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Social media meets records management

Skating on thin ice? When some tweets are more important than others Featured Image

Social media content is a record and carries obligations for councils under the Public Records Act. Sarah Heal explains the implications of the coupling of two very different worlds.

Many councils are embracing social media to engage with their communities and seek feedback on important issues. However, managing social media is about more than having a Twitter account and a Facebook page. It means having a strategy for effective engagement.

Sarah Heal
Sarah Heal

A council considering building a new skateboard park in an upscale neighbourhood, for example, may be on the receiving end of some heat, both in the press and through social media. So it needs to manage how it will keep up with, and make sense of, comments posted on social media.

Council may want to tag the social media conversation in a range of ways: skateboard parks, geographic location, by community, by resource consent, by theme such as noise control or more.

It needs to have fast ways of reviewing and responding to the conversation. It may need to find the records of previous decisions made about skateparks. When something especially controversial arises council will need to be clear about what escalation is required and how moderation occurs.

Finally, for many council staff social media conversations are relatively new and may not be considered legitimate. Council needs to build an internal culture of engagement. There’s a lot to consider.

Legal & risk issues

Unfortunately ‘doing the best you can’ is not sufficient. Social media content is a record. LGOIMA requests can be made through social media. The channel (social media) is immaterial. It’s the content (a LGOIMA request) that counts.

This thinking applies equally to councils’ records management obligations. Under the Public Records Act councils must maintain full and accurate records, and must manage the disposal of records. Social media counts as a record and hence councils must have a considered approach to dealing with social media content as records.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that every tweet has value. For the skatepark issue council could be considering:

  • Is a social media conversation a record of decision-making? For example does it commit council to particular actions such as additional planting or green areas to offset the skatepark impact?
  • Are the public likely to rely on the information posted on social media for advice or for their own decision-making? Will the information being shared about the skatepark influence people’s decisions about buying or selling a house?
  • Will there be times in the future when council will need to be able to show what specific information was shared through social media? Council may need to show all of the information about the opportunities for the public to have its say.
  • Is council likely to need or want to reuse this information in the future? If council is considering building more skateparks in the future, information gathered about key issues this time may be relevant.

There are three dimensions to managing social media content: capturing content, managing data flow and handling analysis.

Many councils currently manage each of these dimensions in very manual ways, if they are managing them at all. Screenshots and data feeds are stored as ‘clumps’ of content in electronic document and records management systems. Council responses, decisions and reporting are compiled and stored in the same way. This is sometimes linked with the originating comment and sometimes not.

That is certainly better than nothing. And it should meet the requirements for managing records adequately.

But what if a council really wanted to use social media to enhance the quality of conversation and to extend the diversity and breadth of engagement it was receiving? In these cases, new ways of managing social media content are required.

The future

Imagine now that instead of managing social media content after the fact we actually have a social media hub that allows us to make social media content central.

Imagine that, in real time, council was able to automatically tag conversations to one or more topics. For example, the skateboard park conversation might be tagged to: the proposed location; skateboarding; resource consents; noise or more.

Staff could retrieve conversations alongside relevant council documents or minutes based on theme. So a council could be viewing all of its content (including social media postings) based on a location; or based on skateboarding; or based on a decision.

From here, appropriate tasks can be assigned which could include further research, preparing responses or forming decisions.

This kind of approach now enables council to act with a consistent and coherent voice and to not just keep up with the conversation but actively engage with it. The tools are here now. To pick them councils need to embrace a strategic approach to social media content and recognise and embrace the culture change that may be required.



Working with social media content

There are three dimensions to managing social media content.

1 Capture: How we capture our council’s social media content and the contributions of others. For example: Council could be capturing the conversation simply as a screen dump from Twitter or Facebook accounts or could be importing the data from these feeds. If we’re thinking of building a skateboard park, adding meaningful descriptions such as tags for issues such as noise, rubbish or recreation will help us work with the information later.

2 Flow of work: How we search for and review relevant, related materials. How do we organise our responses to make sure they are consistent with previous responses and with council policy? And how do we manage decision-making and approvals? For example: If noise is a topic of frequent posts in the social media conversation we need to make sure council responses are consistent with other responses and policy about noise, especially as it relates to skateparks.

If council needs to be clear about how its noise policy will be applied in this situation then there may be an internal decision-making process before council can publish its response.

3 Analysis: How do we understand what social media is telling us? How are we reporting on, and making sense of, the conversation? For example: The conversation about the skatepark could well span multiple months and multiple different conversation topics. What is this telling us about public support or otherwise for a skatepark? How are we keeping councillors and community board members informed about the shape of the dialogue?


This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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