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Twitter the new talkback radio: govt

When the Department of Human Services began talking to customers on Twitter and Facebook, general manager Hank Jongen said the agency decided to adapt its talkback radio strategy to the new medium.
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Written by Josh Taylor on

When the Department of Human Services began talking to customers on Twitter and Facebook, general manager Hank Jongen said the agency decided to adapt its talkback radio strategy to the new medium.

Hank Jongen

Hank Jongen(Credit: Department of Human Services)

"We've taken the conversation from the airwaves to online to reach more people in ways that are meaningful to them. We actively monitor social-media sites to find what people are saying about us," Jongen told the Gov 2.0 CeBIT conference audience in Canberra yesterday.

"Similar to our talkback radio strategy of targeting radio stations with large, syndicated audience, our online strategy is to contribute to conversations in the places where people [are] congregating," he said. "I have an account on Facebook and Twitter for interacting with media and radio outlets, and providing updates on services. It has allowed us to spread our messages further, while teaching us about keeping content targeted, interesting and relevant.

"But, it's not only about listening — you have to acknowledge and take action on the feedback you get. We respond to their service complaints and provide more information about payment criteria, how to apply and where to go for help," Jongen added.

The agency now monitors social media where, according to Jongen, there are hundreds of mentions for Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support Australia. Complaints about local offices are passed on to those offices and issues regarding service outages are followed up, Jongen said.

"Our staff use freely available alert sites like Google and Social Mention to track issues, but the task is time intensive," he said. "Staff have to scan through searches and alerts to determine whether something requires follow-up based on a brief summary, then click through to get more detail."

To reduce this sizable task for the agency, Human Services has been working with the CSIRO over the past year to develop a social-media monitoring tool.

"The social-media monitoring tool is currently in testing and gives our staff a visual overview of trending issues based on key words we've identified as relating to our agencies," he said. "Staff can click on tags to see all mentions relating to an issue, then click on those links to view the actual pages within a desktop section on the tool. Staff can assign each other pages to follow up and respond to, and record their comments and responses alongside it. All that information is stored together and we're able to extract it as a data file for archiving purposes."

Jongen said that as the system is developed, it will hopefully learn what items staff do and don't follow up and rank those items accordingly. He said he hopes it will also be able to learn the intent behind a person's complaint on Twitter.

"We're also exploring sentiment and sarcasm as part of this work, but that's a really difficult thing to measure in the context of 140 written characters," he said.

In such a privacy-sensitive environment, Jongen said it hasn't been easy to change the staff culture towards being more open.

"It's a different ideal for us as an organisation because protecting and guarding customer privacy has always been central to all our work. It will always be our focus, but some aspects of social-media work push privacy boundaries," he said "We've had to work with our legal and privacy divisions and IT security to assess and manage risks, but we've done so by trying to establish and promote a culture of 'social-media trials' across the Portfolio."

Jongen said that the biggest hurdle, however, would be proving the value of their online presence by discovering whether increased social media presence translated to a reduction in other types of communications with customers.

"That's a tough thing to prove, but we're working with areas across our organisation to establish an effective way to capture this information," he said.

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