Federal managers are Tweeting into unknown territory to get the word out and to get their jobs done.
Many agencies have turned to Twitter as a public relations tool for keeping people informed. Followers online can gather snippets on everything from the secretary of State's remarks at Middle East peace talks to NASA's take on commercial space travel. But federal employees and consultants say the social networking service's usefulness goes far beyond simple status reports.
Some are using Twitter to coordinate emergency response, attend meetings virtually and build relationships with others in their field. For the uninitiated, Twitter is an Internet application that allows individuals to broadcast their thoughts and actions minute-by-minute on a massive blog. And they can track updates from others by subscribing to their news feeds. The entries, or Tweets, look like text messages and are limited to 140 characters.
Many people have the perception that the tool is just for socializing, gossiping and keeping tabs on their friends' whereabouts-but it's also for "social business," says Noel Dickover, an independent consultant who helped the Defense Department develop its social media policy. "It's a different method of conducting work, making relationships, sharing information, sense-making, situational awareness," he says.
Dickover points to a group of volunteers and aid organizations working to help the citizens of Haiti during the aftermath of the January earthquake. They asked locals with cell phones to type messages pinpointing the location of trapped family members using a free texting code: 4636. The State Department worked with telecommunications companies to establish the free service and publicized the code on Twitter. The group, now known as Mission 4636, translated messages from Haitian Creole to English and plotted the victims' locations on a crisis mapping tool called Ushahidi, which was monitored by American first responders.
With the help of prominent people who have Twitter followers of their own, State's messages are widely circulated. In August, for instance, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates re-Tweeted (or forwarded) the department's message imploring citizens to donate to the Pakistan flood relief effort: "StateDept Learn more about #Pakistan flood disaster relief and ways you can help: http://go.usa.gov/ckp #pkfloods #helppakistan." Gates' followers rebroadcast the message and it spread throughout the Twitterverse like a chain letter. But Tweets can take on a life of their own, and rumors are bound to spread. Twitter offers agencies a chance to quickly correct misinformation, says Luke Forgerson, who is managing editor of State's blog DipNote and helps oversee the department's Twitter account. For instance in March, State used Twitter to quash a rumor that Madagascar's ousted president was in hiding at the island's U.S.
embassy. Officials were concerned the rumor would prompt an embassy attack so they Tweeted a denial of the episode.
Twitter has applications for internal collaboration as well. During a conference or meeting, co-workers can shoot real-time notes to those who are unable to attend the event, or collect their questions for panelists. In addition, professionals with similar interests can find contacts or research through the Twitter search engine, which compiles related Tweets.
To establish a presence in the Twittersphere, agencies should Tweet regularly, or they risk losing their audience's attention, employees say. Posting one Tweet a day or three Tweets a week is fine, as long as the writer is consistent, says Amanda Eamich, director of the Web communications division at the Agriculture Department. Managing expectations is important for building relationships within the online community, she adds.
NASA has become good at attracting an audience because it has made an effort to listen to its followers, officials say.
"In the beginning we sent out a Tweet saying, 'Are we Tweeting too much? Are we not Tweeting enough?' The community is very vocal . . . and we learn," says Stephanie Schierholz, NASA's social media manager.
Followers loved it when NASA flew a DC-8 through Hurricane Earl in September and narrated the flight on Twitter, adds Schierholz, who monitored the reaction online. She noticed many users referenced it in their own Twitter feeds. Some Tweeted, "This is awesome," and others clicked on an embedded link to NASA's site for more images and statistics. NASA uses a governmentwide service called Go.USA.gov that shortens Web addresses so they don't consume all 140 characters in an entry.
Bob Jacobs, NASA's deputy associate administrator for communication, interacts regularly with fellow space enthusiasts through an unofficial account in his own name. "We don't delve too deeply into the Bob Jacobs universe, but I will say things on a personal level and also will share NASA observations," he says.
Many agencies, including NASA, are drafting social media guidelines to help people like Jacobs, who identify themselves as government employees and converse publicly outside of formal communications channels. NASA and the Defense Department instruct employees not to break news on their Twitter accounts. "It's a gray area, and having a good understanding of where that line is" is important, Jacobs says.
He points to an emergency situation in September that blurred the boundaries between official and unofficial Tweets. An e-mail virus hit some of NASA's servers, prompting employees to let colleagues know via Twitter and other social sites. "Typically, an employee would not be telling the world about an issue potentially impacting agency activities," Jacobs says. "However, the immediacy and convenience of Twitter seem to remove that built-in filter people have when publicly discussing internal issues."
Employees who likely would have censored internal information in calls with reporters thought nothing of typing it on a giant message board for the world to see, Jacobs notes. "The definition of 'internal' has changed before our eyes," he says.