As more Americans have gone online, social media has become essential to public affairs strategy. Even federal agencies are communicating through Facebook and Twitter.
The US Department of Labor launched two Twitter feeds in May, says Paul Craven, director of the division of enterprise communications for the federal agency. This was partly due to President Barack Obama's directive in January to establish transparency, public participation, and collaboration within government. It also could be attributed to the fact that the agency's audience is now online.
“The single greatest benefit is that it's another channel for us to disseminate our information to the public,” he notes.
The department is also creating a blog for Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, set to launch this month, and a forum for the public to comment on regulations and other department issues. It also plans to continue to webcast its budget rollouts and build on its YouTube channel.
“Now, you're seeing [social media] grow more and more in traditional advocacy organizations and foreign affairs groups, which in the past did not particularly utilize this medium,” says Matt Lauer, MD at Qorvis Communications. “We've started to see a lot more of that this year.”
Public affairs pros have long used social media to achieve grassroots results, but Obama's success with social media during his presidential campaign and since he became the commander in chief has further legitimized these outlets as strategic communications tools.
“With 126 members of Congress and senators on Twitter, if you're a PR or government relations firm, or a public affairs shop, not employing a real, honest-to-goodness Twitter strategy, then there's a serious problem,” says David All, president of David All Group, a conservative Web agency.
Using social media to complement a traditional public affairs campaign allows organizations to both reach and empower a broader audience, build on the success of a proven media plan, and, for the first time, measure results.
“The more you can get people to interact with you, take your content, introduce it to other people, and have a dialogue about that content, the more you're going to engage people with your campaign,” says Colin Moffett, VP at Powell Tate.
“And the more likely you're going to gain advocates to what you're doing, and the more successful you'll be.”
That interaction isn't limited to the US public, but can also include communicators. All notes that instead of sending another letter to the White House, he'll utilize a strategy to leave the same messages on the new White House blog's wall.
Beyond its ability to engage, social media also has the power to encourage an audience to take action on an issue.
Grassroots Enterprise, a bipartisan communications firm, launched a Facebook application that allows people to send a letter to state and federal legislators in support of Sonia Sotomayor's nomination as a Supreme Court justice.
In less than a month, its “after-school project” – there is no paying client – had added 20,000 fans, 5,000 of whom used the application, says Mike Panetta, VP of public affairs and emerging media for the firm.
“A member of Congress may not care that there are 100,000 people who are in support of an issue on Facebook,” he adds, “but when you boil those 100,000 people down to his constituents and he's hearing from them directly, then all of a sudden it's a different story.”
Using traditional and social media to complement each other is crucial to helping achieve the greatest impact.
“This was clearly demonstrated by the Obama administration,” says Lauer. “They worked hard to influence the traditional media and then [underline] those messages that were successfully conveyed by traditional media by their social media army. We try to do the same thing.”
Government use of social media
In early May, it said it had a presence on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Flickr, Vimeo, YouTube, and iTunes. A few weeks later, it launched a forum to encourage suggestions on better transparency.
Created a microsite and a blog in May as part of its transparency task force to generate opinions on how it can better communicate.
To offer the public more information, it has been using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, and widgets.