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#sorrynotsorry: How the CIA Could Think More Strategically About Their Twitter Content

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.

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Government 2.0: Being Individually Empowerful

This post originally appeared on Mashable on August 26, 2008.

As a scientist, I have been trained to debate issues based on observed facts and to form generalities about the world while simultaneously acknowledging that exceptions are notable. This mentality carries over into all parts of my life. Often, I engage in debates with people about a variety of issues and one of my favorite lines is “the exception proves the rule.”

What I have observed after two years in the federal government is that it does not have an institutional culture accepting of the new social software tools it badly needs to adopt. Governments are notoriously slow to change, but additionally there is a general avoidance of new technologies by many employees during day-to-day work, and also by those who find social software a security threat best avoided.

Of course, exceptions abound. As I discussed in a previous article, the government has over a series of years developed an internal system called INTELINK, which provides social tools to intelligence, defense, security, diplomatic, and law enforcement personnel. Now, whether they use them is another discussion entirely, though there are serious and well-thought out efforts to increase understanding of the value these tools add to missions.

There are certainly other thought leaders in the government social software space who have whole-heartedly adopted a Government 2.0 mentality. But is everyone in the government using social software of the same mentality? Most definitely not.


With all the interest in social software, there are now handy lists of government offices and people using it. One, on USA.gov, keeps track of federal government blogs. There are some genuinely good ones; for example, Evolution of Security from five employees at the Transportation Security Administration. It is written in a personable style, with posts signed by “Blogger Bob” and such. This humanizes an organization that many people complain about. And complain they do, right in the comments section.

Other great examples include Gov Gab, the Secretary of Health and Human Services’ site, and the Library of Congress blog. These websites provide an opportunity for people to learn more about the U.S. government, its successes, failures, and people. But are they really Government 2.0?

The Web 2.0 mentality is that of a conversation. But these blogs, while great, are really just press releases. The occasional post racks up lots of comments, but considering the potential audience of 300 million people domestically, there is little conversing going on.

But another list might shed some light on this – the list of government entities on Twitter. Now, the modern Twitter is inherently social, but are the government people using it so? Interestingly, there are two categories of government Twitter usage. The first is a faceless entity complete with the office’s seal (“JFCOM” or “FEMA”) that I term the “Enterprise.” The second is an individual advocate representing an agency, most often using their real name and photo; I call this the “Empowered individual.”

Which type – which strategy – is more engaged in the conversation? At least two statistics shed light on this. First, I looked at how many people the entity was following, which can be taken as a measure of “listening to the conversation.” Second, I calculated the percentage of @ responses using TweetStats.

What I found was very revealing. The Enterprises rarely follow anyone, and when they do, those tend to be other Enterprises. In contrast, the Empowered follow many people, often those with no obvious relationship with the government. Empowered entities also tend to deliver messages related not only to work but about other aspects of their lives.


Enterprises also rarely converse with other Twitter users. Many just use TwitterFeed to re-post blog posts that already read like press releases – a 1.0 messaging system masquerading in 2.0 technology. Conversing is so rare that I was hard-pressed to find any good examples. NASA should really be singled out, because although entities like “MarsPhoenix” don’t follow anyone, they do converse quite a lot (MarsPhoenix has about 44% @ replies and 56% “push”).

My personal stat is about 53% conversing via @ replies, and I am not alone as an Empowered user (“cheeky_geeky”) representing my agency yet talking about more personal things. Maxine Teller from Department of Defense Public Affairs (“MixtMedia”) follows almost 100 people, tweets every day of the week, and has about 32% @ replies. Linda Cureton, the CIO of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (“curetonl”), follows about 50 people, also tweets seven days a week, and converses about 18% of the time. Andrea Baker of the Intelligence Community (“immunity”) follows over 300 people, has over 3000 tweets, and @ replies about 36% of the time.

Empowered individuals are like amateur sociologists, constantly talking with the community and learning what’s out there, building relationships, and in return are able to talk about what they are interested in as well; for the government this means that people are able to engage with employees as humans and not as bureaucrats – a PR boon if I ever heard one!

Twitter is not merely about pushing messaging but about engaging with others. Government is not alone in not fully grasping the power of crowd wisdom and social branding; that very issue is currently at the heart of corporate marketing and public relations. Luckily, the thought leaders in the community can be very forthright and helpful – for instance, Shel Israel, co-author of the popular book “naked conversations,” offers very helpful advice for those new to Twitter on his blog.

Government 2.0 is far less about technology than it is about the mindset of people. And ultimately, government is about people working together to resolve issues. Trying to change government policy on your own is like steering the Titanic. With an oar. But by forming social networks with each other, social software empowered individuals working with the government can slowly steer the huge ship to a dock where it can be loaded up with Enterprise 2.0 tools – and the institutional culture to go with them.

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 mark.d.drapeau@ugov.gov via email.

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