In January, the Central Intelligence Agency duped many of its hundreds of thousands of followers into believing its official Twitter account, @CIA, had befallen a Russian hack.
That impression, CIA's social media lead Carolyn Reams admits, was all part of her plan.
Reams and her small team of social media strategists were experimenting with a new public relations strategy: issue a cryptic message sure to perplex its hundreds of thousands of followers, intrigue new viewers enough to follow @CIA, and then push out historical tidbits from declassified CIA documents.
That week in January, Reams wanted to tell the public about a Cold War operation in which the CIA translated books banned in the Soviet Union into Russian, and then smuggled them in. (One such was Boris Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago" -- the Russian tweet was a quote from the author, which translates to, "I wrote the novel in order for it to be published and read and it remains my only desire.")
The small team is more interested in educating the public about the CIA -- both about historical missions and the agency's current, noncovert activities -- than it is in engaging in conversations with individual users on Twitter, Reams told Nextgov. (Nextgov has a feature on the team in the upcoming issue of Government Executive.)
Between 55 and 60 percent of CIA.gov traffic comes from users frequenting the World Fact Book, according to the agency. About 15 percent browse the careers section, and a smaller chunk of the remainder look at the CIA's historical documents, Reams estimated.
Most Internet users, she says, aren't coming to the CIA.gov's website for history. Instead, "they expect the information to come to them" on the social media platforms they're already using. Reams has a particular affinity for CIA history -- she was deputy director of its museum for 12 years.
She added that the CIA's verified Twitter account, which debuted its first 140-character message in 2014 ("We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet."), also intended to prevent impostors from pretending to be the CIA.
Though the agency maintains its shroud of mystery -- details about its operations and budget are still confidential -- the social media team's responsibility, says Chief of Public Communications Branch Preston Golson, is to "explain as much as we can about our mission to the public."