The very talented people speaking after me are going to focus on Enterprise issues, problems, and solutions. That topic is all about how emerging technologies are changing how people collaborate within organizations. So, I thought I would leave that to them, and focus my talk on how emerging technologies are changing how government organizations relate to citizens.
“ We want to honor the past, but not operate in it.” – ADM Allen, USCG How can we slay some sacred cows and modernize communications? How can every employee to some degree be an authentic public liaison? We currently have a very anti-social approach to dealing with the public. The problem is that “government socialites” can now easily and powerfully bypass that system.
Social media is about being social, online and in real life. It is primarily not about technology, but rather about people sharing information through their social networks. Technical savvy is needed far less than leadership. If you understand collaboration and communication, you can understand social media. How many government leaders understand how the inside of a phone works? Social media is a very powerful force, because anyone with a phone or a computer can create, comment on, and spread content. And increasingly, this is done in people’s personal lives – and the lines between work and play have blurred considerably.
“ Customer service is public service.” – Craig Newmark How many citizens interested in the environment can name someone working for the EPA? How many schoolteachers can name a senior official at the Department of Education? How often does the average government employee meaningfully interact with a citizen who cares about what they do? Who are the biggest fans of your office or your agency? Interact with them online and in real life. Listen to them and let them help you achieve your mission. DOD Blogger’s Roundtable is a great example of this. The government is not “usable” to the average citizen. It can be, and it should be, though. You can play a role in making that happen.
Often people resist change because they fear the unknown, are afraid of losing control, or have some other interest in the status quo. Unfortunately, social tools are empowering collaboration behind their backs, and they’re going to get stepped on or over, directly or indirectly. Do you know how I met ADM Allen from the Coast Guard? Facebook. The lines between work and play are blurring, particularly when it comes to things like networking and participation. Is checking someone’s GovLoop blog “work”? Who knows. What I do know is that the people doing it are better off than the ones ignorant of it.
“ Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before the defeat. “ – Sun Tzu You need to start off with a strategy for yourself, for your office, or for your agency. What do I want to accomplish? What could we be doing better? Make a list of goals and stick to it. Social media is not a generic toolbox. It’s not a jumble of names of companies. It’s a set of functionalities that if used right can provide innovative solutions to specific problems you’re facing.
I think that being only reactive is a radioactive strategy. Yes, of course you should monitor what people are saying about where you work and the topics you work on. But the really powerful behavior is anticipating what’s coming and seeing it before others do. A broader strategy is playing offense and defense with social media. It’s being proactive and reactive. As ADM Allen said yesterday, you either put out information on your own terms, or someone will fill the vacuum for you.
The most important thing you can do with social media is share quality information that contributes to the knowledge base, and adds value to people’s lives. Ask yourself, will citizens be better off for having seen this content? But don’t forget to market your content. In the future, you won’t find the content, the content will find you . Talk about your content at events, link to it off other people’s websites, use social bookmarking, Facebook Wall posts, Twitter, and other mechanisms to publicize what you content is. Be where your audience is. Don’t use Plurk if you know most of your audience is on Twitter, don’t use MySpace if you know your fans are on Facebook, and so forth. And where applicable, use multiple formats to provide information (YouTube and Vimeo, let’s say).
That said, sometimes the message is the message. What I mean by that is merely having a presence, sharing any kind of information, showing citizens that you care about them, can actually be in some sense more powerful than the actual information that you’re sharing. I call this the full-spectrum dominance strategy. You don’t necessarily have to use every tool, but when people are looking for information about defense, or education, or environment, do they find information that you shared? That’s the real question you need to answer.
For large organizations, social engagement with stakeholders cannot remain only in the hands of a few social media experts – it must be embraced culturally by entire organizations and used tactically by many people in many places at many times. Everyone to some degree is a communicator. Give up the idea of message control. People inside your organization are already using these tools at work and at home. And guess what? They’re already talking about their work while they’re golfing with their friends or cooking dinner with their spouse. So instead of cracking down on these socialites, reward them – they’re the most likely all-star public ambassadors you already have. Unlock their hidden potential. Education and training is required, though. Train against stupidity and embarrassment, don’t micromanage, and trust your employees. You already trust them to fly fighter jets and manage hundreds of millions of public dollars, but you don’t trust them to tweet from a Blackberry? That notion is quickly becoming antiquated.
Once you have your strategy, have mapped out some goals, and have identified some leaders who can help you achieve this, choose the right tools for the job. Some tools are better than others for achieving different missions. In some cases, writing will be better, in others photos, and in others video. Maybe you want to offer interactive video chat. I can’t answer these questions about your organization. I can say that you should largely ignore the hype. MySpace isn’t dead, Twitter isn’t the answer to every question, and WordPress might be more complicated than what you need. Read about the technology, attend events that prolific users actually go to (hint: not government conferences), and conduct small experiments. Fail safely. Or fail small. Don’t use new tools in ways that if they don’t work they’ll be very embarrassing for people or groups. Look at others’ best practices, start small, and learn a little bit as you go along. Don’t take big risks.
People get very obsessed with measuring things. Critics especially will ask, what’s the return on investment from a blog, or what’s the ROI on tweeting 10 times a day. I say, what’s the ROI on a meeting that runs too long, or the ROI on a smoke break? I’d also like to know the ROI on actually collecting, analyzing, and discussing the metrics in the first place. How does 10 people sitting in a room for two hours discussing the relative benefits of 450 vs. 750 Twitter followers help people? I like to say, I count thank you’s, not click through’s. I count the number of times someone says “I know you from Twitter” or “I read your Federal Computer Week article.” So ask yourself, is what I’m doing helping my community of interest?
“ Don’t just feel the pulse. Be the pulse.” – Jeffrey Kalmikoff, Threadless When people think of the environment, or national security, or education, do they think of your blog, your Twitter feed, your YouTube videos channel? Probably not yet – but they could. And that has huge indirect positive effects for you, your boss, and your organization. This goes back to using social media in proactive vs. reactive ways. When you’re proactive and incredibly giving of time, energy, and information, you’re what Shel Israel calls “lethally generous.” You become a very trusted member of a community. And therefore information starts flowing back to you, and you can anticipate rather than merely react. Don’t just talk about your office and your agency – Intelligently curate information about your SECTOR.
Distrust of the government and its messages have never been higher. So how can government social media help combat this attitude in the country? One, think about your brand. Yes, the government has brands even though we’re not selling breakfast cereal like on Mad Men. But we are in some sense selling ideas and information and giving products like Social Security to people. And we do have brands – think about photos of the Capitol, or a Marine in full dress uniform, or a dollar bill. Who are the ambassadors that are presenting your brand to the public? What are they saying? How can they help your office or agency better achieve its missions? Does anyone trust your content? Provide great content, make it accessible, pervasively interact with the community, and build trust over time. And online time runs four times as fast as real life.