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Personal Social Media Activities & The Federal Employee - 10 Practical Considerations*

What are federal employees allowed to do in a non-official capacity when using social media?

Over the years I've had the opportunity to read, write, talk and listen to a lot of experts and I still don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution. However, these are the general principles I follow.

Please note - it's not only about the letter of the law but the spirit -- and often it involves a judgment call. When I am not sure, I ask questions. 

All that said, here is some personal, informal advice.
  1. On the profile and in the blog, as warranted, note: "all opinions my own." That said, be real, be yourself, but avoid seeming too edgy or extreme.  
  2. You are allowed to be a human being. Human beings have lives, have experiences, move through the world, and experience things. We have opinions and we disagree. You do not have to be afraid to be human and also be online. You just have to be mindful of what you are doing, and who is watching, as any reasonable person would. 
  3. Generalize experiences and do not refer to specific instances or individuals. It's fine to say that meetings are boring for example. But do not refer to that specific gathering on that specific day at that specific time in that specific room with that specific department. Led by that specific person.
  4. When you say what you think or feel, it's fine to be honest, but it's important to be respectful too. You hold a position of public trust. Ask yourself, if someone took these words and printed them in the newspaper, would most people question my ability to serve?
  5. Do not imply that the agency endorses your views, or a particular product or service. Of course you can say what your opinions are. But you can't make it seem like they have the backing of Uncle Sam.
  6. Humor is great but something to be handled with kid gloves. You do not want to seem hateful, attacking, divisive, racist, sexist, and so on (hopefully you are not these things, either). It is the nature of a joke that it will often be politically incorrect. That's why jokes, especially politically incorrect jokes, are often a bad idea. This doesn't mean you have to be "heavy" all the time. It is OK to be yourself, to lighten up every now and then. Just understand the potential impact of your words. 
  7. Observe the Hatch Act carefully - here are some FAQ on the subject. While it's true that you can hold any views you want and express them on your personal time and in your personal space, it's important to be mindful of the impact of social media on those who know you and who work with you. I do not like to get into political discussions on Facebook.
  8. Focus on objectively advancing knowledge, best practice, community. Look for points of commonality. Try to reach across the boundaries of government, private sector, academia. There are many controversies, many issues to be hashed out, and you can contribute to all these discussions. Federal employees are generally extremely well-educated and articulate. This is where we shine.
  9. Don't discuss the specifics of your day-to-day work. I know it is possible for the agency to be comfortable with this. I personally do not think it's a good idea. To my mind, it interferes with operations. Similarly, don't try to explain the agency's policies, programs or procedures; don't take a position on what the agency does or does not do. Again, you run the risk of interfering with operations and you also might share information that is not already public. 
  10. It's fine to "like" Facebook announcement, retweet Tweets, or share public announcements, especially if encouraged to do so. Sometimes there are articles that cover the agency, and if they're very thoughtful or useful I think it's OK to share those too.
The following references may also be helpful:

*Note: This blog represents an informal collection of personal practices and is not a substitute for professional advice. All opinions, as always are my own. 

Preserving Your Personal Brand When The Organization Is In Crisis

The other day I was in the elevator with a couple and their teenage son. We all got out on the first floor.

"Excuse me," she said, in accented English that wasn't like any accent I usually hear. "The conference room, where can I find it?" When she took out a pamphlet and pointed at it, it confirmed my thought - they were foreign tourists.

"I don't know," I said. "I'm sorry." Her husband and son looked at me and shrugged. Their expressions were blank, as if to say, "Whatever - we didn't expect any help from you."

Just at that moment I turned to her, without thinking. "Are you from another country, visiting this country?"

"Yes," she said. "We're from Italy."

And again, without thinking I said: "Well, welcome to the USA. I hope that you enjoy your trip."

Just at that moment, the three of them looked at me. They were startled. It was a nice kind of startled, though. The most genuine expression.

In my mind what was I doing, when I reached out in this way? You can say perhaps just being polite and that's true. But it was something more and something else I think.

Working for the U.S. government, and working for two agencies now that deal with foreign populations, I understand that our country brand is built on interactions. Not only the formal ones. The everyday, hello-how-are-you kind of talking.

I love being here, love what this country means, and am grateful to formally and informally serve the government. We are the great experiment, largely successful, in freedom, equality, human rights, and opportunity -- regardless of our flaws.

I also understand that my brand and the brand of my agency, and the larger brand called "government" are inextricably aligned. No matter what others say about us, no matter what the headlines, I can only focus on what I do. As Tom Peters famously said more than 15 years ago:

"We are CEOs of our own companies: Me Inc. (and) our most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You." - Fast Company

This is something that any one of us can accomplish, and particularly in times of crisis. When the institutional brand is under attack, the individuals within that institution can represent the best of the organization.

That power is in our own hands.

At the first agency where I worked, one thing they did very well was Years of Service recognition. This is something that career public servants recognize and appreciate. Five years, 10 years, 15 years, 25, and 30 or more. A lifetime of labor, mostly quiet and unrecognized -- those gold stars in the newsletter meant that occasionally you were held up to the world and valued.

Those gold stars are very much in my head still. They are what I see, not the negative headlines. I see the real work of my colleagues, I see that they are up at night thinking about how they can make a difference. Whether it's protecting the public from credit card sharks. Stopping terrorists from smuggling in weapons of mass destruction. Literally delivering lifesaving aid.

It doesn't matter who you work for. Your brand is always tied to theirs. Assuming that you believe in the mission (which is not always the case, let's face it -- sometimes a job is just a job) -- you only control yourself, but you do control yourself.

At the end of the day, we each have many, many opportunities to preserve and sustain our personal brand and the brand of the organizations we work for. It is important to think about this for a lot of reasons. But the most important among them is ourselves. Because our deepest need, the moment at which we feel most connected to the Universe, is to do the right thing. And preserving a positive reputation through integrity, caring and technical excellence is how each of us can do that. In every interaction. Every single day.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Applying the "7 Truths" To Communicating Re: Sexual Harassment In The Military

The below was in response to a question posed to me on GovLoop, based on my blog "7 Truths Re: Communicating Controversy."

Before I say anything let me say that I am truly grateful to the military community for their service. I do not know what they go through. Their sacrifices, the sacrifices of their families. They see unimaginable horror. They give their lives and their limbs. I know that I am not them and am speaking from the outside.

The issue of sexual harassment of women, and men, in the military and in combat is one of the most difficult issues I can imagine communicating about because the very model of traditional militarism involves dominance as a model - physical, mental, etc.

Also, I think this issue could be extended to cover discrimination around gender more broadly, including gays and lesbians who serve.

All of that said - some thoughts. Again, as always all opinions my own and with the deepest respect.

#1 - "Stand Your Ground." Is there that 100% commitment to eliminating harassment in the first place? It has to exist in the culture at every level.

#2 - the fact is there will be people who disagree vehemently, as odd as it may sound to us. Because in every culture where wrong things happen there are those who see that as the norm. Even if they say they don't, it can be unspoken.

#3 - explain yourself early. I do think women and men should be warned about the risks of signing up. I think they should be told that it's a problem, we're working on it, there are resources available, but it's not perfect yet by any measure.

#4 - repeat the message often. It goes without saying that if leadership is in favor of change but drill sergeants aren't then what is the real message? Or when an incident occurs, how the victim is treated - if at any point there is inconsistency or inattention - then the message does not sink in.

#5 - make it personal - the unimaginable trauma that happens all too often, has happened to too many people. The human impact is devastating and it should be shared at all levels for the anti-harassment message to be effective.

#6 - overwhelm with information. It is critical to ensure that everyone not only understands that the military will not tolerate harassment and abuse, but knows what the resources are to deal with it. You can never give out too much information, you just have to make sure that it's the right information for the right audience at the right time.

#7 - engage many audiences - this is an issue from pre-recruitment to discharge, an issue for everyone in the military - it has to go mainstream. It must be discussed. The act of discussing it will change the culture, it will affect the power structure, it will affect our approach to military operations. And the key is that this is a conversation - not a one-way monologue. The purpose of that engagement is for all parties to walk away with a commitment that is not just renewed but that can result in implementable action on the ground.

Rhetoric Creates Reality and Other Laws of Communication That Government Ignores

As a general rule, government tends to make three key mistakes in the doing of communication:

  • When in doubt, say less - rooted in a vague, generalized fear of negative feedback that sends people into panic mode.
  • Choose technical accuracy over simple plain English - rooted in a belief that "hard skills" (e.g. the technical expertise associated with the mission) are more valuable to the mission than "soft skills" like communication.
  • Underestimating the audience - rooted in an overemphasis on the coordination that happens at the senior level and an underemphasis on communication that happens at the grassroots level, combined with a lack of clearly articulated goals and metrics.

The private sector, being primarily concerned with the earning of profit and not the balancing of multitudinous and contradictory stakeholder needs, has less trouble with this.

Brands know that trust is earned through talk, through simplicity, and through dialogue.

The government did get this right in its best-known social marketing campaigns, most notably the "Uncle Sam" ads - "I want you to join the U.S. Army." This communication was pervasive, simple, clear and could easily be measured in terms of its success: How many people joined up? Had a positive attitude about military service?

What people want from government communication is not just more words, though. They want meaning - substance - a sense of significance.

"Why are you doing this thing?" They want to know.
"What does it mean to my life?" They want you to tell them.
"Have you heard what I said in response to you?" They want to know the answer is yes.

Similar to brands, people want to interact with the government, not just to be hit over the head with its messages, policies, rules and programs.

In the absence of government aggressively telling its story, here is what happens: The public makes up the story instead. And it's going to be the story that makes the most sense to them.

People fear what they do not know. And for most people government is an "other" - an absolutely incomprehensible woolly mammoth tromping around.

When enough people tell the same or similar narrative over and over again, rhetoric creates reality. Fear fills any logical gaps, or gaps due to things that simply cannot be shared.

In the private sector they know that allowing the customer to own the narrative can be very dangerous to the brand. It's pretty simple: lose trust, lose customers, lose money. So as notes, the recent revelations about the NSA have sent them racing to get the facts out:

"To combat the bad press, Google and Facebook, and now Microsoft and Twitter, who was not originally among those named, have been taking active roles in their defense, with the brands requesting clearance from the NSA to disclose more details of the government agency’s inquiries into the brands’ data. By doing so, the brands hope to more clearly demonstrate how a users' data is used or not used." 

The fact that government lags behind the private sector in its valuation and use of communication principles is not a benign problem. It is a potentially cancerous tumor. Especially in times of economic, political and social turmoil, we must up our game and get in touch with the people. There's no need to let others tell our story when we have an amazing story to tell.

One other thing. The fact that government is imperfect at times, many times, and that its employees make mistakes does not in and of itself undermine the institution. In fact the drama and the conflict are potentially engaging yet more. But we have to own those stories and share them. Nobody expects perfection. But they do expect honesty and a full accounting, as much as that accounting can be shared.

* As always all opinions are my own.

Who government communicators compete with

We may not be private sector but we have plenty of competition.

--Those who want to do our jobs because communication is "not a real specialty" and "anyone can do it."

--Those who want to build an empire out of the communication function by spending as much as possible and in the flashiest way possible and of course with the most staff, under which system everything goes through them.

--Those who want to edit everything they see, just because they can, then have an agency and interagency cast of thousands review it, to "coordinate," and generally hem and haw and delay endlessly until nobody cares anymore

--Those who kill every creative idea as if by some reflex -- but make it sound like a reasonable and real excuse every time

-- Finally those who hold information that rightfully belongs to the public, as if it were their own personal treasure trove - and when you advocate to make that information easy to use and accessible, engaging and plain English (eg the law) tell you "that's not the way we do things around here".

* All opinions my own.

The 10 Stages Of Every PR Crisis & Some Thoughts On How To Handle Them

Looking broadly across the many crises that have unfolded over the years, they seem to all share roughly the same 10 stages in common. If I could make one overall point it is this:

"Pay now or pay later."

That is - right or wrong, if leadership takes responsibility early on, gets all the information out, and does something dramatic and real to fix it - people usually will prefer to keep the organization intact rather than make a major change.

1. Precipitating event 
Something happens. It can be one event, at one time or many events over a long period. It can be related events, or events that seem unrelated. Of course things happen all the time that are "not good," but not all of them rise to the level of a scandal or a crisis. A "not-good happening" becomes a "precipitating event" when the public defines it as a crisis. (The outrage happens in Stage 4, so crises are defined retroactively.)

2. Operational consequence 
The crisis has an impact on someone or something. Someone is injured or dies, their rights are violated, there is harm to the environment. Whatever it is, the effects are tangible and documented.

3. Denial 
People tend to think that "good organizations automatically acknowledge a problem." That may be true sometimes, but not all the time. In fact the default mode for every individual and organization is to resist recognizing a problem. This is not an active choice but a manifestation of survival mode, as well as change aversion. Nobody wants to interrupt their regular routine to admit a problem. That is why they invented the concept of an "intervention" to help addicted people get help. They will stubbornly deny everything.

It should be said that in the case of a crisis, the key words to remember are "the faster the better." Denial may work for a time but it tends to backfire in the end. The first mover generally has the advantage.

In deciding whether to "acknowledge a problem" the organization has to make a strategic decision as to whether they are creating a problem where there was none in the first place, or proactively dissipating a crisis that may arise later because the public reacts against something they had done previously.

My thinking is usually to act first and dissipate. There should never be a question, and if a question has arisen it is better to share the data and dispel gossip and rumor.

4. Public reaction 
Stakeholders get word and get mad. Whether it's the public, the media, Congress, an "iReporter," or what have you - they they resist and they resist vocally. They file suit, demonstrate, start social media campaigns, tell their friends, share documents legitimately or illegitimately. What makes this stage a stage is the decision to speak out.

5. Acknowledgement, narrative, and assignment of responsibility 
The public reaction leads to a decision within the organization that there is actually a crisis - otherwise there would not be an outcry. Upon this recognition, there is a statement of some kind. At this point the organization usually tells its side of the story and places accountability somewhere, even preliminarily.  

It should be noted taking responsibility for something tends to lead the organization to do better in the end, versus if they lay blame they tend to do worse. This is where lawyers and communicators tend to disagree as the lawyers will want to be more protective and say as little as possible, whereas the communicators will want to take the "blah, blah, blah" approach. Communicators know that even if your narrative is not perfect, the fact that you shared it openly makes you credible. Lawyers know that if you say things that are contradictory or that reflect incorrect actions, there are legal consequences. It's a difficult discussion to have which is why it is important that all sides of the team respect one another and work together, but then speak rather than staying silent.

6. Investigation 
In some form or fashion, there is a fact finding process aimed at unearthing evidence and sharing them with a judicial body, formal or informal. The more impartial and unbiased the investigation and the more transparent its findings, the more useful this stage in dissipating the crisis.

7. Suspension of operations 
There is a period of time, formally or informally, where nothing significant happens until the outcome of the investigation is determined. This stage is extremely important. Trying to "go on as usual" ultimately undermines operations. If there is a problem it is important to recognize it and stop, even temporarily, even if life could go on. This shows the organization's seriousness about dealing with it.

8. Report-out, punishment and action 
The findings of the investigation are made public in some way, the more transparently the better. The person or entity responsible for wrongdoing is formally censured and/or penalized. It is important that people see the findings and see the justice being meted out. This restores the lost faith in the system.

Part of this stage is a decision to do things differently - to take action. The organization must accept its "punishment" and do something physical, significant and substantial to address the crisis they tend to do better.

9. Grief and mourning 
Even after the issue is resolved, there is a period of time during which the public asks in a publicly what went wrong, how things could have gotten to this point, and also expresses pent-up emotion over the pain it has caused. It is important that there be a public conversation.

Usually during this stage there is a discussion of "who is really responsible" and it becomes clear that more people are involved, who facilitated or looked the other way when the wrongdoing occurred.

Again, it is not just about "letting it out" but also making improvements for the future. There is always going to be some interplay between #8 and #9. This is due to the ongoing logical versus emotional discussion about what overreaction vs. underreaction - striking the right balance.

In this phase it is important that the organization reach out to those who held it accountable. That some respect and reconciliation occur between the two parties.

10. Monument, commemoration and ritual
There is some public, physical display that reflects a commitment to do things differently in the future. A statue or permanent structure of some sort may be built. A ritual, a ceremony, a holiday -- something without functional value that purely commemorates our memory of what went wrong and our commitment not to repeat those same mistakes.

As I've said over and over again, all organizations suffer crises at one point or another. Rather than handle them as new and unfamiliar phenomena, it seems sensible to follow the playbook of institutions that have weathered crisis and survived.

* As always, all opinions are my own.

5 Observed Laws Of Pricing

1. Once a thing has been free you cannot charge for it without a significant brand or improvement (e.g. no-spy public wifi)

2. The more expensive a thing gets, the more expensive we expect it to get. Discounts are then counterproductive.

3. Brands and sales do not go together.

4. Charging for a thing makes it seem better. Often the less you charge, you find you cannot give it away.

5. The less you charge for a thing the more aggravated a customer gets over minor variations in price. So charge one price if possible (eg McDonald's coffee $1 for any size).

The Issue Is Accountability, Not Privacy

One of my favorite movies was on the other day -- "Enemy of the State" with Will Smith. In the end of course Will Smith the individual wins out. He is better than the bureaucratic machine and its All-Seeing Eye.

We are in the midst of a national and international freakout over privacy. But we long ago accepted that privacy was dead. We signed that agreement when we signed up for Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and all those other sites that collect our information and keep it in some mysterious place we’ve never heard of.

If we were worried about our privacy it seems that ship has long ago sailed. Do we not have health records in the doctor’s office and/or hospital? Do our employers keep files on us? Our schools?

What about those apps where you “check in” no matter where you are, like Foursquare. (I assume I am the Queen of the McDonald’s drive-through right now since my addiction to the egg-white and and white cheddar sandwich, hold the turkey bacon please, now reigns supreme.)

Forget Foursquare – how many times does your iPhone ask, “Can I use your location?” when you open an app, like a directions app that gets you from where you are to the meeting you are late for?

People check Facebook first thing in the morning before they brush their teeth.

The same people also take pictures of themselves and share them on FB, Instagram, Twitter. Some of those pictures are not suitable for work consumption and so for example even the Internet companies will warn you, please don’t post graphic profile pictures.

YouTube has made it way too easy to take a video of every imaginable thing and put it online.

So we don’t care about privacy. In fact many people don’t consider an event an event until they have posted a photo online.

We care about national security. We are willing to give up privacy to have it. What is the alternative? Do we want to be invaded or cyberattacked first, and then have to fight to gain what we had? Of course not.

It is commonplace for movies and TV shows nowadays to demonstrate the Surveillance State. How it forms a virtual dragnet, an invisible web that we don’t want to talk about but that we rely upon every single day.

We are grateful to the military and the government for our security. I believe that.

Abuse of power is another matter. Accountability for that. We demand it. And we want to trust that everything is OK, but when it’s not OK and we can’t ignore it anymore, then we have to do something.

That’s where the national psyche is right now.

If I had to guess what people are feeling it is something like this:

We can’t tell exactly who is responsible or where it went wrong – but something is very wrong.

We don’t like the direction things are going in.

We don’t like the feeling that we’re not being told the truth.

We don’t like it that innocent Americans are being targeted, railroaded, surveilled apparently at whim.

We don’t like it that government is not accountable.

That magical promise of transparency – where is it?

We have seen abuse in every imaginable social institution, from religion to education to healthcare and yes, in government too. In the family.

We cannot tolerate it.

It is time to shift the communication focus away from privacy, where it does not belong and cannot rest, to accountability and abuse of power.

Who is watching? Are they truly independent? What are their findings, where is the accountability and where is the reward for doing right?

When an institution abuses its power and is called out – the right thing to do is to communicate accountability. It is accountability that engenders public trust. When trust is earned, then power can be exercised.

Communication is a critical tool for any organization, institution or individual. But it doesn’t help unless it hits the mark. The issue right now is not a fear of losing privacy. It is a bigger fear that we have lost control of our lives to the Machine.

* As always, all opinions my own.