Feds join Twitter revolution

Obama’s Open Government Directive, due in May, to encourage agency tweets

Twitter is taking flight in unlikely skies: the U.S. federal government.

From NASA to the General Services Administration, more federal agencies are embracing Twitter as another Web-based channel to communicate news and engage in conversations with U.S. citizens (10 Twitter tips from early federal adopters).

NASA announced Monday that astronaut Mike Massimino would use Twitter to provide a personal behind-the-scenes peek at his last few weeks of training before embarking on a space shuttle mission.  In the first 48 hours of Astro_Mike tweets, Massimino attracted more than 14,000 followers on Twitter.

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Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration is notifying more than 3,200 consumers about recalls of peanut and pistachio products on its Twitter stream dubbed FDARecalls. FDA has been issuing four or five tweets a day announcing product recalls since December 2008.

Another leading advocate of Twitter is GSA, which manages government-wide IT contracts and provides training to federal Web managers on best practices for Web 2.0 technologies.

"We have done quite a bit with Twitter," says B. Leilani Martinez, a bilingual content manager for the GSA's Web site. "We have four official Twitter accounts for www.pueblo.gsa.gov, www.usa.gov, www.gobiernousa.gov, and www.govgab.gov. We blog one or two times a day….Twitter is just another channel that we are using to communicate."

These Twitter initiatives are part of a broader push by federal agencies to embrace social media. In late March, the GSA inked a deal that allows agencies to share content on four popular Web sites: YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo and blip.tv. Previously, agencies had legal restrictions that prevented them from using new media sites to distribute information.

The Twitter revolution is just beginning in the federal market. By May 21, the Office of Management and Budget is expected to release an Open Government Directive that details how federal agencies will adopt innovative tools such as Twitter and other social media sites to enhance inter-agency collaboration, increase transparency and foster citizen participation in agency decision-making. The directive was mandated by President Obama in a Jan. 21 memo titled "Transparency and Open Government."

"All of this Web-based technology will really have an enormous impact on this administration and the speed and velocity of getting information out to constituents," says Adelaide O'Brien, research manager at IDC's Government Insights. "The use of Web 2.0 tools…can accelerate the movement of government to share information. We think its' time has come."

GSA takes the lead

GSA is a leader among federal adopters of Twitter. The agency sends its RSS feeds directly to the micro-blogging site, and it has staff tweeting every day.

GSA began its Twitter push in January, when staff members sent regular Tweets with their observations of President Obama's inauguration.

"We got five media passes to officially cover events during the inauguration," Martinez says. "We used Twitter to really cover some of these events. We went to the inaugural ceremony, we went to some of the balls, and we went to the kids' event. We had a whole strategy behind it, and Twitter was the tool we were using to communicate."

Martinez says the usa.gov Twitter feed grew its followers by 20% in three days of inaugural coverage, while the gobiernoUSA.gov Twitter feed grew 60%.

"We didn't have much time to promote this. We got media passes and just went out there and did it," Martinez says. "Twitter worked for this because it was very personal, it was real-time, and it was so viral. It was amazing how many people were grabbing our tweets and re-tweeting."

Martinez admits that some GSA officials were nervous about using Twitter to cover the inauguration, but they signed off on it after participants developed a communications plan that included providing news and not opinions over Twitter.

Martinez says GSA needs to do more internal training of its staff on how best to use Twitter to cover future events. One lesson learned: It's hard for one person to write Tweets, take pictures and integrate it all into blog posts.

She says Twitter is best for sharing immediate information in real time, while other social media sites such as Facebook are better for promoting interactions with constituents.

"Say there's a certain national day where you can wear red. We might want to tweet about that to engage people in a dialogue about it or educate people about it. But it might not be relevant to put that information on our Web site for that one day," Martinez says.

NASA blasts off into Twitter

The public affairs shop at NASA headquarters began issuing daily tweets four months ago. Today, NASA's main Twitter feed has more than 26,000 followers.

NASA's Twitter stream is most active during space missions. For example, during a 24-hour period on April 7 and April 8, NASA blasted out 37 tweets, many of them about expedition 18's landing.

"We have 10 public affairs staff who use Twitter," says Bob Jacobs, Acting Assistant Administrator of NASA's Office of Public Affairs, who says Twitter takes up around 30% of his day. "We have worked to integrate this into our workday."

NASA's Twitter activity is part of a plan by NASA to interact with the public on social networking sites where they are active, rather than requiring the public to visit NASA's main Web site, which gets more than 3 million page views a week. NASA also provides content to Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and Ustream.

"The whole idea is to create a two-way conversation," Jacobs says. "What we post gets re-tweeted and shared. You can see the viral nature of our information spreading, which is vastly different than posting a press release on our Web site….The measure of success with Twitter isn't the sheer number of followers. It's people re-tweeting and sharing the information we post."

Jacobs says NASA is re-tweeting the comments and images posted by other individuals about its space missions. "We try to re-tweet as much as possible because Twitter is about sharing the interesting, valuable and cool things we see," he adds.

Twitter is best for creating conversations around breaking news and ongoing events, Jacobs says. He says it's important that his staff issue tweets with personality so that the information doesn't sound like automated content.

"You make a mistake in utilizing these sites if you just transmit information. That's only half the job," Jacobs says. "You have to build time into your day to interact and engage. You need to get involved in a true dialogue with the people who are taking time to follow you."

Jacobs says NASA will likely reduce the number of press releases and publications it produces – which topped 1,200 last year – in light of its interactions on social media sites like Twitter. With many newspapers and TV stations eliminating their dedicated science and space reporters, NASA is looking to social media sites like Twitter to provide unfiltered communications to the public.

"It's a shift in the cultural mind set," Jacobs says. "It used to be that when we needed to say something, we issued a news release. We're having to change that legacy media structure….Now we're saying maybe we'll publish a short Web feature, post it on Twitter and run video on YouTube and see if that has impact."

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