The Middle Ages gave the English language a wonderful range of collective nouns. We talk about a flock of birds, a swarm of bees, a colony of ants, a herd of antelopes. My top two are a congregation of alligators which comes second only to the grand winner, a parliament of owls.
I suggest an addition to these collective nouns to describe the Government of Kenya’s (GoK) activities on social media. A Tyranny of Twitter Handles.
One of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most effective campaign slogans was, “The Digital Team”. It signified an active, switched on, modern, 21st century kind of leader. It also signified an appeal to generational change, the wazee have had their chance, let the vijana run the country now.
A strong campaign slogan is nothing without an effective campaign backing it and Kenyatta’s 2013 election campaign was very effective in developing and executing a communication strategy for digital tools. uhuru.co.ke the candidate’s personal website was technically sound, pleasant to look at, easy to browse and effective at getting the message across. As Sheba Hirst eloquently puts it Kenyatta’s campaign did not require you to think, it simply asked you to believe. Away from the website Kenyatta’s social media messaging during the campaign was equally disciplined staying on message throughout the campaign. Take these tweets, for example, in the days before the election, good examples of messaging that is inspirational, informational and individual.
Thank you for all the support you have shown today. Let us come out and vote in even greater numbers on March 4th! pic.twitter.com/i5ljeY7Zjj
— Uhuru Kenyatta (@UKenyatta) March 2, 2013
This is how you cast your vote for the Jubilee Coalition on Monday 4th. Vote correctly to ensure our first round win pic.twitter.com/mW6Tkh84wK
— Uhuru Kenyatta (@UKenyatta) March 2, 2013
Send your friends number to 0719514572 to receive a call from me. Thank You and God Bless
— Uhuru Kenyatta (@UKenyatta) March 2, 2013
You would expect that a team that ran such a highly disciplined and strategic deployment of social media as a key communication tool during the campaigns would do the same in government. After all they now have the resources of the State at their disposal to fulfil their mandate. Unfortunately this is not the case. The lack of direction is so apparent we have to suspect the team that run communications during the campaign is no longer in charge of messaging.
There are three key problems that hinder GoK on social media.
- Lack of strategy
- Lack of controls on account management
- An admin at the NDOC decided to criticise his/her agency in one of the most public ways possible (unlikely).
- An admin at the NDOC meant to send out that Tweet from their personal account but posted before changing accounts.
- Lack of Relevant Content
The biggest problem is a lack of overall strategy. The GoK believes it should be on social media it just does not know why. Take for example the highest office of the land, the Presidency. The President is still using his Twitter handle @ukenyatta that is fine, for the person, the individual of the president. StateHouse Kenya has a Twitter handle @statehousekenya that is also fine, for the institution of the Presidency if you will. But wait, the Presidential Strategic Communication Unit also has a Twitter handle @PSCU_Digital. All these accounts are marked as verified which signals them as official Government of Kenya accounts. It is not clear what they are all for. @StateHouseKenya, for example, seems to simply exist to retweet the @PSCU_Digital. Consolidating the accounts and messaging is crucial if StateHouse wants to be effective.
This lack of a big picture thinking is acknowledged by the PSCU itself which tweeted that it is working on a “draft Social Media policy for the Public Service” 6 months after taking office. Better late than never!
PSCU Digital to unveil a draft Social Media policy for the Public Service #DigitalPresidency
— PSCU Kenya Digital (@PSCU_Digital) October 31, 2013
A second problem with GoK’s social media strategy is the lack of controls around account management. This is highlighted by the lack or coordination amongst the various social media accounts. For example, the Kenya Police Service @PoliceKE is a department in the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government @InteriorKE. The Kenya Defense Forces @KDFInfo also works closely with the Ministry and the Police Service. This coordination on the ground is lacking online as demonstrated when the adminsistrator of the @InteriorKE account asked publicly for the @PoliceKE and @KDFInfo to connect with them by “following back”. If the team running social media for a government Ministry has no way of reaching the team running social media for one of its own departments then proper controls on account management have not been put in place.
— Daudi Were (@mentalacrobatic) October 8, 2013
This lack of controls on account management can be quite embarrassing to the GoK. The National Disaster Operation Centre (NDOC) manages and coordinates disaster response at a national level in Kenya. They Tweet at (the verified) @NDOCKenya account. In the aftermath of the Westgate crisis someone with access to the @NDOCKenya account posted, “The epic clusterfuck continues” captured here by @KenyanPundit .
— Ory Okolloh (@kenyanpundit) September 25, 2013
I can think of two scenarios that led to this.
Whichever one of these two scenarios is closer to the truth it all speaks volumes to the lack of controls. It also brought to the surface what NDOC may have been thinking internally about the way the Police and the Army were handling the situation at Westgate, dangerous (to say the least) for morale.
A third problem with the way the GoK deploys social media is the lack of relevant content. GoK Twitter accounts spend a lot of time-sharing information that has nothing to do with their mandate. Or put another way, there is not enough content being generated to keep the growing number of GoK social media accounts active and fresh. For example at the launch of the Uwezo Fund in September a Twitter handle @UwezoFund was created. Two months later and the stream of Tweets are slowly drying up. Would it have been better to have an UwezoFund hashtag from a central government communication Twitter account instead of a new account? Every time the new government initiative is launched a Twitter handle usually follows.
Quick, how many twitter handles does Serikali have now?
— Mithridates VI (@roomthinker) November 7, 2013
An alternative strategy would be to leave control of all communication, including social media, of any new initiative in the hands of the host ministry until that initiative can demonstrate a need and strategy to run a separate account. This would also stop the endless irritating Tweets of “inspirational” messages that seem to be lifted from a very cheesy self improvement book or the Immigration Department tweeting about washing hands:
Global Hand washing Day was originally created for children and schools,but can be celebrated by anyone promoting hand washing with soap ^DM
— Immigration Kenya (@ImmigrationDept) October 15, 2013
Staying on message with relevant content is also important for individuals representing government or national institutions. For example, during the height of the Westgate Crisis the Inspector General of the Kenya Police Service David Kimaiyo tweeted from his (verified) @IGkimaiyo account:
“Taken control of all the floors. We’re not here to feed the attackers with pastries but to finish and punish them. IG”
The “IG” at the end indicates the Inspector General wrote this tweet himself. That such unprofessional communication (not to mention hubris) was thrown around so causally by a senior government official indicates that no one took the Inspector General through public communication protocols, or if they did they were inadequate or he simply ignored them.
The Guardian reports how Statehouse staff reacted to the IG’s Tweet
A generation gap between the president’s mainly US-educated, younger staffers and the senior staff in the army and police emerged. “We had our heads in our hands when we saw the Kimaiyo tweet,” said a Kenyatta staffer. “What was he thinking?”
You don’t have to be US educated to see the Inspector General needs a course in communication. Unsurprisingly the original tweet has since been deleted.
It is not clear what the GoK wants to achieve with its social media presence beyond being able say the GoK is active on social media. However, it is usually a good sign that a government wants to be present and engaged where conversations amongst its citizens are taking place. That engagement needs to be planned to be constructive. Hopefully the social media strategy the GoK is developing, which should be one part of its overall communication strategy, will address the three main pitfalls identified here.