“People underestimate the power of being relevant and interesting,” said Brandon Friedman, the director of online communications for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Friedman was replying to a question; how do you get people to pay attention to a Twitter handle? His response hit the bull’s eye.
I recently attended the “Gov 2.0 – How Social Media Is Transforming the Business of Government” panel during Social Media Week in D.C. (#SMWWDC) and found myself happily surprised at the panel, hosted by ORI (@ORIresults). It was interesting to meet the people behind the government Twitter accounts I follow.
The panelists, from the Department of Transportation, the VA, General Services Administration and GovLoop, represented a wide range of federal social media experiences. Some members had experienced government bureaucracies that required poking and prodding and justifications to attain more interactive social media programs or more interesting content. The DOT, for example, has components like the Federal Aviation Administration, with social media accounts that reach directly to pilots. These accounts enable the FAA to warn pilots about hazards, weather and delays. Others, like the VA, had supervisors that allowed them to just “go at it” to define their stakeholders and their level of engagement.
As a veteran, I was interested in how helpful social media has been for the VA. A particularly compelling example is their standard operating procedure to get help to veterans who use social media to mention thoughts of suicide. In fact, just minutes after live-tweeting that fact, the VA (@DeptVetAffairs) tweeted me the link to their guidance.
Each panel member’s agency was at different stages of interacting with the public. Some used tools like Twitter and Facebook to listen to their public. Others used social media to push press releases. Several other panelists used social media to fill an information void and engage in the conversation, even if it was a negative one.
As I sat there I couldn’t help but think that one person was missing from the panel. Where was the jaded individual expressing frustration because his social media hands are tied? What advice might he give? What would he caution us about? Who speaks for the social media folks at organizations or agencies where interaction in the social media world is being stifled?
Some of us have been in that position and could share the lessons we’ve learned from our experiences. Perhaps our missing (and hypothetical) panel member would need encouragement. Some organizations need baby-steps and aren’t comfortable stepping out into the social media fray.
The benefits of a digitally connected federal government cannot be overstated. Whether it be providing help to a needy veteran or avoiding unneeded flight delays, the public sector reaps rewards from developed social media interaction just as the private sector does. What we gain in learning from our public stakeholders, and what that same public gains from our interaction is of the utmost importance. It goes hand-in-hand with developing a more dynamic communications space. Mistakes can be made with social media, but the risk of a mistake should not prevent the growth of an organization’s presence in the social media world.
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