Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why and How to Use Social Media in State Government Relations

Organizations, associations and corporations are now asking themselves whether or not they should get involved in social media and if so, how?  I’ve had frequent dialogue with many who are asking themselves questions, particularly as it relates to applying social media tools for government relations related activities.

In just the last two days, I’ve had lengthy dialogue with two different clients about the role that social media can properly play in state (or local or federal) government relations.  The two clients are very different and their current needs are different, but both provided me with an opportunity to explain a specifically tailored program to two very different audiences.  Not unlike others with whom I’ve conversed on this subject, both audiences did share one thing in common -- neither was a participant in or particularly well-versed in social media.

The first client is a major state government relations firm with literally hundreds of clients with whom they do work with at the state and local level across all 50 states.  I’ve worked with that firm in one capacity or another for more than 10 years.  The second client is a major corporation with a significant state government relations operation that includes legislative counsel or lobbyists in all 50 states, and full communications and research departments.  This company has been a client since I started my firm, and I’ve worked cooperatively with the company for many years prior.

In addition to having limited familiarity with social media (and other new media, that is significantly less “social”), like the general public who may not use social media, their perceptions about what it entailed were common, yet not necessarily consistent with reality.  If you have several friends who are not on Facebook or Twitter, there are a couple of themes that will arise consistent with all of them about their perceptions are of those social media platforms.  In the business world, Linkedin is more familiar with many, but often just as misunderstood.

What are their perceptions?  Their hesitation in getting involved often relates to two things.  First, many are fairly private or modest people.  They really don’t want to be particularly social with others beyond their social network in “real life” and they don’t want people knowing their private business.  The second reason is that they think it’s stupid.  They understand that in Facebook you have a limited number of characters and you can post a status update.  They understand the same about Twitter.  And they assume we post every mundane occurrence in our daily lives. They And understandably are puzzled about why anyone would want to share or have others share with them silly information like “I went over to Aunt Betty’s house today and ate some apple pie.”

I get it.  But let’s be honest, they don’t give the rest of us much credit.  There certainly is some of that on Facebook and Twitter, but there is a lot more too.  In addition to maintaining personal friendships, I maintain, create and strengthen many business relationships.  I participate in many business activities.  And for me, what they are missing, is that both platforms exist as a major clearinghouse and/or clipping service that provides instant and immediate information on the subjects of your choosing.  The clipping service is free of charge.

And, often the information comes much faster to Facebook and especially Twitter than it does from TV, radio and newspaper (including online).  How many times have we seen with breaking news (or election results for that matter) when the crew on CNN or FOX are merely sharing what their staff is picking up on Twitter.  Why not get it ourselves and faster?  That is a way that I help explain the benefits of participating as an individual in social media.  As a business, especially a communications-based business like government or public relations, it borders on insanity to think you aren’t taking advantage of the opportunity to distribute your information in those vast networks when you have the opportunity to target specific audiences.

My clients are swayed when they learn that 92 percent of Americans get their news from more than one source and that 75 percent get much of their news from online sources like email and social media, it helps them pay attention.  Whether they are promoting their own business or promoting public policy issues, it can’t be done effectively these days without social media, at least not cost-effectively.

In 2011 companies are expected to increase social media budgets to make up 20 percent of overall marketing budgets.  And separate from social media, companies are expected to spend as much as 15 percent of their entire marketing budgets on online advertising.  It’s where people get the news.  It’s where people network and build relationships and it’s where the news is most efficiently and effectively delivered.

There is another good reason many of these programs are misunderstood.  It’s because they are evolving quickly.  I’ve applied social media tools for both political campaign purposes and issue advocacy over the last several years.  I’ve studied, written and spoken extensively about social media applications in the political process.  The most telling fact about use of online communications in political campaigns is that the Obama ’08 campaign was clearly the gold standard of the time.  But times have changed dramatically.

The size of Facebook has more than quadrupled since 2008 and has approximately 600 million users.  The size of Twitter has grown nearly 100-fold since 2008, has over 100 million users and is expected to double or triple in coming years.  Linkedin has more than quadrupled since 2008 and has more than 80 million members with a heavy business focus.  In 2010, Facebook became the most visited website on the internet, surpassing even Google.  To put things in perspective, recognize that when the Obama ’08 campaign was the gold standard, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin didn’t truly exist in any way resembling what exists today.

If you don’t understand social media and you believe your association, company or organization may benefit from a social media program, let me give you a bit of a warning.  Beware of the snake oil salesman who says his public relations firm have been leaders in all of this for years and years. You’ll know he’s lying because what’s out here today didn’t even exist two years ago.

Brian Fojtik is the President of Brownstone Communications LLC,  the nation's premier social or new media communications consultants specializing in government relations and issue advocacy in all 50 states.      

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