A few years ago, our superintendent scheduled an administrative meeting to discuss potential changes to our health care package. The fifteen-minute meeting was scheduled for late afternoon. There wasn’t a lot of doubt before the meeting that there would be very little “discussion.” The “potential” changes meant that the superintendent was recommending to the board of education that administrators pay a greater portion of their health insurance costs. It was “potential” because the board could have said, “oh, no, that’s all right. We’ll continue to pay those costs for our administrators because we value the team and we think they’re worth every penny.” That didn’t happen. The superintendent wasn’t looking for our input. He didn’t really want to hear about our opinions, or to debate the relative merits of taking or not taking this action. This was a meeting to let us know that this was going to happen. And that’s exactly how it went. Afterward, we weren’t very happy about the effective pay cut, but no one complained about not being able to voice our opinions.
More recently, I’ve been involved with two or three organizations that have felt the need to “take advantage of social networking.” We need to leverage the power of social networking tools to build a community of support around our cause. We can get people to care about the important work we’re doing by posting updates on Twitter, starting a Facebook group, uploading YouTube videos and generally having an online-everywhere presence.
I’m sure that’s what Justin Hamilton and Sandra Abrevaya had in mind when they set up the “official twitter account for Department of Education Press Secretaries.” It was also undoubtedly the goal when the US Department of Education starting using Twitter to report an hour-by-hour account of what Secretary Duncan is doing with the unfortunately named @usedgov account. But despite having more than 15,000 followers and 450 updates since setting up the account last year, the DOE has only managed to find two people worth following. Those are the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the Department of Education and Federal Ed Resources, also at the Department of Education. That’s right. They only follow themselves.
When they talk about leveraging social networks, what they really mean is that they no longer have to issue press releases to the news agencies, and hope that the newspapers and nightly news reports contain favorable stories based on those press releases. Now, they can issue the press releases directly to the public. They can control the spin. They can lead the “conversation” in a way that shows them in the best possible light.
But they forgot that, in the online world, “conversation” is not in quotes. So when Bud Hunt, a very well-respected teacher, blogger, podcaster, and member of the online educational community, used the social network that the Department of Education is embracing to ask a simple question, they didn’t know what to do. Here’s what he wanted to know:
I continue to ask of everyone I can speak with in Washington and in Congressional and government offices alike: What is the rationale for eliminating funding for the National Writing Project? It is a simple question, or it seems to be. But I can’t get anyone to answer it beyond broad strokes of “local and state redundancy” and “no significant impact” on students. Since I don’t understand how a national network can exist at the local or state level, and I have evidence to the contrary on impact on students and teachers, I’ll keep asking. It just doesn’t make sense.
In the old world, when you had a question like this, you would write a letter to the Department of Education and ask. Or, maybe you would call them. Leave a message. Someone will get back to you. If no one responds, you might get upset. Maybe you write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. Maybe you write to your congressperson. But there’s no real recourse.
But in Bud’s case, he used the social network to ask the question. That means that the question was asked in a public forum. A lot of people pay attention to what Bud says. So when he asked, they perked up. “Hey, yeah, what about that?” They anxiously waited for the response, and saw… nothing. So they asked Bud. “Hey, Bud, what did the DOE have to say about your question? That was a good question.” So when the DOE didn’t respond, it hurt them a lot more than just not calling him back in the old days.
Other people started jumping on the bandwagon. Zac Chase posted about the NWP. So did Chris Lehmann. Karl Fisch reposted Zac’s post. Suddenly the community was alive. And everyone was looking at the DOE Press Secretary’s office, waiting for a response. But the response still hasn’t come.
I think they just didn’t get the fact that when you start a conversation, you have to listen more than you talk. If you’re really going to leverage social media tools, you have to participate in the conversation.
The best explanation of this that I’ve seen comes from Marta Kagan’s What is Social Media? She does a great job of explaining all of this, and I highly recommend viewing it (or the somewhat less appropriate original version) if you’re thinking of trying to leverage social media for your cause/organization/government agency.