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A Guide to Using Social Media Well in Government and Advocacy

BY Jed Sundwall | Monday, November 19 2012

NASA's Curiosity Rover's home page on Twitter

From a space ship that has its own Twitter account to local and federal government agencies with dozens of online voices, today's social media environment is full of opportunities to reach the public in new ways and challenges on how to do it right. But across government and advocacy organizations, to use social media effectively, you need two things: something worth saying and the ability to say it well. Creating great mission-driven content is the most important – and possibly the most difficult – task of anyone working on social media.

How do you know what your agency should talk about? How do you know what the public expects from you? How do you train the people writing for your agency on what to say and how they should sound? There's no easy answer, but we've learned a lot by helping organizations create short sets of guidelines describing their agency's mission and voice.

The goal of this guide is to teach you how to use guidelines to help your agency serve the public through a clear social media voice. Guidelines can help your agency sound more human. They can help you develop a strong, appropriate, and memorable voice for your agency. Ultimately, they can help you develop an enduring 21st century communications operation.

What guidelines are not.
What do we mean when we say "guidelines"? Perhaps it helps to point out what we don't mean.

First, we're talking about guidelines for your agency, not your employees. Policies to govern employee usage of social media are for other documents, usually written with the help of a lot of lawyers. We're talking about guidelines to manage the voice of your agency.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, guidelines are not rules. As the name suggests, guidelines provide guidance. They help define a general direction for your agency's voice, but avoid prescribing too much.

The benefits of voice
For many agencies, the idea of developing an organizational voice is completely new. Social media requires agencies to communicate briefly, frequently, and directly to citizens; for agencies used to issuing a few press releases a year, this requires a significant shift in thinking and operations. But don't worry, no one figures this out overnight. Most organizations are still just getting started.

In fact, few organizations of any kind are known for a distinctive and clear voice. However, as social media demands more frequent communication from organizations, this will change. Today, thousands have people have come to recognize the bizarre voices of previously mute brands like Old Spice and Skittles on social media. Just 4 years ago, the idea of Old Spice cracking jokes would have sounded absurd.

As I've puzzled over how agencies can develop organizational voices, I've researched how private sector companies have done it. Media brands with strong editorial legacies and robust publishing operations are great examples of faceless, yet distinctive, voices.

The New Yorker has a distinctive voice that has transitioned nicely to the Internet. Nicholas Thompson, editor of newyorker.com, explained how they do it in an interview with The Verge:

I think of [newyorker.com] more as an extension of the magazine. We're trying to do things that work really well on the web — responding to news; breaking news; writing short, smart arguments — with the voice and sensibility of the magazine."

I reached out to John Lockett, Vanity Fair's social media manager, to ask how they've adapted Vanity Fair's voice to social media:

[…]everyone who works here has a deep respect and appreciation for the magazine and can channel VF’s smart, cheeky, humorous style. To us, social media is all about having a good conversation with our audience, one that echoes the countless unique and powerful voices that have inhabited the magazine’s pages through its rich history.

I share these examples because they reveal the advantage that comes from having an established voice. These magazines have decades of practice developing their voice, which they're now applying to new media. Once you understand how your agency should sound, it will be easier to try new things and adapt to whatever comes next in social media.

Finding your voice
Your voice should be unique to your agency. It should reflect the attitudes, expertise, and passions of your staff. It should reflect the needs and interests of your audience. If you're used to writing press releases, you'll need to break some old habits and you'll likely make some mistakes along the way. Fortunately, other agencies have blazed this trail already. Here are some lessons you can take from them.

1. Consider speaking in first person.
NASA gets to take credit not only for blazing trails into outer space, but also for developing some of the first great examples of social media voice – not just for government agencies, but for any organization.

In May 2008, Veronica McGregor, social media manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, started using Twitter to keep people updated on the progress of the Phoenix Mars Lander. For the first time ever, space enthusiasts would be able to get quick updates from a NASA mission every day. Prior to Twitter, there was no feasible way to get real time insights into the team of engineers, scientists, and software writers who work around the clock to send a robot to Mars.

Before long, @MarsPhoenix was the 5th most popular account on all of Twitter with around 38,000 followers (remember, Twitter was very young in 2008).

Veronica learned a lot about the importance of voice while writing tweets for @MarsPhoenix. I talked to her about what she learned in those early days and what guidelines she recommends at NASA today.

One of the earliest lessons learned from @MarsPhoenix was to tweet in the first person. "If you write in 3rd person, the tweet sounds like a press release. There's no need to engage with it, so people will read it and move on" she explains. When updates came through from the perspective of a personified robot, people would respond, retweet, and cheer it on.

What's more, writing in 1st person saves precious characters. It's far easier to read "I've landed on almost perfectly flat terrain" than "The Phoenix Mars Lander has landed…"

Sometime after the success of @MarsPhoenix, another mission created a Twitter account and opted to write its updates in the 3rd person. It didn't get nearly the response.

One important caveat: the vast majority of agencies don't operate robots that lend themselves to personification. For them, speaking in 1st person plural is a perfect compromise. A city water department speaking about itself as a person (I) would sound strange, but speaking as a group of people (we) makes perfect sense.

2. Be authentic and purposeful
Around Thanksgiving 2010 – at the height of controversy around full-body scanners – the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) sent a few tweets that some people found inappropriate. A writer at Gizmodo recommended that the TSA opt-out of tweeting.

TSA's excellent Blogger Bob took credit for the tweets on Gizmodo's post, explaining his rationale for the lighthearted tweets. Nonetheless, it was clear that many had been taken off-guard.

Always be mindful of how the public perceives your agency. Many people perceive government agencies as guardians, stewards, and authoritative sources of official information. Meet your audience's expectations.

While it's good to sound human while tweeting on behalf of an agency (and Blogger Bob is a pro at it), be careful that you always sound purposeful as well.

3. Be empathetic
One of the nice things about press releases is that they let you rely on journalists to turn them into something ready for the public. With social media, you'll have to learn how to go direct to the public. This requires empathy.

I spoke about this with Justin Concepcion, who manages social media for the office of Annise D. Parker, Mayor of Houston. He helped create Houston's social media policy which includes the recommendation to avoid jargon. He explained that many city employees often forget that the public isn't familiar with the acronyms and governmentese they use around the office.

He reminds social media managers throughout the city to be empathetic and think about the citizens who are reading their updates. "If you have to think about it as you’re reading it, you should probably use the full words" he says.

4. Focus on your mission
The EPA manages just over 30 Facebook Pages and 30 Twitter accounts across different offices, programs, and regions. Each account serves a different audience with different needs, however – as EPA's Jessica Orquina and Julia Valentine explained to me – they're all unified by EPA's mission.

EPA's social media policy leads with this pithy statement: "It is EPA’s policy to use social media where appropriate in order to meet its mission of protecting human health and the environment." This simple policy allows the EPA to engage students, researchers, educators, and the public at large via different channels and in different contexts, all while maintaining a consistent overall message.

When I asked Veronica McGregor why NASA used social media, she said – unofficially – "to get people to go outside and look up." One of NASA's overarching goals is to encourage people to be curious and inspire them to pursue careers in science. Most of her colleagues remember a special moment when they looked up, wondered about their place in the universe, and decided to find out more about it through science and engineering.

Characteristics of useful guideline documents
Hopefully the above examples have helped you imagine what kind of guidelines you'd write to help your agency find its voice. Here are some characteristics of guidelines documents that your staff will read, understand, and remember.

1. Be Brief.
You want your team to know your guidelines by heart. This won't happen if your guidelines are very long. Try to distill your guidelines to only the bare essentials.

Many pixels and PDFs have been wasted on overwrought prefaces to guidelines and social media policy documents. Your guidelines will not benefit from an attempt to explain the Internet or the history social media.

Consider your audience. If you have assigned staff to manage your social media accounts, they should have an understanding of social media and the Internet. If they do not, you will need to invest in more than guidelines.

So, assuming the staff who will use your guidelines is ready to get going, get to the point. Quickly explain why your agency is using social media, which services it uses (e.g. Twitter, Tumblr, etc), and how to accomplish mission goals with them.

2. Be Flexible.
Social media changes quickly, but you can adapt to those changes by focusing on what won't change so quickly: your mission and the needs of your audience.

Your guidelines should define the fundamentals of your voice, and leave you open to experiment with new services and sometimes push into new directions. Do not burden the document with too much tactical guidance on how to use Facebook or Twitter. The interfaces of social media services change frequently, and you won't want to keep updating your guidelines to keep up with them. That said, if you have any particular guidance on how to use a particular social media service, it's ok to include it – but consider saving it for the end.

Be Unifying.
Your guidelines should reflect the expertise of your team and their passion to serve the public. Your staff should feel proud of your guidelines and what they encourage.

Another good litmus test is to read your guidelines from the perspective of a your dream hire. If you imagine someone reading your guidelines and thinking "that's the place for me", you're on the right track.

Be Research-based.
Do both internal and external research to create unifying guidelines. Survey your audience to find out what they expect from your agency, what they think of you, and how they think you can improve. Then survey your own people to find out the same things. The responses will vary and will likely be very revealing.

Once you gain this understanding of your agency, both from inside and out, you'll be better poised to create a document that makes sense for your mission and for your audience.

If you want to dig deeper, check out the USA.gov and GobiernoUSA.gov social media guidelines, which we helped create. You can read them at HowTo.gov. Feel free to use them as inspiration for your own document.

Jed Sundwall is the co-founder of Measured Voice, a social media management tool for government used by USA.gov, the State of Missouri, the government of Sweden, and many others. Measured Voice is also part of the first ever Code for America Accelerator program.

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