Warning! Communication Challenges Ahead

Social Media and Texting in the Child Support Context

By Mike Moreno, Maureen Leif, and Kristin Slice

A communication plan that includes social media and text-messaging strategies is important to the overall success of a child support program.  Social media platforms are pervasive in our society, and it can be difficult to grasp the impact on our lives and business.  Likewise, text messaging has become commonplace and can be an effective and reliable communication tool. Incorporating these tools into an overall communication plan can be challenging, but building a strategy piece-by-piece can ensure that an organization uses them in consistent and productive ways. As the child support community nationwide continues to innovate and evolve toward family-centered approaches, many agencies are looking at social media and text messaging as tools to help them reach more families and have a greater impact in their communities. 

Human service and child support agencies have been slow in adopting official social media policies and approaches for various reasons.  Some have been concerned that social media would be used to convey negative messages and, potentially, to expose personal information. However, as those concerns are addressed, more child support agencies have integrated the use of social media, mostly as a tool to enhance their ability to locate parents for collection and enforcement purposes. While legal and privacy concerns do still exist, there are good examples and even legal precedent for the wider use of social media.

Part of the reason for adopting a broader social media and communication strategy is the changing population served by child support agencies. In a report issued in March, 2014, the Pew Research Center noted that "millennials in adulthood" are "detached from institutions and networked with friends.” Simply put, millennials expect a two-way communication style, similar to that of a friendship or other relationship. They have little interest or trust in dealing with institutions that demonstrate a lack of willingness to meet them where they are. A reflection of this change is the success experienced by institutions offering customer service through web-based chat. When compared with traditional methods used by customer service call centers, this type of customer service may seem more detached and lower in quality. However, the reality is that millennials have been raised in and are accustomed to a world where web chat and texting are more common than calling someone on the phone.

Many organizations use social media to create messages with greater impact and to shape or reshape public opinion. However, mastering the use of social media can be challenging for any organization. An implementation plan can help.  Below are four best practices child support programs should review and consider before implementing a social media communication strategy:

1.      Social media is a two-way street.  Social media platforms are two-way communication tools between agencies and customers. Traditionally, external communication flows one way, outward to clients, stakeholders, and strategic partners, but traditional communication makes receiving external feedback more difficult. Organizations that use social media convey a willingness to engage their customers and other external parties in two-way communication.  It is important that organizations look for user feedback and have a process for vetting and responding to it, including incorporating changes into organizational processes. Users will easily spot a failure to do this, and they will soon grow bored and disinterested.

2.      Social media use is not a megaphone. Again, utilizing social media is designed for conversation, not shouting out static information. Nonprofits and government agencies often have greater opportunities for engagement through dynamic information sharing. By design, they regularly communicate valuable information to their community. Learning how to communicate information in a way that sparks a conversation is key. Arguably, child support programs are one step ahead of other government agencies because they already know what the conversation needs to be; it just needs to take place in a different forum.  If done thoughtfully and strategically, social media can expand access to new audiences and communities that have traditionally been hard to reach, if not altogether out of reach.

3.      Get the entire team on board. Many mission-based organizations, like child support agencies, limit social media use to a single department. Unfortunately, such limitations often result in a failure to generate effective campaigns that truly engage their communities or target audiences. Social media is designed for people to connect with each other and communicate valuable information. The information that is valuable to the community usually exists within several departments or agencies, so an effective social media campaign must involve the entire organization and partner agencies. In addition, information must be communicated in a manner that does not overwhelm an audience, and there must also be a clear call-to-action. Which brings us to the final point.

4.      Employing social media requires strategic thinking and training. Effectively integrating the use of social media into any initiative, such as comprehensive family-centered approaches, will take time and, more important, a clear and tangible strategy. A good starting point is developing your team’s social media skills. Every day, people post on social media, but an organization that wants to use social media needs to implement a unified strategy and proper training to ensure that it utilizes social media effectively and consistently.  Many organizations waste a lot of time and money by jumping into a social media communication strategy without any real focus or training. Giving individuals responsible for the organization’s social media the proper training and a targeted strategy can save time and resources in the long run. Cross communication and training with the legal team is important so that social media practices are in compliance with rules of ethics.

 A strong social media strategy can play a vital role in supporting the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement’s six core elements to promote child well-being and family self-sufficiency.  Even outreach on local laws and new legislation can be boiled down, communicated in small digestible bits, and delivered directly to devices people are checking every minute of every day. Social media, as well as other online communication technologies, have the ability to break through the barriers of time and resources created when communication is limited solely to face-to-face interaction. For example, California’s Contra Costa and Ventura Counties use Facebook to highlight job opportunities, community updates, resource fairs, free education, and training events.  Orange County California’s Child Support Services Division has an active Twitter account providing followers with updated information and outreach.

While not defined as social media, the use of text messaging is also a key component of a comprehensive and modern communication plan and could be incorporated into an overall social media and communication strategy. Social media and texting are great ways to use technology to reach a younger demographic, but the two are very different. In contrast to social media, text messaging often takes the form of personalized messages to clients reminding them about payments or updates on their cases. This is significantly different from the use of text message marketing in the for-profit realm, which often uses text messaging to alert people of flash sales and upcoming events. Text message marketing has many legal complications, and it requires specialized technology to send mass text messages.

Many government agencies have begun to implement text-messaging strategies as a way to reach customers with simple reminders or to provide updates on a case status.  In February 2016 the Colorado Division of Child Support implemented a text-messaging and email plan for specific case situations to address the often difficult and expensive task of keeping parties informed of important dates. The program instituted new policies to capture and store valid cell phone numbers. Additionally, the program offers four ways parties may opt-in to receive the messages: through the child support services website, the Support Disbursement Unit (SDU) customer service line, the SDU Interactive Voice Response system, or a local child support technician. Parties have the ability to choose their method of receiving messages, which include information for their case regarding payments missed or received, upcoming due dates for payments, or information regarding newly available services and programs.

Child support programs serve approximately one in four children in the United States. This is a big responsibility and an exciting undertaking that requires many innovative communication tools and the development of integrated strategies.  At its core, a family-centered approach requires organizations to integrate themselves closely into the lives of the populations they serve. Having a comprehensive strategy and defined standards for the use of social media and texting, which are already integrated into most people’s daily lives, could be the key to unlocking success.