Who is watching your online image?

Teenagers are not the only ones who have to worry about getting their reputations smeared via an Internet blog, forum or social-networking Web site, although for them, it’s usually a lot more personal.
Government agencies also are the frequent targets of scurrilous online attacks. However, the figurative bull’s-eye on the government’s collective back is a lot bigger than any teenager’s.

With its countless offices, employees and policies that touch most aspects of everyday life, there are millions of potential lightning rods for online criticism from people with axes to grind. No matter what the original cause for complaint, these diatribes all eventually come down to that convenient shorthand — “the government” is to blame.

Government officials aren’t able to respond to every online smear, but doing nothing is not a good plan, said Andy Beal, an Internet marketing consultant at Marketing Pilgrim and co-author of the book “Radically Transparent: Monitoring and Managing Reputations Online.”

Beal, who has advised numerous large companies on how to protect their online images, spoke to Federal Computer Week about the special risks and challenges the government faces in the no holds-barred world of social media and what public officials can do to use these tools to their advantage.

FCW: You have consulted with companies that have thousands and even millions of customers. It could be said that the U.S. government has 300 million citizen customers, plus billions of others around the world whose lives can be affected by U.S. policies. How should government officials decide what online comments and discussions to respond to?
Beal: In the book, we talk about the keys to identify how to determine when to respond. The first issue is: Who is the detractor? If it’s someone important or influential, then that’s a sign that you need to respond. If it’s just a regular Joe who started a blog and really doesn’t have influence with other people as to how you’re perceived, then maybe you don’t need to jump in.  
If it starts out as a small conversation, but it spreads quickly and other people are talking, then it’s like a virus. It can spread widely from one platform to another. Then you have to jump in before it starts getting too big.

FCW: What is the risk for government if people say negative things about it on the Internet?
Beal: There is risk in loss of confidence. The U.S. government has to monitor and manage its reputation for its agencies just the same way as a large Fortune 500 company has to manage the reputation of its different products and brands. The negative impact on the government isn’t that its stock price will go down. At the end of the day, every little negative item out there will reflect on the U.S. government as a whole. In general, we tend not to see the individual departments. People don’t blame the departments — they say it’s the U.S. government.

However, the individual agencies really do need to take responsibility for what’s being said and to manage their online reputation. The U.S. government’s reputation will be chipped away piece by piece with small attacks on individual agencies. Agencies need to respond to these individual attacks. It can feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Some agencies, no matter what they do, are still going to be criticized, but they still need to respond.

Overall, they may not necessarily see the benefits themselves. But when you look at the sum of the whole, by responding to criticism, engaging stakeholders, you’re helping the overall U.S. government with its reputation. It all contributes to the overall online sentiment toward the government.

FCW: We’ve asked you to look at several government blogs. After reading some of the frank discussions and negative comments people post on them, do you think government officials realize what they are getting themselves into when they start these blogs?
Beal: When you start blogging or using social media, you can be lulled into a false sense of security. It’s as if you feel a lot more open with a social media channel than you would otherwise with other communication channels. Government agencies need to be careful of that, especially with a blog, which is very much conducive to an open, honest discussion. You have to be careful that you don’t end up saying something that you wouldn’t say by another official communication medium.

FCW: Is social media a tool only for reaching young people?
Beal: The demographic for social media channels is going to skew younger. If the government wants to reach out to a younger audience, educate them, get them involved and keep them up-to-date, then social media by its very nature is a way to do that.

But it’s not always a good idea to say by default that we’re going to have someone under the age of 25 be responsible for posting to our blog or uploading videos. It still is a government agency, and there has to be some care taken to what is said. It’s good to have a broad mix of age groups and backgrounds working in social media efforts. Don’t just assume that the person on your staff under the age of 25 is the perfect person for that. One of the things we see time and again in reputation management is that your stakeholders want to hear from someone in authority.

FCW: So how do you balance your efforts when the tone and demographics of social media skew a certain way yet that audience still wants a certain credibility and professionalism?
Beal: If you’ve got younger staff members, they are going to be better able to explain things like which social media channels work and where are the popular places to post your videos. But in terms of the actual voice on the blog, the more authority that voice conveys, the better received the blog or any social media will be among stakeholders. People are looking for an official voice, especially with government agencies.

FCW: You mentioned the Transportation Security Administration as an example of a good government blog. What is it doing right?
Beal: They’re treating their blog the same way that 99 percent of other bloggers treat theirs. It is a very clear, transparent voice that is posting to the site. There’s personality, so it’s not another anonymous post. You’re getting the person’s first name who is writing on the site. It’s someone you can address. It allows comments.

Whether those comments are moderated or not, that’s not a problem. A lot of big corporations make the mistake of publishing a blog, but it’s really no more than just a corporate update site, because they don’t allow comments.

They’ve also enabled it for social media. They have their RSS feed there prominently.

Another thing they do great is using their blogroll, [a list of other blogs], to point out sites that are relevant. Who would think that a government agency would point out the “Cranky Flier”? By doing that, they’re saying ,“We’re reading the same blogs that you’re reading. If you see that frustration pos ed on the Cranky Flier about TSA security lines, we’re reading that, too, so you can be sure we’re not operating in a vacuum. We’re actually listening to the same conversations as you, and that’s allowing us to serve you better.”

FCW: Who at an organization should write a blog?
Beal: Southwest Airlines is a great example of having lots of different employees contribute to the blog, so you get this sense that you’re peeking inside the company. Sometimes it can help you more to have regular employees sharing their observations and putting a personal face on the blog.
It’s important to understand who your target audience is and who they likely want to hear from. You also have to know what kind of resources you have for it. Do you have a well-spoken [department] secretary that is liked and knows how to write well and has the time to do it?

FCW: A good example of that is Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, who writes his own blog. Sometimes, not often, he seems to go a little off-topic. Is that OK to do on an official blog?
Beal: What better way to show his personality and get people to buy into him as a person that wants to engage them than to share his observations and his likes and dislikes? It makes readers actually get an insight into him.

It also removes barriers to communication. It gets you closer to the person making decisions. If all you have is the name “Secretary Mike Leavitt,” then it might as well be an anonymous person making decisions that affect your life. Whereas if you’re reading his blog and you get insight into the thought process behind the decision, then you’re going to give the person a lot more benefit of the doubt.
Even if the audience is nothing more than other employees within that department, it’s still a good thing.
FCW: Unlike Secretary Leavitt’s blog, there also seem to be some government blogs that are not updated often or seem like straight press release copy. Is it worth doing a blog if you don’t do it right?
Beal: What happens a lot in corporate America is that everybody sees that blogs are hot, so they dive in and create one. Later, they realize that it’s a lot of work. You do really need to take the time to have this conversation. In some ways, it can hurt you more to start a blog, make promises about the interaction you’ll have, [and] then completely retract from that, whether officially or by your actions, such as posting less frequently.

You need to make the commitment that when you have a blog and you establish the ground rules, you commit to that. It can hurt you more than if you never started a blog at all. If you say “We’re going to have this open discussion with you, and we want to talk to you about the issues and hear your feedback.” But then if you hit a major crisis in your department and you clam up and don’t say anything, that’s really going to hurt your credibility.

FCW: Looking at the whole toolbox of social media, from blogs and podcasts to social-networking sites, which ones make most sense for government?
Beal: Blogs are right up there and are a good platform to start with.
The government should also pay close attention to conversations that happen on Twitter. It’s like a social network combined with instant messaging. 

You’ve also got video and audio opportunities. There are other things to explore, but the audience is smaller and the investment is much higher.

FCW: What about virtual world platforms such as Second Life?
Beal: Companies are struggling to figure out how to use Second Life. It’s a small audience. It doesn’t have the same universal reach that a blog has. There are millions of Americans who read blogs who probably don’t even realize they’re reading blogs, whereas the number of people who take the time to set up a profile on Second Life and go in there is a lot smaller. I think agencies will be far better off putting their resources into making some sort of blogging reach. 


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