Why government social media is different

Federal social media accounts can't target influential users to make messages go viral because of Privacy Act restrictions, can't buy followers, and typically don't throw money at promoting posts through advertising.

Social Media Tree

The federal government needs to do a better job of explaining its unique position in the constellation of social media users, according to Justin Herman, who leads government-wide social media programs at the General Services Administration.

Privacy law, spending restrictions, and different performance metrics separate the government's public services mission from the private sector's public relations goals, Herman wrote in an April 22 post on the GSA's DigitalGov blog.

"Social media for government is rightfully different from social media for the private sector and amid changing technologies we must better understand these differences in order for agencies, companies and citizens to share in the full opportunities and benefits," he wrote.

Federal social media accounts can't target influential users to make messages go viral because of Privacy Act restrictions. They can't buy followers. They typically don't throw money at promoting posts through advertising.

Herman cited Coast Guard social media chief Christopher Lagan, who said the federal government offers a "deeper connection" on social media than a typical brand. "Our audience isn't made up of customers but of fellow Americans. We're not trying to sell them anything, we're trying to give them ownership of and a stake in the process."

Herman announced three new social media initiatives that will launch over the next three months, designed to improve federal users' visibility, reach, and effectiveness on social platforms.

A Federal Social Media Policy Development toolkit will be published on software code sharing repository Github. The second edition of the Social Media Accessibility toolkit, which helps social media managers make content more accessible to people with disabilities, will go live. Finally, GSA will release new guidance on how to measure the performance of government social media accounts.

GSA is also looking for two current federal employees to devote 20 percent of their work time under the open opportunities program to help report on federal social media trends.

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