive, mundane, and otherwise sundry which leads to less political bruising.

“Like businesses, local officials and commissioners are nervous about getting only negative attention because it can be magnified so easily as your audience gets smaller than a national platform.”

Bob Langstaff, Jr, operates a blog as Albany’s Ward 5 city commissioner, where he delineates positions on local talking points and issues, garners citizen opinion, and posts his contact information.

This is a great model to follow: by giving initial and follow-up positions as well as contact information, this solves the need for transparency; by soliciting and processing citizen feedback, the engagement inherent in the purpose of social media is fulfilled, and by talking up the positive aspects of his local city (Bob takes one post to wax on a visit to the local racetrack with his son), this helps mitigate the possible negativity that can emerge with direct electorate contact.

2. Chambers of Commerce

Chambers of Commerce do have, in a sense, many of the same goals and purposes for using social media that businesses do: to sell; that is, selling their member businesses, selling their city, and selling themselves as a conduit for networking and promotion.

“On one end of the spectrum, you do have those governmental entities that can use social media for pure information, and on the other, you have those businesses that are using it for commerce,” agrees Jenny Collins, Assistant to the Albany, GA Chamber of Commerce President.

“Our social media strategy is a hybrid of the two, which reflects in turn that we are a hybrid of the public/private sector ourselves.”

The Albany Chamber uses Twitter to give short blips of news about the various groups that it manages, such as Emerge Albany (a young professionals group), and its member businesses…basically, for those who seek it out enough to follow on Twitter.

“We are actually having a meeting to discuss branding, how we can further extend this and how to embrace social media more closely because we know that can use this as a way to bring our members closer and level the playing field with larger cities and businesses in the state.”

One way to do this is by taking an education role. For those business owners who don’t quite have the social media knack down yet, hold Business Development Campaigns to teach the basics of Twitter, Facebook, and others.

This past summer, I had been working on materials for teaching business owners how to establish a presence using Foursquare designed specifically for a Chamber. Maps and location-based social networking is a platform that is not mature yet but rapidly growing, which is the right time to jump on the bandwagon.

Print out materials, such as “Don’t forget to check-in!” signs to place at point-of-sales, teach owners how to register their own venues, and have them report and compare the metrics that are provided to them via Foursquare’s own reporting system. As a chamber, you can determine quickly through venue mayorships and check-in habits who are the online influencers of your city.

3. City Services

City services can use social media channels to simply report information.

“The days of the public access channel are coming to a close,” says Langstaff, “no one turns to channel 17 to watch the slides come across every hour on the hour anymore.”

Twitter, with its one-way communication, is perfect for broadcasting that simple little bite of news: which road will be closed when, where the next school board meeting will be held, on which day of the week you’ll be able to water your lawn, etc.

Sean Garrett, Vice President of Communications for Twitter, affirms that Twitter can be focused specifically for that sort of use and that development for this situation is going on internally.

“Twitter is not a social network, it’s an information network…It would be awesome to have a Canadian bot that says when it’s ok to travel,” said Garrett. “For a small subset of users, that’s incredibly useful. There’s an expanding Internet of things online now.”

Summary

All of these are just examples, but there are many ways to use social media in the local public sector. Social media above the individual level is not just for selling things, it’s for so many uses beyond just moving product and new innovative uses are being dreamt up every day.

However, no matter how you use it in the public sector, social media can be used to better serve those who need your service in a transparent, informative, and direct manner.

Have you found a way to apply social media in your agency, department, or organization? Comment below.