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Why Government Should Focus More on Content Sharing & Less on Social Media

Today I attended a GovDelivery conference on public outreach using social media tools (and of course its platform).*


The conference featured a talk by Adam Conner of Facebook. He advised that content is king. Context is right there beside it – you can’t just post stuff without explaining. And in response to a request for professional usernames as versus having to always post as yourself, a firm "No." Basically the idea was that Facebook stands for something – we’re not gonna change just cause you, in government, want to have a professional versus a personal identity. Which Mark Zuckerberg considers hypocritical. (Uneasiness in the room.)


David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, spoke on a panel and suggested that national government might be “vestigial” since the public can largely handle things on their own.


(Good Lord, I thought, he’s just proclaimed himself an anarchist. One more word on that and I think he might have gotten tossed by one of the military folks.)


The audience offered questions. How do you push the message out? Wording I dislike but I know what was meant. How do you ameliorate the effects of users who take over the site and won’t let you communicate?


There weren’t easy answers. These were social media questions and it was a vendor conference. To them the stuff they think is “so 2008,” is still very problematic for government today.


At one point it was suggested that government tries to control the message – and therefore has trouble with social media and transparency - because releasing it means giving away power. While of course CYA is an inevitable part of human and organizational nature, I thought that was too simplistic an explanation, for five reasons:


1. Like all large organizations, government is high-context, with an intricate web of meaning that is often only decipherable to people who work there. Pure data doesn’t tell the story – it needs to be explained.


2. Government operates in a mistrustful environment where one of the most fun games people play is “gotcha.” So simply letting go and not trying to control the message plays into the fear – not totally unfounded – that data will be distorted to tell a negative story when it is actually neutral.


3. Government employees are normally extraordinarily concerned with providing factual information to the public. When they release information they do so with tremendous care that it is not misinterpreted. Social media requires an immediacy that is the total opposite that government employees put into their communications, which are after all permanent and public record.


4. The code of ethics and professionalism governing employee behavior is not fully in sync with the contemporary social media environment, which I think leaves government employees confused. Example: Recently a Google employee’s anti-Google+ rant was inadvertently released to the public and Google just shrugged its shoulders. Which led people like me to like and trust Google even more. In the government, that employee would likely have been reprimanded for just the opposite - undermining public trust by directly attacking the operations of the organization.


Another example on #4: the use of one’s organization in social media posts. While the government discourages this because they think people will take it to imply endorsement by the agency, in a social media world to avoid saying where you work is to risk being seen as an “astroturfer” secretly placing government PR on a site. Similarly, recently on GovLoop a Gen Y employee was advised to be careful what he blogged for fear that his supervisor would sideline or reprimand him. Culturally, we aren’t there yet in terms of having a comfort zone with full transparency either on an agency or personal level.


5. Government people tend to worry that maybe we'll be tossed out the window by the public as easy scapegoats (look at how we're targeted now as "lazy bureaucrats.") Occupy Wall Street/the Tea Party bring this fear to the forefront, leading to concerns about social media fueling our own demise. However, if you look at things objectively, it's an unnecessary and exaggerated fear caused by our own inability to adapt. 

The reality is, precisely because our technology has far outpaced our ability to adapt culturally, we need smart and confident government leaders who can guide the transition effectively. Meaning people who can encourage productive discussions that can result in better citizen service. Even sometimes to take the hit when the feedback is bad. This is a completely different model of public affairs because it is driven NOT by what we decide the message is, but by what the public wants to learn more about.


What I wanted to say, but didn’t have the opportunity to, is that content sharing may be a good way for agencies to get out of the “push the message” vs. “be the victim of trolls” conundrum.


If agencies were to focus on producing fantastic content – meaning easy-to-understand, timely and relevant – on an easily navigable website, then made it easy for people to share it, I think we would be most of the way there. Whether people subscribe to updates or find the site organically or through paid search, what you want to do is give them good information that they can chew over, share, and discuss with others later on. Which is what they do anyway, except maybe not from our websites because they think our content is propagandistic or confusing.


In the world of marketing the most important thing you can do is get people talking about your product. In a participatory democracy it is exactly the same. You want to get people talking about your agency, what it’s doing, how it makes a difference in their lives, how they can help. Over the long term, you build a trusting relationship that promotes compliance with the law and productive social behaviors. And make it possible for people to point problems out way before they blow up into huge disasters. All of which is good for citizen morale, community engagement, public health, safety and security.


The hullaballoo over social media is really overblown. It’s happening anyway and there’s not a thing we can do about it. Without a single action on the government’s part it will proceed, change form, and evolve into mechanisms we can’t even imagine today.


The constant issue for us has always been the content. How can we balance the public’s right and need to know, with the dangers of fraudulent and malicious misinterpretation of the data? How can we build mechanisms that ensure leaders can develop the trusting relationships they need to navigate complex and sensitive waters, while also maintaining sufficient transparency that the public has input into the laws, regulations and policies that affect their lives?


On the one hand you have those who would like to live-tweet every serious meeting. On the other hand are those who hope the whole “social media thing” will just “blow over.”


Somewhere in the middle is sanity.


Will we still be “so 2008” in 2012? Only time will tell. In any case, I appreciated the opportunity to attend the conference and hope this brief-out is useful to others in the government community.




*Disclaimer:  GovDelivery provides services to many government agencies including my own. GovDelivery owns GovLoop, one of the sites where my personal blogs go. This post is offered as an evaluative brief-out to other interested government employees. All opinions are my own and do not represent those of my agency. 

10 Things Patti Stanger Might Advise The Candidates About Last Night's Republican Debate

Patti is the host of The Millionaire Matchmaker on Bravo. I love her show.

Here's what she might be saying this morning:

1. "Macho? In a political debate? Really?"

2. "Keep your hands to yourself." (Wait, that's my kindergarten teacher.)

3. "TMI. Keep it short and sweet."

4. "You've got to let the other person talk."

5. "Be open to other people. Got to tear down that wall."

6. "Religion can be a dealbreaker. You've got to be ready to handle that question."

7. "Remember Staci, the wacky actress/coach/model/divorcee who kept resisting my bad advice? Wacky is bad."

8. "Likable beats smart every time."

9. "Just because someone knows how to make a million dollars, doesn't mean they know how to treat another person. That's how I stay in business."

10. "I have a 99% success rate, so take my advice."

13 Mistakes Not To Make With Your Digital Communication Strategy

And you thought I was so busy writing biography that I had forgotten communication. Prompted by a discussion posted on GovLoop. If you know all this already, skip it.


1 - Planning too far out

These days things change quickly. Most of the emphasis should be on the initial launch and the longer-term aspects should be left vague to adapt to circumstances.

2 - Ignoring the culture

You can have the best plan in the world but if the employees can't carry it out or aren't going to get onboard then it's a waste of time.

3 - Failing to appoint a project manager

The project manager is the one who bothers people to make sure the work gets done. Without this person plans fall apart.


1 - Taking for granted the level of literacy among the planners

In the government many people are firewalled from social media, there is little training available, and its use is discouraged. However the audience we are reaching is hyper-sophisticated. So when you're planning a digital stratgy you have to find a way to bridge that gap, either by training the decision-makers or getting them to delegate decision-making to more knowledgeable people.

2 - Over-focusing on the tools and under-focusing on communication principles

Some people get so caught up in the technical tools (especially if they're using them for the first time) that they forget basic rules of communication. Communicate first, technical tools second. Even if you use only one (let's say a blog or Twitter), but you use it well, it's better than using a dozen badly.

3 - Using words like "pushing the message out"

If I ever have to hear the words "pushing the message out" one more time I am going to throw up. You don't give birth to a message. You start a conversation. If you're doing a good job the comments will do the work for you.

4 - Related: Doing the equivalent of cutting and pasting a press release into a blog post

In social media we don't "write content," we talk like normal people to other normal people.

5 - Failing to take advantage of RSS feeds & sharing

Nobody has enough time/people to write tons of content and "push it out." However there are hundreds of thousands of people interested in what your agency is doing. If you write good content and make it available via a ShareThis type capability they will automatically send it to their contacts and friends. RSS is important here because if you show people how to get your content easily and automatically through a reader (such as Google Reader) it's really simple for them to see all your headlines, click on what they want, and send it forward. People actually love to do this.

6 - Overfocusing on words, underfocusing on pictures and video

People love video! People love pics! People don't read. 

7 - Encouraging social media use among communicators but nobody else

This is really silly. You have all these people working for you - make it OK to share content. The Coast Guard does a good job of this and their social media policy encourages it.

8 - Measuring the wrong things

There is too much emphasis on quantitative metrics and not enough on qualitative. You have to read the comments in the context of discussion boards, twitter conversations, etc. Get the flow. This requires balancing the presentation of fact with the drawing of conclusions. It's OK to editorialize when you're assessing the impact of a digital strategy.

9 - Executing on bad ideas

If a strategy is going to fail, it will fail worse on digital because it's there forever and you can't just change things in a couple months when you get your act together. It's OK to pull the plug at the last minute.

10 - Last but not least, copying print to digital as if you could transfer it

A print ad is a print ad. A widget is a widget. An app is an app. A tweet is a tweet. All of these are totally different. You have to adapt the strategy to each unique environment. The only thing that has to stay consistent is the brand - how you apply the organization's image should be the same across all environments. (E.g. if you're a youngish cheeky innovative brand your communications should have that look and feel everywhere.)

You’re Not The Only One (Personal Reflection)

One time we visited my ultra-Orthodox aunt and uncle in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Somewhere among identical-looking townhomes.


Inside, their home had been redone. Gray granite kitchen countertops, stainless fridge, everything. It wasn’t a huge place so when we got the “grand tour” there were only a few rooms to see.


At a certain point, gingerly, we walked up the staircase, my dad and mom and sister and I. It wasn’t even much of a staircase, more like a couple of stairs. Anyway, we got to the top and saw bedrooms.


Almost simultaneously, the four of us sort of jumped back, if you can say that people “jump back” on stairs. It seemed a little bit much. A little intrusive.


“Well, very nice,” my mom started to say, and then started to turn around slowly. We really didn’t need to see EVERYTHING.


“No, no, I want you to see something,” my uncle said. “Take a look.”


Inside the master bedroom, was a wooden – well it was a square. A contraption of some kind. My uncle fumbled with the lock, and there it was:


A television set.


“Nu?” he said. “Well?”


I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that these super-religious people were actually hiding a TV set. After all, weren’t they…well, super-religious?


Plus the TV wasn’t all that fancy. Consider that I was the spawn of a techno-freak. If it involved computers, electronics, or any sort of gadget, my dad made sure to get his hands on it. He was the first to get a Mac computer, we had multiple Macs in fact, and our house was loaded with TVs. All of them had cable, including the gigantic floor TV in the living room. Many a rainy school day off found my sister and I glued to “Donahue” (me) and “The Price is Right” (her) along with our huge bowls of macaroni & cheese.


But then I realized it. When you’re starving, everything looks like food. And my uncle had been forced to sign a “contract” that said he wouldn’t have a TV. He wasn’t going to be forced into anything.


My father smiled at my uncle. Now he had a partner in crime. If we had escaped a Brooklyn fate, we’d been left feeling like the black sheep of the family for doing so. Now my uncle was validating him. None of us could live under the iron fist of the spiritual enforcers.


My uncle had a mischievous look to him, with his bright red hair and flashing eyes. He was a complete troublemaker. He couldn’t care less. He had flouted the rules and he was joyful!


I stood there awkwardly and watched. On the one hand my dad was back-slapping my uncle for the hidden TV. On the other, he made us girls wear our “Brooklyn skirts” so we could cross the bridge from New Jersey to this area without him being embarrassed.


I could not imagine that anybody else bore witness to these kinds of asinine dealings like I did, growing up. That they had to make sense of them.


Then a few months ago on Facebook I found a friend. She had the same maiden name as me, with a small variant. I said, “Hmm.” Because on the Holocaust registry her variant is the same as my dad’s family.


Long story short, she married a distant cousin. Also from Brooklyn.


Guess where they met? In a bar, on the outskirts of upstate New York. Somewhere in the Catskill Mountains, near where my mom was born and raised, and to where my dad had once fled the suffocating lifestyle demands of his post-Holocaust family.


I talked to my friend/cousin-in-law briefly on the phone. Same kind of history, same stories, though I walked away from it while she stayed “within the fold” of a certain kind of Hasidism.


Suddenly it became clear to me that there actually are other people who saw just exactly what I saw. Whose feet walked away. But whose hearts never left at all.


Online I found the acronym – yahooey, we merit an acronym! “OTD.” As in “Off the Derech,” meaning, “The ones who have left.” Well at least we have a name. That’s something.


Going online I found a bunch of blogs written by “OTDers.” There was one that broke my heart; it’s called “Abandoning Eden,” about a woman whose parents tried to force her to stay Orthodox until she eventually broke free. Ironically enough, she became a sociologist too, just like me. Even though her mom persisted in calling her a “social worker” because many Orthodox people have no concept of what a sociologist is, but for women being a “social worker” is something they can relate to.


Other blogs are hysterically funny. One in particular, “Frum Satire,” is so disrespectful but so perfect that you can’t help but crack up. My G-d, these are my peeps, right here, all dispersed throughout the country not even knowing who we are.


I don’t know why it should have surprised me that I found all this. History usually repeats itself and cultures are called cultures for a reason: They consist of different people repeating the same behaviors with each other over and over again, in any given place and time.


But anyway, it was gratifying. And I have laughed so much these past few days, it’s been great.


No major advice or lessons here, nothing really new. Just the reflection that life’s a little less lonely and scary when you recognize that you’re not the only one who goes through things. And if you can learn to laugh about it every now and then, well then so much the better.


If you’re reading this on GovLoop or GovInTheLab and you’re working for the government, the application is obvious. It might seem like we are going through difficult times now, and we are. But if it helps, know that there are a lot of other people going through similar challenges, and that one way or another things will eventually shake out the way they are supposed to.


Like the Christians aptly say, “Let go and let G-d.” Or if you're a Buddhist, karma, or whatever. "Every little thing's gonna be all right."


Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

Hey Thermador: Are You Really "Lighting a Fire Under the Status Quo"?

The New York Times, Sunday, October 16, 2011. Section 1, page 25, full page ad for Thermador ovens:

"Lighting a Fire Under The Status Quo."

Ad copy:

"With up to $5,747 in savings don't just transform your kitchen. Transform how you cook during our one-two-free sales event."

Really? Really? 

Who wrote this line? 

With people rioting in the streets they're talking about changing the world by buying an oven?

Last night on "Saturday Night Live" they ran a skit making fun of the programming on the Lifetime Channel.

The skit was a mock game show. The prize for winning the game show?

"You've won a Volvo filled with groceries!"

There was a time in modern American history when women revolutionized their worlds by buying appliances. Because it really was a huge deal to go from doing all the housework by hand to having a machine help.

But now is totally not that time.

When we used to visit my mother's parents in upstate New York we used to sit at the dining room table cracking sunflower seeds. The little black shells littered the table. And on Shabbos (Sabbath) we would argue and debate over everything.

Basically my father would get into it with everyone, talking his fancy talk.

And my grandmother would say, 

"A-lex! Come on! That is just a bunch of bulls***t!"

I have to laugh when I think about those crazy family scenes. My dad the salesman. My grandparents the straight shooters. Everything about their cultures was a total clash.

When I was growing up my mother always said, 

"Look at me! Look in my eyes. Are you lying to me? Because the one thing I can't stand is a liar."

I look around today and I see my friends getting more socially active. Me too. We are getting fed up with all the lies, the misleading statements, the fancy dances around whatever the honest truth is.

Maybe in the past we were happy to sublimate our activism by buying things. After all we couldn't challenge things much at work - you're there to contribute, not to be a rabble rouser. And we couldn't challenge things when it came to religion - we were "just girls." And with the kids and their education, well, you're not the education expert, are you? And on and on and on. 

Life is just too busy to be a social activist most of the time.

But something very fundamental is changing. We are waking up from our prolonged slumber. We are sitting in the backseat of the car and see that our parents may be seeming to drive, but are actually driving the car toward a cliff. Too close to the edge.

I don't blame Thermador for trying to get people excited about its ovens. I just think they're wasting their money on that full-page ad in the Times.

The people hiding in their plush creative war rooms on Madison Avenue are out of touch with what's happening in real life. Whether those protests in Zuccotti Park are organic or engineered or a little bit of both it doesn't matter. Whether the Tea Party is similar to them is irrelevant. The fact is that these street actions are like sparks, and the discontent they are touching on is an uncontrollable fire. 

Although most people aren't looking for trouble, they also can't hide behind ultra-expensive ovens anymore when they're faced with the real issues affecting our lives.

If you want to know what moves people, get out on the street or sit at the Shabbos table shucking sunflower seeds. 

Even if you want to sell people on a fantasy, you learn a lot more about how to reach them by being real.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!