Government Communication in the Social Media Age: Instagram vs Twitter and the Halifax’s Big Lift Project

There was a time not long a go when e-gov researchers and civil servants would debate about the merit and propriety of using social media channels to communicate with citizens. Those days are long gone. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are now par for the course, some would even characterize them as “traditional social media”. Traditional or not, social media is now an integral part of many municipalities’ communications mix. This is not surprising, governments are simply going to where the people are. According to a survey released this year by our lab, 94% of Canadian adults who use the Internet have at least one social media account. (See: The State of Social Media in Canada 2017)

Local governments around the world have found ingenious ways to using social media to do their work and deliver services to their citizens. Police departments are using social media for fighting crimes and elicit timely information from the public. Emergency management agency are using social media to issue emergency alerts and provide severe weather updates. (More examples here and here) But as more and more local governments and town councils turn to social media to inform and engage with citizens, questions remain as to how are they are using various social media platforms and whether they are using them effectively.

In a new study. “Examining government cross-platform engagement in social media: Instagram vs Twitter and the Big Lift Project”, in Government Information Quarterly, Dr. Anatoliy Gruzd, James Lannigan, and Dr. Kevin Quigley analyze cross-platform communication by the Halifax Harbour Bridges (HHB) Commission in connection with the launch of a major bridge re-decking project in Halifax, Nova Scotia called ‘The Big Lift’. Focusing on the usage of Twitter and Instagram, they find that HHB employed unique rhetorical strategies for each platform and adjust their approach over time by adapting to the conventions of each medium. Based on a content analysis of Instagram (n = 248) and Twitter (n = 1278) public posts, we found that Instagram was used as a more ‘informal’ narrative platform that promoted clicktivist-type responses from the audience, whereas Twitter was a more ‘formal’ news platform that supported greater two-way communication between the organization and the audience (see Figures below). In particular, Instagram posts tended to focalize on engagement with the audience through ‘re-grams’ (re-posting an image from a follower), whereas Twitter posts focused on communicating updates on commutes and engaging in direct communication with followers. For practitioners, this suggests that civic organizations should tailor their communications to match with the contours of different media platforms and take advantage of their unique affordances.

The published copy of the paper can be found at Government Information Quarterly’s website.  You can also access an open access pre-print.

Recommended citation:
Gruzd, A., Lannigan, J., & Quigley, K. Forthcoming. Examining government cross-platform engagement in social media: Instagram vs Twitter and the big lift project. Government Information Quarterly.

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