This post was originally published on Huffington Post Tech. It was cited in a USA Today article, “Hey, CIA, #betterciatweets are pretty good” (7/15/2014).
The CIA launched a Twitter account about a month ago, and it has quickly attracted over 700,000 followers who re-tweet every item hundreds of times. However, the well of jokes poking fun at itself will quickly run dry, and it’s not clear what the long-term strategic communications plan is for the CIA’s social media. This isn’t a challenge confined to spy organizations or governments, but rather one for any high-profile organization wading taking social media seriously for the first time.
Here are three strategic-minded steps the CIA could take to shape its Twitter stream for the long-term, and presumably coax people to a more positive mindset about the agency:
(1) Think like a marketer and create content with the reader’s frame of reference in mind. The CIA’s global brand recognition is enormous, right up there with Nike and McDonald’s — even people in poor or remote areas of the world have heard of these organizations. Fair or not, in the case of the CIA, their opinions may not be that positive, for obvious reasons. While it’s fine to be proud of your organization, it’s a mistake to be too cavalier and assume “CIA” is a beloved brand and the audience are naive empty vessels yearning to be filled with puppies and candy. Disadvantages can be turned into advantages, however, and the CIA should consider how it can positively highlight itself from its underdog position, not unlike Avis’ classic 1960’s “We Try Harder” ads they (very successfully) ran as the number two car rental company behind Hertz.
(2) Consider how the overall CIA Twitter page content represents the brand. If you woke up this morning and visited the CIA’s Twitter account for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a new spinoff of The Onion. That’s because a lot of the recent content is a mixture of snarky/hip responses to questions using cute hashtags like #sorrynotsorry, and photos of spy planes from the 1950s to celebrate “U2 Week” (which is apparently a thing). Those kinds of tweets can be good in moderation (The tweet “No, we don’t know where Tupac is” was re-tweeted 160,000 times, well done), but this lowbrow content has been so overdone recently that the content mix of @CIA bears nearly no resemblance to current issues related to the actual Central Intelligence Agency. A simple search of Google News for “CIA” returns numerous current stories about the agency, and while great care should be taken with regard to commenting on various issues, never commenting on anything isn’t a meaningful long-term plan — most high-profile spokespeople have come to terms with this fact. I find it hard to imagine building trust with an organization whose social media channel content is almost entirely divorced from its own reality.
(3) Discuss things besides the CIA (aka you talk about yourself all the time). One of the biggest strategic mistakes organizations — particularly well-known brands — make with their content is focusing only on themselves. Unfortunately, the degree to which the audience cares about an organization’s content is one-tenth of what PR staff for the organization estimate it is (just a personal rule of thumb). People crave current news, thought leadership, entertainment, and variety in their content mix. With that in mind, the CIA could due with a bit less of the humdrum links to their homepage and less of the relatively frivolous spy plane photos and jokes and begin thinking holistically about a content plan and calendar that includes both highbrow and lowbrow material which represents the brand well and keeps things interesting, perhaps confining itself to only discussing the CIA proper 50% of the time. The remaining content might include answering select audience questions, linking to genuinely interesting third-party items like high-quality longreads or interesting interviews, and generally acting like a thought leader on global issues. It’s most likely too much to expect a level of openness whereby the CIA would link to The Intercept’s new story about U.S. government surveillance, but I see absolutely no reason why it couldn’t link to a story from Pacific Standard about the global black market for human organs, for example.
In the end, a social media channel is a representation of a brand’s public personality. Now that they seem to be be embracing social channels, the CIA has a huge opportunity to manage its reputation by creating world-class content, genuinely engaging people on issues related to their mission, and ultimately, (re)building trust.