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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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Deb Lavoy

the tools are all well and fine, but I think the most critical thing that the thing you need most is a keen sense of what matters to whom. What does the agency really want the public to know? What does the public really care about? Lets break “public” and “agency” down a few levels – what does each subgroup need, want, find interesting? How do you do the Dana Boyd and get people to truly care about things that might seem obscure?

Daniel Onofrio

Good points @Deb – definitely agree that there’s a need to drill deeper on the “public-facing” side of gov and the agency side.

Eliza Blair

Deb – I’d say the best way to do the danah boyd is to be danah boyd. ๐Ÿ™‚ But that certainly does raise interesting questions – how much leeway does the social media manager get when representing a government agency? Are they allowed to have a personality, or do they have to sound like a robotic government mouthpiece at all times? danah got to be danah by writing engagingly and in-depth on seemingly-obscure subjects in a way that draws people in. I don’t think that can be easily distilled into an algorithm for upping pageviews/engagement level, or everyone would be doing it.

Jeffrey’s found recently that even a minimal increase in actual engagement with the public on Facebook and Twitter results in a greater response and more involvement from said public. I think you’re right when you say that we need to break down the relationship between “agency” and “public”, but I think that that’s also an ever-evolving equation. A social media manager would have to have his/her finger on the pulse of the people interacting with the agency at all times, and respond accordingly. Responsiveness is key.

Greg Licamele

I firmly believe that besides the social media know-how and basic communications skills, you need someone with good situational awareness of the whole agency/topic area, otherwise, you may be operating in a vaccuum. Who are the people that know things both from the 30,000-foot POV and in the weeds?

Daniel Onofrio

Is it fair to say that the rules/guidelines and purpose of a SMMgr representing a government agency the same as a public/private business? There’s certainly a delicate balance between agency and the people they’re engaging; but underlining reasons for communicating and engaging with the people an agency serves is the same as with any business. I would add that there’s definitely a “right” and “wrong” way to do it.

@Eliza – right on…responsiveness is key. Again just like a business – It reflects on the brand.

Eliza Blair

@Greg – How many people (who are not upper management) do know what’s going on all over an agency? I suppose it helps if your SMMgr is, well, social in real life, too, and has lots of contacts keeping them appraised of events. ๐Ÿ™‚

Eliza Blair

@Daniel – Heh – I think in many agencies there is more pushback from higher up than you would get in the private sector. Government bureaucracy is an inherently conservative medium that resists paradigm shift. Something that might need just a nod from some VP out there could be three months of SOP Change Requests being signed in triplicate in here. (Even Comcast has @ComcastBill. It’s ridiculous that even a faceless megacorp that everyone loves to hate has this incredibly responsive and friendly public face on Twitter and yet that seems like it’s still a rare thing in the government.)

Still, it’s not impossible! NASA accounts strike a good balance between being informative and sounding human. The DoD’s @ArmedwScience blog/Twitter has “You’ve been SCIENCED!” right in the bio. Like @Daniel says, there is definitely a right and wrong way to go about it – the TSA’s attempts to have a sense of humor about itself have mostly fallen flat, in my opinion.

I think we’re all essentially agreeing with each other that this is a thorny problem. Beyond having the basic skillset and experience necessary for things like writing guidance, running training, moderating discussions and matching actions to data – great list, @Jeffrey, btw, should have said that first – the social media manager has to have a finely-honed sense of the world around them, both from inside the bureaucracy (knowing what you can safely talk about) and outside (knowing what people want to hear).

Adriel Hampton

I’d just chime in that what’s ridiculous are all the job listings that want social media strategic ability, soft skills and all kinds of technical development skills. Rarely are these present in a single person. I think your list is good.

Jeffrey Levy

Great discussion so far!

I agree that a social media channel manager (e.g., the person who runs our main Facebook and Twitter accounts) needs trust of management to post without bulky review, and knowledge of the agency’s mission and approach are critical to earning that trust. That’s why the person who’s done it for the past year is a former press officer – she’s used to speaking on behalf of EPA.

What other specific skills are necessary to do that well?

But overseeing others’ efforts requires additional skills. Can we put a name to those skills, too?


Overseeing – supervisory or management skills. Ability to teach, manage, and oversee program offices use of social media. Seems like a skill that previous web managers who have work on the centralizing/decentralizing issues of web with sub-agencies and programs

I’d also add:

-Passion for social media and engagement

-Ability to deal with uncertainty/new concepts – while more rules are written now, social media is still new and a social media manager needs to be able to deal with this uncertainty and be curious about new concepts

Phil Sammon

Leading social media, in particular with a government agency, requires the leader to be effective in persuading agency and orgainzational leadership of the importance and value of social media in the first place. I find that the execution down to the field level is impacted by the support and direction, or lack thereof, from leadership at all levels. This ties into the latitude the social media leader has in executing a program at his or her respective level – local, regional or national. Without the knowledgable buy-in and support from your leadership, all of the rest will be an exercise in frustration to some level.

Dannielle Blumenthal

These are great comments. I agree in particular with Adriel’s point that you can’t expect one person to have every and any quality remotely related to social media. And Phil rightly points out that the leader has to be good at working with leadership, gaining their support.

Here are some thoughts on skills needed, based on my knowledge of actual social media leaders in a variety of agencies:

1. As mentioned above – executive leadership communication skills

2. As mentioned above – a little bit of everything (yes, this is impossible, but still)

3. Infinite patience – because it takes years not days or months

4. A bit of a showman or show-woman – the person sells the concept

5. Talent in generating marketing materials to support the concept

6. Courage to confront the naysayers

7. Deep understanding of the mission – so that the choice of social media tools is appropriate for the communication needs of the agency

8. Solid understanding of the legal requirements associated with social media use – e.g. what is a temporary record, how does 508 apply, when must you use mirroring, etc.

9. Genuine collaborative spirit – internally and externally – you want to be the rising tide that lifts all boats

10. Absolutely zero ego – it’s not a glamourous job

11. Vision – realizing that social media will be the #1 tool of communicating with the public in the future, as opposed to #99 out of 100

12. Strategic planning – ability to develop an as-is, to-be, and roadmap for getting there (I have long said that the field of enterprise architecture (from IT) should be used much more broadly than it is right now)

13. The ability to think very broadly and very specifically at the same time – you’re dealing with the sea change in the concept of customer communication, but at the same time every tool has to be managed very carefully and related to all the others

14. Political savvy

15. Faith in G-d (for me) – because if G-d is not behind you, then nothing you do is going to work (and vice versa)

Oh my how this list could go on.

Charles A. Ray

Jeff: You make some excellent points, but one thing I would add: try and discourage the bureaucracy from obsessing so over who controls what that we can’t get the job done.

Tina Bagapor-O'Harrow

Winning concepts grow from a mash-up of Marketing and Technology. Social media tragedies launched by dev folks who have no track record building brand and persona in other media outlets only have half the skill set needed. Conversely, nothing screams “FAIL” louder than a brilliant strategy to enhance acquisition and grow user generated content than one that can’t be executed because the dev team was not involved in the initial strategy. The creative and dev teams need to work together like never before to insure flawless execution that is brand savvy and that isn’t broken.

Larry Teller

More or less implied by Jeffrey’s and other comments, but so important since, as we say so often, content is king, a social media leader should be literate, write interesting, sometimes playful, content, and be energetic about keeping online conversations alive while there are good things yet to say. And, as a manager, these good abilities and habits should be taught and recognized.

Jaqi Ross

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.

Gadi Ben-Yehuda

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: https://www.govloop.com/profiles/blogs/social-media-in-government-101

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)

Michele Bartram

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”.

William Blumberg

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.

Jeffrey Levy

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?

Eliza Blair

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

James Ferreira

@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.

Steve Radick

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.