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Let's Figure Out: Skills Needed to Lead Social Media

People pretty regularly put out calls for position descriptions, skills needed, interview questions, etc. for social media specialists.  I suppose some folks have them, but let's use the power of social media to identify what it takes to lead social media for an agency. Wisdom of the crowd, anyone?


For this post, we'll discuss the skills needed.  In future posts, we'll explore necessary experience and questions to ask if you're thinking of doing this work.


Update: I've written the second post, about experience needed.  Please join that discussion, too!

Broadly speaking, I would say leading social media for an agency entails two big tasks:

  1. Helping the agency as a whole continue to explore and take advantage of social media, and
  2. Managing some specific social media tools (for example, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a photo contest, a YouTube channel)


In more detail, the first one would include:

  • Writing policy, guidance and other governing documents ("you will ...")
  • Establishing strategies ("here's how ...") for using social media, including best approaches to records management, accessibility, privacy, ethics, and information security
  • Providing guidance to people throughout the agency to help them use social media well
  • Assessing the agency's use of social media through metrics and anecdotes
  • Assessing the need for training, both on overarching strategy and specific tools, and then developing and delivering it


And the second would include:

  • Actually running some tools, creating and posting content and responding to comments
  • Creatively developing new ways of using existing tools (for example, using a Twitter avatar to promote a message over a week or month)
  • Exploring new tools on a regular basis, evaluating their usefulness to the agency


I'm sure there are other tasks that would be appropriate, but no list will ever be complete.


Here's the key question for discussion below: what skills would you say would be needed to perform well in this role?


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Tags: 2, career, communications, tech


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Comment by Steve Radick on June 3, 2011 at 2:19pm

@Jeffrey - based on this series you're working on, you might also be interested in my blog post on this subject - "Identify the Right People to Manage Your Social Media Initiatives."


Comment by Steve Radick on June 3, 2011 at 2:16pm

I think one skill that's unique to being a social media lead for a Government agency (as opposed to a private company) is the ability to navigate the political landscape and get stuff done. There's plenty of really smart, really ambitious people working in government, but who lack the skills/experience to actually get traction for their ideas. They get hung up in red tape and bureaucracy and can't take an initiative from idea to fruition.  This is why I've seen some flameouts from the digital "gurus" who come into government from leading social media for a brand or from the political campaign world. Rarely is the Social Media Lead able to just go and do whatever he/she pleases.  There's always a certain level of socialization that needs to be done, and having someone skilled in "getting stuff done" within the government is a key success factor.

I call it managing upward here, as I've got some folks on my team who can just take a task and innately know how to go about getting all of the approvals, buy-in and socialization that needs to happen in days whereas others just get stuck and their ideas end up going nowhere.

Comment by James Ferreira on May 21, 2011 at 3:03pm
@Eliza there is a great example of how gov can really get a message out with the right mix of viral elements. I hope everyone is watching.
Comment by Eliza Blair on May 19, 2011 at 2:51pm

Well, before we declare a wrap on this awesome idea thread, I'd like to bring up a wonderful case study in courage, trust, and connection with the public - the CDC's Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness 101 post. This post drew so much traffic in the past 24 hours or so that it crashed their server, and they had to redirect the page and kill the comment thread just to keep the post up. It's short, well-written, has the right mix of tongue-in-cheek and seriousness, and delivers important information to a demographic that would never think of frequenting the CDC blog without the post's pop-culture theme.


If anyone on here was involved in that post, congrats! It was great. :)

Comment by Pablo Castro G. on May 18, 2011 at 11:30pm

If the job is done abroad, I would also require that the candidate speaks the local language.

Comment by Jeffrey Levy on May 18, 2011 at 10:59pm

These are some fantastic thoughts.  Thanks again!


Have we plumbed the depthss, so it's time to move on to the next topic in the series, or is there more to say on this topic?

Comment by William Blumberg on May 18, 2011 at 11:18am
I think that Michele Bartram's comment hits the mark, so that the only skill I would add is the ability to produce content regularly. I struggle with my writing (mistakes, misspellings, and grammar errors) but I have seen people with great writing skills who are so focus on the writing that they have a hard time with producing content.
Comment by Michele Bartram on May 18, 2011 at 9:19am

Jeffrey- Thanks for the post. I would add great writing skills, personality, empathy and courage are necessary for social media leaders.

Great writing skills are a must for most social media leaders as they have to be authors of many posts. Can you write conversationally, personally, yet professionally, demonstrating true empathy with your audience, your stakeholders, your followers? Can you create a following for your organization by engaging readers in a true two-way, person-to-person conversation?

Social media devotees won't stand for a bland brand...  so personality has to come through in your social media-- even though this tends to be anathema for many lawyers and executives whether from the public or private sector, who have heretofore approved and sanitized all public communications.

Oh, and don't forget courage- since foraging forward in this brave new world of social media without a safety net is not for the meek, particularly as a social media leader must often- to paraphrase Gene Roddenberry- "bravely go where no communicator in his organization has gone before".

Comment by Gadi Ben-Yehuda on May 18, 2011 at 7:50am

This is a great post an an important issue.  I've put together a kind of Course Description for a Social Media 101 Class (I envision this as a 3-hour Semester type course; there are 12 books on the reading list and the class would have a significant hands-on component) that you can see here:


I would add to any job description that the Social Media Director (or whatever title) be able to apply principles and practices to internal management and communications processes as well as external operations.  Of course, a term I'd use is "demonstrated ability and understanding of. . ." and I'd apply it to (as many have said):



Ideation platforms / campaigns

Social Networks

Object / Information networks (e.g. Flickr, Quora)

Online Community Management (e.g. bulletin board, comments sections)



Comment by Jaqi Ross on May 17, 2011 at 4:56pm

I'm struggling with the idea of a finite list of skills needed in this particular role, despite the fact that my employees do this kind of work on a daily basis. Interestingly, each member of my team has a unique – often very distinct from their colleagues -- collection of skills.


As a leader, I generally outline what I need and why I need it, and then focus on getting the heck out of the way while my team goes about getting it done. Ultimately, if my folks deliver results, I'm not a stickler for how they get the job done (within legal and ethical boundaries, obviously).


Several previous comments have mentioned trust, which is a two-way street. Leaders have to be willing to recognize when and how they can let go, and employees need strong communication skills so they can earn the trust they need to do their best work.


For me, successful employees in any field need autonomy and ownership from leaders, and flexibility and passion from within. They also need guidance and support, and a good workplace culture can't be underestimated. If employees are micro-managed and mistrusted, disengaged and frustrated, no collection of skills will deliver meaningful results. Encouraging employees to be the first to identify problems, and then addressing those problems without blame and with a focus on growth and development, is a hallmark of an organization poised for growth and development.


The blurred line between technology and communication professionals that has emerged with the introduction of social media for professional use can make for jobs that are both exciting and scary to navigate. I love seeing how my staff adapt to challenges on a daily basis, and grow from the experience.

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