I just returned from a fantastic briefing by Price Floyd, the principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Defense. Under his guidance, DoD has recently launched a new website — Defense.gov — that integrates all of the latest social media tools into DoD’s website and overall communications strategies. More on that insightful presentation soon, but I wanted to comment on something that really stood out — just how far behind the Department of Homeland Security is falling in the public affairs arena by resisting the inevitable need to engage the social media landscape.
DHS actually blocks access to social networking sites. It has the standard social media links on its main site, but in blocking social media access for everybody throughout the department it sends a clear message to its employees: Stay away from social media.
The DHS decision-making process on social media seems disproportionately influenced by the various IT offices, which have little concern about public communications– only technology and security. It shows, and it is unfortunate. Talk to the public affairs officers in the various components, and they will tell you how frustrated they are that they are being held back from using social media tools. Their voices should be given more weight.
The IT folks usually fall back on security concerns. It’s tough to argue with that argument at a department concerned with law enforcement, national security and terrorism. But it’s a false argument. DoD is perhaps the most traditional and operational-security-conscious department in the federal government; nonetheless, it is moving aggressively to join the online debate already taking place. If DoD can find a way, one would hope that DHS could follow.
The contrast between DHS and DoD (as well as other federal agencies) became painful during the question and answer session. Floyd was talking about how critical the social media space was and how DoD recognized it had to get involved or be left behind. Asked how he got around IT objections, Floyd seemed non-plussed and said simply that they didn’t have a say in the matter.
At which point a woman with the Department of Homeland Security said that DHS blocks their access, that they couldn’t engage if they wanted to.
Floyd just kind of looked at her, a little baffled and a little amused. It was an unstated shrug. It was an unstated message: Well, you guys are going to be left behind.
What he ended up saying was: “I don’t know who they are” — referring to the comment that “they block our access” — but asked what was to stop that person from going home tonight and creating a Twitter account or a Facebook page and saying whatever she wanted. And then he advised that the public affairs shops just get louder and more forceful in pointing out to their senior leadership that the conversation is going on — whether they like it or not — and it will go on with or without them.
You can choose to engage that conversation or not. Either way, it won’t stop others from talking about you and influencing public perceptions about your organization.