Who are the brand ambassadors?

It’s easy to see governments and their agencies as nameless, faceless monoliths, something impersonal or, even worse, untrustworthy. But that notion only prevails because government culture remains steeped in traditional ideas about public relations and outreach work, notions that have become archaic in an Internet-enabled, hyperconnected world.

As private companies are learning to embrace social media to manage brand reputations, governments also must adapt if they wish to communicate more effectively with their citizens and stakeholders — their customers.

Just like private companies, agencies need to manage their public identity — their brands — to create trust and loyalty.

The collaborative tools and social-media applications that have come to be known as Web 2.0 can, if used smartly and imaginatively, enable governments to enhance their brands and underlying missions.

Behind every press release, Web page, and social-networking account is a person. But when people hide behind organizational brands, it reduces the authenticity and transparency that people — citizens, customers, fans — have become accustomed to seeing in the emerging Web 2.0 media world. New social tools and niche communications instead allow communicators to connect with their audiences on a more personal level and develop what has been called ambient intimacy.

In Washington, D.C., one early advocate of this is Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who has experimented with social software, including the live Web video broadcast technology called Qik. And some administration officials, such as Colleen Graffy, departing deputy assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy, have bravely taken the plunge with text microblogging tools, such as Twitter.

Through social software, these brand ambassadors have the potential to promote messages through what I call indirect, intimate influence.

Brand ambassadors ideally listen and learn from ongoing conversations and then engage in them, forming bidirectional interactions.

Ideally, they also talk about more than just their brands on social networks. A good ambassador will also talk about other aspects of his or her life, to the point that followers eventually begin to see the brand ambassador as something of a trusted friend.

Indeed, government brand ambassadors should conduct community-based research to understand the marketplace. What do the elderly living in the Southwest think about health care? What does the man on the street in Greece think of U.S. foreign policy? My guess is that most people don’t know who the government authority is on such issues. While many interests are represented in Washington, the interests of the average person are often misunderstood or overlooked.

The concept of “lethal generosity” holds that the most engaged and sharing person in a community will eventually become the most trusted. By leading overt discussions online and in person, using indirect, intimate influence and developing ambient intimacy, government brand ambassadors will gain a greater sense of public sentiment, which would, in turn, allow lawmakers to formulate better informed — and better received — public policy.

This article was adapted from MediaShift on PBS.org. These views are the author’s alone.

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