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Turning the FCC's Not-So-Fun Twitter Town Hall Into a Teachable Moment

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, September 12 2012

In the wake of a Twitter town-hall style event with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski that drew jeers when Genachowski started late and initially did not use the hashtag his staff had been promoting for the conversation, General Services Administration staffers will publish updated guidelines on how federal agencies should manage events like these.

Foreheads burrowed into palms in federal government and at Twitter headquarters on Tuesday after an online question-and-answer session with Federal Communications Commissioner Julius Genachowski took a turn for the worse. Washington Post reporter Cecilia Kang posted her frustration on Twitter that day when she couldn't find the conversation — because Genachowski wasn't tweeting using the hashtag the FCC had publicized for the event — and an FCC spokesperson gave her what she said was unhelpful advice. Adweek's Katy Bachman suggested the FCC was trying to "cover up" the aftermath of an event that did not go as planned, which was especially puzzling given the FCC's recent track record.

The commission is responsible for regulating broadband spectrum and some aspects of Internet infrastructure, for one, and has given the federal government some of its most forward-thinking online ideas, such as new standards for managing website content that are now adopted government-wide. Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel came to the White House from the FCC. And the Tuesday event began with a tweet from Twitter global policy head Colin Crowell, formerly of the FCC, that featured a photo of Genachowski sitting with Twitter CEO Dick Costolo. This is not a situation which one would expect to end with a reporter saying the agency responsible looked "Twitter illiterate," but that's what happened.

Tuesday was not the commission's finest social media hour, although Genachowski gamely stuck around to answer questions, the FCC compiled his answers and the chairman was responsible for perhaps a dozen answers all told.

Twitter town halls are usually low-impact events. The headlining act announces a start to proceedings and lays out ground rules, picks the easiest of a handful of questions posed online, ignores a predictable spread of negative chatter from political opponents, thanks the world and signs off. Even the president has managed to go in and out of an event like this unscathed.

It so happens that the federal government has a new group responsible for setting and sharing social media best practices across agencies, created as part of the administration's new Digital Government Strategy announced in May. Justin Herman, at the GSA's Center for Excellence in Digital Government, announced on Twitter after the FCC's bumpy ride that the GSA will be cooking up revised guidelines on "how Federal agencies can conduct successful Twitter townhalls and chats."

They were expected today, but aren't released yet — we'll keep an eye out for them.