I just finished delivering a luncheon keynote for the Texas Association of Municipal Information Officers (TAMIO) 2010 Conference under the title “Remember the Alamo: Winning the Fight for Social Media.” Since the Alamo’s just a few miles down the road from Austin – and because we find ourselves in the midst of a revolution of sorts with “Government 2.0″ – it seemed appropriate to draw lessons from one of our country’s greatest revolutionary battles. The slides and corresponding thoughts follow.
You all know the story (especially if you grew up in Texas!)…I won’t go into all the details and I won’t sing the Ballad of Davy Crockett. Consider this my 5-minute version to set the stage for “7 Lessons from the Alamo”:
Slide 2: In early1835, Mexico was shifting toward a dictatorial regime – revoking its 1824 Constitution.
Slide 3: Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was the instigator of these sweeping changes…and historic reports depict him as ruthless and merciless.
Slide 4: Many Texas immigrants lived along the border. They were used to the individual rights afforded them under a federalist government and became highly concerned about a shift toward dictatorship. They quickly organized to express their displeasure in relatively peaceful protest, but by October of that year, their frustration reached a boiling point. They took up arms against Mexican troops and staged a convincing drubbing. Santa Anna was eager to restore order, so he amassed a formidable force under the command of his brother-in-law Martin Perfecto de Cos to quell the rebellion. It didn’t work…and he was pissed.
Slide 5: A few months later, on February 23, 1836, Santa Anna led a group of 1,500 Mexican troops who marched on the Alamo, which had just a couple hundred men. The Mexican siege lasted 13 days and left all but two of the fighters dead.
Slide 6: William Travis, who co-led the Alamo defense, issued this plea on day 2 of the battle: I am besieged….I have sustained a continual bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours…if the fort is taken, I have answered the demand with a cannon shot…I shall never retreat or surrender.”
Slide 7: Of course, I suspect that many of you can relate to this story if you’ve been in the trenches of municipal communications for any given period of time…but especially now. In fact, I figure there are four types of people in the crowd:
- people who have attempted to implement social media in their cities or towns and have achieved some level of success,
- people who have tried it and are wondering (or their city managers or mayors are wondering) if it’s really worth the effort,
- people who have not yet tried, are eager to do something but are meeting considerable resistance or lack of resources, and
- people who haven’t tried, don’t want to try, don’t understand all the hype and are waiting forthis moment to pass so they can get on with getting real stuff done.
In any event, many of you are likely feeling a little worn out from all this talk about social media.
Is this a fair assessment?
Slide 8: Look, whoever you are or wherever you stand in this battle. I think we can learn “7 Lessons from the Alamo” as it pertains to the use of social media with the goal of improving communication and collaboration with citizens – and with one another.
Slide 9: Lesson 1 – “The conflict is really about culture change. People fight for their rights.” This past Sunday and Monday, I was in Bedford Springs, PA, where I heard a great keynote from David DeVries, the Deputy Chief Information Officer for the Department of Defense. He said that those of us in the information business are all operating in “contested environments” and that the real “conflict is about culture change.” There are two aspects of this conflict.
First, web and mobile phones are causing citizens to ask why they aren’t getting the same kinds of services and information from government that they’re getting from private sector companies. Those Texans back in 1835 wanted to keep their individual rights…and Texans today want a new kind of freedom to access services and information from wherever they happen to be in their busy lives. They don’t want to wait in lines. They don’t want to wait on hold. They want access now…or they’ll not be very happy. Social media and mobile technology enables that access. I have a hunch that if you don’t proactively offer it, they’ll demand it. And let’s take it from Santa Anna – none of us like a belligerent citizen!
The second aspect of “conflict as culture change” is that there are internal battles being fought in our offices around how to engage citizens. Some people want to try new things and others don’t see the point. It’s not just generational, as if youngsters want to use technology and more seasoned folks prefer paper and pen…though I am sure you’re fighting those intergenerational battles, too. It’s more about the fact that some people are willing to take risks and try new methods, while others fear change and loss of control.
The takeaway from this lesson: it’s not about you. We’re experiencing a profound cultural shift. So don’t take it personally if you’re pushing forward and colleagues and leaders are reticent and resistant. Keep fighting for what you believe is right. And if you’re feeling resistant yourself, know that progress will happen with or without you…and it’s a lot more exciting to be on the winning side of a revolution!
Slide 10: Lesson 2: You fight with limited resources – fight anyway. When I’ve conducted social media training for Federal agencies and municipalities, the number one question they ask is, “How do you staff this stuff?” Well, we can learn a lot from Colonel James Bowie. Bowie came to the Alamo with 30 men and orders to remove the artillery from the Alamo and destroy the complex. But he couldn’t remove the artillery since he didn’t have the draft animals! Then Colonel James Neill convinced him that the Alamo was a strategic point in the battle and that he should stay and fight. So Bowie sent a message to Governor Smith stating that “the salvation of Texas depends in great measure on keeping Bexar out of the hands of the enemy…[and he asked for] men, money, rifles and cannon powder.” Out of that appeal, he got cavalry officer William Travis, Davy Crockett and a few volunteers. Then Colonel Neill left! Look, I know this is likely the reality of 8 out of 10 people in this room.
You’ve already had plenty to do with traditional media vehicles and you were just trying to streamline those processes…and now you’re being convinced to fight a new battle with limited resources! Pshaw!
And sometimes the people telling you to do it just seem to up and leave after they got you fired up to fight! Those of you who have been implementing social media know that it can be time-consuming, at least if you want to do it right and really engage with citizens. And those of you who haven’t started yet are seeing this and saying ‘suckers’ from the sidelines. I hate to say it, but we’re all going to be conscripted to this battle by command or by cajoling, so you’re either bringing the fight or the fight’s coming to you…whether or not you’re well-equipped for battle.
Slide 11: Lesson 3 - You have unanticipated allies. Find them! I already mentioned that William B. Travis, a cavalry officer, arrived in response to Bowie’s begging for resources. Shortly after reporting for duty, he was quickly transferred command when Neill went to fetch reinforcements. Of course, the volunteers weren’t quick to receive his leadership and demanded that Bowie, known as a fierce fighter, be in charge. Well, Bowie did an intoxicated touchdown dance…and in all humility eventually ended up conceding and sharing command with Travis. Your lesson is (a) don’t celebrate early successes with a drinking binge at the local bar then report it on Twitter, Facebook or Foursquare and (b) if you can find someone to run alongside you, do it. Share the load – even if it’s two of you giving it a part-time effort.
Slide 12: Lesson 4 - Volunteers are your secret weapon. Leverage their passion. We all know the story of the legendary Davy Crockett. He had nothing to gain from fighting; he just knew it was right. You’ve got Davy Crocketts all across your cities. You might recognize them as being some of your more vocal or charismatic citizens, the homeless men in the library or the senior citizens at care facilities – all who have some time to share with you. Or maybe you have some really geeky folks who dig this web stuff and would love to help you…for free. Or perhaps you can talk to some teachers at the local junior high or high school to find out if there are students who have a knack for new media and could help you as part of a class project. Ask these people to write blog posts, produce podcasts, grab videos or photos from events or come alongside you in some way that adds to your small team. Give them titles that they can put on their resume or rewards for consistent service. Make them legends in your locality. They’ll love it…and it will lighten your load.
Slide 13: Lesson 5 - There will be casualties. Honor them! Nick Charney, a blogger and social media advocate who is fighting for public service renewal in Canada – you know, our neighbor to the north with whom we NEVER fight – posted a blog back in December titled, “Expect casualties.” He articulates perfectly in that blog post what is happening with regards to the implement of social media in government:
“In an environment defined by tapered resource growth and increased demand for expertise we risk stretching our champions too far. I for one am severely over-committed and have had to pull back on a number of fronts. But as I look around at some of the other people who have been pulling this machine along, I sense that they too are tired and that their fatigue is slowly boiling into frustration, which is in turn causing them to begin to question why they continue to put in great efforts for little reward.”
Some will grow tired and give up. But I respect those of you who have made valiant efforts and need to move on to fight another day. In the Texas Revolution, the equivalent was known as the Runaway Scrape.
“Being innovative is hard work, especially when the system is designed to slow you down and to push you to your limit in order to ensure maximum effectiveness while limiting liability and the misappropriation of resources.”
Let’s all acknowledge that this battle will not last 13 days. Culture change takes years. Legend has it that Bowie died fighting from his bed while deathly sick. He fought with every fiber of his being to the bitter and bed-ridden end…and yet he perished. So gird yourself with stamina and staying power. And honor those who’ve fallen in the fight.
Slide 14: Lesson 6 – There will be survivors. Listen to their story. Susanna Dickinson was one of only a handful of people who made it out of the Alamo alive. In fact, Santa Anna sent her to tell the Texan forces what had transpired. But Santa Anna’s plan backfired again as Susanna’s story inspired the other soldiers…and caused hundreds of individuals to flock to the Texas Army. Buoyed by a desire for revenge, the Texans defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21, 1836, ending the revolution…in 18 minutes.
So we’ve got heroes right here in Texas, like Dustin Haisler over in Manor, who is getting global attention for innovation…and I am sure there are people here whose names I don’t know, but who are making modest, but steady strides toward winning the battles in your cities and towns. If that’s you, share your success stories with your peers. If you’d like to learn, lesson 7 offers some ideas for how to find them.
Slide 15: Lesson 7 – We need each other. Stick together. And that brings us to our final lesson – that we need each other and ought to stick together. The picture you see here is U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division take in October 2002. They were conducting compound searches– an initiative that
was named “Operation Alamo.” Like the soldiers and volunteers at the Alamo of 1836 and those brave men and women who fight for our freedom around the world today, we need to have one another’s backs.
There are many ways to do that, but as a community manager of a social network, I have to advocate for the use of these tools that you are using to communicate with citizens as the primary platforms to collaborate and connect with each other as well. Every day on GovLoop – and I am sure the same is happening in online spaces like LinkedIn, Twitter and elsewhere – information officers, people in public affairs and other communications professionals are sharing insight and information that help them do their jobs better – to get to solutions more quickly. For those of you who have been doing this for awhile – and I am not just talking about social media at this point – reach back and help the young people or the fresh faces in this field. And for those of you who are just getting started in communications careers, seek out your seasoned colleagues and learn from THEIR lessons in the battle. And I most certainly invite and welcome you to have those conversations on GovLoop where we have several groups that may interest you, from Communications Best Practices to MuniGov 2.0.
Slide 16: In that same letter in which William Travis petitioned for additional resources, he said, “And so I call on you today to keep pushing in the fight – not just for social media – but for a new kind of government that seeks to place information and services in the palms of people’s hands, that empowers citizens to reclaim their voice in the political and policy-making process, and that transforms what you do from being Municipal Information Officers to Municipal Innovation Officers.
Slide 17: Heck – you just might become famous (or infamous) in the process. If you put yourself out there, you’ll be an easy target…but you might as well move forward boldly.
Slide 18: We might lose some battles, but we’ll win the war…that is, if the Battle of San Jacinto is any indication. People will be inspired by what you are doing and will sign up to see how they can help. Welcome them and give them a gun…or a fiddle.
Slide 19: You see, this was the very first State of Texas website based on what I could find with the “Wayback Machine.
Slide 20: And while I was preparing this talk on Monday, I went to the State of Texas website to see what it looked like today. I knew what it looked like a couple months ago and wanted to get a screenshot…but I wasn’t prepared nor was I aware that they were unveiling a brand new site on Tuesday of this week…complete with a clear call to action for citizens to find what they need for themselves, to connect with the State on social media across the web and in web-based forums right on the site…and to be completely transparent about their activities.
Check it out. History is on our side: Progress is inevitable…and Texas, as it has throughout history, is fighting vital battles and leading the charge in this revolution!
Slide 21: To conclude – I don’t know about you, but I was just Skyping with a colleague last night – a long time soldier in the fight for social media and government 2.0 – and I said something similar to Travis:
“I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country…Victory or Death!”
“Remember the Alamo!”