This post was originally published on Mashable on September 3, 2008.
I’m a member of Generation X, and it seems to me that when I was young the character of Uncle Sam was still used on television, radio, and in common conversation. What’s our brand now? Sam’s getting a little old, invented in the early 1800’s as he was – What’s Sam 2.0?
The larger issue as it relates to social media and the government is, what’s your brand? Some parts of the government have very good branding – the Marines have handsome men in dress uniform with gleaming swords, the USDA has the food pyramid, the Federal Reserve Bank has paper currency. Even the CIA has branding – Jennifer Garner from the fictional show Alias was used as a recruiting tool. But what is the brand of perhaps more obscure parts of the federal government: the Library of Congress, or the Department of Education, or the President’s Council on Environmental Quality?
As Chris Anderson points out in The Long Tail, micro-niches are the future for most of us. Perhaps it used to be the case in the era of “blockbusters” that an entire company, or an entire government or agency, needed one overarching brand. No longer. Because the long tail hypothesis states that regardless of how far down the tail one goes, someone (however rare) is always interested in it, anything can be branded.
What does this mean for the federal government? It means that any component, regardless of how small or seemingly insignificant, can have a unique, visible, and useful brand. This might be the Army’s 82nd Airborne, foreign affairs analysts who study Russia, or an office at USDA that is responsible for inspecting imported food. And as such groups in Washington move closer and closer to a vision of Government 2.0, new social tools can and should be used to develop and maintain these brands.
The first thing that government employees need to know about PR 2.0 is that everything put out there – video, blogs, tweets – is open to interpretation, comment, sharing, and re-use. It all affects your brand, and while you can direct and define things to some extent, it is largely out of your control. Get comfortable with it. Jack Holt, the Chief of the Department of Defense’s New Media Office, compares this to the “telephone game” in which people sit in a room and each whispers a message to the next one, gradually distorting the message over time; you can’t control the message itself, but if you stay engaged in the conversation (in the game, interrupting periodically), you could control the ultimate effect and understanding.
Once you’ve acknowledged what Web 2.0 is, you can think about using it to build a brand for your government organization. First, you have to ask yourself, what is my goal? What message do I want to get across? Where is my audience? It may in fact be the case that using social software ineffectively could be worse than not using it at all. Find out using a wide variety of search tools (Google Alerts, Twitter Search) whether people are talking about your entity online. Where are they talking about it? What are they saying? Who are the thought leaders? Regarding adopting social tools that you might not be familiar with, one reasonable approach is to watch what other government entities are trying, and ask them if it is working or not. Another is to try to use social tools internally before using them in a public relations effort.
Second, once you start using social tools, you need to decide how to present your brand to the world. One important decision, as I noted in my last article is, do you present yourself as an Enterprise, a nameless, faceless entity – or as a collective of Empowered Individuals that represent your entity, much like advocates for presidential candidates currently do on television talk shows? Another important decision is whether to simply “push” messages out to people, or whether to engage in conversations with interested persons, whether they view your entity positively or negatively. Again, the answers to these questions will depend on your overall mission and the policies and laws pertaining to your agency.
Currently, there is a dichotomy in government Twitter usage. Of the roughly 50 Enterprise and 25 Empowered Individual government users I keep track of (data available here ), while on average each has been using Twitter for three months, they have opposite usage patterns. The median number of followers that an Enterprise has is 127, versus 57 for an Empowered Individual. Similarly, the median “grade” given at the new site Twitter Grader was 58 vs. 35 (scale of 0-100).
The true spirit of 2.0, however, is listening and engaging – and here the Enterprises fall short. The median number of people they follow is 8, versus 58 for Empowered Individuals. Similarly, while the median percent of @ replies for Empowered Individuals is 37, the median for Enterprises is zero. So, more than half of the Enterprises have never engaged with a single person on Twitter. As I discussed previously, Enterprises using Twitter but not listening or engaging is more like Government 1.4, so to speak.
[Side note regarding Twitter Grader: From a sample of about 80 Twitter users, the rank order of grades and number of followers was nearly identical, and there was no relationship between grades and measures of engagement; thus: (1) calculation of grades is strongly based on number of followers, (2) grades have no relation to engagement, and (3) Twitter Grader adds little to understanding Twitter usage. Indeed, one government user, @pharmasat, has 42 followers, 0 updates, and a grade of 27. Is that meaningful?]
Finally, down the road, if you are using social tools for branding and decide that they are working well for you, the ideal situation is to have influencers advocate on your behalf, integrate conversations happening in different parts of the Web by cross-references or aggregating, and tracking how memes from your organization flow through 2.0 space over time.
If you work in the government and are interested in social tools, but are not doing all of this – that’s okay! As Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang points out specifically with regard to Twitter, many large corporations are struggling with these very same questions. Comcast is probably one of the best examples of PR 2.0 from the corporate world, but they are at present the exception to the rule. And although private companies have less restrictions than the government, they have not figured everything out yet. It’s new to everyone.
Dr. Mark Drapeau is the 2006-2008 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security policy of the National Defense University in Washington. These views are his own and not the official policy or position of any part of the U.S. Government. He can be reached at email@example.com via email.