Having been a federal journalist for a long time, I was around when the federal government started getting into social media. It wasn’t pretty. I wrote a lot of stories back then about the perceived dangers of social media, but not too many about how it could be an innovative way for agencies to connect with audiences. The government has been very slow to figure out how to use social media as an effective communication and awareness tool.
For example, I was once tasked with interviewing the person responsible for writing all social media posts for a well-known federal agency (which will remain unnamed now as there is no need to embarrass them – they have solved this problem a long time ago). The creator of the tweet or post told me that they would first try to find something exciting their agency was doing and then write a short text about it, trying to make it as interesting as possible. They would then prepare the position and… submit it to a committee for evaluation.
Apparently, that committee would then evaluate the post against agency standards, make changes, and send it back to the writer. The author would make those changes and resubmit it to the committee. This would continue to happen until the committee had no more changes. Once that hurdle was cleared, the post would be sent to an editor who would review it for things like grammar and style. If the editor had any changes, they would come back to the author to correct them, and then be submitted again to the committee. Eventually, if the committee and publisher approved, it would then go to an administrator for final clearance. This could re-trigger the whole process if the admin had a problem with it. But if they signed, it would go to the writer.
The writer would then submit their work to a poster – who was the only person in the agency who was actually allowed to log into the social media site and publish the post (after verifying that the committee, editor and administrator had actually approved course). The person I interviewed said the average time to get a tweet or post approved and added to their agency’s social media channel was between three days and a week, which meant they couldn’t not really post anything current, because the tweet would still land long after. the event.
Because of all this, most federal social media sites were pretty terrible, filled with bland facts about the agency or other very pared-down, outdated blurbs. Fortunately, this is not the case these days. Many government social media accounts are useful and interesting, and timely. I thought I’d highlight a few that are particularly good that people might not know about.
NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover
I’ll start by saying that NASA is one of the best agencies in terms of social media presence. This includes the main NASA Twitter site, with its cool slogan “There’s room for everyone”, and almost all of the many divisions and organizations that make up the agency. However, even among them there is one that really stands out, and that is the Perseverance Mars Rover social media account, which is currently operating full time exploring Mars.
The narrative has a lot of personality and is written from the robot’s point of view, normally in first person. Following Perseverance tweets is sometimes like watching a movie or TV show. The robot tweets about some of the challenges it faces as well as the many successes that Perseverance is proud to have achieved.
His most recent tweet, from the Easter weekend, was about the next step in his mission to Mars.
She also sometimes talks about her human team, which she describes as valuable partners. On International Women’s Day, he posted a collage of some of the amazing women who work with him.
You can even nominate a deserving child who is interested in science or space until April 24, and if chosen, Perseverance will send a message to them from Mars. If I was still a kid, I’m sure I would have been blown away to receive a message from a robot from Mars. Heck, even now that would be pretty awesome.
Perseverance has 2.9 million subscribers, including many famous people like President Joe Biden, and many other people too. I consider myself lucky to be among them.
The National Security Agency
@NSAGov and NSA’s Facebook
You might think that government agencies that rely on strong public support for their programs would have better social media outreach programs. And it’s kinda true. It’s not like a law enforcement agency is going to lose funding if it has a weak Facebook page. But that hasn’t stopped the NSA from forging ahead with its outreach programs.
They regularly spotlight employees in their agency with interesting jobs and careers, with posts targeting students who like to, say, reverse-engineer their Roombas or are already coding wizards. But every year, they also sponsor an amazing event called the NSA Codebreaker Challenge, which is open to anyone attending the university, either as an individual or as a team (you must have an email address based there). university to register). The annual challenge, which is heavily promoted on their social media pages, has been active since 2018 and normally involves solving a real-world problem. Last year, the challenge was to detect and respond to a simulated attack on a company that is part of this country’s defense industrial base.
Last year, the agency even released a set of powerful reverse-engineering tools called Ghidra to help solve the challenge. The Georgia Institute of Technology was the hands-down winner in 2021, with the University of North Georgia taking second place and Oregon State University taking third. This year’s challenge is expected to begin over the summer, but the NSA is keeping details about it, well, under wraps, for now.
NOAA Severe Weather Experimental Predictions
In terms of full disclosure, I’m a big fan of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They were one of my first stints as a federal reporter and have always been on the cutting edge of technology. (And no, it’s not the anonymous social media agency described earlier.) Because of everything they do, their Twitter account and especially their Facebook page is full of amazing science projects and other initiatives.
But I wanted to highlight two subpages owned by NOAA’s National Weather Service as examples where government social media can really make a difference. And those are the experimental NWS Tornado and NWS Severe Tstorm Twitter pages.
I realize everyone has a weather app on their phone these days, but it’s not like we’re monitoring it all the time. But many of us monitor our Twitter feeds. Severe thunderstorm and tornado accounts are designed to provide warnings of approaching severe weather, including severity maps, in affected areas. The maps are really helpful, showing potentially impacted areas in red. They also include the population that lives in that area, as well as the number of schools and hospitals there. You also get wind speed warnings and anything else you need to watch out for, like damaging hail.
If you live in an area with frequent tornadoes, then NWS Tornado is probably a good account to follow. Since thunderstorms are more frequent across the country, the NWS Severe Tstorm account is probably less useful. Warnings are good, but they probably won’t be near you. The last one I looked at was April 16 for an area around the cities of Waterloo and Cherokee in Georgia. Still, it could come in handy in some circumstances and is a must-have for true weather geeks.
And much more
The one thing I was surprised to discover when I started looking for innovative government social media accounts is that there are so many these days, far too many to mention here. Even some of the smaller agencies really invest heavily in their social media accounts and in some cases are even more innovative than their larger cousins. Sure, it’s hard to compete with Mars’ tweet bots, but many accounts are really good on their own. We’ve come a long way since those early days of committee postings, and I have no doubt that government agencies will continue to innovate in the future.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and critic with over 20 years of experience in technology. He is the CEO of the Technical Writers Bureau, a group that creates technology thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys