Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Public Engagement: Clumsy Fingers, Steady Hand

It’s pretty easy for me to get excited about social media because it’s about the core things that I care about – communications and relationships.

I’ve been in the public relations profession for more than 15 years on both the government and business side, and have experienced firsthand how social media is transforming how we communicate with each other.

As businesses are quickly adapting to the new landscape and figuring out how to utilize social media as part of marketing communications, government is following suit. At least, that’s the prevailing thought.

An argument can be advanced that government or the presidential campaign of Barack Obama fully employed and integrated social media tools – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – into a powerful political arsenal against John McCain last year.

Upon capturing the White House thanks to a surge in young voters who overwhelmingly broke for the Obama camp by a 2-to-1 margin, the social media savvy team delivered on their change mantra, promising accountability, openness and transparency. And in doing so, they shined the public light on an all-too bureaucratic at best and secretive process at worst.

The White House created another YouTube video that featured its new media director, Macon Phillips, sharing ways the federal government is using social media as a resource tool for citizens.

“There is so much potential for how government uses the Web. But it won’t be realized unless you step up and participate,” Phillips exclaims. “So join your government at their Web sites and blogs, through videos and photos, in social networks, widgets and so much more.”

But then the brakes came on July 24 when White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged that the staff were blocked from Twitter. Gibbs even went further to say he did not Twitter and did not know why the executive office chose to block the popular social media site.

At least Americans outside the Oval Office had access to the official @WhiteHouse and @BarackObama Twitter accounts although their own staff from the inside did not.

The news hit home for me at the Orange County Transportation Authority, where I work as the department manager of public communications and media relations. After demonstrating the power and cost-effectiveness of social media, our communications team gained access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites. But other employees did not have access to the same information we were sharing with our stakeholders, the news media and the general public via social media.

President Obama’s trip to China in November took on new meaning during a familiar American-style townhall meeting in the closed-society of the People’s Republic of China.

The question making headlines came from the U.S. Embassy Web site and was read by Jon Huntsman, U.S. ambassador to China. “In a country with 350 million Internet users and 60 million bloggers, do you know of the firewall?" Huntsman read. "And second, should we be able to use Twitter freely?'

'I have never used Twitter. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone.'

In a country where the government censors Web sites and blocks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, here is President Obama’s response: "I have never used Twitter. My thumbs are too clumsy to type in things on the phone. But I am a big believer in technology, and I'm a big believer in openness when it comes to the flow of information. I think that the more freely information flows, the stronger the society becomes, because then citizens of countries around the world can hold their own governments accountable. They can begin to think for themselves. That generates new ideas. It encourages creativity."

The president continued by saying that he has "always been a strong supporter of open Internet use. I'm a big supporter of noncensorship. This is part of the tradition of the United States that I discussed before, and I recognize that different countries have different traditions. I can tell you that in the United States, the fact that we have ... unrestricted Internet access is a source of strength, and I think should be encouraged."

He concluded to the crowd of 400 hand-selected students from China’s leading universities: "I should be honest, as president of the United States, there are times where I wish information didn't flow so freely because then I wouldn't have to listen to people criticizing me all the time … I think people naturally ... when they're in positions of power sometimes think, 'Oh, how could that person say that about me,' or 'That's irresponsible.' … But the truth is that because in the United States information is free, and I have a lot of critics in the United States who can say all kinds of things about me, I actually think that that makes our democracy stronger and it makes me a better leader because it forces me to hear opinions that I don't want to hear. It forces me to examine what I'm doing on a day-to-day basis to see, am I really doing the very best that I could be doing for the people of the United States."

It wasn’t his candor of the free-flow of information (that we often take for granted as Americans), but the response that he doesn’t Twitter that caught my attention. His disclosure became a red-hot trending topic on Twitter. I also was perplexed at the huge disconnect between the White House ban of Twitter on its staff and the president’s rhetoric as he lectured the Chinese students in Shanghai on how access to information has made U.S. democracy stronger.

Are we really to believe the avid user of BlackBerry and tech-savvy president doesn’t Twitter because he has clumsy fingers? Does he not know that one can tweet from a regular-sized keyboard on a computer? And what are we to make of those highly personal posts from his @BarackObama Twitter account with more than 2.7 million followers:

· The morning of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, he simply wrote: “Humbled”

· On Thanksgiving Day, he tweeted: “From my family to yours — Happy Thanksgiving.”

· “Michelle receives this year's White House Christmas tree yesterday. Watch the video: http://bit.ly/4o90RN” was the last tweet on Monday, Nov. 30.

Does this administration really think it can fool Americans, especially the generations that been bombarded with marketing and advertising campaigns most of their lives that they can smell insincerity a mile away? How open, transparent or authentic is this administration if they encourage open access to government and employ ghost-twitterers to get that message out without the benefit of public disclosure, and yet the president’s spokesman doesn’t utilize social media because he said we already see enough of him during news briefings?

But the true challenge is to continue to deliver on that promise of change in how government engages with its citizens
No matter what you think about the president, most people acknowledge that he and his team tapped into technology and harnessed the power of social media to maximize public engagement. One public relations practitioner at a recent national gathering of PR professionals even said that President Obama will be best known in history for unleashing the power of technology and bringing it into the hands of ordinary citizens to do extraordinary things.

But the true challenge is to continue to deliver on that promise of change in how government engages with its citizens. Perhaps the national setting inspires change, but its day-to-day implementation best happens at the local level in communities across America such as in Orange County. Tip O’Neill, the late speaker of the U.S. House, famously asserted, “All politics is local.” In today’s setting, it may be appropriate to say that all action is local.

I’m excited to come to Washington, D.C. for Government 2.5 to share our local story on our challenges in harnessing the power of social media, what we did to overcome numerous obstacles to build and sustain a successful new program called “Public E-volvement.”

Unlike the official White House Twitter account with more than 1.5 million followers that responds to only 2 percent, we’re doing better in Orange County albeit with a smaller but growing 15,000 followers. OCTA is responding to people 64 percent of the time. We’re trying to engage the public and building our numbers. And we’re working hard and gaining a following of other governments and public agencies to follow suit.

Abraham Lincoln said it best in the Gettysburg Address: “…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

It’s up to all of us to read, listen, view, comment, disagree, share, participate and engage at the level of government where we can see tangible results – in the backyards of communities across America.

And it’s equally important for innovative employees in government to be brave and bold in contrast to the comfort of the status quo and actively do adventurous work for the public good – even with clumsy fingers.

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