Social media and public professionals


Mark Brown @markoneinfour spoke about social media and public professionals at the Health and Care Innovation Expo 2014, highlighting it’s importance for the engaged and reflective 21st Century public servant. Thanks to Connecting Social Care and Social Media blog and @shirleyayres for sending it our way.

Here is a transcript.

Hello! I’m Mark Brown.  I mostly do mental health stuff. My work comes from my own experience of mental health difficulty. I don’t work for the NHS but I do spend lots of time effing about on twitter.

At a time when the NHS is experiencing it’s biggest challenges for at least a generation, I want to talk to you about the way in which social media can help to root the NHS in the fabric of communities. I want to talk to you about the ways that social media creates an opportunity for a whole new generation of ‘public professionals’, professionals doing their jobs while maintaining social media enabled relationships with a whole range of people..

But first I want to take you on a little journey…

It’s Sunday evening. The house is filled with the smell of ironing and leftovers and the sound of grumbling kids and grumbling adults all counting down the hours to Monday morning.  You and the family settle down to watch something comforting and gentle on the television.

It’ll be set in some time between about 1920 and about 1963-ish.  If it isn’t set then it’ll be set in a rural community somewhere as if it were 1920 to 1963-ish.  It’ll feature an affable public servant. It might be a police officer.  Or a doctor.  Or a midwife.  Or a district nurse. Or a coastguard.  They’ll spend each episode doing their job but also being involved in a whole variety of shenanigans.  The message will be they are a valued part of this particular, peculiar community of people.  Occasionally they’ll come to blows with someone from The Ministry or similar, someone who represents the far-distant bureaucracy ‘who don’t understand our local ways’.

What these Sunday night comforts all share is the nostalgic appeal of a world where public services were explicable, knowable and human sized.  It’s the fantasy of the local GP having a few pints in the snug of the local pub or the beat bobby who slurps tea in the local cafe.  Its a yearning for the days when public services felt like they grew from communities, rather than being distant, complex structures that lurk at the edges of everyday life. It’s the c wish to feel like there’s someone who is part of our world that can also help to understand the world of public services.

Social media is in some ways the latest village square or local cafe.  It’s a place where people check in to hear the latest news, catch up with friends, debate, flirt, ferment revolution and/or swap dirty jokes.  In short, it’s a place where people do people stuff.  Social media is where people are.

It’s very easy to underestimate how much of how the NHS works is opaque to the public. It’s like a big castle with high walls.   It’s very easy to underestimate how much of how the NHS works and what the NHS does is opaque to the people actually working for the NHS.

There’s a difference between giving health advice and discussing health issues, just as there is a vast difference between individual treatments and the service which delivers them. The NHS isn’t staffed by robots.  In fact we’re so scared that the NHS might be losing its human touch that we’re talking about training people in compassion and empathy.

So, what’s this got to do with public professionals and social media?

Public professionals talk about their job via social media.  They combine two things: they appear in the public realm talking about their job in way that used to only be possible if a journalist thought you interesting enough to interview. They talk about the pleasures, they talk about the joys, they talk about the difficulties, they talk about the issues that arise from doing it.  They put a human face and a human voice to what otherwise might seem a semi-robotic function.  They help the public to understand the process, the practice and the limitations of healthcare.

Public professionals inform the public of their practice and in turn have their practice informed by the public.  This is the second thing public professionals do: Public professionals talk to each other, they talk to non-professionals, they carry information into areas where it isn’t usually found.  Using social media they get ‘out and about’. Public professionals learn from the blogs, tweets, videos and discussions that they find themselves in and carry this understanding into their work.  It’s easy to forget just how much taxpayer funded knowledge and wisdom is currently sitting within the staff of the NHS.  It’s awesome but it also ends up hidden from the people who paid for it.  Public professionals jailbreak that knowledge and carry it out into the community via social media.

In a Nominet Trust paper published in 2011, Charities’ use of the internet – Current Activities and Future Opportunities: A state of the art review, Dr Eleanor Burt and Professor John Taylor talk about the emerging norm of social media becoming the medium for information-rich reciprocal relationships between organisations and those who use their services.  Their point is that in social media, information doesn’t just flow outward from providers, it’s a two way traffic.  And they’re right.  People increasingly expect that organisations will speak back to them and listen to them.

It’s hilarious to me that the NHS has a challenge with engagement and involvement.  Public professionals mix with people via social media (and often in real life too): they’re the person you talk to who is also a nurse, or a the person whose blog you read who is also a doctor.  Public professionals are engagers and connectors by nature.  You can’t do social media well without connecting with people.  For people like me, who aren’t in the NHS, public professionals are a point of entry, a way into understanding it better and a guide to navigating the complicated flows of information, misinformation, spin and rumour.

If we trust people to make life or death decisions over others we can trust them to have opinions.  If we’re battling for hearts and minds, which I think we are with the NHS, then public professionals are the best ambassadors there are.

But, you’re saying, surely we have comms departments and strategic communications plans?  Comms is about broadcast.  It’s a press office with bells and whistles.  A vital function, yes.  But Comms is about controlling the message, not growing the relationships a modern NHS needs to be part of the communities that it serves.  Does your comms team know how to deal with feedback? Does your comms team know inside and out the issues involved in the day to day of healthcare?

I’ll bet they don’t even have a licence to converse. And I’ll bet you they aren’t experts on healthcare. NHS staff are, though.  And when was the last time that your comms team spoke to people who use services and brought back some useful information about how things are ‘on the ground?’

In contrast, public professionals are a two-way conduit.  They take information out of its NHS castle and while they’re outside, in the bustling town square of social media they learn, and talk, and listen and they take information back into the castle, too.

And, being part of a social media communities and relationships means public professionals stick around through the good times and the bad times because they’re a person relating to other people.  You can’t be all ‘share our good messages, retweet our opportunities, big us up’ and then lock down your twitter account when a scandal breaks, as a Foundation Trust did last week.

Doing social media isn’t a separate job from doing a ‘proper job’. Public professionals fit in blogging, podcasting, tweeting around the rest of their work.  You don’t need to be a social media expert to do social media. You just need to know your subject and just need to be really, really passionate about discussing it.

The rules for being a public professional via social media are really the rules for any healthcare professional: Listen, speak with respect and care, know your subject, don’t talk about the benefits of your work without discussing its limitations, don’t think you know everything, be proud of your job but not blind to its failings and be an advocate for the best of possible worlds by understanding where things are worst.

If you come and find me on twitter, I’ll point you toward some of my favourite public professionals.  I’m sure the rest of the #nhssm community on twitter will do the same.

I’ll just leave you with this:

While social media isn’t the be all and end all of things: The public sector sometimes ony gets the urge to engage with people when it wants something.  How do you expect to engage the community, care for the community and be supported by the community if you’re not part of the community? That’s what public professionals do. And that’s why I love ‘em.

Thank you!

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