Facebook backlash over Ontario teen driver restrictions a “wake-up call”

The Ontario government’s decision to slam the brakes on proposed legislation that would have imposed passenger restrictions on teenage drivers is a wakeup call for politicians and government agencies to speed up adoption of social media technology, says an online marketing expert.

The government announced it would not go ahead with the proposed legislation following a wave of online protests.

“To its credit, the government responded to the youth’s message…But government officials and agencies have to get into social media right way or they might as well pack it in,” says Mark Blevis, principal of Third Storey Inc. an Ottawa-based social media strategy firm.

In November, the province introduced legislation designed to reduce vehicular accidents involving young drivers. Among other things, the proposed law would have limited drivers 19 years and under and holding a G2 license to having only one teen passenger in the vehicle.

Irate teen drivers shot back by creating protest groups on social networking site Facebook.

A group started by Jordan Sterling, a Grade 12 student from Hamilton, Ont., managed to attract nearly 150,000 in a matter of weeks. “There’s obviously an interest because we’re seeing a snowball effect,” he said.

Last week Transportation Minister Jim Bradley announced the proposed measure was being withdrawn. The government was quick to note, however, that the about face was in response to strong public feedback coming from other sources, apart from Facebook.

While many youth who posted comments on the issue were likely less than 18 years “[Facebook] and other social networking sites will be where future voters will emerge from,” Blevis said.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, himself seemed to admit that despite the province’s much touted social media efforts, Ontario was caught flat-footed. “We need to find a way to get into Facebook. I think we need to find a way to engage [people] in a dialogue in a social network where they are,” he told reporters.

So far the province has been rather cautious in its approach. Checking out online groups opposed to the proposed legislation might have been carried out using non-government computers because Facebook is blocked on government networks.

Marla Krakower, manager of the Ontario government’s IT strategy, policy and planning branch, said the government is still testing the waters on social networking. “Social networking is a kind of new frontier…there’s no clear-cut written policy on it yet.”

Blevis of Third Storey agrees. “Canadian government agencies have sort of taken the backseat on this compared to enterprise organizations and the public.”

He noted many companies now employ podcasts, wikis and blogs to foster in-house collaboration and communication as well as a means of generating a desired image among its customers. Government officials should do nothing less, he said.

Many Canadian firms lag behind their international counterparts in this area.

“Rather than shun social media, organizations must see it as an effective tool to gauge public sentiment and disseminate a desired message.”

Unlike traditional media channels such as print, radio and television, which are largely “unidirectional”, social media provides users with almost instant feedback and reporting tools.

This capability can prove to be useful in crisis-management initiatives.

An example of this is when Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leafs Foods went on an information blitz using the company’s Web site and posting videos on YouTube when a listeria outbreak in the company’s plant caused food poisoning deaths of several customers.

Blevis said organizations considering social networking should adopt the following strategies:

  1. Acknowledge social media – Just as organizations have used written and phone surveys to gather public sentiment and feedback, social networks – such as MySpace and Facebook – can be a very effective means of finding out what people think of policies.
  2. Join various forums – Rather than trying to block access to social networks, an organization should research which online “gathering places” are appropriate for its operations and then develop policies and practices on how to use these sites.
  3. Create your own “gathering place” – Better yet, develop your own social networking site. Many companies bolster in-house communication between leaders and employees with the use of corporate wikis, podcasts or blogs. Special sites designed to cultivate online communities among customers are also very useful in elevating an organization’s public profile.
  4. Listen to the people – Social media technology is no good if its users turn a deaf ear to the public.
  5. Respond – When you receive feedback or gather data, you need to act on it. Realize that this is a two-way process and your “community” needs feedback from you as well. Provide people with the information they need, at the time they need it, and provide them with a choice of actions.
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