• ADVERTISEMENT

    Government 2.0: How Social Media Could Transform Gov PR

    by Mark Drapeau
    January 5, 2009
    Modern public relations takes place via personal, bi-directional connections within niche markets.

    It’s easy to see governments as nameless, faceless monoliths, something impersonal or, even worse, untrustworthy. Much of that is because government culture remains steeped in traditional ideas about public relations and outreach work, notions that have become archaic in an Internet-enabled, hyper-connected world. Just as private companies are learning to embrace social media to manage brand reputations, governments must adapt if they wish to effectively communicate with their “customers” — a.k.a. their citizens and stakeholders.

    I propose that using authentic and transparent personalities as public outreach ambassadors can help transform “government for the people” to “government with the people.” This should also have an indirect positive effect on the government organizations — the brands — they represent.

    Government sorely needs enhanced public relations that involve bi-directional multimedia engagement with specific niches of public interest."

    Government 2.0

    To be sure, governments are very different from private corporations in ways that create barriers to change. Bureaucracy and entrenched special interests make collaboration between agencies difficult. Information assurance, infrastructure, and legacy system concerns can make using or acquiring novel technologies from startup companies nearly impossible. Constant turnover of elected officials and political appointees as well as year-to-year budget concerns make long-range planning nearly a fantasy.

    ADVERTISEMENT

    Nevertheless, as I have written about in my column at Mashable and elsewhere, pockets of influence inside the government as well as outside groups like the Sunlight Foundation are working to change that. And gradually, senior leadership is realizing that the upside of adopting social technologies could be extremely high.

    Some criticize the use of social technologies in areas like national security and foreign relations, but I feel strongly that decision-makers cannot make informed choices about this until they or their staffs have personally had experience with this technology. And some senior officials, such as Colleen Graffy, the current Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, are bravely taking the plunge.

    i-3899333343ed44b6726525b1d92cc9ff-graffy twitter.jpg
    Colleen Graffy’s Twitter feed

    Behind every press release, web page, and social networking account is a person. But when people “hide” behind organizational brands, it reduces the authenticity and transparency that people — citizens, customers, fans — have become accustomed to seeing in the Web 2.0 world. New social tools and niche communications can empower people to connect with their audiences on a more personal level through what has been termed “ambient awareness” or ambient intimacy.

    ADVERTISEMENT

    The Collaborative, Creative Class

    Governments everywhere are dealing with the rise of the “collaborative creative class” or C3. Often thought of as “Millennials” but in reality composed of people from all generations, C3 are the passionate, talented, and creative individuals who often blur the lines between work and play. To harness the momentum and power of C3, and to recruit and retain such individuals for public service, the government needs to embrace the spirit of creativity and trial-and-error characteristic of the social software community, fund research and development on social software, address information security risks inherent in social software, and create policy, acquisitions, and human resources incentives to encourage the use of such software.

    Social software has numerous government applications, including information-sharing within and between agencies; collaborating with outside partners like humanitarian workers; public outreach and crowdsourcing; and empowering people with inexpensive, simple, mobile technology. In addition, as hostile entities become more adept at using social media for propaganda, it is imperative that governments familiarize themselves with social technologies.

    How can government use social software to engage people in meaningful ways, understand public sentiment, recruit and retain employees, and harness what is often called collective intelligence? One early and prominent advocate of this is Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.), who has experimented with social software including the text micro-blogging platform Twitter and the video broadcast technology Qik.

    i-ed6678fecb270d87c3f8e8377c0a7e7b-culberson qik.jpg
    Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.) on Qik

    In my opinion, there is a good deal of opportunity for bi-directional engagement between the government and its citizens. Rep. Culberson’s visionary experimentation with social software prompted Congressional rules changes that effectively empower members to act as bi-directional ambassadors, bypassing traditional media to directly engage Congress on behalf of constituents, and perhaps more profoundly, vice versa.

    Bi-Directional Brand Ambassadors

    The term “branding” is most often associated with companies selling products, but government components are arguably brands themselves. And failure to monitor conversations about brands is guaranteed to be PR trouble. Just look at the recent “Motrin Moms” controversy, which has been written about extensively here, here, and here. Briefly, Motrin failed to keep abreast of negative public reaction to an online advertisement aimed at mothers, a failure that may very well have damaged the brand’s reputation in a major niche market.

    Conversations like those that surrounded the “Motrin Moms” video are happening every day on issues that directly pertain to governments. How well do governments monitor what their constituents are actually talking about on Twitter and similar open information-sharing platforms?

    Businesses, governments, and other organizations are still struggling to find the best way to use social software to engage people about their brands. I have argued elsewhere that on social networks, brands are best represented by individual people as “brand ambassadors.” Ashton Kutcher and Maria Sharapova are in digital camera commercials for a reason — so you’ll watch (and hopefully listen and learn, too).

    But television commercials, billboards, and press releases are unidirectional — the audience sits back and passively receives information. Through social software, brand ambassadors have the potential to promote messages through what I term “indirect, intimate influence” or I3. Brand ambassadors ideally listen and learn from ongoing conversations, and then engage in them, creating bidirectionality as outlined in books like The Cluetrain Manifesto. Ideally, they also talk about more than just their brands on social networks — a good ambassador will also talk about other aspects of his or her life, to the point that followers eventually begin to see the brand ambassador as something of a trusted friend.

    Becoming Individually Empowerful

    As the influence of traditional media sources like television networks and newspapers declines, I predict that brand ambassadors will become a critical part of government public relations and outreach. In an environment of rapidly changing global issues, an increasingly fractionated media sector, and people more and more defined by unique combinations of niche interests, the government sorely needs enhanced public relations that involve bi-directional multimedia engagement with specific niches of public interest.

    Every citizen now has the potential to be a collector, an analyst, a reporter, and a publisher — and so does every government employee. Engaging, trusted personalities employed as brand ambassadors will complement — not replace — traditional public affairs and government outreach. Depending on their agency or office’s mission and goals, individuals can follow customized strategies to engage specific niches of the public at events, in interviews, and through constant, pervasive use of new and emerging media tools. In an ongoing bi-directional conversation, brand ambassadors employing I3 would work not only on behalf of the government among the people, but also on behalf of the people within the government.

    Government social ambassadors should be fully accessible, transparent, authentic, and collaborative leaders that inspire people to cooperate for the sake of common concerns. As part of their missions, government brand ambassadors should conduct community-based research to understand the “marketplace.” What do the elderly living in the Southwest think about health care? What do kids from different household incomes think about their public schools? What does the man-on-the-street in Greece think of U.S. foreign policy? My guess is that most people don’t know who the government authority is on elderly health care, impoverished schools, or foreign policy towards Greece. And while many interests are represented in Washington DC, the interests of the average person are sometimes misunderstood or overlooked.

    The strategy of lethal generosity can be incredibly powerful when engaging micro-niches. Lethal generosity holds that the most engaged and sharing person in a community will eventually become the most trusted. By leading overt discussions online and in person, combined with the ambient intimacy brought about through I3, government brand ambassadors will gain a greater sense of public sentiment, which in turn will allow lawmakers to formulate better informed public policy.

    Conclusions

    While governments certainly face challenges in using social tools, the pros of using these tools far outweigh the cons. Social technologies can make networking and engagement with the public simple and powerful, make research faster, identify influencers in useful micro-niches, provide mechanisms for combating negative publicity, and measure public sentiment to help inform public policy.

    These tools can also be used to advertise job vacancies or agency needs as well as provide live broadcast coverage of niche events. And there are increasingly quantitative measurements of social software return-on-investment. Finally, they may even save money. Phone calls, focus groups, and airline tickets can be expensive; social software can provide a cheaper alternative in some situations. Governments everywhere will benefit greatly by adopting progressive new approaches to social software and the indirect, intimate influence it propagates.

    Dr. Mark Drapeau is a biological scientist and government consultant. He has a B.S. and Ph.D. in animal behavior, conducted postdoctoral research on complex genomic and neural systems, and has published writing in Science, Nature, Genome Research, American Scientist, the New York Times, the Washington Times, and other venues. He is also a contributing writer to Mashable.com on government and social technology. These views are his own and do not represent the official views of the National Defense University, the U.S. Department of Defense, or any other part of the U.S. Government.

    Tagged: branding collaboration government public relations web 2.0
    • Great article – thanks, although for some reason the page has mashed on my browser and is not viewing 100%

    • Good Article on government stepping up their game to participat with their community which is long overdue. I agree that by using new social networking tech, the pro’s far out weight the con’s. Of course national security issues would not be within those spaces but elements like bills, laws, public issues as well as representitives being able to be accessible to the citizens they represent would be a good idea.

      I think it would add a whole layer of accountability as well as getting citizens more involved and less apathetic when it comes to politics.

    • Nicole Nolte

      Great article, Mark! I really enjoyed it and on several aspects couldn’t agree with you more! Look forward to seeing more articles from you!

    • Great write-up! I hope to see more articles from you in the future!

    • Thanks for this, Mark. Will comment later when I get a break. Just wanted to say for now that I’m having the same browser issues as Caroline Jaine…

    • Thanks for this, Mark. Will comment later when I get a break. Just wanted to say for now that I’m having the same browser issues as Caroline Jaine…

    • Very thought provoking article and people should think about this more from a marketing rather than a technology perspective. Sure technology is the enabler but the tools are third party, free and already there meaning IT’s role can be minimized. IT on the other hand can do other things to enhance and help the agency brand – for example providing access points to data that is public but today not accessible.

    • Very thought provoking article and people should think about this more from a marketing rather than a technology perspective. Sure technology is the enabler but the tools are third party, free and already there meaning IT’s role can be minimized. IT on the other hand can do other things to enhance and help the agency brand – for example providing access points to data that is public but today not accessible.

    • Brilliant article. I’ve worked in government myself and what you wrote really rings true. There’s an attitude of “we don’t toot our own horn” and “our work speaks for itself.” Of course, in this competitive media environment, government needs to get the word out about what they do more than ever.

      Also, people relate to big issues through individuals. And the government is filled with fascinating people with really interesting jobs and accomplishments. Rather than hiding behind an organizational mask, government should be promoting these people.

    • Great article, Mark! I really think social medians in the Government today can help this happen in what I hope is a BIG way. Even so-called “closed” communities can play in the sandbox, although in a somewhat, (but only somewhat, manner.

      Colleen Gaffney (State Dept.) and EPA are some examples of folks leading the way.

      As SM becomes more prevalent in US Gov’t, it makes me kinda wistful that I retired just as this “movement” gathered steam. (Will gladly come back, though, as a contractor/consultant. [smile])

    • Great article, Mark! I really think social medians in the Government today can help this happen in what I hope is a BIG way. Even so-called “closed” communities can play in the sandbox, although in a somewhat, (but only somewhat, manner.

      Colleen Grafy, (State Dept.) and Jeffrey Levy at EPA are some examples of folks leading the way.

      As SM becomes more prevalent in US Gov’t, it makes me kinda wistful that I retired just as this “movement” gathered steam. (Will gladly come back, though, as a contractor/consultant. [smile])

    • Thanks for all the comments. I don’t know what to say about the blog formatting issues (I see it in FF but not IE). Look for a larger, more serious follow-up article from NDU to come out soon; stay tuned to my Twitter stream for updates!!

    • Hi all,
      I apologize for any commenting errors or duplicates you are seeing here. PBS tech is aware of the problems and is trying to fix them.

    • Michelle C Channon

      Absolutely agree that you’ve done a brilliant job Mark. The concept of lethal generosity is incredibly valuable, and vastly underutilized, even in traditional markets. It also implies transparency and a sense of goodwill. The general public (myself included) expects to have the details of any government action distorted and/or hidden from view. Were various policy makers to provide access to proceedings and even their own personal thought processes, as you noted Colleen Graffy does, the goodwill generated could be enormous! Social media is conversation, but right now on the government’s front it’s, let’s say…very one-sided.

    • HGillespie

      Great article! Are you aware that the Military Health System is totally embracing social media? I just completed a year-long assignment with them as an Army Reservist. Blogging, transparency and web-based communication is a top priority. Check them out at http://www.health.mil.

    • Nice. Sign me up to support the brave (government employees who are testing the waters not because they are think they should, but because they know it will help them become smarter, do their jobs better, and take advantage of the collective wisdom all around them). This is the way we’ll once again develop trust in our (yes, o-u-r) government. It is only as good as us.

    • I agree – I think SM integration with our government (not only PR) is important. Specifically for PR, though: I believe PR is about connecting with publics, of which we the people certainly are a key public! That being said, I can’t wait to see how our government works to use SM as a great way to enhance two-way communication & incorporate more people’s voice and ideas into public service.

    • Totally love your calling out the “collaborative creative class” — being a 50-something that has been treading water for 3 decades waiting for this stream to dive in.

      What I believe is fundamentally missing from your perspective (although it may be “I” who missed it) is the far greater potential INSIDE of government organizations to find and interact with one another. In scenario after scenario the duplication and waste within an organization because of geographic dispersion is a huge cost burden.

    • Hi Paula – There’s a lot going on inside the government with regard to connecting different offices and agencies better. But this article wasn’t about that. I’ve written about that elsewhere, particularly at Mashable.com (see links above). Thanks! Mark

    • Good article, but you didn’t mention the most interesting version at all, the recent Twitter conference held by the consulate of Israel. I think that, above all, shows that Governmental organizations are finally seeing the future of Web 2.0. I have some more details here – http://bit.ly/askisrael – I actually got to talk with the Consul in charge of PR and their tech person about it. Very cool

    • Nice article called, Your Culture is Your Brand (http://is.gd/ewm9) suggesting well that every employee potentially reflects on your brand, not just the PR people specifically hired to do so. Word of mouth!

    • Joanne

      Hi, I just finished transcribing all the interviews for The Social Media Bible book. I was hired virtually by the author. I only mention this as a testament to the power of social media, or as I like to call it, Social Media ².

      I urge all to go to http://www.TheSocialMediaBible.com and listen to these nearly 50 interviews with the top SVP’s and founders of the major social media companies world wide, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, etc. They are 30+/- minute podcasts about how each social media technology is being used for business.

      I believe now that Social Media will accelerate the end of fighting and hating each other; as I have learned from one of the phrases I typed so many times during my transcription for http://www.TheSocialMediaBible.com….”Wisdom of the Crowd.”

    • You are right, and we haven’t even begun to fathom what it means to be a spokesperson now and tomorrow. This will make internal comms programs so critical for successful organizations (including dot-gov). People need to be plugged into an organization and its culture. Everyone is a spokesperson because everyone is a publisher. Immediately. Like from a cellphone.

      Thanks for articulating these ideas.

      I hope that this doesn’t put a pall on meetings and discussions as we figure it out.

    • Stan

      Traditional governments using new technologies is nice, but perhaps it is time for governments to change more fundamentally. That is the motive of the Metagovernment project, which seems to truly embrace all the potential Web 2.0 offers to government. Reference http://metagovernment.org

    • Mark,

      There was significant talk about “e-government” during the Web 1.0 days. Government 2.0 represents the unfulfilled promise of e-gov. The difficulty with the e-gov concept was the notion that government could transform services primarily through technology – the idea of handling end-to-end transactions and providing a single face to citizens for life events.

      The concept had two drawbacks. First, e-gov did not address the culture change required for collaboration within government and outside government. This is where we are seeing so many interesting development.

      The second limitation is the lack of appropriate systems in the back-office to integrate operational systems like HR and finance with collaboration. New, primarily open source, platforms are providing the collaborative infrastructure. The trick is integrating with the operational systems. This is the “behind the scenes” revolution that will occur in the enterprise software/ERP world – where Salesforce, Workday and other vendors are but the tip of the iceberg.

    • Very interesting post! I agree with many of your points. Thanks for sharing!

    • As the article says, social technologies can make networking and engagement with the public simple and powerful, make research faster, identify influencers in useful micro-niches, provide mechanisms for combating negative publicity, and measure public sentiment to help inform public policy. Google does this now with their Flu Trends which have proven to be ahead of the CDC.

    • As the article says, social technologies can make networking and engagement with the public simple and powerful, make research faster, identify influencers in useful micro-niches, provide mechanisms for combating negative publicity, and measure public sentiment to help inform public policy. Google does this now with their Flu Trends which have proven to be ahead of the CDC.

    • The problem with the discussion about getting Government agencies to collaborate and work together to become more efficient is that EFFICIENCY and BUDGET CUTS are not what Government Agents are looking to create.

      In fact they seek the exact opposite, since their reward, organizational power, is a by-product of the size of their budget, not the size of their bottom line.

      Until you can redefine the reward system inside Government Agencies, you will forever struggle with getting them to work together for a common good.

    • This is awesome. Thank you so much. I’m currently consulting for the UK government so will flag up some of your points!

    • Mark Hudson

      Very well said. You have described the future of government communications.

    • Great article. Being in the public information field and leading the City of North Charleston’s social media campaign, the things you describe are exactly what I am trying to achieve within the City.

      @NorthCharleston

    • What I think is public works are very different from private corporations in ways that create barriers to change.

    • Maybe social media will help transform our government agencies where we can once again “trust” what they are saying. Or, maybe social media is a good tool for government agencies to hear our gripes, and promise to fix them (If elected of course.)

  • ADVERTISEMENT
  • ADVERTISEMENT
  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »

    Follow us on Social Media

    @MediaShiftorg
    @Mediatwit
    @MediaShiftPod
    Facebook.com/MediaShift