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.”

About the Author

Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.

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