7 social media resolutions to keep in the new year

Want to make the most of social networking without getting overwhelmed by the volume of data or compromising security? Here are resolutions worth keeping.

Almost everybody these days is using social media. From Twitter to Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr and a variety of blog formats and picture sharing sites, there are a lot of options. It’s easy to get lost in the mountain of data that social media produces on a daily basis, and getting started is a daunting task.

At the same time, you are a government employee. You cannot just wander willy-nilly into the social media jungle, tweeting about your Monday morning budget meeting and posting pictures of your tuna salad sandwich on Flickr. There are issues to consider. Is WikiLeaks paying attention? Is my boss paying attention? Is my boss’ boss paying attention? It’s already hard to know all of your agency’s security protocols; how do your tweets fit into that?

But you and your agency want to be forthcoming about your mission, directives and day-to-day functions. In a world that increasingly values transparency and connectivity, especially at the government level, social media is a great tool to show that there really are living, breathing humans behind the big acronym.

“In general, federal agencies have grown a lot in the past two years, with respect to their use,” said Alex Howard, Government 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media. “NASA has led the way with respect to using multiple platforms and getting its staff — astronauts! — to be active. Many more people understand that it's not enough to simply get a Twitter account, Facebook page or YouTube channel: the strategy for that use then has to be congruent with the agency mission.”

So, as we turn to a new year, here are some resolutions – advice, best practices, rules of the road – for engaging in social media.

1. I will get organized.

With the flood of data that comes with both government and social media, it is easy to find yourself being swept away. “There are too many tweets! How do I pay attention to all of it? How do I find what is important from influential people?!”

The first thing to remember about social media is that it is not about the data.

It is about people.

“If there's one ‘social media director,’ other people in the agency won't get it,” Howard, said. “If the agency is trying microblogging, blogging, wikis and social networking internally, they'll learn the conventions of the forms and be more comfortable and agile in public.”

The medium is by definition collaborative. Everybody should also try to pay attention to what is happening in the social environment, even if they are not active participants. Listening informs employees of the issues and ideas that are taking place outside the walls of their cubicles.

But not everybody in the agency has the time or the ability to use social media on a regular basis. Create a social media engagement team from within the existing framework of employees to be the lead of the discussion about your agency and its actions. Choose people who live in the social environment and know the lay of the land. An ideal team consists of multi-media savvy, Web-centric, energetic people with great personalities but also a sense of responsibility to the core of the agency.

Think of this team as not just an aspect of your agency, but as the front-facing agency itself. They should be experts in your business, they should know the intimate details that make the daily functions work. Your team knows what the interested social media audience and related community wants to hear and can conduct conversations with authority.

2. I will know the tools.

Take a look at some of the desktop and browser applications available to help organize social media. If you are constantly flipping through browser tabs to Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, you are probably missing something in the conversation.

That is where products like TweetDeck, Seesmic and HootSuite can be very helpful. In these applications you can set up multiple accounts and feeds to monitor lists, topics, hashtags and more. Take TweetDeck, for instance. With this desktop application you can set up as many columns as you like, such as curated Twitter lists, searched keywords or hashtags, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google Buzz and Foursquare newsfeeds. Some social media managers have as many as 20 columns open in TweetDeck to monitor and participate in a variety of conversations.

There are a plethora of other social networks outside of the major ones everybody knows, like Twitter and Facebook. Social news aggregators such as Digg, Reddit and (for now) Delicious are good places to study trends and promote material. Chatter, an application provided by Salesforce.com, is a Twitter/Facebook-like collaboration tool for closed enterprise systems.

Then there are a multitude of Ning community sites where like-minded people congregate and provide good outlets for topical discussions. GovLoop, a social network for federal, state and local government workers, is probably the most recognizable in this area.

Your agency doesn’t need to be uber-involved in every single social media choice available. There is just too much out there and, after a while, the return on investment of your social media manager’s time is just not worth it to keep up with all the options. Find the networks and conversations that are most pertinent in the major categories (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) then pick and choose a couple of the others, perhaps Digg or Reddit or your localized Ning community, that provide the most impact for your efforts.

3. I will be consistent.

You cannot be a total Twitter gangbuster one day – engaged, personable, content driven – and then be completely silent for a week. A solid day-by-day approach to social media will help you rise above the data clutter and become an influential source in the conversation that, as a government agency, is likely being had about your activities.

Let’s look at an example. The Treasury Department recently re-launched its website. Overall, the reviews were pretty good. It is easier to navigate, find data and contacts and now has an interesting blog called Treasury Notes. During its release, Treasury touted that the new site is also connected to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and Flickr.

An overview of the accounts showed that, while they did exist, the content on them was irregular and sporadic, often just a public relations quip and a link. Through the first 15 days of December, Treasury had seven Facebook posts. In all of November it had four. All of the posts were general press releases and not once had the Treasury interacted with people who commented on their threads. Overall, the department is getting better but their social media presence remains somewhat of a hollow husk.

4. I will have a personality.

There are places for automated Twitter streams and Facebook updates. When an article is written or a press release is published it can be sent automatically to whatever social media account you want. But it is also a good practice to reinforce that initial broadcast with some actual human interaction.

Foremost, everybody should know who you are. If you are in the State Department and interacting with people on Twitter, your profile should say that you work for the agency.

“Sign tweets, add avatars with headshots on personal accounts and make it clear who the person is behind a given outlet,” Howard said. “If you can ask a [public affairs officer] a question in person, you know who he or she is. That shouldn't be different in the online realm.”

Howard said there is room to have a personality yet still command respect of the community.

“For personal accounts, government officials and public servants can and do find connections through sharing thoughtful details about their lives in the same way that the rest of humanity does, albeit in a fashion that does not diminish their authority or respect for the audience,” Howard said.

5. I will understand security but not let it hinder transparency.

In the aftermath of WikiLeaks, the security of federal information is on the top of every federal workers’ mind, whether they want it to be or not.

Banning or overly-constricting use of social media is not going to help, though. Privacy and social-use policies should be in place but not at the sake of open government initiatives. The key is to have a social agenda, communicate with the community and stay out front of the conversation as opposed to being reactive while reminding employees of agency policy regarding sensitive information.

“Transparency means stating up front, at a social media launch page, what the purpose of the agency using the channels is, what the rules of the road are and any details about archiving or use of citizen or private sector data that results,” Howard said.

Properly used, social media is a safe way to coordinate the agency message. The problem with security and sensitive information in social media is also the same thing that makes it such a wonderful tool.

6. I will keep in mind that people, not platforms, are the weak links.

Over-sharing can be a problem. Inner monologues on Twitter can be a problem. Inappropriate pictures, comments or videos can be a problem. What is not the problem is the medium itself. WikiLeaks was not caused by a Twitter feed. It was a person with security access in the building that went out of his way to do something he should not have.

“With respect to security protocols, both the federal CIO Council and the Defense Department have released policies for the secure use of social media,” Howard said. “The shift from risk avoidance to risk management is an inevitable evolution when the secure use of social media is integrated in more places. These networks are only as secure as their weakest links, which tend to be the human operators.”

7. I will see the good in communication.

Social media is a boon to transparency and open government. Agency employees want to use it, and a key to hiring and maintaining talented workers is to not be overly-restrictive of their technological needs and wants. Let people communicate and you will find that they will do good, sometimes extraordinary, things for the agency.

“While official government accounts are there to provide insight into an agency or institution’s business, there is plenty of room for experimentation and innovation,” Howard said.

Bob Dylan sang that “the times, they are a’changin.” Look around. The times are not in the process of changing. They have changed. Each day brings a new innovation, a new way to communicate. Government should be on the forefront of that technological change and have the ability to use the new tools in a proactive fashion.

Please feel free to tweet Dan Rowinski on Twitter @Dan_Rowinski. Alex Howard can be found Twitter @Digiphile.

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