Wake-up call: Eye-opening business models for government agencies

The Web provides a great way to gauge public opinion—and to correct bad information

There’s nothing like a good cup of coffee in the morning. The people who run Starbucks should know that. But that simple fact was lost on the king of coffee shop franchisers before the company began monitoring social media sites to gauge the impressions of its customers.

Therein lies an important lesson for federal agencies. For inspiration and guidance on how to use Web 2.0 and social networking to better communicate with the public, look no further than your counterparts in the private sector. Businesses use the Web 2.0 technology for real-time customer research, to quickly and easily resolve customer issues, and to send targeted messages to specific groups.

For its part, Starbucks researched what customers were saying about the company in social media communities. It turns out customers don’t care about the mugs and CDs for sale, said Eric Weaver, a digital strategist at advertising agency Tribal DDB. By far, the most important thing is the taste of the coffee.

And if public perception is inaccurate, government agencies can use social media to set the record straight, just like businesses do.

In October 2009, the Transportation Security Administration discovered a passionate post on a personal blog, titled “TSA agents took my son,” by a woman who described a disconcerting experience going through security at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

After a pacifier clip set off a metal detector, the woman and her son were pulled aside for further screening, she wrote. During the search, the woman claimed, a TSA officer took her son out of her sight to search him. In the 10 minutes that he was out of her sight, she further asserted, she secretly called her husband and mother to tell them what was happening.

TSA officials took to the agency’s own blog to respond. Besides denying the woman’s accusations and repeating TSA policy to not separate parents from their children, the agency also posted video from nine different camera angles of the incident.

“After watching the video footage, you'll see the video clearly shows that this individual was never separated from her baby by TSA,” the blog states. “You'll also see that a lot of the other claims are also unfounded.”

Businesses have learned that social-media responses are personal and effective, whereas press releases and newspaper advertisements are cold and unfriendly.

“It is really easy to hate big organizations, especially if it is the government,” Weaver said. “The really great opportunity, like the TSA example, is to have social-media water for any kind of social media fire.”

However, before using the technology, agencies should establish some  basic guidelines. Weaver advises answering these questions: When do we engage? When do we not engage? What do we engage over? How do we respond? When should we just shut up and let the conversation happen?

Another lesson businesses have learned is to not rely solely on the public relations staff to be an organization’s social-media voice. Any leader or passionate employee can provide the personal voice needed for good messaging.

For example, General Motor’s Vice Chairman Bob Lutz is a car nut and passionate about GM’s products. In the company’s FastLane Blog, Lutz called out David Letterman for denigrating the Chevy Volt’s range. Three weeks later, Lutz appeared on Letterman’s show to set the record straight.

At Comcast, Frank Eliason, director of online services, regularly searches Twitter for people posting messages about problems with the company's cable service. Then he personally offers to help.

The Internal Revenue Service is one of many agencies that could copy that model, said Jeffrey Sass, a social-media expert at Myxer. The IRS could search millions of conversations happening on social media sites. Those conversations will expose the top misconceptions.

"There is probably a lot of interesting, valuable and good information that the IRS could be sharing through social-media channels,” he said. “That would make taxpayers feel a lot better and less likely to project that stereotypical image of the mean, nasty IRS guy banging down your door.”

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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 16, 2010 Amtower

Doug- good piece!

Sun, Feb 14, 2010 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Using Web 2.0 tools has its utility from messaging campaigns that revolve around strategy and mission. To that end, these tools are an important yet underutilized front on engaging the public and lifting the veil of government operations. That is the hope of the OGI, to begin breaking down the barriers of secrecy and holding government accountable. However, much work needs to be done on that front. Nonetheless, informing the public and engagement begins with the mission, so all agencies have a great opportunity to educate and enlighten citizens on their operations. The IRS mentioned in the article is a great example, or perhaps the CDC and the H1N1 outbreaks. The federal government, in addition to state and local government, can use Web 2.0 tools to advance their missions through structured plans on guidance, usage, and security that is not as hard as it seems. I do not believe the Gov 2.0 is a passing fad, but an important way for leaders to improve how they operate by communicating with those they serve; taxpayers.

Mon, Jan 25, 2010 Ken Baltimore

I find this article to be very well written and address a very pertinent area of focus. The lessons to be learned from web 2.0 are going to change business paradigm, and for the most part for the better. However, I feel that we are just scratching the surface of wide ranging implications of web 2.0, and I feel there are lessons to be learned at ever level and even at the personal or individual level.

Mon, Jan 25, 2010

Maybe it's because "freedom of speech" has run amok or gone to the extreme. In America you can say anything you want and not be heald accountable. Much of the Administration's "open government initiative" is an anti-Bush-Cheney initiative rather than a good government initiative.

Mon, Jan 25, 2010 Jane Alexandria, VA

If you want some great examples of using social media for strategic engagement, read GROUNDSWELL: Winning is a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff. It is excellent.

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