Social media icons montagePublic sector beware: How it has become too easy to broadcast our private thoughts in the public sphere using social media.

An examination of public sector organisational and employee preparedness in light of a communications digital revolution.

This is the abstract of my MSc dissertation:

The Internet and social media have supercharged people’s lives. The possibilities for sharing, commentating and recommending are not only part of everyday life; they can be undertaken on the move using a device in the palm of someone’s hand. Thoughts and opinions can be tweeted, Facebook-ed or Instagram-ed as they happen, becoming instantly available for the rest of the world to see and share.

It is easy to be enamoured by such technologies and marvel at the effortless ability to share across multimedia networks. However, the Internet’s pervasiveness has thrust private thoughts into a new public sphere, meaning consumers are no longer passive spectators; they are the creators and often the subject of these free speech networks. This is not always an enviable position.

Undoubtedly the public sector, including NHS trusts, councils and police forces in England, who are the focus for this study, must respond by opening up social media channels for engagement with stakeholders. The sector is bombarded with toolkits from professional bodies that highlight the channels available and encourage users to get online.

But where is the buyer beware message? Despite the ‘how to manuals’, there is a lack of guidance to helps users consider and create appropriate content. 2,087 staff across the NHS, councils and police forces in England have been reprimanded or even dismissed by their employer since 2005 for posting unsuitable content on social media channels. Whilst 19 NHS organisations, 28 councils and 5 police authorities have been the subject of media coverage around social media use by staff – 8.3% of organisations featured in this study.

How are PR practitioners in these organisations responding? Where are the gatekeepers to advise and guide their colleagues how to use these channels, but also how to stay safe, avoid offending others and to raise awareness of the pitfalls in work or personal life that could result in disciplinary action or adverse media coverage?

Using the Freedom of Information Act 2000, this thesis will examine the prevalence and robustness of guidance provided for staff in NHS trusts, councils and police authorities in England regarding social media use for work related or personal purposes.

Currently 56.7% of NHS trusts, 62.5% councils and 54.1% of police forces have guidance in place regarding social media use for work related purposes. Whilst 58.9% of NHS trusts have guidance for personal use, figures fall to 53.8% and 46% for councils and police forces respectively. Inappropriate use of social media is more likely to take place on personal accounts, however where guidance is available, it is not robust enough to prevent ‘oversharing’ of unsuitable or offensive content.

This study outlines that public sector bodies in England have joined the communications digital revolution and this is to be applauded, as these channels enable meaningful stakeholder engagement.

At the same time, consequences such as adverse media coverage or disciplinary action against staff that results in individuals being dismissed or struck off is a regular and increasing occurrence.  By all means take advantage of this new public sphere but please, public sector employees, be aware of the pitfalls.

© Gillian Neild, 2015