Bilingualism, meet Twitter (by @eeohalloran)

* Note: This article originally appeared in New Brunswick’s provincial newspaper, the Telegraph-Journal, and is being re-posted here as a guest post with the permission of the author.  We hope you find it as interesting as we did.

By Erin O’Halloran, Principal & Information Specialist, CloudScout Information Services

New Brunswick has an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done anywhere in Canada yet – mandate how government organizations use social media in both official languages.

As a communications tool, social media’s popularity has exploded. Using social media properly can assist any organization with mass communications, brand management, customer service or recruiting. However, with the benefits of social media come expectations as well. The culture of social media is based on a conversation model where communications can be informal, and happen in real-time. This culture is difficult to fuse with traditional communications methods, which require drafts, translation, and a planned release – a process that enables government organizations to communicate in both official languages and abide by the Official Languages Act (OLA).

The OLA mandates that all communications between government organizations and the public be done in English and French, whether through a press release, website, or tweet. During research and interviews conducted in spring 2011 it surfaced that government organizations are struggling with bilingual communications on social media platforms. This information was expressed by representatives of a Crown corporation and a municipality, and was confirmed by a representative from the New Brunswick Office of the Official Languages Commissioner.

The Office of the Official Languages Commissioner plans to address the problem formally in its upcoming annual report, which is expected to be published by mid-October. The report will recommend a new policy be created to guide social media use in a bilingual context.

This must come as a great relief for government organizations, because we all know social media isn’t going away. For example, in Canada alone Twitter’s percentage of unique visitors increased 1,337 per cent (no, that’s not a typo) between 2006 and 2007 . Canada seems to be hooked on Facebook, too; it has the fifth highest Facebook penetration in the world at 43.63 per cent . In fact Canadians love both Facebook and Twitter according to a study released by Forrester Consulting in 2009. It says “Canadians are the most active social networkers in the industrialized world .” And Canadians aren’t simply following their friends and colleagues on Twitter. In 2010 it was reported that 51 per cent of active Twitter users follow companies, brands or products on social networks .

You don’t have to look far to see proof of this trend in New Brunswick. Citizens are following municipalities, government departments and other public service institutions, such as libraries, to stay informed and make connections. For example, @Business_GNB, the official Twitter channel of Business New Brunswick has 593 followers. The City of Fredericton’s Twitter feed for the recreation division, @fredcity, has 795 followers, while Invest NB already has 134 people following its newly launched Twitter feed. But not all of these government organizations are providing social media communications in both official languages.

There is confusion at present about how government agencies can best use social media while complying with the OLA and adhering to the culture of the social media realm. For instance, many institutions don’t know if a single bilingual Twitter feed is best, or if two Twitter feeds, one for each official language is best.

The Moncton Public Library is a good example of an organization doing its best to use social media for communicating with patrons and comply with the OLA. It assigns one bilingual employee to manage posting and responding to questions on social media platforms. This employee is connected to people throughout the organization and can post in both official languages on behalf of others. The library uses separate social media accounts for each official language, but it wasn’t always done that way. The Moncton Public Library started its Twitter feed as a bilingual account, and then made the switch based on what employees noticed other organizations were doing.

Examining the experiences of organizations such as public libraries, government departments and municipalities will shed light of how to utilize social media’s strengths to New Brunswick’s advantage. In addition, researching social media best practices and communications models in other bilingual jurisdictions will be important steps to ensuring New Brunswick creates a policy that meets public expectations and respects the province’s linguistic heritage.

If we take on this research and implement a new policy, New Brunswick will be leading the way for the rest of Canada. No other province or territory is as well equipped to answer new questions about communicating bilingually than Canada’s only bilingual province. If we do, the federal government will likely follow suit – making social media in New Brunswick not only a great way to communicate, but also a unique way to show the rest of Canada and other bilingual countries that our government is ready lead the conversation in the social media realm.