The ability of government departments to communicate with the people they serve has always been of paramount importance, and it takes skill and creativity to be heard above the clamour via the medium of social media – even in normal circumstances.
The Covid-19 crisis has raised the importance of clear, informative voices across social to mission-critical status, with the government also combating potentially harmful disinformation propagated by "bad actors" across platforms.
But which departments have been most effective so far at using social to interact with the public since the pandemic arrived in the UK?
To find out, Campaign sister title PRWeek asked social analytics and marketing agency Socialbakers to measure the performance of 20 government departments on three social platforms – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – for the three months from the start of March in an exclusive study.
According to YouGov, Facebook is the most popular social platform in the UK. Millennials have the most positive opinion of the platform, followed by those from Generation X and then baby boomers. The platform is slightly more favoured by women than men.
The most important social metric for government departments, by far, is how much the public interacts with their posts by "liking", sharing or commenting on them.
By this measure, the Department for Education was the frontrunner with 200,000 interactions. There was clear blue water between the DfE and its nearest rival, the Ministry of Defence, which had more than 50,000 fewer interactions during the same period.
The level of interaction by the public with the DfE could be explained by the major announcements about education since the pandemic came to the UK, from the closure of schools to most students in mid-March to more recent comms about how they might gradually reopen safely to some pupils this week.
The DfE posted 400 times during the period measured, while the MoD posted nearly half as much.
Gemmaine Walsh, director of communications at the DfE, told PRWeek: "The coronavirus pandemic has led to an unparalleled level of public engagement across all our social media channels, including the DfE Facebook page, which is aimed primarily at parents, teachers and support staff.
"Education and schools are hugely important and emotive issues at the best of times and even more so right now. That’s why we’ve worked hard to deliver timely and accessible information online – from parent and teacher Q&As to explainers and rebuttals, at the same time as highlighting advice on gov.uk to give people the information they need."
Making up the top five for interaction were the Department for Work & Pensions, with more than 50,000 interactions for 146 posts; the Home Office, with nearly 40,000 interactions on 181 posts; and the Ministry of Justice, with just over 30,000 interactions on 75 posts.
In addition to the highest interaction overall for the past three months, the research also measured the top individual posts for interaction during the period.
A focus on how the NHS was coping with the crisis saw MoD’s post about the army assisting the health service with logistics rise to the top of individual Facebook posts by interaction, with more than 23,000 "likes", shares or comments.
The majority of the other top six posts came from the DfE and covered announcements on schools, as well as offering parents tips on activities to do with children.
Government social accounts function better as comms channels the more people follow them. The study tracked how many new followers these departments had added since the crisis began.
By this measure, the MoJ acquired the most, with more than 7,000 new followers – a rise of 40%.
Filling out the top three were the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales, up nearly 40% with more than 230 new followers and the Home Office, also up nearly 40% with more than 20,000 new followers.
YouGov said Instagram was the second-most-popular social platform in the UK. Once again, millennials had the most positive opinion of it, followed by those from Generation X and baby boomers, and it was again slightly more popular among women than men.
The picture-sharing platform lends itself to potentially high engagement with the public, provided those behind the controls can serve up compelling content.
Leading the charge, the MoD trounced all potential rivals for pole position, with more than 340,000 engagements from only 71 posts.
Carl Newns, director of defence communications at the MoD, told PRWeek: "Our approach has been to develop content (images and video supported by stories) that places our people at the heart of the narrative and that shows individual case studies of military personnel supporting the NHS."
In second place was the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which had nearly 70,000 interactions with 88 posts.
The DfE came third with nearly 8,000 interactions from 106 posts. Making up the top five were the Home Office, with nearly 8,000 interactions from only 31 posts, and the Department for Food & Rural Affairs, with more than 4,000 interactions from 31 posts.
The study also measured the top individual Instagram posts for interaction. Once again, the MoD dominated the proceedings, with all six of the top posts by interaction.
Many of these centred on Major Tom Moore, the war veteran who raised more than £32m for NHS charities by walking 100 laps of his garden ahead of his 100th birthday in April.
He was awarded a knighthood for his efforts and made an honorary colonel.
Top posts from the MoD included images of an honour guard provided to Moore while completing his fundraising walk, his appointment to the rank of colonel and posts about support to the NHS and celebrations of VE Day in May.
The DWP was the main winner for new followers, perhaps reflecting the rush of new benefits claimants as the pandemic began to takes its toll on the economy and jobs.
Its follower count increased by 3,000 – a rise of 166%.
In second place was the Department for Transport, with nearly 1,000 new followers – up almost 100%. The Home Office was third, with nearly 11,000 new followers and up more than 70%.
YouGov said Twitter was the third-most-popular social-media platform in the UK.
Millennials had the most positive opinion of it, followed by those from Generation X and baby boomers – but it was slightly more popular among men than women.
Twitter can work well for starting a discussion – and therefore forging interaction – with a government department. It is also a good way for government social teams to quickly take the temperature of what the public is talking about and join the discussion with timely content.
Looking at engagement: the Department of Health & Social Care, with its critical public-health messages on preventing the spread of coronavirus, was the runaway leader, with more than 850,000 interactions from nearly 1,200 posts over the past three months.
Wendy Fielder, interim director of comms at the DHSC, said: "From the start, we have positioned Twitter as a key government social channel for Covid-19 information and advice, producing content with clear messages and engaged directly with our followers to give the most up-to-date guidance and to challenge misinformation.
"We will continue to use all our social media platforms to support the health and well-being of the nation as we continue the fight against this deadly virus."
Meanwhile, the MoD had more than 280,000 interactions with almost 500 posts during the same timeframe.
Completing the top five were the DfE, with more than 160,000 interactions on 464 posts; the Cabinet Office, with nearly 100,000 "likes", shares and comments on 139 posts; and the Home Office, with 83,000 interactions on nearly 300 posts.
Looking at the best-performing individual posts in terms of interaction on Twitter, the Cabinet Office took the top three slots, two of which were for identical tweets, posted one minute apart, with the simple message "Stay at home. Save lives. Anyone can spread coronavirus", garnering more than 60,000 interactions between them.
Another Cabinet Office tweet that scored highly was one apologising for a post from the official UK Civil Service account immediately following a press conference hosted by prime minister Boris Johnson, in which he exonerated his chief strategist, Dominic Cummings, of any blame for breaking government social-distancing rules.
A tweet from the UK Civil Service handle following the conference read:
Gone but never forgotten pic.twitter.com/uRlmh0LADx— Jack Dent (@Jack__Dent) May 24, 2020
However, it was swiftly deleted and the Cabinet Office posted an apology, which itself amassed 30,000 interactions.
DWP once again notched up the most new followers as worried people enquired what benefits they were entitled to as the economy almost ground to a halt.
The department had nearly 380,000 new followers – a rise of 125%.
The FCO, with its essential advice on travel restrictions, was in second place, with more than 20,000 new followers, up 20%, followed by the DfE, with more than 40,000, up 12%.
Commenting on the results of the study, Yuval Ben-Itzhak, chief executive of Socialbakers, said: "The MoD has been the most engaging public-sector profile in the UK on both Instagram and Facebook since the beginning of March. That comes as no surprise, given the highly visual nature of their content and the appreciation people like to show to their servicemen and women on social media.
"On Twitter, DHSC has led the way both in terms of activity and engagement over the same timeframe. Health has been at the forefront of people's minds during the past few months and Twitter tends to be the platform to which people turn to get the latest news and to stay updated."