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.

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?
Tone down the crazy, learn to love bourbon and stop sending me hate-mail.

OT: What’s next for Suzie and Boobs Bacon Bourbon?
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.

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”

The Parks and Rec Effect

I’m quoted in this AOL Government article on citizen participation. The story makes the point that you can have a much bigger impact in your community than at the federal level.

I’ve seen that in DC (the city, not the metaphor), where local issues are frequently debated to death. For example, the ten-year long struggle over the redevelopment of the Wisconsin Avenue Giant. The plan to upgrade this grocery store was so contentious that it claimed the job of one local planning director and caused her successor to steer clear of the whole mess.

Which is why I’ve been so impressed by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), as I mentioned in the article. They put a bike lane down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue, a project that benefits bikers (like me) and is a powerful example of including bikes in transportation plans. They also put in a protected bike lane down 15th St, a block from where I live. This was done in a matter of months, compared to morasses like the Wisconsin Avenue Giant. Continue reading “The Parks and Rec Effect”

Execution Trumps Strategy at What's Next DC

Execution trumps strategy, according to Rachel Tipograph, social media director for the Gap. She was a very wise speaker on the “how” of actually getting things done in large organizations. Creating meaningful experiences online is more important than endless rounds of strategy and planning. As I listened to her speak at What’s Next DC, I watched heads bobbing in agreement around the room.

Execution > Strategy. Which is how I feel about conferences devoted to social media. How can you develop the perfect social media strategy in an ever-changing environment, especially when success is determined by the audience? It’s better to dive in, create something, and see what works.

I was at What’s Next DC thanks to my own bit of execution – I made a pithy comment on the importance of storytelling on GovLoop and won a free ticket to this conference on digital marketing. Continue reading “Execution Trumps Strategy at What's Next DC”

Don't Outsource Social Media to Interns

I’m old enough to remember the early days of the web. Back then (not too long ago, the 1990s), organizations didn’t take this online medium seriously. The web site paled in importance to the newsletter or magazine, at least according the leaders of the time. After all, who reads things on a computer? The Internet was a place for nerds and geeks, for them to discuss Star Trek trivia and learn arcane HTML codes.

If you ran a company or a nonprofit, you really didn’t need a web site, or so people believed. And if you wanted a web site, you could have your nephew build it. He could make something flashy and “cool” like MySpace.

I see the same attitude today toward social media. Why should an organization invest in Facebook or Twitter? Let the interns handle it…

But would you trust an intern to be the voice of your organization? That’s the point I made in a recent article in AOL Government. If you accept the fact that social media is important (and you should, because that’s where the audience is), then why would you hand over these communication efforts to those who know the least about your company? Do you trust college kids to spread your message, respond to questions and interact with potential customers? Do they know the hot-button issues within your company? The language that you use with customers? Your customer service standards and policies? The things that they’re *not* supposed to talk about?

And what happens when the interns leave? They take all that hard-won knowledge about your organization with them, as well as valuable expertise in social media. And they may take the Twitter account as well.

Social media is too important to be left to a transient workforce. Companies and organizations should take a deliberate approach to this dynamic new tool. The keys to the social media kingdom shouldn’t be in the hands of someone who just walked in the door.

Your voice online should be controlled by someone who both knows your company and is familiar with the culture of the web and social media. Look around – you probably have someone already with the requisite experience and interest. They’re probably doing something perceived as more important. But what’s more important than representing your brand in a medium that reaches millions?

The "Now, Discover Your Strengths" Approach to Social Media

Now, Discover Your Strengths is one of the very few personal improvement books worth the money. It’s been superseded by the awkwardly-titled StrengthsFinder 2.0 but the message is the same in the new book:

You should concentrate on what you’re best at. Don’t try to improve your weaknesses, instead sharpen the skills that you do better than anyone else. It’s a countervailing message in this age of self-improvement. It says to drop what you suck at (I’m never going to be a great basketball player) and work on what you do best (writing and photography). Continue reading “The "Now, Discover Your Strengths" Approach to Social Media”

Earthquake Anecdote in Washington Post

earthquake screenshot

It began as a low rumble. I thought someone was moving furniture in my building but then it grew stronger.  I was being shaken, and for a few scary seconds I thought my apartment was going to split in two.

Then it stopped. Outside was a gorgeous sunny day. What happened?

I filed downstairs with my neighbors, none of whom knew exactly what we had experienced. Was this just on our block? I checked Twitter and saw that people from the around the Washington region were tweeting, “Earthquake.” Within seconds, someone had retweeted confirmation from the US Geological Society.

After I posted this anecdote on GovLoop, it was used in Washington Post article on disaster preparedness in federal government. The article highlighted the fact that informal networks, like Twitter, conveyed information more quickly and efficiently than official government channels.

Why I'm Not at SXSW This Year

SXSW 2007
SXSW in 2007

SXSW Interactive is an annual conference of social media and web geeks in Austin. It’s a huge, exhausting event that takes place over a long weekend in March and is popularly known as the conference that introduced Twitter and other new forms of communication.

The criticism now is that it’s gotten too big and too corporate, dominated by giant corporations trying to be hip. And that it’s gotten to be such a chaotic moshpit that it leads to network outages.

I went to SXSW in 2007 and 2008, just the right moment before it became mainstream. The conference taught me to love the brilliant minds at 37signals, whose radically hopeful ideas about the future of work cannot arrive soon enough. I learned that project management should be as simple as possible. Gantt charts and MS Project should be avoided in favor of clear goals that everyone can understand. REWORK is their vision for the ideal work environment, where meetings and busywork are eschewed in favor of collaboration and results. Their philosophy is subversive and attractive for anyone stuck in boring meetings or lengthy conference calls. Continue reading “Why I'm Not at SXSW This Year”

Lessons from the Fire – Part One

So, late one afternoon, my building caught fire. My apartment was fine; other people weren’t so lucky. This is part one of lessons learned. Check out part two for my thoughts on the importance of communication after the fire.

I got the call around 6:30 PM.

“Oh, Joe, I think your building is on fire.”

It was a friend of mine, John Hanshaw, who lives nearby. He could see my apartment building and said that it was surrounded by fire engines.

I really didn’t believe him at first. DC sends out fire trucks for everything. They roll not just for fires, but for medical calls as well. This is because the ambulances are unreliable and sometimes can’t find the right address. The thinking is that the local fire company knows the neighborhood better.

But this makes the city a “land of sirens”, with fire trucks constantly racing down streets, sirens blaring. After a while, the commotion becomes so much background noise. Continue reading “Lessons from the Fire – Part One”