Over the last few days, there has been some noise on social media about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) joining Twitter and Facebook. Their first tweet was: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” It seems that they have a sense of humour.
Their objective – according to a statement by CIA Director John Brennan – is to “more directly engage the public and provide information on the CIA’s mission, history, and other developments.” In the statement, he also said: “We have important insights to share, and we want to make sure that unclassified information about the agency is more accessible to the American public that we serve, consistent with our national security mission.”
There were certainly some laugh-out-loud responses to the CIA’s first tweet and, in a day and age where we expect transparency from our government agencies, it seems to make sense that they would use social media. And I am sure the CIA has a budget to support this social media outreach – which is important, especially for a high profile, controversial organization such as this. At this point, their Twitter account has more than half a million followers, with Facebook at just about 40,000.
I am interested to see how this plays out. The director stated that they want to “more directly engage the public” – that is a pretty big objective for a spy organization. I think that in theory, it’s great that they are embracing social media. In reality, I think they will spend a great deal of time dealing with critics and controversy and defending their actions and their organization. I wonder what that will achieve for them in the short and longer term.
If they are going to use social media to push out information that can be found in news releases or other public statements, then I think it will be ineffective. Social media is about conversation, dialogue and discussion between people – it shouldn’t be used as a distribution channel that is one way. With half a million Twitter followers – that is a large number of people who will be paying attention to what they communicate.
At AHA, we have several high profile organizations as clients (not the CIA), and we have developed strategic communications plans that include social media. The research and strategy that goes into these plans includes understanding how and when social media could be an asset and when it might be a liability for the organization.
I think it is important to identify the risks of engaging and not engaging – and they both have risks. I spend a great deal of my professional life explaining why organizations should engage – but there are still times when the risk of engaging is higher than not engaging. If, after you have identified the risks of engaging, you find that it’s a long list – and you still believe you need to reach out – it is crucial to be properly resourced. And you need to have an issues communication plan in place. There is no doubt that the CIA will face issues online – their agency is too high profile and too controversial to avoid it. It may be that they use those issues to authentically engage and keep the American public (and the rest of the world) informed. We’ll see. As much as the online world has been around for a long time (heck, AHA has been involved in it for close to 15 years!) – it is still uncharted territory in many ways. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.