A federal case for digital

Government agencies are increasingly making online tactics part of their outreach to various audiences.

Government agencies are increasingly making online tactics part of their outreach to various audiences.

When the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) had to announce the design change of the $5 note last fall, it decided to inform its very broad target audience - retailers, financial institutions, foreign governments, the media, and the general public - through an entirely online process. Unveiling the note online certainly saved money, officials say, but it also had the benefit of both novelty, as well as inclusiveness, allowing just about anyone in the world interested in the new note to log on and check it out.

"For the $5 note, we were looking for a fresh approach - something not so traditional as a physical unveiling of a design with a press conference that reporters would go to," says Dawn Haley, chief of the external relations office at BEP. "So we were trying to create some buzz and awareness by doing a digital launch. [Overall] our goal is for a smooth transition, for people to see that the new note is coming and say, 'Hey, the new five's here. Have you seen it?'"

With advice and assistance from Burson-Marsteller, the BEP's virtual launch featured a section of the BEP's www.moneyfactory.gov Web site created especially for the launch, but left "dark" in the 24 hours ahead of the unveiling. A clock counted down the seconds until the virtual press conference, which featured officials introducing and explaining the new note and its features.

Reaching the audience
Judging by the attendance of the press conference, the unveiling was a success, with hundreds of media outlets from the US and around the world either participating in the press conference or simply logging on to the site to download digital b-roll or other materials available for use in stories. A number of representatives of foreign financial institutions, as well as many amateur enthusiasts of currency, also participated in the conference through "listen only" mode.

Apart from the actual unveiling, BEP's online communications strategy going forward includes monitoring the "blogosphere" to follow whether the actual introduction of the note into circulation goes smoothly - such as when people try to use the notes in vending machines or metropolitan transit systems. So far, it has.

Haley also says that the lessons learned from the digital introduction of the $5 note will be applied to the BEP's introduction of the new $100 bill, at a date still to be determined. That note is used more extensively around the world and its new design is likely to generate a greater amount of attention from international audiences than the new $5 note.

US government agencies perhaps unfairly get a bad rap for their supposed bureaucracy and resistance to change. But in the realm of communications, many agencies are eagerly embracing podcasts, interactive presentations, blogs, and other forms of digital outreach as cost-effective and influential means of communicating with the public, media, businesses, and rest of the world.

Along with BEP, other government agencies are using online tools for outreach. For example, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has found success with outreach to a small but influential group of bloggers and online forum participants who sometimes refer to themselves as "flubies."

Outreach to traditional media remains as important as ever, but this group of online enthusiasts is a perfect complement to mainstream media, which often turns to bloggers for story ideas and background information. Stephanie Marshall, director of pandemic communications for HHS' office of public affairs, says online Q&As with officials hosted on these third-party blogs have enabled the HHS to better communicate its information to a group that indirectly influences mainstream press coverage.

"I'm a big supporter of going to the different sites, versus expecting everyone to come to you," Marshall says. "You have to express your opinion; otherwise [people] aren't going to hear your viewpoint."

Expanding tools
HHS, with help from its outside agency, Ogilvy, has learned a few lessons in its online outreach, such as how to be more conversational in blogs. Marshall says one HHS official, in a blog about stockpiling of vaccines, caused annoyance among flubies by discussing the issue in too much of an official way. By acknowledging he was new to online outreach, the official was able to mend relations.

"We learned to say, 'We're new to this, help us along.'" Marshall says.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has also increased its digital outreach. The agency created a series of videos explaining the dangers of "phishing" - online scams that pose as legitimate businesses to trick consumers into revealing credit card numbers or other financial information.

Nat Wood, assistant director of the FTC's division of consumer and business education, says that one of those videos was recently featured on MySpace.TV, generating nearly 800,000 views in one day. Wood says his department works to create practical, easy-to-understand materials that other organizations can post or host on their own sites.

"We've found the best approach is both online and offline marketing," Wood says. "We have a lot of people talking to trade associations and nonprofits, and so we always try to feature these resources when talking to them. We don't necessarily say, 'Please run this.' But we say that if they have the opportunity to get the information to their audiences, we'd appreciate it."

Wood acknowledges that the types of videos his agency produces on computer security or telemarketing fraud might not be the most entertaining, but still find viewers.

"We had the second most popular video on MySpace that day our video was featured," he says. "Number one was a Korean toddler singing Hey Jude. In a sense, you really can't compete with that. But our information might be more useful."

Other government agencies online
CDC.gov

Offers a wide range of in-depth information, videos, and facts and figures on health topics in the home, workplace, on the road, and in the air.

NPS.gov

Features an interactive 50-state map of the National Park Services' thousands of parks and historical sites, multimedia presentations on select NPS sites, podcasts by elementary school kids talking about the parks they love, and more.

AIRNow.gov

Run by the EPA and other agencies, provides current and historical information on air quality across the US.

TSA.gov/blog

"Evolution of Security" blog discusses technology and the checkpoint screening process, including inconsistencies among airports.

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