Bikes are Happiness Machines: Profiled in Greater Greater Washington

I was recently profiled in Greater Greater Washington for my photography and social media work documenting bike culture in this area. There’s nothing I like more than wandering the city by bike (and drinking coffee), which comes across in the nicely-written article.

Usually, I’m the one doing the interviewing so it was different to be on the receiving end of the questions. Rachel and the folks at GGW did a great job cleaning up my answers and turning them into coherent responses. My interview is part of a series called Behind the Handlebars, which will be profiling the people of #BikeDC.

“Bikes are happiness machines.” When I said that, I was thinking of this article in Momentum on the mental health benefits of cycling. I’ve been out on a bike in all kinds of weather, from the polar vortex to punishing heat, and I’ve never had a bad moment.

Letter from Washington: Public Servants, Not Trump Servants

President Trump is “locking down” government communication, including social media, at federal agencies. A crackdown is occurring at the Department of Transportation, HHS and other agencies. Press releases, tweeting and even public speaking is banned – temporarily, they claim. Trump loyalists are being embedded to monitor the work and communications of public servants.

Public servants are called that for a reason – they work for the public. It’s a service, paid for with your tax dollars. Federal employees do not work for a single faction. They serve all of us, no matter which political party we support.

They are public servants, not Trump servants. Their work belongs to us. They have an obligation to communicate to the citizens who pay their salary.

I worked as a contractor in the communications department of a large federal agency. Among my duties was updating the social media account. As long as I avoided certain hot-button issues (like climate change), I was allowed to write and post to Facebook and Twitter without review.

Was this because senior management was interested in more important matters? Or didn’t think social media was important? A little of both. Press releases went through rounds of reviews because they could be printed out, marked up and distributed. The ephemeral world of social media didn’t lend itself to such micromanagement so was left alone.

It’s also impossible to monitor, as the rogue Badlands NPS account revealed. While there are tools to manage social media, my agency didn’t have them. We didn’t know how many social media accounts we had, who ran them or what they were doing with them. Different components of the agency had set them up, without informing HQ. Passwords to social media accounts were widely shared and given to interns and even contractors, like myself.

I felt we should communicate more, not less. There were some fascinating stories inside the agency where I worked. Technicians developing tools to alert the public to severe weather. Scientists uncovering the secrets of the lightless deep ocean. Researchers helping farmers plan for drought.

There should be more government communication, not less. Every government employee should be allowed to communicate with the public on the subject of their work. Conservatives should demand this – don’t you want to know what your money is being used for?

Information wants to be free, wanting to escape its bounds and find its way to readers. Just look at the 2016 campaign, during which embarassing DNC documents were leaked by the Russians.

The Trump action will ultimately fail, the tools they used against opponents now turned upon them. Once the feds discover how easy it is to go rogue, an alternate universe of federal information will be established in cyberspace, outside the control of Trumpian minders, a Wikileaks of climate reports, scientific research and gossipy accounts of government life, ultimately achieving the aim of making government information accessible to the people.

For what better way to get people to read something then to tell them that it’s banned? 😉

 

Employees Are the Brand

Lincoln Memorial amid trees

Your employees are your brand, according to an all-star panel of communicators at the recent workshop, “Building an Agency’s Brand and Defining the Audience.”

The Federal Communicators Network (FCN) and the Partnership for Public Service sponsored this conversation on how to build a strong brand and better define your audience. This lively discussion featured real-world stories from professional communicators who have honed their organization’s brand and established a clear customer base.

Panelists included Danielle Blumenthal (NIST), Bill Walsh (AARP), Suki Baz (National Park Service) and moderator Dave Herbert (NGS).

Suki Baz began by describing the rebranding efforts going on at the National Park Service. They have a logo that’s iconic and instantly recognizable. However, the design of the NPS arrowhead is limiting, as it was designed before the needs of web pages and social media. As their 100th anniversary approaches, they’re reintroducing their logo with a fresh new feel that’s designed to appeal to millennials.

However, NPS recognizes that to appeal to younger audiences they need to do more than just change their logo. NPS is adding to their social media teams and encouraging their parks to actively engage with younger audiences, particularly online.

(An aside: of course I asked NPS about how they never respond to my tweets! Unsurprisingly, NPS is a large bureaucracy like any other one. Suki has little control over what local park districts do. So, how do you get in touch with a park if you have an issue? She suggested calling.)

Another organization that has approached rebranding is AARP. For most people, it’s an organization synonymous with senior citizens. The arrival of a letter inviting you to join AARP is like an official acknowledgment of old age. Bill Walsh of AARP hopes to change all that. AARP no longer stands for the American Association of Retired Persons. Instead, it’s just AARP these days. They’ve modernized their web, print and social media materials to reach out to Baby Boomers – you only need to be 50 to join. These efforts fall under a single banner: Real Possibilities. AARP no longer wants to be known just for travel discounts – they want to be seen as an organization that will help you reach your potential through career and life advice.

Employees are a key element in this transition. AARP has offices nationwide and a cadre of volunteers. Field offices have been provided with briefing materials and messaging guides so that the organization can speak in a single, consistent voice.

Danielle Blumenthal underscored this point with examples from her career in federal government. Her experience is been that most people don’t read the employee newsletter. The way to reach busy employees is through short, concise, valuable content. Instead of doing a newsletter, she suggests sending out a daily email with the three things that you need to know for the day. You need to focus on value (the things employees care about) and be real (speak as a person, not an organization). After all, the first people you need to sell your brand to are your own employees.

Employees are brand ambassadors. The public builds impressions of brands based upon the experience they have with them. New logos and redesign efforts are only part of the solution to modernizing a brand. Employees are the key element in any transition for they embody the brand.

For More Information

NPS: Why Won’t You Answer Me?

Bike trail bridge near National Airport
A very icy and dangerous section of the Mount Vernon Trail near National Airport. Photo by Michael Neubert.

I recently attended Social Media: What’s the Right Strategy for Your Agency?, a forum put on by the Federal Communicators Network. The event was a roundtable discussion of best practices from social media experts at the CIA (really), VA and USGS, among others.

It was a very interesting discussion but one point stood out for me as a government communicator: good federal agencies know that social media is customer service. They realize that Twitter and Facebook are more than just broadcast vehicles; they exist to help the public get answers. Social media is a chance to change the perception of Big Government by providing information to the public in a timely manner.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Smart federal agencies like the VA and USGS have teams in place to respond to public inquiries. They’re setup as customer service centers and pride themselves on letting no question go unanswered.

And then we have the National Parks Service, who never ever ever respond to anyone who asks them a question on Twitter. They’re too busy tweeting about TV shows and Junior Rangers to reply to us taxpayers.

For example, the bike trail (you knew this would come back to bikes, didn’t you?) along the GW Parkway is one of the most heavily traveled bike commuter routes in the region. It’s essential for people coming from Alexandria to get into the city.

Does NPS plow the bike trail like Arlington County does? No, they let the trails turn into ice-covered ruts that endanger walkers, runners and cyclists.

What’s worse is that they never ever respond to anyone (and there’s been a lot of people) who ask them about it on social media. Do you think the phones at NPS go unanswered? No, of course not. They have people to answer the phones. But when it comes to social media they let it ring and ring, the public be damned.

Not responding to the public is one of the cardinal sins of this age. Agencies with budgets much smaller than NPS will reply to your tweets, like the DC Department of Transportation. We in #BikeDC forgive their lapses in snow removal because we know that they’re trying.

How do we know this? Because there’s a real person who answers their Twitter! You can get angry at a big agency but when there’s obviously a human being on the other end of the computer – you feel empathy for them.

Even WMATA, who literally lets customers die in a fire, will reply to folks on Twitter. Sometimes they’re even helpful.

The National Parks Service has a budget of $2.6 billion. They have a staff of 21,798. You can’t find a couple folks to answer tweets?

If the National Parks Service cannot maintain their social media accounts, they should shut them down. Their poor customer service is embarrassing the rest of Big Government – and that’s saying something.

The 21st Century is a Really Bad Time for Control Freaks

The 21st Century is a really bad time for control freaks.
– Alec Ross, former Senior Advisor for Innovation to the U.S. Secretary of State

The State Department trusts its employees to tweet – why doesn’t yours?

The above quote was mentioned by Graham Lampa, State Department Office of Public Diplomacy, at the SocialGov Summit, a workshop on how government agencies are using social media to help build a more connected, responsive, and performance-driven government. The event featured digital experts from the State Department, USAID, Peace Corps, Red Cross and the Philippines government who discussed using social media to connect with audiences at home and abroad.

Lampa brought up the quote from his former boss when someone asked, “How are tweets cleared in your agency?” The answer is that State trusts its staff. In a rapidly changing world, there is not time to send social media through some cumbersome review process, particularly when you have staff scattered across the globe. State trusts its Ambassadors and consular staff to speak for the agency – and the country.

A friend of mine used to work for a Very Important Nonprofit (that no one has heard of outside of Washington). It believed that the world waited for their announcements as if they were Kremlin communiques. Even a simple tweet required multiple levels of sign-offs and approvals, with anxious emails parsing every single word over the course of days, sometime weeks. When the tweets finally reached the outside world, they read as if they were written by pedantic lawyers. They were ignored.

This is how you kill off social media. Who would want to tweet for an org like that?

But your employees will talk about you. They’re tweeting, posting on Facebook, pinning on Pinterest, holding Google Hangouts and taking pictures on Flickr. The conversation is taking place and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Communication can’t be controlled, even if you review every tweet employees produce during working hours.

“The 21st Century is a really bad time for control freaks,” as Alec Ross says. The State Department has 270 locations in 172 countries. It’s budget is in the tens of billions of dollars. They have guns, badges and the power of the federal government but even they can’t control what people are saying about them online. State wisely recognizes that they can’t control the conversation – instead they must contribute to it, using their best resource: their people.

Your employees want to help. They’re already talking about you on Facebook. Rather than tangling them in some social media policy, trust them to communicate your message online. After all, you hired them, didn’t you?

Get employes on your side. Get them tweeting for you. They are your best resource for they represent the authentic voice of your organization. Make them ambassadors for your brand – and get out of the way.

Don't Mess Up My Block – Free for CyberMonday

Don't Mess Up My Block book coverGet my biz book satire Don’t Mess Up My Block for free this CyberMonday! My funny novel follows Laurent Christ, self-annointed business guru, as he travels the country dispensing bad advice to clients large and small. The book skewers social media consultants, big government, corporate-speak and other evils of contemporary America.

Interview with Suzie Robb of Boobs Bacon Bourbon

Suzie Robb
Suzie Robb

For the “Man Up!” issue of On Tap Magazine, I had a chance to interview Suzie Robb of Boobs Bacon Bourbon, a web site that covers these important male interests. Given her web site, I thought she’d be perfect for the dude-themed August edition of On Tap.

If you live in DC and are on Twitter, sooner or later you will meet Suzie. She’s like a female Kevin Bacon, connected to everyone. I met her at a show of iPhone photography at Fathom gallery. She knew all the photogs I knew and everyone else in DC, it seemed.

Given her ubiquity in the local Twitterverse, it’s not surprising that she was given the opportunity to talk to the Social Media Club of DC about her approach to blogging and new media. Her advice is practical – be real. Write about things you’re passionate about, even if it’s your morning commute.

But what I like about Suzie – she just went for it. Most people, after waking up sober the next morning, would dismiss the idea of web site devoted to boobs, bacon and bourbon. Not Suzie and her friends. She registered the domain name and got to work, enlisting people to write content, installing WordPress and scheduling the launch party.

Web sites sometimes get planned to death, with Gantt charts and Microsoft Project replacing what is, essentially, an artistic venture. It doesn’t have to be this way, as Boobs Bacon Bourbon cheekily demonstrates.

Suzie Robb: One of the Guys
By Joe Flood
On Tap Magazine | August 2012 Issue

You know that girl with the food issues and the unfathomable neuroses? Suzie Robb is the opposite of all that. As the founder of the Boobs Bacon Bourbon web site, she’s a guy’s girl who enjoys nothing more than pitchers of beer and rowdy friends.

On Tap: Were you born this way?
Suzzie Robb:
I’ve been a “guy’s girl” my entire life. I have two brothers that I’m very close with and always had male friends growing up. I don’t dislike women, I just relate more to the drama-free lifestyle of guys. Plus, they never borrow my clothes.

OT: Any advice for the women of DC?
SR:
Tone down the crazy, learn to love bourbon and stop sending me hate-mail.

OT: What’s next for Suzie and Boobs Bacon Bourbon?
SR:
The web site has taken on a personality of its own and become something I never predicted it could be. I’d love to host more events and find ways for readers to be able to interact with each other. What’s next for me? Beyond a glass of bourbon on the rocks, I have no idea.

Washington Post, What Happened to You?

Washington Post, what happened to you? You’re the paper of Woodward and Bernstein, a beloved local institution and a veritable fourth branch of government.

Coming home after a Saturday night carousing, I used to love to see the trucks lined up outside your building on 15th Street. Back then (the 90s), the paper was printed right next to the Post’s HQ. Blue trucks would be double-parked along the street, waiting to deliver the news to the region.

And if I stayed out late enough, I could pick up the fat slab of Sunday’s paper while it was still technically Saturday night. There was a weird thrill to this, getting the news ahead of everyone else. The Sunday paper was an event, something everyone read.

This is all gone now. Where once stories were reported, fact-checked, edited and edited again before the presses rolled, news these days emerges in electronic form, often-rushed and incomplete. This is a good thing. I am for more news, more information, for the great cornucopia of the web. No more gatekeepers, let the public decide what matters.

http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5288/5271613476_e7934e7d58.jpg

But the Washington Post is an institution. It is a brand expressing journalistic quality and integrity. When they publish something, I expect it to be true.

I don’t expect the Washington Post to be running a digital sweatshop, where young journalists are expected to churn out regurgitated news items in the mad pursuit of impossible traffic goals.

How does this fit into the great tradition of the Post? The strength of the paper is its ability to really delve into issues. Why are they trying to be like some smarmy blog?

And getting a few hits on your site – what is that really winning you? Traffic rushes in to click on a link and then rushes off to some other site.

At the What’s Next DC conference, I watched Katharine Zaleski, the paper’s digital news director, give a presentation on the strategy. Coming from the Huffington Post, she brought a relentless focus on metrics. News was to be measured. And the measurement was site traffic. She had charts showing how traffic to the site had increased as the Post increased its “buzziness,” with efforts like news aggregation and blogging.

Does the Washington Post really want to emulate The Huffington Post? Do they want to “surf the trend waves on the Internet”? Shouldn’t the paper be making waves rather than trying to catch them?

And are ephemeral bursts of web traffic the right metric to follow? If so, why not just turn your site over to cat videos? But the Post is more than that, isn’t it?

Stay true to your mission – quality journalism. It’s what you do best. Stop trying to be cool. Don’t go for viral. Avoid “buzziness” and all its advocates.

Instead, simplify. Be the Apple of newspapers. Don’t add more web gimmickry to your cluttered and unusable web site. Focus on what you do best.

Don’t measure web hits – look at engagement. How long do people stay on the site? How many stories do they read? Try to duplicate the loyalty readers once felt toward the paper that they lovingly held in their hands. Better to have 100,000 devoted readers than a million casual followers.

No more second-rate social media. It’s beneath you, Washington Post. Simplify, focus on your strengths and pursue engagement with readers to be true to your news-breaking legacy.

I Wish I Had Tweeted More: Confessions of a Social Media Skeptic

SXSW 2007I was there at the beginning.

In 2007, Twitter leapt into geek consciousness at SXSW Interactive. Monitors had been placed in the halls of this tech conference, displaying what people were tweeting about. I thought it was an interesting curiosity, like watching telegrams in real time. Little bursts of text scrolled across the screen, as people shared opinions about the workshops that they were in.

Imagine, prior to this epochal event of just five years ago, we had no easy way of getting real-time information from our friends, unless of course we talked to them. And when we went to events, we were fully present, listening to speakers without constantly checking our electronic devices. We paid attention, more or less. Or nodded off. Or wandered away, in search of something more interesting, guided only by instinct. Continue reading “I Wish I Had Tweeted More: Confessions of a Social Media Skeptic”

Should You Yammer?

I’m quoted in this article on AOL Government about using internal social networks. Imagine a company-wide version of Twitter or Facebook and you’ll have a good idea of how an internal social network works. They’re non-hierarchical, open environments where employees can share information.

Perhaps the best known of these systems is Yammer. It’s billed as an “enterprise social networks” but looks and operates so much like Facebook that people can start using it immediately. If you know how to post updates and respond to friends on Facebook, then they you quickly figure out Yammer. Continue reading “Should You Yammer?”