Anand Sharma shows the way on Facebook friendliness for ministries

Shashi Tharoor may be the original twitter warrior, Omar Abdullah may have 40,000 followers, but it is the comparatively low-profile Anand Sharma who is taking his ministry to Facebook.

The ministry of Commerce and Industry, under a rather dynamic information officer, has put out its public relations arm on Facebook.

While the ministry of external (foreign) affairs is widely credited with being the first to explore the power of social networks (twitter), it is probably the first time that a Union ministry is taking the Facebook page route.

The reason, of course, is simple. On twitter, your critics and detractors cannot reach out to your audience using your network, but on Facebook, they can paste negative messages and complaints for all and sundry to see. This can, of course, be prevented, but would make the page (and the engagement that such efforts are known for) pointless.

The Commerce and Industry ministry’s public relations wing, officially part of the Press Information Bureau or PIB, seems to have taken the chance.

Betraying some pain and effort in its construction, the Information wing of the ministry has just put up the official Facebook page of India’s Ministry of Commerce & Industry.

In a pleasant departure, the MoCI’s page has not started out as a four-post PR afffair.

Though former Highways and Road Development minister CP Joshi had announced an intention to ‘go social’ in February, very little seems to have come out it, with a National Highway Authority Facebook page showing signs of chronic neglect and apathy.

Like other ministries, MoCI’s public relations is also handled by the Press Information Bureau, a rather bureaucratic organization that has in its charter the duty of ensuring positive coverage for the Government and its activities.

It is also tasked with giving ‘accreditation’ to media professionals, but has failed to keep up with the explosion seen in the industry over the past ten years. As a result, only a small fraction of journalists are now on its “rolls.”

MoCI’s charge is handled by PIB officer Dhiraj Singh, widely known as one of the most pro-active and innovative of the dozens of information officers who handle duties for various ministries.

Though belatedly, the PIB seems to be waking up to the emergence of the unstructured media or social network.

While earlier, the Government was able to influence how it was being perceived purely by “working with” the traditional media such as newspapers and TV channels, the emergence of social media has made the former strategy inadequate.

In the new media paradigm, the mass media outlets no longer have the amount of control over public perception that they used to even two years ago. As a result, firms like the PIB are being forced to reach out directly to the ordinary citizens.

However, the engagement too promises to be different, going by the experiences of the Delhi police and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, both of which saw their Facebook pages swamped by complaints and comments, not all of which were flattering.

In other words, the new media has raised the audience from a passive and mute ‘target’ of information to something close to a peer who cannot be shouted or ordered down, but must be reasoned with. The new audience has the power to reply and respond on a nearly equal platform, unlike the old one.