Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Anticipate While You Innovate

Last week, two events reminded me how important it is to think ahead and anticipate issues, even as you’re being innovative with social media.

First, I posted a blog piece that mentioned the Department of Homeland Security’s Facebook page. Later that same day, my friend, Gwynne Kostin (who manages Homeland Security’s web presence) posted a comment on that blog piece, correcting me. She said that the Department does not have an official Facebook page. So I went back to the DHS Facebook page I had seen. Yes, it is called “Department of Homeland Security.” Yes, it has the DHS seal. Yes, it shows the Department’s website as the point of contact. Yes, it includes the Department’s mission statement. And the discussion items look like official announcements (one mentions the Secretary). At first glance, it appears to be an official website, even to this experienced former web manager. The only clues that it’s not official are these:

  1. The intro says: "This Group is dedicated to the Department of Homeland Security, and all of its supporters and affiliates." As I read it again, I realize this probably is not the kind of language a government agency would use to introduce its page – even on a social networking site.
  2. The page administrator is in Cheyenne Wyoming. Not Washington, DC. That’s probably the best clue that this isn’t an official government page. Normally, federal government web content is managed from Washington.

Why does should this concern us? There are more than 1,600 members of this Facebook page. I wonder how many of them joined, believing they were becoming part of an official government discussion group. I wonder how many of them think that the comments they post in the discussion room are going to government officials and being considered in official policy-making. Will it impact public trust if they find that they’re being ignored?

Look-alike government pages on social networks are tough to deal with because you don’t control the website. But maybe some agreement across government to use common branding (e.g., always use an official seal and always use the words: this is an official site of the U.S. government) would help. If it appears that fraud is involved (someone is purposefully trying to impersonate a government agency to deliver misleading information), you can and should notify your legal department. Probably the most effective thing to do, for now, is to monitor social media sites to keep track of any sites that look like government sites. At least know who’s out there. Watch the discussions and jump in to let folks know where they can find the official web page.

The second event that got me thinking about the perils of innovation occurred at the end of an audio course for federal, state, and local governments that I taught last week. A participant asked me if I had any recommendations on ways to port their web content to their social network page. I responded that, not only am I unaware of any porting software, I don’t think they should be reposting official government web content on a social networking site. We have so much duplication on government websites as it is…I’d hate to see more. The person who asked this question is just trying to do what her bosses want her to do. And there’s another aspect of this issue…bosses who decide they need to be part of the social media wave, without having a “why.”

As with all innovation, you can stumble into those pitfalls if you don’t think ahead.

Social networking sites could be a good supplement to official government websites…maybe a good way to recruit employees and raise awareness of important public issues. Maybe a good way to do Q&A with the public. Maybe a way to have discussions. Note that I used the word “maybe.” Because the only way you should take on any new work is if your agency has the staff to manage it (write it, post it, monitor it, follow up on comments/discussions, update it). Most government agencies don’t have the staff to manage the content they already have posted, so be sure to give ample thought to how you’re going to juggle all this new content. That’s true for words, videos, audio files…anything you post anywhere. It’s all official content that has to be managed.

Web managers are starting to craft policies for, and best practices in, using social media. They will serve as important guidance and are much needed. But you don’t need to wait to be told what to do. There is enough experience now – just look around. Take the time to identify and address those potential pitfalls. Anticipate while you innovate.

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