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Social Media to the Rescue

The last couple of weeks have been tumultuous at different agencies in the US government. For the fourth time in as many months, Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta faced the media last week to state that the “actions of a few do not reflect the character of the US military”. It sounds so much like something we’ve become accustomed to hearing. What has the US military done this time? A 2010 photo was published by the LA Times showing American soldiers holding body parts of suicide bombers in Afghanistan, and the top brass at the Pentagon is saddled with explaining how it happened. This comes just days after the Secret Service was dogged by allegations of prostitution in Colombia and just two weeks after information bubbled out of the General Services Administration (GSA) about wild spending and frivolity at the government’s spending watchdog. In fact, the entire administration seems to be going from one crisis management episode to another.

Crisis management is a fundamental demand of any administrative job, and as hard as a manager tries, it is difficult to preempt the onset of a barrage of crises. The best that can be done is to be ready to douse the flames as they arise and steady the ship when the waves are behind. A skilled government manager knows to respond to allegations of corruption with forthrightness and never excuse indecent behavior by any employee, because just like any hidden fire, it never goes away until it is quenched. However, facing the media to admit that allegations of corruption in one’s agency are true remains a dreaded nightmare for any manager, and everyone prays that the media never finds out. But they always will, and as soon as they do, the whole world finds out courtesy of the 24-hour media cycle, the internet and those sneaky social media sites.

Social media has ruined many a reputation; Anthony Weiner must have wished for those days when there was no Twitter to circulate the news of his indecent texting behavior, Jeffrey Neely and Martha Johnson must have craved those days when there was no YouTube for their fellow GSA employees to upload videos of their wild Las Vegas partying, and David Chaney must have cursed Facebook for retaining the 2008 photo in which he was “checking out” Sarah Palin. Social media really does make it difficult to contain a crisis, but is it possible that social media can also be an amazing strategy for managing a crisis situation? The answer is YES!

In a recent discussion on the possible strategies for managing the GSA crisis through social media, the first suggestion was for the top management of the agency responsible for oversight at the GSA to release an apology video on YouTube and publish it on the GSA website for all to see. It would have been pointless seeking to explain away the behavior of the GSA staff without issuing a direct apology on such a platform which wasn’t existent 10 years ago. That can be followed up with a Flickr or Tumblr site showing some of the other successes of the GSA or any other agency which might be seeking to manage a crisis. Through their Facebook and Twitter accounts, any government agency can make clear promises of transparency and increased accountability and constantly communicate to their audiences in real time. Press conferences will always be important, but they wouldn’t be available on a 24-hour schedule, and they would include questions that no manager wants to be asked directly. Social media permits any manager to hide behind their computers (or smart phones) and communicate directly with very wide audiences any time of the day. The key is to apologize for the misdemeanor, promise a full investigation and bring the culprits to justice, and get back on the important message as quickly as possible.

Social media indeed can screw things up, but it can also help to screw things together. So get on it, fast!

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