Federal agencies have come a long way from the bureaucratic rules that often hampered effective social media use.
Having been a federal reporter for a long time, I was there when the federal government first started getting into social media. It wasn’t pretty. I wrote a lot of stories back then about the perceived dangers of social media, but not too many about how it could be an innovative way for agencies to connect with the public. Government was really slow in figuring out how to use social media as an effective communication and outreach tool.
As an example, I was once assigned to interview the person tasked with writing all social media posts for a well-known federal agency (which shall remain nameless now because there is no need to embarrass them—they have long since fixed this problem). The tweet or post creator told me that they would first try and find something exciting that their agency was doing, and then write up a short blurb about it, trying to make it sound as interesting as possible. They would then get the post ready to go and...submit it to a committee for evaluation.
Apparently that committee would then evaluate the post against agency standards, make changes and return it to the writer. The writer would make those changes and resubmit it to the committee again. This would keep happening until the committee didn’t have any more changes. Once it cleared that hurdle, the post would be sent to an editor who would review it for things like grammar and style. If the editor had changes, it would go back to the writer to fix, and then get resubmitted to the committee all over again. Eventually, if both the committee and the editor approved, it would then go to an administrator for final authorization. That could retrigger the entire process if the administrator had a problem with it. But if they signed off, it would go back to the writer.
The writer would then submit their work to a poster—who was the only person at the agency actually authorized to log into the social media site and make the post go live (after checking to make sure that the committee, editor and administrator actually approved of course). The person I interviewed said the average time to get a tweet or post approved and added to their agency social media channel was between three days and a week, which meant they couldn’t really post anything current, because the tweet would always land well after the event.
Because of all that, most federal social media sites were pretty terrible, filled with bland facts about the agency or else highly sanitized and outdated news blurbs. Thankfully, that is not the case these days. Many government social media accounts are useful and interesting—and timely. I thought I would highlight a few that are particularly good that people may not know about.
NASA's Perseverance Mars Rover
I will begin by saying that NASA is one of the best agencies in terms of social media presence. That includes the main NASA Twitter site, with its cool “There is space for everybody” slogan, and almost all of the many divisions and organizations that make up the agency. However, even among them, there is one that really stands out, and that is the social media account of the Perseverance Mars Rover, which is currently operating full time exploring Mars.
The account has a lot of personality, and is written from the point of view of the robot, normally in first person. Following Perseverance’s tweets are sometimes like enjoying a movie or television show. The robot tweets about some of the challenges it faces as well as the many successes that Perseverance is proud of achieving.
Its most recent tweet, as of Easter weekend, talked about the next stage of its Mars mission.
It sometimes talks about its human team too, which it calls invaluable partners. On International Women’s Day, it posted a collage of some of the amazing women working with it.
You can even nominate a deserving child who is interested in science or space through April 24, and, if chosen, Perseverance will direct message with them from Mars. If I was still a kid, I’m sure I would have been blown away getting messaged by a Mars robot. Heck, even now it would be pretty awesome.
Perseverance has 2.9 million followers, including lots of famous folks like President Joe Biden, and lots of other people too. I count myself lucky to be among them.
The National Security Agency
You might think that government agencies that rely on having strong public support for their programs would have better social media outreach programs. And that is somewhat true. It’s not like a law enforcement agency is going to lose funding if they have a weak Facebook page. But that has not stopped the NSA from going all in with their outreach programs.
They regularly spotlight employees at their agency with interesting jobs and careers, with posts targeting students who like to, for example, reverse engineer their Roombas or who are already wizards at coding. But every year they also sponsor an amazing event called the NSA Codebreaker Challenge, which is open to anyone attending college, either as an individual or a team (you must have a college-based email address to register). The yearly challenge, which is heavily promoted on their social media pages, has been active since 2018 and normally involves solving a real-world problem. Last year, the challenge was to detect and respond to a simulated attack on a company that is part of this country’s Defense Industrial Base.
Last year the agency even released a set of powerful reverse engineering tools called Ghidra to help solve the challenge. The Georgia Institute of Technology was the hands down winner in 2021, with the University of North Georgia taking second place and Oregon State University in third. The challenge this year is set to begin sometime over the summer, but the NSA is keeping details about it, well, secret, for now.
NOAA Experimental Severe Weather Predictions
In terms of full disclosure, I am a big fan of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They were one of the agencies on my first beat as a federal reporter, and were always at the cutting edge of technology. (And no, they are not the unnamed committee-heavy social media agency described earlier.) Because of all the great stuff they do, their Twitter account and especially their Facebook page is filled with lots of amazing science projects and other initiatives.
But I wanted to point out two sub-pages belonging to NOAA’s National Weather Service as examples where government social media can really make a difference. And those are the experimental NWS Tornado and NWS Severe Tstorm Twitter pages.
I realize that everyone has a weather application on their phone these days, but it’s not like we are monitoring it all the time. But many of us do monitor our Twitter feeds. The Severe Thunderstorm and Tornado accounts are designed to provide warnings about approaching bad weather—including severity maps—in affected areas. The maps are really helpful, showing in red the areas that are potentially impacted. They also include the population that lives within that zone, plus the number of schools and hospitals located there. You also get wind speed warnings and anything else to look out for, like damaging hail.
If you live in an area that is often hit by tornados, then NWS Tornado is probably a good account to follow. Given that thunderstorms are more prevalent around the country, the NWS Severe Tstorm account is probably less useful. The warnings are good, but most probably won’t be anywhere near you. The last one I looked at was on April 16 for an area around the cities of Waterloo and Cherokee in Georgia. Still, it could be helpful in certain circumstances, and is a must-have for true weather geeks.
And Many More
The one thing that I was surprised to find when I started looking for innovative government social media accounts is that there are a lot of them these days, far too many for me to mention here. Even some of the smaller agencies are really putting a lot into their social media accounts, and in some cases are even more innovative than their larger cousins. Sure, it’s hard to compete with tweeting robots from Mars, but many accounts are really good in their own right. We have come a very long way from those early days of posting by committee, and I have little doubt that government agencies will continue to innovate well into the future.
John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys