Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Never Abandon Social Media (Just The Opposite)


The following is adapted from a comment I made on GovLoop.com in response to the question of whether an organization should cease its social media activity due to a lack of interest among the public.

Don't walk away from social media. Lack of response just means the organization is implementing it in a way that misses the target.
What people want from organizations, government specifically is as follows:
1) To gain benefit - e.g. be connected to the services they are paying for with their tax dollars
2) To not get in trouble - e.g. be informed as to how to follow law and regulation administered by that agency
3) To have a voice - e.g. to be able to influence what the agency does or at least be heard
The best way to address all of the above is social media, supported by a platform that makes pure data easily accessible (e.g. Open Government) and mashable - no bells and whistles.
This is why the function of public affairs is obsolete and should be morphed to social media completely.
The CIO can handle the rest, which is simply open data.
The Public Affairs + Open Data CIO team should be housed in an Office of Citizen Engagement that handles solutions for both.
If we had such a combination, we would have instant chat on every single government website to answer people's questions.
We would also have massive texting as this is how people communicate nowadays when they're on the cell, which is all the time.
A fused office combining Public Affairs and Open Data would administer a social media form of communication that is equally applicable externally and internally.
It would not be the job of these specialists to actually create the information but only to facilitate its distribution.
A key part of the picture is that employees would be freed - through a simple sensible policy - to talk about their work through their own personal social media platforms.
The bottom line is this:
  • Organizations to be credible and relevant must step out of the driver's seat and let the passengers take the wheel.
  • This means that they only guide the conversation, do not dominate it, and make sure they are meeting the legal requirements with respect to transparency.

It's that last part that gets every organization's leadership worked up.
Because if success means that you try to control every aspect of your image, your day to day life as a Public Affairs office will consist of "correcting the record" - i.e. putting out fires - and "getting our story out" - i.e. controlling the narrative. 
This leaves so much opportunity on the floor. Because what people want to read about and hear about is usually precisely the thing that is most shocking and embarrassing to you. Not because they hate you and want to trash you, but because they can only relate to the human factor.
Let me be clear: This is NOT to advocate that every agency run its public affairs like the Kardashian PR machine.
As we can see from the gossip magazines - which I do follow, yes, religiously and unapologetically - the family is falling apart because they have no privacy.
There is a certain amount of space that an organization needs in order to be deliberative. To build trust. You can't live your life under glass all the time.
At the same time, the organization is not real and believable if it acts forced.
Therefore the idea is to engage the public in your story to the point where you are credible, forgivable and beloved.
Do you want to know who does this well? VP Joe Biden! What did he say in that video - "I am proud to be the President" (oops) - and everybody just roared with laughter and went, "Oh, Joe." 
It is no mistake that the Vice President came off so well in his Presidential campaign debate. Because his humanity makes him more engaging. He speaks with passion rather than making every issue dry and boring.
The social media guru Shel Holtz once said in a training class - "Say as much as you can say, and then say - 'I can't say anymore'." That's pretty much the rule to live by.
If you want people to care about your communication you have to speak as if you are a person not a machine (read "The Cluetrain Manifesto," which is available free, online.)
My niece Yaffa Fredrick is currently enjoying her 15 minutes of fame because she was the subject of a New York Times trend piece on how millennials spend all their money on food. (Literally this is the caption beneath her photo.) The article itself is horrifying to me as her aunt because it's totally unfair. Yaffa can balance a checkbook in her sleep. But the reporter used her words against her. 
Yaffa is pretty smart and she went online to do an interview countering the New York Times piece. Now everyone is out there (including me) defending her and saying that the NYT was way out of line. (My take is the reporter hates the show "Girls" and Yaffa was the excuse, because Yaffa bears the most striking resemblance to Lena Dunham, is the same age and is also a writer living in NY).
This is a case study in contemporary communication, in a nutshell. You own the story not by controlling it, but by living it and interacting honestly with those who are interested in you. The fear of making mistakes is not exaggerated, but even the best and most controlling Public Affairs machine won't keep you "safe."
So given all of the above - why would we shut down social media? We should only try to get better at it. 
Note - all opinions as always are my own. 

Copyright @ 2013 On My Mind.