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GovLoop Member of the Week: Benjamin Strong

If you’re on Twitter, you may have seen some of the great tweets from @Amver like:

-> Nigerian rebels kidnap 6 crewmembers from chemical carrier Sichem Peace
-> Boating tips for watching fireworks from boats
-> U.S. House passes piracy amendment; military guards to man certain ships/cargoes
-> Iranian naval ship stops pirate attack in the Gulf of Aden
-> French rescue authorities request @amver assistance for missing plane near Comoros Islands

Intrigued by the intensity of these tweets, I contacted Benjamin Strong to learn more about Amver. I encourage you to read all of his responses – if you think his tweets are intriguing, you’ll really appreciate his thoughts about the Coast Guard and social media!

1. Tell me a bit more about Amver and its history (or direct me to a link!)

Amver, sponsored by the United States Coast Guard, is a unique, computer-based, and voluntary global ship reporting system used worldwide by search and rescue authorities to arrange for assistance to persons in distress at sea. With Amver, rescue coordinators can identify participating ships in the area of distress and divert the best-suited ship or ships to respond. Amver’s mission is to quickly provide search and rescue authorities, on demand, accurate information on the positions and characteristics of vessels near a reported distress.

Amver Fact Sheet
Amver History
Amver Press Releases
Amver Blog

2. What’s your background (in general) and your specific history with Amver?

I became the director of the Amver office of marketing on March 7, 2005. Prior to leading the Amver office, I was the project manager for the United States Coast Guard’s Mass Rescue Operations program in the Office of Search and Rescue. Before coming to the United States Coast Guard I worked in the Urban Search and Rescue Division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency where I deployed to numerous disasters including the World Trade Center collapse in 2001. I am a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician-Paramedic and have a Masters of Science Degree in Emergency Health Services Management/Policy and Planning from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In a “prior life” I was a professional paramedic with the Prince George’s County, Maryland, Fire Department.

3. I see that the blog launched back in November 2008. What were the drivers (goals, objectives, tie to mission, etc.) for its creation?

The Amver office has traditionally distributed a monthly bulletin. When I came to the office we hadn’t distributed the Amver Bulletin in several years because the postage budget had been eliminated. As technology evolved, we resurrected the bulletin as an online quarterly publication. Once the Coast Guard authorized blogs we decided it would be best to turn the quarterly online bulletin into a blog. It would help get information out a little faster and make it easier for people (mariners) on ships access to Amver news.

4. I know that Coast Guard Commandant Allen is completely sold out on social media and has emphatically stated its importance. To what degree was his role as a champion of social media a driver in the blog, your Twitter presence, etc.?

The United States Coast Guard Commandant was the driving force behind my decision to begin using social media. I knew I ran the risk of alienating some people in my command but I figured if our CEO was embracing this new media, I was probably going to be okay using it as well.

5. I cite the Coast Guard’s YouTube channel as a best practice for recruiting and highlighting an agency’s mission. Do you post content there? If not, do you have your own? How do you determine what content to post?

We don’t post content to the Coast Guard’s YouTube channel. It’s not because we don’t want too, it is just difficult to get video of commercial ships involved in rescue operations. We do have our own YouTube channel, Amver1958.

6. I have talked about “pushing out” content so far. To what degree are you having a two-way dialogue and receiving valuable information and feedback from your target audience?

Not long ago we received word from one of our Twitter followers of a U.S. citizen missing off the coast of Honduras. We responded to the original Tweeter and helped connect that person with search and rescue authorities who could help manage the case. While the case did not result in a life saved, it certainly opened our eyes to the fact that there is a new way for people to contact authorities. Emergency response entities need to be prepared to receive incident notifications through alternate means. If you have a Facebook site or Twitter account, people are going to use them to ask for help.

7. Tell me more about the configuration of the project and team members that are involved with your social media endeavors (number of people, schedule/plan for content creation/elicitation).

Ha! Our social media efforts were started by on of our interns. In fact, I dubbed her our Online Reputation Management Director. It has been a working experiment ever since. We are a small office, only two of us, so we try not to let the management of our social media overtake our other duties. My colleague is the photographer and videographer. We use simple tools like the Flip video camera for some of our work and a Nikon D90 for stills and HD video. As for the blog I only have one recurring piece each week. We list the commercial ships that enrolled in our system over the previous week in a “Welcome Wednesday” post. That way we have something up at least once a week. I probably spend about and hour and half managing our online media each day.

8. What is/are the best example(s) as to how social media has improved your ability to meet your organization’s mission?

One of the best metrics we have is simply tracking our home page analytics. We used to advertise in maritime newspapers and magazines. Now we reach out to the maritime groups in Facebook and try to exploit our blog to raise awareness about our program. Our web hits and enrollments have all increased, which is good. Additionally, we have been able to use Twitter to pitch stories to the media in ways we have never found successful in the past. I am doing this interview because of a Twitter encounter. We have an interview set up with a Canadian journalist because of a relationship forged on Twitter. It’s fantastic.

9. How are you defining and/or measuring success with the use of social media?

We continue to use applications like Google Analytics, and other web tracking software, to do basic measurements. More importantly is watching the conversation. We try to answer each comment on our blog and reach out to similar blogs to see how they may be able to work with us, enroll their ships, or increase maritime safety. We watch for opportunities to share our story with maritime media and look for examples of our vessels providing assistance. Success is more than page views. It’s how you can engage your customer.

10. What are the future plans for using social media/Web 2.0 for meeting your mission?

Social media is moving so swiftly I don’t know I can answer that question accurately. We want to maintain our current footprint, perhaps add some small things here, maybe take away some things there. Maintaining the blog with fresh content is key, ensuring we do more than just push information on Twitter is also important. Maritime industry leaders are not typically social media aficionados so I think we still have considerable room to grow as the industry embraces these tools. The best, as they say, is yet to come.

11. What would you say (lessons learned or advice) to other agencies and organizations that are thinking about moving forward with social media adoption?

Don’t try to sell a blog to your boss/command without having something for them to look at. Find experts in your organization that are good at graphic design, layout, or other “web” feature and bring them on your team. Research what others are doing. Offer to go slow, but make consistent updates. Finally, remember that social media is a commitment. Don’t establish your brand on Twitter, Facebook, or on a blog and ignore it. It takes care and feeding. People will expect it.

12. Anything you think is important to include that I have not covered?

Have fun! There are plenty of places to learn more about social media that won’t break your organization’s budget. Look for bar camp style unconferences such as Government 2.0 Camp or Social Media Camp which are held around the U.S. and are usually free or low cost.

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Allen Sheaprd

Congradulations Benjamin,

Congradulations on being member of the week.

Amver – sometimes all people need to do good is the means.

Yes – answer the blogs. It lets people know they are being heard and that is what alot of them want. They like to know their work helped.


Dan Taylor

You mentioned you’re not using YouTube much because it’s hard to get video of commercial ships in rescue operations, but I’ll point them to the YouTube video you embedded in your post on the AMVER awards at http://amveruscg.blogspot.com/2009/05/amver-awards-success.html. Most of the video is comprised of stills, but there’s also some video that I thought was quite compelling. It’s well worth the three minute investment if people have time to watch it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVYImiXaXdI.

Benjamin Strong

Allen, thanks for the congratulations! Dan, thanks for promoting the video. Glad you liked it. We are actually working on broadening the video so we can use it as a marketing tool. We really had fun making it and are happy to see others are enjoying it.

Thanks, and belated happy birthday to you Andrew!