Beyond Vanilla In Government Communication: Is It Desirable? Is It Possible?

This week I had the good fortune to attend an event on social media strategy in the federal government. Even the most cursory review of the agenda made it clear: this form of communication has officially “arrived.” The event was:

  • Sponsored by the well-respected Federal Communicators Network, which was established 19 years ago by the Clinton Administration and which I have been involved in, including as Chair, for more than a decade.
  • Hosted by the Partnership for Public Service, an organization known and respected for being an objective purveyor of government best practice.
  • Moderated by Justin Herman of the GSA, who serves as the official social media lead for the federal government.
  • Populated by a panel of social media specialists from the CIA, VA, ICE and USGS – a range of missions, some more controversial than others.
  • Attended by communicators from across the federal government, including the FBI, the DOD, the EPA, the Coast Guard, and more. From the looks of it, about 80-100 people attended.
  • Live-streamed by a dedicated videographer using an expensive-looking video camera, for the benefit of those who could not attend.

Clearly we had come a long way from the days of:

  • Improvised social media accounts approved in hallway conversations with the boss
  • Fact sheets, binders, and dissertation-style white papers that clarified, justified, and reinforced the need for social media
  • Running to Starbucks to test out social media capabilities
  • Hiring experts to come in and give 2-hour seminars “proving” to executives that social media was a legitimate activity
  • Begging our bosses to blog, at the very least, to blog – doing “something” to show that they were part of the “interactive” web-space

But something still wasn’t quite right.

The conversation was “high-level” enough, at least on the surface.

  • There we were, talking about “conversion” and “splintering” and “mobile” and “scalability” (were we? I think so).
  • We talked about whether we wanted to “drive people to the website” or “keep them from having to go to the website in the first place.”
  • The guests noted correctly that “engagement” and “conversation” are key.
  • They even agreed that sometimes the agency has to apologize on social media, and talked about how they do that.
  • Surprisingly they even admitted to making mistakes.

And yet…and yet. Something still didn’t sit quite right with me.

Somebody said it outright, and I nearly gasped: “There are a lot of conspiracy theorists out there. And we don’t engage with our agency’s critics.”

Believe me when I tell you that I understand the tightrope that federal government communicators walk.

I have been there when executives said the stupidest things, and we had to nod our heads in seeming agreement. Feeling utterly frustrated that we could not do what we knew in our hearts to be the right thing.

I know, too, that for government to be doing any social media at all is major, major progress.

It is clear that the need for customer service from government is huge. So the recognition of its importance is equally to be lauded.

But in a day and age when people seriously don’t trust the government…when that trust has reached an all-time low…when people all over the country are expressing outrage, fury, confusion and even disgust at the activities that are conducted on their dime and in their name…can we really afford to do such vanilla social media anymore?

Think about the typical government agency. Now think about its army of communicators, and of that army the sub-army known as the social media team.

How many millions of dollars are we paying them? Could it possibly be billions?

Do we really want to squander the taxpayer’s investment in their activities on outreach that is primarily aimed at “humanizing our employees and explaining our mission?”

As a person who pays taxes myself, I don’t want that.

  • I want to know how the government is spending my money.
  • I want to know that its officials are being watched, and are accountable.
  • I want to know how allegations, accusations, misbehavior and misdeeds are being rectified.
  • I want to know that the government is doing everything it can to save my hard-earned money, so that I don’t have to pay more taxes next year.

Finally, and overall:

  • I want to know that the people, institutions, initiatives and technologies that would most benefit from taxpayer revenue are actually getting it.

Here is what I don’t want: I don’t want to spend my money on fluff.

This isn’t a slam against today’s panelists, although I can understand how they might read this and think so.

Rather, it is a plea to their bosses, the ones who put them on the payroll, the ones who write their position descriptions, the ones who evaluate their performance and the ones who have to make the case “upstairs.”

Government social media should never be mistaken for propaganda. No – it should be just the opposite!

It should never be about “pushing” a message or “driving” people where they “ought” to go.

Rather, it should be about making very clear what it is that we’re doing in the name of Jane and Joe Citizen. And responding to the concerns that they express, civilly and uncivilly, every single day – whether verbally, or in a letter or an email, or in a website comment or by social media!

And if you tell me that this kind of effort would take “too much time,” to you I say “that’s bullshit!”

The public is paying us, not the other way around.

We owe it to them to be straightforward, plain-spoken, transparent and truly – truly, not just in words and glossy brochures – accountable.


All opinions my own. Photo by Mike Mozart via Flickr.

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David B. Grinberg

Dannielle, I comment you for such a blunt assessment, along with recommendations, on how gov should improve and further leverage social media. You make many excellent points. This debate should be occurring internally at agencies within the communications hierarchy. FYI: following is a recent featured blog I wrote for LinkedIn Pulse about organizations in danger of becoming “social media dinosaurs” — which you might find of interest: