You Tell Me: When Are We Going to Stop Babbling About Social Media?

Home Forums Citizen Engagement & Customer Service You Tell Me: When Are We Going to Stop Babbling About Social Media?

This topic contains 12 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Scott Horvath 7 years, 6 months ago.

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  • #177287

    Dave Hebert
    This discussion is brought to you by the Federal Communicators Network. No endorsement expressed or implied.
    When I was in grad school, I took a course called Online Journalism.
    I’ll pause here to let you finish laughing, either at me, or at yourself for also having taken such a course, or at both of us.
    The idea that journalism wouldn’t take place online is now quaint. Heck, the idea that anything wouldn’t take place in some network is a relic. Our digital existence is a given.
    At what point, then, will we look at the use of social media the same way?
    There are over a billion people on Facebook. Every federal agency has at least one Twitter account. Subway stations in Seoul have QR code-based virtual supermarkets in them. These tools have become an intrinsic part of society in the developed world (and even in much of the developing world), just like web browsers and email.
    Unlike the latter, however, the social media conversation remains dominantly self-referential (or, to be a really pretentious twit, it’s “meta”). We are still so enamored with the very concept of social media that the mere existence of a social tool seems self-justifying.
    Was it ever like this with the telephone, or fax machine, or email, even in local/personal circles? I know it was (and still can be) with websites, but not to the volume of #socmed mania.
    Maybe it’s because it’s still relatively new, or because it really is a huge revolution in personal empowerment and publishing, or because of both of those and more. I’m not thoughtful enough or well-versed enough in global social trends to render a useful opinion at that level.
    At the federal level, however, I think we are still more distracted by shiny things and less focused on applying those things to the mission than we should be.
    To illustrate that assertion, here’s an anecdote courtesy of yours truly and a colleague: We sat down together one day and started writing a Twitter strategy.
    Then we realized we were really writing a social media strategy.
    THEN we realized we were REALLY writing a customer service and citizen engagement strategy, which is what we should have been doing all along. We made the mistake of turning the tool into our mission.
    That’s common — these tools are seductively tangible devices that let you put stuff in and have it spit back out as better-looking, more useful, measurable stuff. Strategy and mission can be relatively abstract and ethereal in comparison.
    Government of all entities, however, should be using these tools to actually conduct and deliver the mission, not just flood these channels with messages about our mission (on a related note, see this Social Media Today post on whether marketing is ruining social media).
    Here’s a crude metric (one of my specialties): Search GovLoop for “social media.” You get more than 20,000 results for blog posts, discussions, etc.. Then search for “strategy” — less than 6,500 results. Not remotely scientific, but perhaps an interesting commentary on where our focus lies, especially when you consider how many ways “strategy” can be used, including in conjunction with “social media.”
    Off the top of my head, I know of two agencies that are approaching or exceed 100 distinct social media accounts. Sheer numbers aren’t the point (see the White House Digital Strategy), so I have to wonder how much dedication to the mission and service to citizens could really be distilled out of 100+ accounts.
    So if we:
    • Are secure in our mission regardless of the tools, and
    • Need to deliver that mission (not just messages about it) directly to citizens, and
    • Are already societally wired for these tools …

    Then you tell me: When are we going to stop babbling about social media?

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  • #177311

    Scott Horvath

    I don’t believe we’ll stop babbling about social media, whether it should used or not, etc for several more years. Part of the reason stems from the existing culture within most organizations not so much to its validity as a tool, but more so to how it can actually improve the daily business of government. Those of us familiar with the social media and government space know that there are countless examples of such use. However, those examples are not so widely as known to existing culture in most organizations. Perhaps it’s our own fault for not communicating and sharing examples as much outside of the social media adopters within our organizations. Or perhaps it’s because non-social adopters (assuming this is the larger population segment) still haven’t considered it a vital tool.

    The web has been seen as the same thing for many organizations. I’m sure you’re aware that there are organizations that are just now coming to grip with accepting that the web is a primary business asset and not just a delivery mechanism to push out news. But I believe government has learned from it’s past mistakes with waiting to consider a tool as a business asset…and now we’re moving forward with thinking that many things should, or could, become a business asset. But it will still take some time for that to sink into the minds of entire organizational cultures.

    I recall my father-in-law telling me a story about how when people in his government office first received computers for word-processing and sending emails, many people used them as stands to hold their sticky notes! It wasn’t until people started to understand the benefits and sending emails themselves, and doing other word-processing functions, did others in the organization begin to use them. In a sense, they weren’t mandated to use them…but they were forced to because others were doing it and communication wasn’t happening as effectively because not everyone was onboard. Now, you couldn’t imagine living without email.

    I think social media will take that same route. Until we’re all using social tools, embedding them in our business…we won’t see that perspective that it’s “just the way things are” and “we can’t live without it.”

  • #177309

    Britt Ehrhardt

    Information overloadComputers as stands to hold sticky notes? Wowza! Something like this? How the world has changed, Scott and Dave.

    There may be a couple of additional reasons why we won’t stop babbling about social media. First, many people are still discovering it. Every grandmother struck by the realization that she can get photos of her grandkids through Facebook is another excited voice advocating for social media in the federal workplace. The deluge of new folks is going to continue for some time. And second, it might be the case that people are afraid of being left behind, left out. The pendulum has swung and now the peer pressure is _for_ social media. Hard for organizations to resist, or even be genuinely strategic about weighing other options for customer service and engagement, when everyone else is doing it.

  • #177307

    Jeffrey Levy

    I think your evolution from Twitter to social media to citizen engagement is normal and healthy. Now you’re in a position to help others make that trip even faster.

    When people come to me and say “I want to launch an X,” my usual first question is “why?” Then we get into all the various tools that might help them achieve their goals. And most of the time, it takes a combination, not just one thing.

    Here at EPA, it’s been the norm for some time that, for example, an outreach campaign includes Twitter, Facebook, and Web 1.0 stuff like a website and maybe a banner on our home page. Some also involve Flickr, YouTube, and blogs. And now we’re starting to think about how to use Pinterest. But the mission goal is the first thing, then the tool.

    I will say that while social media seems second nature to many of us, though, it’s still a brave new world to many others. So I’m not surprised we’re still talking about how to use these tools.

  • #177305

    Chris Trent

    Since you brought up previous technologies, Dave, I’ll suggest this maxim: a new medium becomes integrated into common business practice when the cost to manage it exceeds the cost to use it.

    So, telephones, fax machines, photo copiers, and word processors were all, in their day, newfangled technologies, governed by meanspirited guardians who needed special training to use them. The cost to use the technology was enormous, and that cost correlated with the perceived awesomeness of the technology. Over time, the cost to use each technology dropped and thus it became prohibitively expensive to prohibitively manage that technology. That’s how we go from one Photocopier Technician per office, to everybody making their own copies. This pattern can be applied to everything from cars to coffeemakers.

    The trick, here, is that we’re talking about the cost of use, not the expense. Social media is not expensive to use right now. Each tweet costs much less than each press release in dollars. But what frightens or awes managers (the two terms are contextually related) is that the potential costs of each tweet are INCALCULABLE… and therefore huge.

    What happens if a citizen retweets it? What happens if an employee responds!? What happens if Jon Stewart makes fun of it on TV!?!?

    These costs are so massive that we cannot even give them a dollar figure. And so, whatever it costs to train and endow a Social Media Specialist, it’s cheaper than the cost of a tweet.

    TL:DR It’ll change once we realize you can’t do any more damage with a tweet than you can with an email or a phone call.

  • #177303

    Social media is legitimate when it helps people access government services (to Scott’s point) and to reinforce social marketing messages from government (EPA is a clearly a leader in this space).

    Dave’s point is well-taken though. If you can’t bake the cake in the first place (write informative content) then don’t bother putting on frosting with sprinkles (social media). Maybe someone will take a bite, but they will soon realize that the calories aren’t worth it.

    I don’t think poor writing is the problem though. The government is full of outstanding writers actually.

    The problem is also not lack of social media skill because again, the government has lots of techies as well as clever Tweet writers and Facebook page-makers.

    Rather, the problem is fear. Legitimate fear and illegitimate.

    * The legitimate fear from a managerial point of view is that we lack sufficient management controls. We’ve got a car – who is allowed to drive it? How fast? What is considered appropriate versus inappropriate use, and by whom?

    * The legitimate fear from a leadership point of view is that we lack a strategy. Where are we driving that car? Are we tweeting just to be heard as Dave said?

    The illegitimate fear, from where I sit, is that people will actually use social media the way it was intended to be used: to speak truth to power.

    It’s fine and good to have fun and friendly outreach and for Facebook to be an arm of that. (Actually it may not be fine and good – one could question where education becomes puffery.)

    It becomes uncomfortable to have the outside world talking back, not just in a spammy way but in a substantive way that takes issue with government policies and activities – a way that challenges the dominant feelgood narrative.

    It becomes uncomfortable to have employees (Coast Guard) or ex-employees (TSA) talking back, not just with tweets but with an entire alternate blog site.

    The truth of the matter is that really brilliant leaders WANT to have true social media engagement because that is REAL participatory government – it gives them credibility – it builds up public trust which therefore increases compliance.

    There is nothing a social media person hates more than propaganda. Nothing we respect more than honesty.

    But very few people (government leaders) have the guts to handle it. Even if they do, their bosses don’t or there is a colleague nervous and nervy. This is actually true in the private sector too. People think, “Oh no, we’re not perfect, things are going to get out of control, let’s just shut it down.”

    It’s a shame, because in my experience government is much more complicated than people think. People in government work much harder than people think. There is a lot more drama and the issues are worth engaging in. It’s easy to make fun of the TSA – do you want to be the person who lets a bomber on the plane? I wouldn’t.

    The real work of a government communicator is not to be internal paparazzi. It is to simply pull the curtains back and let the public engage. To the extent that social media tools can facilitate that I say fantastic. But the more we try and aggrandize ourselves and live in fantasyland the more we we will continue to be the butt of jokes – from Hollywood movies – to Saturday Night Live – to those Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: emails that say “Must Read” etc.

  • #177301

    Dave Hebert

    Scott, your response puts me in mind of what Mike Gauldin (the dearly departed former head of pub. affairs at the USGS) used to say about writing press releases: Lead with the news, not with the process.

    It seems we are still hung up on the process of social media itself rather than having worked social tools into the rest of comm. mix we already had. We’re saying “Hey — HEY! Look! It’s social media!” rather than “Here’s some info/services we think you’ll find useful” and, oh, hey, they happened to come to you in a format that’s really useful for you (social tools or otherwise).

  • #177299

    Dave Hebert

    I think you hit on a couple things here, Britt, that I only briefly touched on at the outset — this really is a new experience for humans in general, not just gov. And the impulse to keep up with the Joneses is incredibly powerful — even if we don’t know what we’re going to do with this stuff, we better have it anyway because everyone else does.

    So you’re touching on an answer to the original question in a much more direct way: What will it take for us to view social media as a standard and complementary device in the toolbox, next to and compatible with email and news releases and press conferences?

  • #177297

    Dave Hebert

    I agree, Jeffrey — I’m actually quite pleased that it evolved that way and that we didn’t get stuck on the tool. As I said elsewhere yesterday, I’ve always admired the succinct logic of your Mission->Tools->Metrics->Teach mantra.

    As to your last point, I concede that social media is a new experience for the world in general, much less gov’t. Where I’m scratching my head is at what appears to be a continued furor over the very concept itself among those of us who should probably know better (comm. and engagement pros).

    New tools will arise ad infinitum, and we should always be looking for ways to employ new tools in the service of the citizen. I’m wondering what it will take for the overarching philosophy or concept to be comfortably implicit for us.

  • #177295

    Scott Horvath

    Nice image…yes…just like that except for a really old CRT monitor that ways 100 lbs 😉

    You make a good point about being left out. The pressure is on. But it’s also hard to avoid the pressure and think about how to do it wisely. I’m always one for learning from failing and that failing is not a bad thing…but my personality is doing what I can to avoid failure. May sounds like opposing views but they’re really not.

    If I jump into something quickly, but have done what I can to think about possible consequences, obstacles, issues, etc…and then it fails…then I don’t think that’s doing it unwisely. At least I gave it some good thought. You learn from your mistakes, you improve what you’re doing, and keep going forward.

    If I jump into something quickly, without even considering any of those things and then it fails…well, then I’ve failed miserably. You have to at least give it some forethought before jumping into it.

    I say all that because many organizations are feeling under pressure, as you say, to use social media. However, they don’t HAVE to use every social media tool out there if it’s not right for them. If they do a little bit of homework and think about if it’ll possibly work…rather than just creating an account and saying, “now what?” then they’ll be better off.

  • #177293

    Scott Horvath

    Yes, we have been doing a lot of that. That’s not to say that I don’t, personally, like that viewpoint. I slowly, but continually, try to get social media integrated with other products and with the way we just “do business” at USGS. It’s not easy because it’s still seen as a separate function. I really want to have social media as part of every product and effort we do.

    That doesn’t mean that every single thing we do HAS to have a social media component, it just means that every effort has that ability to consider social as part of its output. But still, doing it strategically, is going to be important to understand. What you don’t want is continuation of creating websites just to create them…but rather creating them if it strategically makes sense to do that. But teaching everyone strategy is certainly a difficult thing to do.

  • #177291

    I think the question is, when is social media going to be integrated in an overall outreach strategy that communicates salient messages to targeted audiences in a cohesive, branded way? Like traditional media, print, tv, radio, outdoor, direct, etc.; social and mobile need to take their place in the tool box and be used as part of an overall communication strategy. Having 100 + accounts, much the way that having multiple logos, leads to identity confusion, dilution and cannibalization. When these tools are fully realized as a medium – not a method, the babble will quiet.

  • #177289

    “Which agencies let their scientists speak freely?”

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