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Is it appropriate to use emoji in official communications? Is the use of emoji a universal form of expression or a corruption of language? What purpose do emoji serve beyond what we can achieve with formal English? While many may dismiss emoji as unprofessional, it’s worth weighing up the potential benefits they offer.

Consider the roots of communication through symbols. Hieroglyphs were essentially signs that were given phonetic value. In Egyptology these are called ‘determinatives,” as they determine how written words should be understood. Are emoji’s simply modern-day hieroglyphs? Some modern Asian languages use “syllabograms” in everyday writing—single symbols that can express words, or entire thoughts and emotions.

The emoji really became mainstream through platforms like Twitter where the character limit was initially limited to 140, so the one character 🤔 replaces the 28 required for ‘Hmm, I don't know about that’. They were also popularised by character limits in early SMS pricing for phones. The intent behind a single emoji can be extended when paired with others; for example 🤔💭 or 🤔💡 can represent thinking, (having) ideas, and learning.

The youth of today would argue that emoji simplify intent that can often be lost in text. For example, the statement ‘that’s funny’ doesn’t fully confirm the user’s reaction – was it just ‘LOL’ 😂 or 🤣 ‘rolling on the floor laughing funny’. In text, this can easily be mistaken by a sarcastic “that’s funny” 😒.

It is important to note that unlike emoticons, which are a user-created arrangement of keyboard symbols, the choice of emoji is determined and limited by the Unicode Consortium- the organisation that governs the emoji the world gets to use, (adding 59 new emoji in 2019). The non-for profit organisation’s role is to enable people around the world to use computers in any language. Emoji are not dictated by corporate interests and are designed to help people communicate clearly and effectively.

So if the purpose of emoji is to enable communications across languages and cultures, this begs the question: should Government’s use emoji to ensure all members of their community can understand intent?

Governments have been using symbols similar to emoji since well before social media. Take road signs, for example. The reason road signs are in symbols is to signify meaning to everyone regardless of language barriers, but also to express intent quickly, as the driver needs to understand a complex message within a fleeting glance. Let’s consider other environments that Governments could use emoji to quickly and mono-linguistically give directions.

  • In border control centres emoji could be used to communicate rules like “no using mobile phones.” 📵

  • In medical centres, emoji could identify critical conditions or signify dangerous areas and important rules. 😷 was used during the SAR outbreak.

  • Emoji have been useful as an international symbol for people in authority, as different countries have different official uniforms, but 👮 is always understood as a police officer.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was renowned for using emoji on Twitter. She used emoji flags for the countries she was referring to, and often peppered her sentiments with emoji that better conveyed her intent. Although it did cause some diplomatic issues when she used 😡to describe Vladimir Putin, it made for much clearer communication that recognised the importance and effectiveness of these symbols.

Some have argued that the proliferation of emoji isn’t helping the current poor literacy rates among Australian youth in certain areas of the country. There is a very real challenge within our remote Indigenous communities: in some Northern Territory communities nine out of ten people lack literacy skills when it comes to the English language. While not dismissing the huge political and cultural complexities around why these statistics are as they are, this makes it challenging to convey important community messaging within areas of low English literacy. Consider the following examples:

  • With huge rates of Rheumatic Heart Disease in Indigenous Australians, notification of monthly lifesaving 💉could be sent via text or social media.

  • With many remote communities being in cyclone prone areas, notifications in social media could be expressed as 💨.

Recently, Captovate worked with some youth groups in a remote Territory community. The original intent was to understand how they used social media to communicate amongst peers. But an interesting insight emerged, and it involved emoji use.

Many young people in this community don’t have access to their own mobile phone, as device sharing amongst families is very common. However, a lot of them use social media and private messaging to communicate with their youth workers. These social workers had built a trusted relationship with these young people, who often contact support staff when they need help. This might include needing access to medical services, legal services, or help during times of vulnerability, such as in cases of domestic violence. As they often share mobile phones with the perpetrator of the violence, they have developed an agreed-upon code to indicate a need for help. Using emoji they might send a simple 💫, which suggests they had been hit and are feeling unwell and are potentially concussed. 🏝️ is suggestive of feeling suicidal. 🍔 is to inquire when the youth meet up is on, as they supply food.

The use of these symbols evolved organically, and no single person developed a list of agreed symbols. They have emerged based on the needs of the community. It’s a strong example of the effectiveness of emoji as a form of communication.

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Social media is a two-way communication platform. For large corporations and the government, Facebook, Twitter, and other popular social media are fast becoming customer service platforms.

At present, most governments use social media mostly as a push marketing platform. Very few accounts participate in meaningful engagement with their constituents. There are several reasons for this:

  • Lack of resources

  • Fear of community response

  • Lack of understanding around how this can be of value

  • Lack of understanding of how the platforms work.

This needs to change, and meaningful engagement needs to be embraced as the user experience of the Internet has become so focused on social platforms. Society is shifting, and constituents increasingly expect to be able to ask questions of authorities via social media, and to receive timely and honest answers. Messenger apps are the fastest growing area within social media, and rather than searching for an answer on a website, users prefer to ask their questions via social media and messaging apps. They expect to receive a relevant and appropriate response, as this has become the norm for how many companies use social media.

The social media platforms themselves are recognising this shift in consumer expectations. Facebook has publicly declared that they are giving greater exposure to posts that include ‘meaningful interactions’: that is, conversations between people on a page post. Facebook offers itself as a customer service platform, and that’s increasingly how the site is being used.

Using a well-planned content strategy, Service NSW can make posts about topics they want the community to be aware of. Through-providing, prompt responses mean that the page’s users learn that this is an effective tool to gain quick and easy answers to general questions. It’s worth providing answers publicly as the one response may help many who have the same concern or query.

If Centrelink can do it, anyone can.

The Federal Government has established a customer service centre for Centrelink services via Facebook. Although these pages are resource intensive (as there is the need for service centres to answer queries), they are also likely to remove resourcing pressures from call centres and face-to-face centres, which are often extremely busy.

Of course, organisations also need to exercise caution, as open communication allows the public to potentially make inappropriate comments on your page. Facebook will allow you to create a blacklist of terms within the platform which will block those identified words, and all major platforms allow you to block users. Allocating page moderators is usually accepted practice for page management.

Probably the biggest benefit of resourcing a social customer service centre is the creation of an attentive and engaged audience towards whom you can direct key messages when you need them to be heard. Communicating during national crises like the recent bushfires benefits from platforms like these, as government institutions can spread community messages quickly.

The NT Government should prepare itself for using social media as a customer platform in the near future. Much like the NSW Government, the Queensland Government has a publicly available approach to social media where the key goal is to ‘make it more convenient for customers to engage with the Queensland Government and access information, services and campaigns’.

There are already several areas in NTG where a social customer service centre could be considered, including:

  • Territory Families’ Pensioner Concession Scheme, which is supported by a team of customer support staff who could use social platforms to answer questions.

  • Territory Business Centre and their current advisors, which could look to support business enquiries via their Facebook page.

  • It would have been an innovative approach to use social media to respond to cash rebate questions after Cyclone Marcus.

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Free and Paid.

You have probably heard that Facebook advertising is seen by some users as intrusive or annoying, but used effectively, it can be helpful in building a your follower base and finding users who will benefit from your page. Targeted advertising allows you to specify age and location ranges and easily find constituents who might want to follow your page. Here are further examples of targeting features you might not be aware of and some examples of how they can be used locally.

Get messages to your employees - Free

LinkedIn has just launched a function to notify all employees when you post on a corporate page. This is a great way to inform employees of public notices.

Restrict to a suburb - Free

When you post on Facebook there is the function to restrict the audience. This means that ONLY people within your defined demographic will see the post on their feed.

As an example, imagine that Power and Water wanted to notify people in Zuccoli that the water in their area had discoloration. This post on page could only be accessed when people where physically in Zuccoli (according to their GPS or Internet location), and would not cause unnecessary concern for people outside of this suburb.

Target Buildings - Paid

Ever wanted to get a message to people in Parliament House, Paspaley building or Mitchell Centre? With some clever use of the geo targeting feature, you can send a Facebook Ad to users within a particular building, tailoring your message for a very specific audience.

Target visitors who physically attend a location - Paid

Location targeting means that shop owners can send ads to people who have physically been to their shop. When connected to the point of sale system it can determine if they made a purchase or not, and send extra details to encourage them to buy online or visit the store for a deal they might have missed.

For NT Government, this function could be used to target people who have physically attended the Territory Business Centre. This could include posts about links to relevant resources, or helpful contact details for business advisors.

Target Senior Citizens - Free and paid (paid will reach beyond your pages followers)

With 30% of the Facebook population being over 60, this function will reach a wider portion of your audience than you might think. In the NT there are approximately 14k monthly users over the age of 60. Targeting senior citizens with your posts is useful when you want to communicate, for example, changes to the senior concession packages pushed to this tech savvy audience.

Target parents with Children - Free and paid (paid will reach beyond your pages followers)

Facebook allows you to direct people who have children within the following age groups:

  • 0-12 months

  • 0-2 Years

  • 3-5 years

  • 6-8 years

  • 8-12 years

  • 13-18 years

  • 18-26 years

Consider the targeting options here with regards to issues like immunisations, health concerns, and education notifications.

Languages - Paid

It is possible to target based on language.

With NT’s diverse cultural demographic, it is possible to send messages to direct communities. Combined with automatic language translations, you can imagine how effective this would be in reaching non-English speakers.

Recently arrived - Paid

With the NT having such a dynamic population, this tool allows target messages to be sent to those who have recently arrived. This could be a handy feature when combined with location targeting to reach newly arrived defence personnel, or to communicate home owner grant packages to potential new buyers.

Do you have a communication challenge that targeted social communications could solve?

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