Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Social Media in Government Relations: How and Why

Organizations, associations and corporations are asking themselves whether or not they should get involved in social media and if so, how?  Recently, I’ve had conversations with professionals who struggle to understand social media, particularly as it relates to applying those tools to accomplish government relations and business development objectives.  Frankly, failing to harness the immense potential of social and other new media technologies in pursuit of an organization’s communications objectives is short-sighted at best.

Having worked in government, and political and government relations capacities for the last 25 years, I’m fortunate to understand creative and effective messaging in a public policy context.  And, more recently I’ve had the unique opportunity to have been immersed in modern communication tools and technologies as they’ve evolved (and continue to).  If you look close enough, you’ll find talented people on one side or another of that equation.  It’s extremely rare to find those with expertise in both.  The good news is that the social media world in which we operate today didn’t even exist when the Obama 2008 campaign set the (old) gold standard for online communications, so there is time to catch up with some help.

In the last two weeks, I’ve participated in dialogue with two different clients about the role social media can play in driving issues critical to government relations success (as the local, state or federal level).  The two clients are different.  Their needs are different.  But each of their situations affords me the opportunity to not only develop but also explain a specifically tailored program.  Both clients do share one thing in common -- neither is particularly conversant in social media.

The first client is a major state government relations firm with literally hundreds of clients with whom they work across the country.  I’ve worked with that business in one capacity or another for almost 15 years.  The second is a large corporation, in a fast-paced and challenging industry, with significant state government relations operations.  They include representation in all 50 states, and are supported by sophisticated in-house communications and research departments working to provide. I’ve worked cooperatively with this company for many years and know them well.

The two organizations are very different.  What they share is a limited familiarity with social media.  The perceptions they share about social media are extremely common, but 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 private or modest people.  They really don’t want to be social with others beyond their protected social networks 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 everyone posts every mundane occurrence in their daily lives. Understandably, they're 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 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 (except for time invested) and tailored exactly to your liking.  They are free to take from it and contribute to it.

And, often 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 (and often more in depth and more accurately and completely)?  These are some of the examples that I used to explain the benefits of participating 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 with ability to identify and target particular 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.  I can’t imagine leading any genuine organization and not incorporating a specific social media program into efforts to achieve our goals.

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.  As I indicated earlier, the Obama ’08 campaign was clearly the gold standard of online communications.  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.

This entry was cross-posted at Pundit League in a regular weekly column by Brian Fojtik, President of Brownstone Communications LLC.  You can learn more about Brownstone's work focusing on government relations, coalition building, issue advocacy and specifically applying new/social media in those contexts here.


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