Why Government Needs to Participate in Social Media

By Leonard Sipes

Created for FedPitch 2009 (http://www.fedpitch.org/). FedPitch seeks to create new and innovative ideas to improve federal service. Final two minute presentation created from this paper.

There are few times in world history when we witness a fundamental shift in how people move through society. Well, we are witnessing major change right now. People posting comments on social media pages are as influential as having a face-to-face conversation with someone we know.

The premise is that for centuries, we traded information about concepts, products and beliefs face-to-face. All that may have changed within a decade with social media and the internet (see “When Did We Start Trusting Strangers?” from Universal McCann, http://www.universalmccann.com/)

This has significant implications for any government agency. The research implies that well-crafted social web sites that cater to learning styles (friendly with story-based articles, fact sheets, interesting video and audio) can have a positive or negative impact if it forges enough of a collective opinion.

For those asking “so what,” there are questions. If a negative event occurs, how quickly can it travel through the Internet? How much influence can unreliable or malicious web sites have? Can government do anything to counter uninformed public perception, regardless as to how true and factual its material may be? Can style outweigh substance?

A better question; can an organization devoted to misinformation control public opinion faster and better than a public agency?

I work for a federal agency where we produce television, radio, a blog and transcripts. Some results include contributing to the highest percentage increase in employee satisfaction per federal survey, improved employee recruitment efforts and the exchange of information and ideas with hundreds of people and organizations every year.

Social media accomplishes operational goals. It gets the job done.

Please consider another example of social media. A friend went to a motorcycle clothing store on the Internet a couple of months ago and found a site where the owner personally tried every product he sold and created his own reviews.

He was impressed with anyone who would go that far to serve his customers. He “guessed” that if he cared that much about customer service, he would be the kind of person he would want to do business with, which he did to the tune of $300.00.

So What Does all this Mean?

What does research on trusting strangers via social media and a motorcycle store and my agency’s social media site mean for the rest of government service?

What it means is, in the words of a writer for Advertising Age Magazine, is that “Brands need to have a personality and be someone that people want to be friends with.” See http://adage.com/ . Is there anyone who doubts that government agencies are a brand?

Well, say that again and apply it to government web sites without smiling. Are we saying that the IRS needs to have a personality and be someone that people want to be friends with?

The answer is obviously yes. If we really want to serve, if we really want to communicate, we need to provide users with a personal, comfortable and meaningful experience.

Government agencies need to display a personality. We need to be friendly. We need to respect user learning preferences by offering story-based articles, fact sheets, audio and video. We need to be the ultimate in a friendly non-bureaucratic experience.

We need to listen to comments and suggestions and respond to every inquiry.

We need to create a meaningful dialog with the public.

The Ability to Provide Accurate Information

Not engaging in social media has multiple implications. One is the ability of agencies to accurately provide information.

Regan.com published a recent article with the following title, “Poll: Government Sites Slow to Adopt Social Media” (see http://www.ragan.com).

There was a recent exchange of approximately 100 e-mails by federal, state and local government web masters with many complaining that their agencies do not support social media efforts

There are two additional considerations, both from Harris Interactive (The Harris Poll http://www.harrisinteractive.com/) indicating that close to half of Americans have Facebook or MySpace accounts.

The other provides a review of the reputation of corporate America that states “…corporate behavior and corporate communication (emphasis added) play a major role in how a company is perceived.”

The San Francisco Chronicle offered an article, “More Marketers are Counting on Social Networks” addressing the dangers of businesses ignoring social media
http://www.sfgate.com/cgibin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/05/02/BUNO17AIKP.DTL .
The article offers the following: “Clearly, the online audience is already there. A Nielsen Co. report released last week found the number of social media users has increased 87 percent since 2003, and surpassed e-mail use for the first time in February. In the past year, the time spent on social networks increased 73 percent, Nielsen said.”
“For businesses, the social-media phenomenon is rewriting the rules about customer service and outreach. Looking forward, marketers will ignore these communities at their own peril,” Nielsen said.”
Finally, reputations can be hijacked. “Identity hijacking is prevalent in social media largely because it’s easy to set up accounts and find an audience. The potential for the reach is enough of a lure (see 10 Steps for Mastering Your Social Domain, Media Post Publications, http://www.mediapost.com).
The Message
The message seems to be that we control our own reputations; which is good news if others have the capacity and opportunity to post opinions. But we need to define ourselves before others do it for us.

If we value a dialog with the people we serve, we should applaud their ability to post opinions and offer alternative views. But misinformation can be more than troublesome.

With new technologies and cheap bandwidth, anyone with a basic understanding of website creation and search engine optimization can create a site in hours. There are cameras and software that can shoot and lift video to You Tube in minutes. They can create blogs and offer audio (or “borrow” them from other sources).

What stops them from enticing people to go to their site instead of the government site if they offer a “better” product? What happens if the new site purposely creates material that produces misinformation and possibly panic with economic or political goals?

What damage could a malicious web inflict during the recent flu epidemic?

Social media offers government the opportunity to accurately address breaking issues in an inviting, friendly and non-bureaucratic style.

Social Media Enhances the Reputations of Employees

Accusations regarding employee behavior are often at the heart of negative news. An Inaccurate portrayal hurts morale and has operational implications.

Social media allows government to tell the day-to-day stories of employees, thus conveying the operations of the agency. Employees are the heart and soul of productivity or problems. Inaccurate portrayals hurt productivity and the willingness to take appropriate risks.

Social media may be one of the most powerful methods of improving employee job satisfaction. Telling their story is telling our story. Transparency provides context. Context can be a powerful ally when accusations fly.


We need to engage in social media and engage in dialogs with the citizens we serve. We need to do it to protect employee reputations. We need to do it because it accomplishes organizational goals, and we need to do it while we still have the opportunity.

If not, others may define our agencies and issues to suit their own purposes.
The time for government to fully embrace social media is now.

Note: The article offers the opinion of the author. It does not necessarily represent the view of his employer.

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Leonard Sipes

Hi Jean-Paul: Thanks for your comments. Government needs to decide if citizen service is a priority. At the moment, it’s not.
Best, Len.