Agencies Know When to Lead, but What About When to Follow?

Federal agencies know they want Twitter followers but figuring out when and who to follow back is a thornier issue, based on questions during a webinar titled "Engaging Audiences with Twitter," sponsored by the General Services Administration's Web Manager University.

"Some folks in the public aren't entirely comfortable being followed by a museum," said Victoria Portway, the new media lead at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.

As a result, the museum only follows other museums and agencies plus a couple of museum staffers and bigwigs in the field, Portway said. The Air and Space Museum has about 20,000 Twitter followers but only follows 122 other Tweeters.

Stacey Palosky, a social media specialist who tweets under the @OnSafety handle for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, on the other hand, follows numerous large news organizations which she says helps her get the word out quickly about a new recall. Palosky also follows "influencers" who can spread the word about recalls in certain categories, she said, such as "mommy bloggers" for a child toy recall.

The relatively new agency has about 13,500 followers and follows 218 other Tweeters.

Other agencies clearly have a more liberal following policy. The Interior Department, for example, has about 21,500 followers and follows 20,500 other accounts.

The when and who to follow question gets at the very root of why government communications is so confusing in the digital age. On one hand, getting vital information out to the public is an important part of many agencies' missions and Twitter is an effective way to do that. On the other hand, agencies are wary of overstepping their bounds. "I'm being followed by the government," after all has a pretty ominous ring.

Unfortunately, there's no clear answer. A governmentwide following policy would be too much of a sledgehammer approach. Maybe agencies should send a generic Tweet to all new follows offering to unfollow if the follow-ee's uncomfortable?

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