Agencies seek social-media contractors

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.”

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