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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: Intelligence Renaissance Networks

This post was originally published on Mashable on September 22, 2008.

Future planning is a big part of what the national security apparatus of the United States does, and it is incredibly difficult to do well. As the national security writer William Arkin relates in his 2005 book Code Names: “Our Intelligence Community is constantly being surprised by events in the world and misreads what is happening.” Along the same lines, Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his must-read book The Black Swan explains why and how we are often surprised by rare, extraordinary events of huge consequence.

Such events elude the analysis of even the smartest person. Most have heard the term “Renaissance Man” – a person of many diverse talents like athletic prowess, intellectual power, musical ability, street smarts, and a way with the ladies. But we may not need them anymore, with access to “Renaissance Networks,” a term recently coined by a new media analyst at CIA’s Open Source Center. Why have a genius in a cubicle when a person who’s merely “smart” can utilize global crowd wisdom?

Recently, I attended a small conference about using social tools for information sharing hosted at Johns Hopkins University and sponsored by the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). Our hosts for three days were the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) World Intelligence Review (WIRe) and the Director of National Intelligence’s (DNI) Intelligence Community Enterprise Services (ICES). They were able to bring together the people who build social tools, those who evangelize about them, and influential end users to have candid and open discussions about them.

In the intelligence community, as in the defense community where I primarily work, there are what people call “cylinders of excellence” – different agencies and units that internally may perform their functions very well, but they do not necessarily have a culture of community leadership and partnership in something larger than themselves. Some in the IC have been promoting information sharing as opposed to keeping secrets. (What’s the joke about secrets? Only two people know, and one of them is dead.) Lately, a big part of information sharing has been the INTELINK system, which is closed to outsiders and includes terrific “clones” of Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg, Flickr, AIM, Wordpress, and more – “These tools have no respect for the formal org chart,” Harvard Professor Andrew McAfee put it to the audience.

And the toolkit is expanding. The big development in IC social networking tools hitting the news recently is A-Space, essentially a mashup of Facebook, LinkedIn, and GoogleDocs designed to be an addictive work environment for analysts with access to sensitive human intelligence (HUMINT). A-Space will have status updates a la Twitter, subscriptions to updates, feeds and friends, activity streams, content management a la Sharepoint, a community grid tag cloud, RSS feeds from outside, drag and drop capability, discussion/question threads, a ’scrapbook,’ and widgets. This system – frankly better than anything I know about in the private sector at the moment – should increase collaboration and analytical thinking.

All the talk about collaboration inspired an interesting formal debate among two IC thought leaders, Geoff Fowler of the WIRe, and Chris Rasmussen, an IC 2.0 evangelist based at NGA. In a fun twist, the debate was moderated using a public Twitter feed by Carmen Medina, a former CIA Associate Deputy Director (Intelligence). The debaters were influenced by Medina’s comments and also by the audience’s, and by the end, participants from outside the conference were asking questions – which for the very private IC is quite profound. Debate largely centered around the question, “Who is an expert?” with the general acknowledgement being that despite the need for subject matter experts, “Buford T. Justice is now involved in the national security process.”

More futuristically, analysts will be able to use A-Space feeds for more than news and personality information. One the government connects the huge number of sensors and other devices reading all sorts of information (temperature, heat, satellite imagery, sonar, radar, robotic sensors, RFID tags, biometric scanners, law enforcement raid cams, views from pilots’ cockpits…) to these feeds (for example, a Navy analyst could subscribe to a feed from underwater sensors looking for suspicious activity happening near maritime facilities), the possibilities are endless.

In the private sector, there is discussion about barriers to adopting social tools. These include concerns about computer and information security, side-effects due to using unproven technologies, and concerns about negative impacts on productivity. But, a recent Gartner study suggests that if IT departments do not implement social technology tool use, worker bees will find workarounds. Therefore, a fair amount of time at the WIRe/ICES conference was spent discussing how to change the culture of organizations to take best advantage of the inevitable use of these social tools.

At the end of the film The Good Shepherd, the new CIA director says to Matt Damon’s character, “A Senator once asked me, ‘Why don’t you say ‘the’ before CIA? And I asked him, Do you say ‘the’ before God?” With regard to integrating social technology tools into everyday intelligence operations and analysis the IC is not quite godlike yet… but they’re getting awfully close.

Dr. Mark Drapeau is an Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy of the National Defense University in Washington, DC. These views are his own and not the official policy or position of any part of the U.S. Government. If you think this commentary is weak sauce, find him on Twitter and tell him about it!

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