Agencies seek social-media contractors

CDC is one agency that needs help

Social-media tools are designed to be so easy that even kids can launch their own Web sites. Even so, it appears that some federal agencies remain adrift in the Web 2.0 sea and want the steady hand that an outside contractor can provide. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Social Security Administration are two agencies in that boat.

In a solicitation released on July 8, CDC signaled that it wants a contractor to help publicize an upcoming surgeon general's report on tobacco via Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. Earlier, on June 24, SSA said it's looking for someone to help monitor what the public is saying about the agency on social-media sites.

Neither agency responded to requests for comment, though there's no reason for them to be gun shy, experts say. Although social media might seem like the ultimate in do-it-yourself simplicity, it's not uncommon for organizations to seek outside guidance. 

“Like a lot of commercial organizations, the underlying problem that government agencies have is a lack of experience with social-media tools and the bandwidth to quickly implement a sound communications strategy for engaging the general public,” said Tony Welz, principal of Welz & Weisel Communications..

Getting help with social networking is similar to getting help with a traditional public relations campaign, he said. Farming out occasional jobs lets agencies focus on core functions. Plus, CDC realizes an effective campaign needs to consider social media, according to the contract request.

“As fewer and fewer people access newspapers, network television and traditional Internet sites for information, employing a digital multisite approach increases the reach of communications efforts,” CDC's announcement states.

Most social-media tools provide specialized streams of information organized by specific topics, said Dave Vennergrund, a senior principal at SRA International’s Advanced Programs group and leader of the company’s cloud computing practice.

CDC likely will apply real-time search engines such as IceRocket and Scoopler to identify doctors, health care workers, smokers and others who are actively using social media and discussing tobacco-related topics, he said.

Conversation and community aggregation sites such as Twine might be searched for specific topics.

“CDC may simply listen for a bit to learn who, where and how the conversations are taking place,” Vennergrund said. “Once these streams are identified, CDC can inject its message, questionnaires, polls, etc. And from these streams, related streams can be identified and pursued.”

Despite their need for help with social media, Welz said, agencies should use the technology in-house if they have expertise and resources to do so. However, agencies should keep in mind that any social-media attempts — successful or unsuccessful — happen in the full glare of the public.

“The last thing you want is to enter the realm of social media with a goal of increasing understanding only to see your efforts spur public scrutiny and distrust,” Welz said. “Unfortunately, in a lot of ways, there are no second chances with social media. One big mistake and you will be doing damage.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, Jul 29, 2009 Jason Clark Silver Spring, MD

In dealing with social media in the government, I find that there is a sense that everything must be perfect on the first try. I would love to see this form of scrutiny on an IT department when trying to accomplish a project that sets a new standard, or foothold, in government procedures.

I agree that the best way to proceed when moving any agency into social media is to do it with as much preplanning as possible. Where I separate myself from intent of this article is that any organization should do so with the thought that there will be mistakes made. Most organizations, public or private, tend to take small steps in the move to social media. This process allows the organization to observe and react on a smaller level to any issues that may arise. The public may criticize the organization for a small flaw, but with appropriate and transparent actions taken to try and correct the problems, the benefit of utilizing social media far outweighs most issues that may arise.

Lastly, I need to make the point that being transparent, especially for a government agency, requires some patience. The one thing that will do the most damage to an organization is censorship. An example would be if someone posts an issue that they have with your organization that could be seen in a negative light, the absolute worst thing you could do would be to censor it in any way.

Remember the reason that the government is trying to use these tools is to communicate with the public, so don’t be shocked when they speak back! That’s the point.

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