Sunday, 7 February 2010

Old Wine in New Bottle

Secretary for Transport and Housing Eva Cheng hosted the first "online forum" of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region yesterday morning.

Regrettably, the so-called online forum was by no means anything close to what we usually understand. It was little more than a web-cast – the new feature being the dedicated Facebook page where netizens could post their questions to the Government in real time. However, there was no immediate response to the excited but sceptical crowd. To date, the Government has yet to publish its response to any of the comments and questions except a self-serving news report on its portal.

More than 2,000 wall posts were collected within three hours – the three hours during which the Facebook page was opened for wall posts. At a first glance, few Facebook users appreciated the Government's initiative. This is not surprising at all, because the senior officials and their in-house communication advisers do not seem to understand what social media is all about. They did it wrong from the first step and were doomed to fail.

Marshall McLuhan famously puts it, "The medium is the message." Choosing to communicate through the online media implies an acceptance of the rule of the game of being responsive in a very efficient manner. As we know, people used to communicate online are extremely impatient. They are very responsive to what happens around them and expect the authorities to do the same. Asking people to write on the Facebook wall without a single word in response throughout the three hours of account opening is simply unacceptable.

As a social networking platform, Facebook was designed to help people maintain and strengthen their relationship with friends or acquaintances. Adding or removing a friend is a de facto declaration of relationship. Indeed, relationship is a long-term commitment that may extend throughout one's lifetime, which is essentially what underlies the extreme popularity of Facebook. Yet the Government's Facebook page was only opened for three hours on Saturday morning and there was no intention to build relationship with netizens by accepting their requests as "a friend". For the netizens, the Government showed no interest to listen to its grumbling people on an ongoing basis. Rather, it was seen as taking a piecemeal approach of communicating and engaging people only when there is an outbreak of opposition and resentment. Any engagement thereafter can only be seen as an anxious response to prevent further embarrassment. No wonder the Saturday web-cast was dismissed as being "insincere" and "a political show".

Genuineness is yet another important attribute of online engagement that the senior officials have yet to master. However, it is more than a communication issue between the Government and the public. More importantly, it indicates a prevalent lack of respect and trust in the Government among the people of Hong Kong, many of whom are being excessively sceptical of what the Government says and does. To rectify the situation, however, the Government needs to work harder not only in communicating with and engaging its people but living up to its words and expectations of the people.

After watching the Saturday web-cast for about half an hour, what really worries me is the Government's lack of a strategic approach in exploring new and effective ways of communicating with and engaging its people. While some may see the web-cast as an encouraging initiative, the way that the Government has done it wrong convinces me of the absence of a clear understanding among the senior officials of what social media is and what it can do, let alone any well-thought strategy of leveraging it effectively and meaningfully. I am not even convinced that the senior officials are ready to embrace this new technology, which requires some extent of mindset change and admission of one's ignorance.

Having said that, I do hope this blunder would not prevent the Government from stopping to explore and use social media as an increasingly important communication platform. The reason is simple: From the demolition of Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier three years ago to the budget approval of the Express Rail Link, the Government has repeated the same mistakes for twice and it can no longer afford another one.

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