CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State government is looking to supercharge the way it handles social media.

More and more people are following state agencies on a variety of social media platforms, and they expect response, said Andy Malinoski, press secretary for the state Department of Commerce.

Someone might follow the West Virginia National Guard on Instagram, the state Division of Tourism on Facebook and the Governor’s Office on Twitter — or any variety of additional combinations.

Andy Malinoski

“Social migration and social fragmentation has caused us to have to adapt to consumers’ needs for how they want to consume information and when,” Malinoski said.

The state has had a contract out for bid for a social media management platform. The bidding period ended last week, and no vendor has been selected yet.

The request for proposal asks for a social media management system that includes tools for publishing, monitoring, analysis and audience development.

Until the bids are opened, it’s not clear what the overall cost would be. The state would be paying for licensing fees for a cloud-based platform.

“Tools like this help us respond quickly to people who have a question about Workforce or the parks that we have,” Malinoski said.

“If we were not responsive in that, we would probably be looked at negatively. So this is an effort to use those channels to generate growth and prosperity for West Virginia but also to adapt to what’s happening.”

He said the state needs a comprehensive tool to meet ever-increasing demands on social media. A big advantage, he said, will be access to multiple platforms at once, with the ability to cross-post or schedule posts.

“We have more than 100 social media channels we have to manage by the State of West Virginia,” Malinoski said. “If you tried to do it all manually, I don’t think it’s possible.”

Outside observers suggested the state does have a need to be responsive to West Virginia citizens, but they also said state officials should be careful to not cross ethical lines on watching what citizens are saying.

In other words, the state using social media to respond to questions or complaints is helpful but using the same information to track criticism for political reasons would be crossing the line.

Eli Baumwell

“The answer is ‘it depends,'” said Eli Baumwell, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union West Virginia. “Basic tracking of public profiles and comments would be fine; so would flagging non-controversial terms like ‘WV vacation.”

Problems arise, Baumwell said, “if it includes tracking certain groups, or if it’s used to create dossiers on people — targeting people who post negative or critical comments. With something like this, the devil is really in the details.

Some of the companies that provide what West Virginia has been seeking include national brands like Falcon and Meltwater. 

Among their abilities are posting or scheduling posts across multiple platforms. They also analyze and provide reports about how social media efforts are performing.

They also allow for social media “listening,” which gathers insights from searches and mentions.

Malinoski says state agencies can use that tool to improve services or to quickly respond to development opportunities.

“What are industry thought leaders talking about so that we can continue to speak the language they’re speaking to show the value of developing businesses in West Virginia?” he said.

For example, “What is the potential audience for the topic of mountain biking? And people who are talking about mountain biking? are they talking about West Virginia? Our current mountain bikers, what do they like? What do they not like?”

Harry Bell

Harry Bell, the chief at Almost Heaven Media Digital in Charleston, provided a demonstration for state officials on social media management platforms last year.

Bell said the state needs to meet the public’s expectations on social media interaction and agreed that the responsibility needs to be met with care.

“Like anything, you can use the power for good or evil. We’re in a whole new world,” he said. “Government using social media, if they use the tools properly, it can be very beneficial. How much do you need to know when you’re using the listening software? It’s being smart.”

Overall, Bell said, “I think it is very positive that West Virginia is looking at engaging various platforms as a way of promoting transparency. It’s a quicker way of responding to citizens. If done properly it can be done in a very cost-effective manner as it promotes very fast, responsive communication.”

“The concern, like anything else, is the devil is in the details. Who is on the keyboard, who is manning the responses? What level of maturity, knowledge and expertise do they have?”

An addendum to the request for bid for the social media management system includes questions to the state about how the system might be used.

One question is, “What do you currently use for social management purposes? Do you currently use Meltwater?”

Answer: “Please provide your capabilities regarding social media management. What we currently use is irrelevant.”

Another question: “What is your purpose in social media listening? What do you hope to achieve by tuning into conversations mentioning the state of West Virginia?”

Answer: “Track effectiveness in generating reach and frequency. Understanding sentiment being expressed by target audiences on a variety of issues and topics.”

Question: “Can you disclose what types of keywords you’d like to monitor?”

Answer: “The topics and keywords that will be monitored will vary dramatically and may change daily. This is due to the nature of the services that are provided by government and topics that are relevant to the constituents of West Virginia.”

Malinoski said the social media management platform will be particularly useful for agencies within the Department of Commerce, such as the Division of Natural Resources, the Development Office or Workforce West Virginia, which deals with job searches.

“If someone has an interest in hunting or fishing or the aerospace manufacturing industry, they will receive more information in their channels — and if we have the things that will benefit them we want the reason to spend more time and energy creating the content,” he said.

“It has flipped now to where we’re producing information that is targeted to audiences that want to interact with the benefits and opportunities that we provide here.”