Meeting people where they are, the State Department does it right

I chatted with Bill May, the State Department Director of the Office of Innovative Engagement, on Friday. The State Department is on the leading edge of collaboration, of social media, understanding the need to balance engagement, transparency, security, and common sense. As expected, Bill understands all of this well, businesses and other agencies can learn from the examples Bill shared.

When the President was planning a trip to Ghana it was important to lay the groundwork that the American President was coming and that he was looking to engage, to hear from people and to answer their questions, concerns. In the United States this would be a challenge, but, between papers, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and more, there are plenty of channels through which the message can be delivered. In Ghana, however, around 3% of the population has internet access, a problem common in many parts of the world. Fortunately, mobile is in use by roughly 80% of the population and provided a better channel. Understand, when I say mobile, I am not discussing the iPhone. We are talking about much simpler devices, much simpler communication is required. Here is what the State Department did to reach the population:

– By understanding the demographics, the technology available, by using common sense, they initially reached out via old-fashioned press releases. The release informed citizens that the American President wanted to hear from people, hear their questions. It was distributed in four languages, through multiple channels, and it offered short and long SMS codes for people to respond back.
– Want to know how many responses they received? Around 17,000 people used the power of the technologies they had available to respond back.
– The questions were reviewed, summarized into 5 areas, areas such as government corruption, and given to the President and his team. The result was a six-minute podcast, distributed back out to people through the local embassies. Not only were people given a channel to ask questions, they were given a channel to hear the response. Collaboration, engagement, social media, came together.
– The South African population is slightly different, however, and to reach this user base, which is younger, more technologically advanced, they worked with a company named Mxit (http://www.mixtlifestyle.com/index) which provides mobile instant messaging services in South Africa.
– What were the results in South Africa? More than 250,000 comments were received.
– The population in South Africa, those that responded, were younger and their questions reflected it. Instead of asking about government corruption and the impact of HIV, for example, they were interested in learning what the President’s favorite basketball team was (just one example).

What excites me, personally, is the fact that I see this same process unfolding domestically. I see messages on Twitter asking people if they have questions for the President, questions he will respond to in a future Youtube video. Nice, open government is slowly beginning to work.

These same practices can really benefit your business or agency. Local towns and governments can cheaply leverage the same process to reach citizens. Enterprises can use the same process to reach employees, to reach customers. Just remember that not everyone you want to talk to is on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube. Understand where your audience lives.

An important aspect of this communication is security. Both personal security in some of the African countries, and data security across the board. The State Department understands this and you must also understand it as you roll out your collaboration strategies. Here are a couple of quick points:

– While the State Department knew the phone #s responding, there is no data tying these #s back to individuals. Is it possible to do so? Absolutely. However, this data was kept anonymous to ensure everyone’s safety, everyone’s willingness to respond.
– Bill and I chatted on Skype during our phone call. We chatted, however, on a completely separate network isolated from the main agency/business networks. Understanding the risks enables your company/agency to make smart decisions. You must engage, just do not be blind to the risks while doing so.

While we covered a lot of other topics during our chat, that is all for now. If you have questions or comments, let me know as I am sure we can get them answered.


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