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Let’s Figure Out: Experience Needed to Lead Social Media

This is the second post in a series exploring what the role of agency social media lead looks like. I’m talking here about someone who’s leading social media for an entire agency, not just a single project.

In each post, I lay out a basic set of tasks, and then invite you to discuss some aspect of the job. In the first post, “Let’s Figure Out: Skills Needed to Lead Social Media“, we had some great discussion, so I’m hoping to keep that going here. In later posts, we’ll explore things like questions you’d want to ask yourself if you’re considering this type of work, or what kind of management environment fosters success.

For this post, let’s explore experience you’d expect someone leading social media for an agency to have.

To review:

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 experience (professional, personal, paid, volunteer, online, offline, Web 1.0, Web 2.0/social media, etc.) would you say is useful for someone to perform well in this role?

Equally important, to avoid self-proclaimed social media “gurus,” would be:

What experience might someone claim is relevant but you’d say isn’t?

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Carolyn Barranca

From my personal perspective, I see this job needs one with strong communications, journalism, and creative skills. Understanding the technology is only the beginning, it’s judgment in the face of a media challenge to creatively define the scope of a challenge and how all the tools can be managed more effectively. Having the tenacity and confidence to step into the fray (which government doesn’t do really) to resolve and create relationships is key.

Lots of people are stepping into the medium thinking that running their personal profile on Facebook gives them an understanding of that tool. Or having a twitter feed makes them an expert. What you really need to lead are the skills of a public relations expert, a marketing genius, a statistical analyst, a government internet usability specialist, a web manager and content management specialist all rolled into one.

Those diverse and expert skills are actually out there, in the federal community. I know many who have grown up in the government community bringing a greater depth to web management and are now taking it inito social media. GREAT.

Running a federal website with the depth of challenges is no small task and those skills are transferring to social media and bringing greater user experiences.

The excitement around the new media and its possibilities will generate even greater opportunities for those who want to lead. But there are lots of opportunities even for those who don’t want the stress of the top position but to serve as advisors or consultants withiin an agency. This new media stuff is bigger than we might imagine. There’s lots to do.

Scott Horvath

What experience is useful?

Having humility, being able to fail, picking up the pieces and pushing forward.

You definitely need someone who has a background in communications or marketing. That doesn’t mean you need to have years of training in writing press releases either. Specifically, interpersonal/behavioral communication. You’re going to want your SMM to have a good understanding about how people react when presented with different types of information, or how they interact with various tools which encourage certain behaviors, or how they respond to different ways of communicating (e.g. – video vs. text vs. audio).

Communications experience (not just a degree) also provides a foundation for understanding how to build communication strategies, and how to leverage existing tools (press releases, articles, etc) by interjecting social media. You’ll also want your candidate to have experience in high pressure, or a highly reactive communications environment where you’ve got to make split-second decisions based on everything you know at that moment, and still be comfortable with those decisions—and willing to react appropriately if those split-second decisions weren’t the right ones.

The person should also be comfortable with new tools, technologies, and have experience in shifting from one technology to the next. Social tools are always evolving and new tools are only going to come online faster. We’re in a social explosion right now and every company is integrating social experiences into their products. Traditional products are being rebirthed into social products. Your person will have to be able to discover and research those new tools and understand their capabilities, how your employees might use them, how the public might use them, or how they might be used to better help your organization meet it’s business goals…and learning not to put too much stock into any one of them since they could easily be gone the next day.

What not to do?

Just as you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket, it’s not wise to put all your social media efforts on one person.

One mistake that many organizations make is putting “social media efforts” on one person. I can tell you from personal experience that having to deal with using social media, learning about the tools, tracking effectiveness, responding in a crisis, doing strategic planning and integration, etc is not the job of one person. It takes a team of people, volunteers, and passionate-willing souls to make your social media efforts really work. Those people might not be the social media savvy ones either—they’re the ones that believe in the goals of the organization and see themselves as part of it’s success, or failure.

Having that person actually participate, themselves, with a new effort might be a smart start to get the ball rolling and get people engaged and excited, but it’s not an effective strategy for sustainability of those efforts. That person has to break off, but continue to manage and support, and continue looking at the overall strategy and future of your entire social media program. They need to be able to adopt to change.

What experience is not useful?

Just simply saying they have experience using Twitter, or Facebook, LinkedIn, etc is not the basis for someone right for the position. I think that’s pretty accepted. It’s all too easy for an organization to find someone who knows how to use a few tools and then drop the social media management job on them. If they don’t have experience in strategy building, working across teams, knowledge of policies, and so on then they’re not a good fit for leading your social media efforts.

Jeffrey Levy

Wow, two great comments. Scott, I think it’s especially cool how you used all the formatting tools. Heck, you just wrote a blog post as a comment! 🙂

Alicia Mazzara

I think some familiarity with the laws and policies that limit/shape government’s use of social media are also useful, in addition to the other important skills that others have listed. I’m thinking privacy, records retention, 508 compliance, etc.


I totally disagree with the need to have experience in marketing or journalism to lead social media within a government agency. Strong communications skills are developed in many fields as are skills with new technologies. So to tie social media to a specific discipline is to trivialize the skills and experiences of others.

One area that you completely leave out of the discussion is security and risk management. It is no longer enough to know how to use the technologies and connect people together. You have to be able to assess the risks of using social media and the responses that may be needed to respond to problems (e.g. hacking that creates an inappropriate message or untrained employees misusing the technology or security leak of sensitive information). The White House recently set up a Social Media Rapid Response Team.

Jeffrey Levy

Kelcy: what types of experience would give you the security and risk management skills you’re talking about?


Steve Radick

I’d say this person has to have some management experience. One person cannot do this job alone. They’re going to need to manage other people in order to make this scalable and sustainable. Even if they’re not directly responsible for them, there are Integrated Process Teams, working groups, and councils they’ll have to be a part of and sometimes lead. You’re not going to get far in this position if you don’t have some management experience backing you up.

Christopher Parente

Very interesting post series, Jeffrey. And good comments already, esp. Steve’s about management experience and Alicia’s on regulation and policy.

For experience, I’d suggest some kind of change management work in the past. Social media is a culture shift as much as a strategy shift. Much like Scott said, and also strongly echo his point about comfort learning new tools and tech.

A track record of content creation, that engages, educates AND entertains. (per the CDC zombie comment to your first post) Doesn’t have to be “official” — could be personal blog.

Understanding of social communities — you’re going to need to promote the content you create, and bring it to your audiences. But in an appropriate way. Don’t make them find you.

Something NOT required — understanding of every new socmed tool out there. If you’ve got the leadership and the vision, and know how to create/foster good content, you can learn the tools. Those are just the tactics.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

Here is some experience someone might claim is important, but isn’t:

SEO: might build an audience, but that’s totally different than managing a community.

Attaining numbers, numbers, numbers: It doesn’t so much matter that a person can attract 5 thousand followers or 20,000 likes. The question is: how did you get them and what did you do once you had them?

Press relations: talking to journos is totally different than engaging people in online fora.

Myspace or Friendster accounts.

Daniel Honker

Great thoughts, Jeff. I particularly like the split of “you must…” and “here’s how…” The job should both provide structure and enable the agency’s social media presence.

Jeffrey Levy

More good thinking from many folks.

Gadi, I especially appreciate your chiming in on “what seems useful but isn’t.”

Man, we have some smart people on GovLoop!