Citizens are Conversations


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Post-inauguration Washington, DC has been very interesting from the standpoint of the technology community. From the top down, all indications are that within their limitations, leadership in the new administration is moving forward on a platform of more transparent and collaborative government. And from the bottom up, a group of people dubbed the “Goverati” are using their knowledge of government and social technologies to influence the overall Government 2.0 movement.

Social technologies like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter used to be collectively termed “new media” – but that adjective isn’t accurate any longer. Rapid, online, multimedia information flow about conflicts in Mumbai and Gaza, a dramatic plane crash in the Hudson river, the presidential inauguration and more have made it clear that new media is now more aptly called “now media,” as I remarked on January 20th.

But it would be misleading to suggest that social technologies are simple merely because they are prevalent – they’re anything but. Social media is a rapidly evolving ecosystem. The experts debate constantly at conferences and in the blogosphere. There’s no rule book. Social media is a giant, chaotic experiment.

So, for a government newcomer to using these tools, everything can seem overwhelming. Many people ask me how to use these tools to communicate what their office or agency is doing. There is no one, simple answer, but perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that social media is social – it is about the conversation that people are having now, perhaps about you or your interests, whether or not you’re a part of it.

Here, I want to advance the notion that citizens are not mere receiving vessels for press releases and whatever you put on your government website. They’re not a captive audience. They are groups of individuals having conversations with their families, at the proverbial water cooler, and on popular social media sites like the blog ReadWriteWeb, the microsharing site Twitter, and the video conversation platform Seesmic. Social networks people form online are becoming an increasingly important and powerful force in their lives and one need only look to the election of President Obama to see the effects that they can have.

Once you acknowledge that citizens are conversations, what do you do next? Generally, you want to find people talking about your topic of interest, listen to what they’re saying, participate in the conversation, and then start new topics of conversation. Generally, you want to tip-toe into the chaos in the order outlined above. As a DC-based communications consultant once wrote: blog last. Below, I briefly outline some other tips to guide you into the world of citizen social media.

It’s good to be a RAT: Unless you’re a computer programmer, social media isn’t really about technology. It’s about people talking to people. Social interactions have a lot to do with personality and trust. As wine entrepreneur and social media maven Gary Vaynerchuk suggests, try as much as possible to be a social RAT: real, authentic, and transparent.

Street smarts count more than book smarts: A lot of social media is learned by doing, and more importantly through trial-and-error experimentation. Speaking in a transparent manner with a human voice can’t be taught easily in a book or at a conference. The same is true for building and maintaining trusted relationships with people. Useful metaphors can be found in organizations as diverse as old-school journalists and the mafia or other crime organizations.

Citizens are talking about your brand: Traditional public relations unidirectional, and has been called things like “outbox only” and “fire and forget.” Government entities need to pay more attention to their brands, and who is talking about them). Organizations should talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships, because word of mouth is still the most powerful force for spreading trusted information. If you don’t know who’s out there talking about your brand, how to you know who to influence when the time comes?

Deploy ambassadors on a lethal generosity mission: Organizations should belong to a community and allow some employees to be individually empowerful. By being the most generous member of a community, they may become the most trusted ( Ambassadors should have knowledge but also great personalities, exhibiting openness, transparency, accuracy, honesty, and respect. They can build valuable new relationships, cheaply (

Engage minds with indirect, intimate influence: Return-on-investment (ROI) is quickly becoming return-on-engagement, or ROE, because personal engagements with people and their word-of-mouth are the new “reach” of messages. Use indirect, intimate influence ( to get that ROE. Influence people through being a valuable member of their community.

Seek out government role models: Colleen Graffy from the State Department successfully used Twitter to connect with overseas journalists as part of her public diplomacy mission ( The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses a public blog called Evolution of Security ( to listen to travelers and their complaints – and overtly discuss policies and problems with them. Representative John Culberson from Texas uses live-video service Qik ( to better communicate with his constituents. What these three people, and others, have in common is that each one of them is a RAT (in a good way) and that they have learned, through trial and error and experimentation, the lessons above.

As top-down decisions trickle throughout government and grassroots efforts propagate upward), are you prepared to join the conversation? It’s happening) with or without you.

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