Why I Squirm at Being Called a Social Media Expert

Last week, I attended an excellent seminar on social media. As is typical, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut during Q&A time. My comment was tweeted by 3 people before I even sat down, and people on stage kept talking about me as an expert and about EPA as a social media leader. I appreciate the kind words, but every time that happens, I get squirrely.

Don’t get me wrong; I love that EPA is out there with social media, and I take some pride in helping push us there. But, as I tweeted from the seminar: “Every time someone refers to me or EPA as leaders, I think of the things we still don’t know and still aren’t doing.” Some nice folks told me I was being humble. But my feeling goes much further than humility and I thought a blog post would give me more than 140 characters to explain.

Simply put: I’m concerned that people will hear “EPA is a social media leader,” then look at what we’ve done and how we do it, and think that’s the right thing. Right for their agency, or even right in some abstract universal sense. Even more troublesome is the notion that some will look at what we’re not doing and decide it shouldn’t be done.

It’s very very very very very very very VERY important that no one draw either conclusion because every agency is different. I don’t just mean different missions, because I think most missions require pretty similar communications/interaction mechanisms. But we have different cultures, different staffing, different budgets. Different levels of management comfort with uncertainty in general and social media in particular. And different timing priorities; we might eventually do something we’re not doing now.

In sum: what EPA does is directly related to our situation, and yours may be different. Probably is different, actually.

Have you heard my definition of an expert? It’s just someone who knows one thing more than you do. Granted, we EPAers have about four years of social media experience under our belts, and I have some definite ideas about how to do things (for example: my mantra and thoughts on policy). But Chris Dorobek provided a great metaphor at the seminar: we’re in the first pitch of a nine-inning game, and what I don’t know far exceeds what I do know.

So I’ll close with a plea. By all means, consult with people who got out there a little ahead of you. Ask probing questions. I’ll continue to freely share our experiences and lessons learned: here, on Twitter, via email and on the phone, and at conferences. But please make your own decisions based on your own situation. And trust that you’ll make some good decisions. As Dr. Spock once said (not Mr. Spock): you know more than you think you do.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Well said, Jeffrey. I was speaking yesterday at an event and it struck me that a lot of people who are out in front of a movement are less “experts” and more “experimenters.” What people don’t see is the number of things we’ve tried and failed…and just happened to try enough things that some of it actually worked…and we get to tell a story about what worked. And we can all experiment in our own situations – oriented toward doing and trying, failing fast and iterating quickly to get to what has real impact.

I’m much more comfortable with being called an “experimenter” – you?

Scott Horvath

Thanks for posting this Jeffrey and your honest is well appreciated. I feel the same way as you, and much prefer the term that Andrew mentioned…experimenter. Every organization moves at different pace and we do what feels right for our organization, where it is in it’s life, the environment and culture we work in, etc. Sometimes I’ll look at other agencies and the great social media efforts they’re embarking on and say to myself, “Why aren’t WE doing that?” But then, I have to remember that not every agency is created equally…nor are the budgets and resources.

You have to do what fits for your organization…that’s the bottom line. I’m the type of person who would much rather see higher quality in the social media efforts we undertake rather than focusing on the quantity. If we can do 2 or 3 really awesome, solid things then I would take that any day over 5 or 10 so-so ones. Just my two cents.

Jeremy Greene

Great post Jeffrey. I’ve always thought great communication is an art, rather than a science. There are definitely some tools and repeatable processes that will help you along the way but organizations must take the time to understand their message and the audience and then leverage those tools to best engage them.

Also love Scott’s comment above…pick a couple things (channels, strategies, etc.) and do them well…very well. Being on every new social platform can quickly dilute your communication efforts if not done efficiently.

Andrew Krzmarzick

More on this seeing Scott and Jeremy’s comments: doing a few things really well is where the “metrics” part of Jeffrey’s mantra (Mission|Tools|Metrics|Teach) comes into play. You can always experiment to see if something works in your agency…but then watch the metrics. If something is not having the desired impact, iterate or stop doing it. Double down on winners. With limited resources, that seems to be the winning formula.

Kevin Lanahan

Jeffrey, you must squirm an awful lot.

I think you’ve articulated a systematic approach to social media that is easy to understand (even if it takes a while to master), as evidenced by Scott, Andrew and Jeremy’s comments below. The thing you do well is the “Teach” part of your mantra. You pound the lessons you learned in blogs, twitter and other outlets so we all share in your discoveries.

We’ve had several other state agencies contact us about using social media, and it’s fun to be able to share our successes, failures, and lesson learned. It’s flattering to be asked advice, but it really brings home how much we don’t know and are still figuring out.

There ain’t no silver bullets.

Jason Hibbets

So true: You’ve got to understand your community / audience and do what’s right for them. I’m all for copying ideas (it’s the open source way), but too many people just carbon copy instead of what I call, copy-modify–tweatking it to work for your needs.


Joe Flood

Social media is so new that is anyone an expert at it? A healthy sense of humility is the best approach. I’m always suspicious of people who refer to themselves as “gurus” and “thought leaders”. The way you’ve focused on the practical, and avoided overhyping things, will be much better for EPA in the long run.