is a communications professional with a passion for social media, based
in Toronto, Ontario. He is also a self-described “fanatical
runner” who has chronicled his training and fundraising efforts leading
up to the Boston Marathon at TorontoRunner.com.
Though Dave has worked in marketing and communications for major
corporations like Hitachi Europe and Lloyds TSB, he now works in the
public sector for Ontario’s provincial government. Since social media
and government sounded incompatible in my mind, I asked Dave what made
him move from the private to the public sector, and additionally, what
are the major differences in new media communications in the private
vs. public sectors.
“Funnily enough, I never set out with the intention of
moving into the public sector. It happened almost by accident. When I
first moved to Canada about five years ago I was looking for work and a
short-term contract came up in the Ontario government, working on the
online roll-out of the government’s pre-budget consultations. That
project led to a position within communications in the Cabinet Office,
and things snowballed from there.
From my perspective, the biggest difference I’ve noticed
between the private and public sectors has been in the level of risk
taking. Working on the corporate side I noticed people were much more
likely to respond to a new idea with, “sure, let’s try that” than those
in the public service. In government, people are much less likely to
take a risk, and that’s completely understandable.
Here are a couple of examples of why: Our job is, in a
completely non-partisan way, to support our elected officials. Those
officials are accountable for everything that happens under their
watch. That’s not so different to the private sector. The difference is
that, unlike in the private sector, there are people whose job it is to
oppose what the government does – the opposition. The mainstream media
also pays close attention to what we do. As such there’s a very high
level of scrutiny and people are aware of that. What’s more, everything
we do is funded by the public. That brings with it an enormous
responsibility to be disciplined in how we spend that money.
That doesn’t mean that innovation doesn’t happen in government.
I’ve been privileged to work with some wonderfully creative people who
are doing some leading-edge work. The difference is that they have to
be much more sure of what they’re doing than perhaps they might have to
be in the private sector.”
In addition to accountability, the logistics of getting buy-in and
organizing any new media communications program in the context of a
governmental agency just sounds like herding cats to me. Angry,
confused, territorial, bureaucratic cats. With knives. Dave sees it a
There are some unique challenges that come with implementing “new
media” in the public sector, but at the same time many of the
challenges aren’t too different to those in any large organization.
Approvals processes, silos and organizational intertia aren’t unique to
government. I think the key is to take small steps – to not expect to
make giant leaps forward. I heard a speaker say that government needs
to get to web 1.0 before we think about web 2.0 and I think that’s
I’ll give you three examples of particular challenges that
communications in the public sector does face, though. Firstly, we have
a responsibility to communicate with all of the citizens in our
jurisdiction. We have to remember that, while many people are fortunate
enough to have broadband Internet access, there are many more that
don’t. Regardless of the reason, we can’t exclude those people in the
name of progress. As long as that divide exists, online tools will
co-exist with other means of communication.
Secondly, we have an obligation to communicate in both official
languages – English and French. That poses some unique challenges when
it comes to social media. It doesn’t mean we can’t use these tactics –
the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s blog, for example, is doing just
fine (http://blog.privcom.gc.ca/) – but it does create challenges.
Lastly, the Ontarians With Disabilities Act requires that “The
Government of Ontario shall provide its internet sites in a format that
is accessible to persons with disabilities, unless it is not
technically feasible to do so.” I think we should be proud to have that
legislation. At the same time, it does pose challenges in the age of
instant information. It is difficult to post a video immediately
following an event, for example, when you must first transcribe the
video and then have that transcription translated.
As someone that has to deal with the realities and implications of
using any social media tools, Dave has a grounded perspective when it
comes to the new and shiny. He’s the kind of guy that sees social media
tools as means to and end rather than services with implicit value. I
asked him what he thinks of the constant influx of new social media
tools, and what he sees as useful vs. overhyped services that don’t add
I see social media as a means to an end rather than an
end in itself. As a communicator, I see social media as an extra set of
tools to add to my toolkit. They don’t change the fact that for each
initiative I have to think critically to decide what the most
appropriate tools are. Sometimes they don’t fit; other times they do.
We’re still in the early days of using these tools in government
I think many of the tools out there have very little use for
organizations. That’s fine – many are directed at consumers anyway.
Then again, I think the usefulness of a tool depends on the situation
and the context. I’ve given presentations at conferences where I
suggested that Twitter, for example, could be a wonderful emergency
information tool during disasters. With all of the reliability problems
Twitter has had recently, though, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who
needs guaranteed availability. That said, Twitter is still the tool I
use more than any other personally, and I gain tremendous business
value in terms of knowledge and access to expertise from it.
I’m reluctant to single out any tools as not adding anything –
like I said, I think it depends on the context. I do find knee-jerk
rushes to new tools irritating, though.
In preparation for this year’s Boston Marathon, Dave set a goal to
raise $3000 for the world-class Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation,
based in Toronto. He decided to use social media tools such as Twitter,
Utterz, email, and his two blogs to promote his effort. He meticulously
tracked the success of each here. I asked him what he learned through the process.
My fundraising effort for this year’s Boston Marathon
was one of the more rewarding things I’ve done in a while. It helped me
to turn an inherently selfish act – running the marathon – into
something that benefited other people and I learned a lot from it.
I think the tactics I used – my blogs, Twitter, Utterz and so
on – worked because I was already on them and had built up my
connections before I began my fundraising. What’s more, I did it
genuinely and not with an end goal of using them to raise money. That’s
a key lesson for people and brands in social media – get involved
openly and build those relationships early on, with no hidden agenda.
Don’t expect people to trust you if you just jump in with both feet.
The old saying is, “Look before you leap.” With social media it should be, “Listen before you leap.”
I’m not sure if I would do something similar in the future –
I’ve noticed more and more of this kind of thing happening online, and
I think it could get a little off-putting for people to be bombarded by
requests like this all the time. I’m glad I did it this time, though.
Finally, I asked Dave to name his top five social media tools.
Google Reader is right up there. It’s my hub for so
much of what I do. I read a couple of hundred blogs, but I only go to
one site to catch up on all of them. It saves me hours every day.
I mentioned Twitter earlier. Twitter (when it
works, anyway) is the centre of my social media community. I use it as
a resource, as a meeting place, as a networking hub, as a library and
more. I find that Twhirl, a free desktop client for Twitter, and Google
Talk help me to get the most out of Twitter.
A while back I heard, at 4:30pm on a Friday, that we needed a
graphic designer for some last-minute work. There was no way we could
handle the request in-house so I asked my Twitter friends if they knew
anyone who might be able to help. A few minutes later I had three
names, and a local PR agency contacted me by phone and email that
evening to offer their services.
another tool I use every day. I use it to save articles for future
reference, but I also use it for a bunch of other things like using
other peoples’ bookmarks to add to my own reading list and tracking
media coverage of announcements I’ve worked on.
I think blog monitoring is a great starting point for any
organization looking to get involved in social media. You can pay for
professional services like Radian6, Buzzlogic and the like but I think free blog search tools like
Blogpulse, Google Blog Search and Technorati are great too. You can set
up your searches, subscribe to the RSS feeds for those searches and sit
back and watch the results come in. Couple that with a tool like
AideRSS to filter the results and monitoring what people are saying
about your company becomes cheap and simple.
WordPress would have to be my final choice. I
don’t really think of it as a social media tool any more, but I suppose
it is. I love the range of customization you can do, both with direct
coding and with the thousands of plugins that people have created. I
used to use Blogger for all my sites, but I switched my main site to
WordPress and I’ve never looked back.
Dave Fleet’s blog about the intersection of communications, marketing and social media can be found at DaveFleet.com. His running blog is TorontoRunner.com. He also runs a wiki on social media training, available at http://socialtraining.wetpaint.com. You can follow him on twitter @davefleet.