Social Media: The Evolving Revolution

on August 03, 2012 at 11:00 AM

A recent interesting study by the Sunlight Foundation states that Twitter “has become an important tool for social revolutions and civilian mobilization” worldwide. It also says that Twitter has been “embraced” by the U.S. Government, notably the U.S. State Department through its embassies.

The Sunlight study suggests that embassy use of Twitter is “largely an organic process, and one that has outpaced headquarters.” I would say that throughout the U.S. Government, use of new media is an organic process, just as the move to the web was such a process in the last decade.

However, in this decade, social media has not “outpaced headquarters” or the federal government. After government websites started popping up on the Internet, many web managers realized that some order had to be established. With the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), key federal web managers spent considerable time discussing the issues and drafting guidelines. By January 2004, the Federal Web Managers Council was created, and OMB released federal guidelines. The Web Council has become a vibrant community that actively supports best practices with a customer-centric approach. Indeed, it is the Advisory Group in the new White House Digital Strategy for revising guidelines to improve digital services and customer experience.

In the State Department itself, former Secretary Powell personally launched what became the Internet Steering Committee. It meets regularly on new and ongoing issues and continues to provide updated policies and guidance within the Department to deal with new media issues.

But going beyond policy and guidance, and technology, good social media requires people, and that’s what makes it so organic. It requires an investment in people to monitor social media outlets, to plan new and interesting stories, constantly stay up to date with fast-moving events, find visuals to support the story, verify facts, coordinate with a myriad of substantive offices, draft and clear the content released, and be trusted to respond immediately when required. Content is key. And with Twitter, the extra challenge is to be very short and to the point (and that’s difficult).

The State Department has dedicated staff to work on social media, and they help bureaus and embassies with their efforts. The Public Affairs Bureau entered social media with the DipNote blog in 2007. A glance at the top of shows all the social media options now available. And, in sync with the new Digital Strategy, you can now scan a QR code for the mobile site.

The Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) publishes its journals and other content on Facebook; embassies are encouraged to use this “centralized” content. IIP also provides support to embassies through a centralized content management system for their websites and some substantive content and social media support. For example, this bureau and the U.S. Embassy in China support many social media efforts in Chinese, such as their microblog.

For the embassies, the State Department provides technology, policy, guidance, content, and training. However, each embassy’s approach to social media remains different. As with rest of government, the embassies have to do more with less. They have to prioritize a myriad of issues; some have more crises; some have fewer personnel. Some Foreign Service Officers and staff may be very experienced or interested in social media; some may not. Ambassadors and officers rotate out of countries regularly; successors may not have same expertise or interest.

Social media is based on exchanges among people with a wide range of interests, expertise, priorities, and time, so it is a very organic process for embassies. But in this decade, there are guidelines, best practices, and support not only from the Federal Web Council but from agencies as well.

Following these guidelines and practices, agencies that put in place a fully functioning social media platform will transform the quality of their communications in a global environment and make them more effective at accomplishing their goals. As they increasingly use social media as a valuable communications tool, there are many challenges in maintaining the flow of content. Following are a few practical tips and considerations for agencies working to fully leverage social media in government:

Prioritize Resources– As noted, a proper social media campaign requires a constant flow of content and the right resources to maintain a high quality flow of information. It’s critical to identify these resources at the program’s onset to establish infrastructure and ensure that employees can devote the necessary time to maintain a strong social media program. Yesterday’s tweet has very little value today.

Set Clear Guidelines– Social media can be a double-edged sword. The proper use of social media tools help agencies communicate globally and in real time. However, social media and government are not always the best of friends, when various politicians, officials, etc., have engaged in various discussions without really understanding the medium. It’s critical that anyone attempting to use social media today on behalf of an agency understand what can and cannot be said. Plan for the proper training at the onset of the program.

Social Media is Two-Way Street– The real time nature of social media is one of its most compelling attributes. When designing and maintaining an active social media program, consider not only what your agency needs to communicate but also how it may be received by the public; be prepared to respond in a way which furthers the agency mission.

Colleen Hope is the former Director of web management in the U.S. State Department and a founding member of the Federal Web Council. She is retired and now employed by Array Information Technology.