, , ,

Listen Up! Tapping Social Media Channels for Better Decision-Making

Kind of a dumb title. Maybe I should have said “Read Up!” but that sounds kinda boring, don’t you think? No matter what your favorite way of saying it, taking in and processing information is more important than ever.

As a former GS-15 with a gift for planning and communications, I’ve spent a lot of time in rooms with senior decision makers. Consistent to every room I’ve been in is the fact that senior decision makers rely heavily on their staffs for situational awareness. Without the intel that their staffs provide them, they’d be quickly blinded. There are too many constituent groups and issues for any one person to keep on top of. Staffs are often act as the eyes, ears, and filters for the decision maker. That makes staffers pretty important.

Lot’s of people know this. So, they work the staffers. In the best cases, they make sure the staffers stay informed and know the truth about what’s going on. In the worst cases, they cook the books, spin the stories and reports, and leave out important details. The job of the staffer is not easy.

Unless they have an agenda of their own, staffers do their best to ensure accurate and complete information. They do things like verify stories. They collect the same story form more than one source, cultivate their trusted contacts, and take an occasional dip into source data to verify the reports they are getting. This work is time consuming.

When social media hit the scene, it opened up more channels. Instead of relying entirely on strategic trusted human sources (who sometimes had agendas of THEIR own), staffers could go directly “to the streets.” This seemed like a good way to increase situational awareness, but there were a few problems:

  • Everyone has an opinion
  • Not everyone is articulate
  • People at “street level” often don’t have the big picture (no decision is perfect and some collateral damage is often a part of the “best” solution).
  • Lot’s of comments are irrelevant or misinformed
  • Separating the wheat from the chaff often took a lot of time and energy – too much for the meager situational awareness return

Few staffers made the time to develop a system for harvesting information from social media channels. With a little help from Katie Delahaye Paine and a few other authors, I gathered my own staffs and set out to turn those social media channels into useful resources for decision making.

The first thing I realized is that keeping a time stamped journal is important:

  • Documenting decisions made and the dates they were made gives us one starting point. Watching the “channels” for discussion about those decisions gives us some idea of how long it takes to “penetrate” the organization.
  • Documenting our marketing and outreach efforts (advertising our channels) helps us to separate reactions to out marketing from reactions to decisions being made.
  • Monitoring the testimony and press releases provided by other decision makers gives us some idea of how our original message it being heard and re-broadcast. Is the original message in tact? Has it been altered?
  • Counting the number of comments on a channel in a given period gives us some idea of expected volume and volume generated by our activities. At one time, we used to do something similar by measuring Congressional inquiries. Anecdotally, about 30 days after we announced something that would negatively affect our contracted integrators, we would see an uptick in Congressional inquiries. We concluded that our contractors had been using Congressional channels to apply pressure to our office whenever they didn’t like what we were doing.

Just about anything that you have going on or going out in or around your agency is a candidate for recording in your journal. As you go back through the activity generated on your social media channels, you journal will prove invaluable for correlating that activity with what your agency is doing.

Insider’s Tip #1: If you’re privy to ordinary weekly activity reports that flow up the chain of command, those can be acceptable substitutes for a journal (no point reinventing the wheel). You may need to tweak it a bit to ensure you get the information you need in the way you need it, but this may be easily accomplished through a candid chat with whomever is most responsible for that report (or the decision maker who uses it). As long as people understand the value of what you’re doing, you can usually get the a change made.

Insider Tip #2: Minutes are often generated for decision making meetings. Getting a copy of those minutes may be an acceptable way to document the decisions being made and when they were made.

The next thing I learned is that comments can be summarized and categorized.

  • I (my staffs) swept our channels on a regular basis and categorized each comment as positive, negative or neutral. I should note that each channel was further sub-divided into issues – so each discussion thread was exclusively about one of our product or service lines. The judgement was subjective and prone to some variation if more than one staff member are looking at the same comments, but with a little practice and coaching, our “measurements” became pretty consistent.
  • In more open-ended forums, we “bucketed” comments into subject categories. The bucketing was also subjective, but useful. For example, we found some comments were process related. Others were policy related. Still others were related to execution.

Any bucketing and categorizing should be done with supervision and coaching support – particularly in the early stages. After everyone get’s comfortable with the game plan, management can back off.

Finally, the right mix of raw data, comments, and summary information is something that I believe each organization has to decide. I tend to start with the idea that less is more in the beginning. As decision makers ask questions, be prepared to dive a little deeper as appropriate.

For example, we might report:

Traffic was up by 30% this week on issue X. Three weeks after the decision to <fill in the blank>, 60% of the comments were positive. 30% were negative and 10% were neutral. The big questions we found had to do with execution of the Z process. 40% of the people who asked questions were most interested in the threshold definition for ABC investments. The issue doesn’t seem to be of interest to the <fill in the blank> agencies yet, but the <fill in the blank> agencies are really amping up the chatter.

Whatever we pull from our social media channels will be one data point on a decision maker’s radar. They will still want verification of facts, the high level political temperature on issues, and input from trusted sources; but it’s a data point that adds value – particularly if you have a solid, repeatable methodology; and you take care to make your report as clean as possible.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

nathan hammond


On the other end of the spectrum, how can the “street level” people better optimize the way they communicate? How can they better “word” the issues, and how can they better leverage all the existing channels to reach the right decision-makers or influencers (staffers)?

Henry Brown

And as short as possible. IMO decision makers don’t have hours to wade through alot of information that may not have any bearing on the decision being made. (Perhaps a role to play for a carefully worded executive summary)

David Dejewski

Henry – I agree 100%. Decision makers do not want to hear about anything that’s not directly relevant. I hope I didn’t underemphasize that point with the short executive summary I provided in italics.

Nathan – Of course, there is always the audience/ participant perspective. Certainly worthy of discussing – perhaps in an entirely new post dedicated to the subject!

To quickly give you my thoughts: IMO, people who participate in social media provide voice. There are too many voices to reach a decision maker without some filters & summaries, as Henry points out.

I believe participants in social media can optimize their communication and reach decision makers directly (or come closer to reaching decision makers) if they spend some time clearly formulating their thoughts. Rants, random thoughts, or silly comments rarely get very far. When a participant clearly states a position or perspective, staffers may use their comment as an example.

In my experience, staff don’t like to make things up. If they can get a relevant, real, and thoughtful quote or comment, they will use it. If they don’t put it in the final report, it may still influence the way they think – thus the way they present their findings to the decision maker. Make sense?

Henry Brown

While reading a blog from Forrester blogger Edward Ferrara couldn’t help but think of this blog posting…
I have highlighted the gems that relate to this blog

I just finished a research document entitled Measure the Effectiveness of Your Data Security and Privacy Program for the The Security Architecture And Operations Playbook. This was a lot of fun to write, because I was able to look back at the 50 plus interviews conducted over the last year, all of them focused on the security metrics issue. This seems like such a hard question to answer. My conclusion is that many security organizations are measuring the wrong things.

There are several reasons for this. Here are a few of my observations:

We always measure this.
It’s too hard to get any other data.
Our budgets are fixed so we just do the best we can.

The list continues pretty much in the same vein. Security officers complain they don’t get the recognition, budgets, and attention from senior leadership, yet our metrics don’t really tell senior leaders anything they want to hear about.

At the end of the day, it’s top-line growth and bottom-line profitability all senior leaders care about. Anything that aligns with these goals will have their attention. Anything else is just noise. Yet many security officers still throw the same old information at senior leaders and expect different results. This is a sign of insanity.

In the paper I outline the need to refocus on security on three dimensions that have driven security for centuries: readiness, response, and recovery. These are the 3Rs of security. Added to this is a fourth – financial. We still need to manage our business like a business. This means making financial tradeoffs.

Lastly, in the paper, I talk about how to present information. Dashboards are key here. Because everyone is so busy, presenting information graphically, showing trends, and demonstrating effectiveness is key. I attended a demo from Core Security (http://www.coresecurity.com), a maker of vulnerability assessment tools has added some great dashboards to their tool set at the recent Black Hat conference. It was a good demo and the company showed off their security vulnerability dashboard. It allows users to see the effectiveness of their counter-measures as compared to vulnerabilities over time and mist importantly to tailor the information to the audience. This is a great feature of the tool.

Based on what I outlined above I see this type of dashboard capability as a real need for security officers. Core is not the only company doing this but it is a good example of tools that can help security officers show off their efforts. As I like to say: “You get what you measure.” Metrics change behaviors; that’s their value. Sharing those measurements so people know the value of your efforts is a best practice. If security officers are going to be able to get the necessary attention of senior leadership for their initiatives, they need to show that their efforts are effective, and how they contribute to the business.