How Government Can Trump Social Media

What can government learn from Donald Trump in using social media to both inform and provoke?

Donald Trump. The name may make you want to click away — or stay, just to see what he does next.  Politico recently lamented the combined effect of Trump and social media on modern politics as “exuberantly impolitic.” Trump’s social musings have attracted “a vast Web audience — 4 million followers on Twitter alone — while giving reporters and pundits fresh bait to feed on. What Trump understands is that the best way to dominate the online discussion is not to inform but to provoke."

The question is, what can government learn from Trump in using social media to both inform and provoke?

We took up that question during our first ever GovTech Social Live event in Sacramento, Calif

There was at least a grudging respect across the panel for Trump’s social antics, but I think the real lesson behind the @realDonaldTrump is, in a word, authenticity. Donald Trump “tells it like it is” — at least the way he sees it — and the polls seem to indicate that his unvarnished approach is working for him. How is this possible? Any other politician or public official would be looking at the end of his or her career if they were to tweet (or retweet) with the edge, attitude and point of view that Trump has made his stock-in-trade.

Is Trump simply a singular presence in American politics? Or we can learn to get a little closer to the edge to earn greater engagement? This tension comes up all the time as my colleagues and I talk with public agencies about their social media strategies. On one hand, we encounter public agencies that are afraid to do anything but re-share existing announcements on social media for fear that they will face the wrath of interest groups and agitated citizens if they post original content. On the other hand, we work with agencies who are running virtual town halls, incorporating humor into their posts, and running creative social media campaigns to increase citizen awareness and event attendance. The latter agencies are able to benefit from social media to a much greater degree because of the relationship and perception they’ve established with their audience — they are being authentic.

How might your agency become more authentic? Here are three great examples:

1. Mayor John Curtis of Provo, UT

Mayor John Curtis of Provo, Utah, has been widely recognized for his approach to civic engagement. He blogs, tweets and posts to Facebook on a regular basis. All of the messages are written by him, and he regularly engages in conversation with citizens. In other words, he’s authentic. Whether or not you agree with every decision the city makes, it’s hard not to appreciate a mayor who actively participates in online conversations, solicits feedback and is extraordinarily responsive. You can learn what authentic looks and sounds like by following his feeds to see how he’s leveraging social media to better connect with the citizens.

2. The CIA’s Russian Tweet

An individual public official taking calculated risk through social media is one thing, but that surely doesn’t scale to a big, legacy agency — particularly a highly secretive one that is continually having to manage public trust. It may or not be in some classified manual on spy craft, but the CIA lit up the Twittersphere with a little authenticity wrapped up in a clever trick. Last January, a message in Russian suddenly appeared on the @CIA Twitter feed.

Я писал роман для того, чтобы он был издан и прочитан и это остаётся единственным моим желанием -Пастернак — CIA (@CIA) January 15, 2015
After the message appeared, the @CIA feed remained silent for the next half-hour as the message was retweeted more than 1,500 times. Much of the Twitterverse and media assumed that the CIA’s account had been hacked by an American foe. In reality, the CIA was simply tweeting a quote from Boris Pasternak, the author of the book Dr. Zhivago, which the CIA had smuggled into Russia in the 1950s.

The CIA had intentionally framed the tweet to appear as a hack in order to create buzz on social media so that they could then share details about the now declassified mission. Does it sound a bit risky to trick people believing that one of the world’s premier intelligence agencies was encountering a hack? Maybe. But it’s exactly this light-hearted, self-aware approach that enables the CIA to maintain such a highly engaged audience on social media.

3. The West Hollywood Music Video

Now back to the original question: How might you turn a public safety announcement into the talk of the town? Can a YouTube video about texting and driving, for example, really be that interesting? Just ask the city of West Hollywood, Calif. On Oct. 28, 2014, the city released Alice in WeHoLand, a don’t-text-and-drive public safety announcement featuring drag queens, topless men and a Taylor Swift tune. The video has since received nearly 1.2 million views and was even recognized with a Golden Post award at the Government Social Media Conference in April.


To be fair, it might not be terribly surprising that a professionally choreographed video full of eye-opening visuals has received a lot of attention. The bigger question is how a government agency was was able to run such a bold campaign without encountering significant criticism or legal risk. Well, it’s because the city of West Hollywood knows its audience, and officials have allowed their audience to get to know them. It’s called being authentic.

You cannot fake authenticity. And it is not a one-and-done proposition. In its lament over Trump tweets, Politico made a very good point: “Authority and respect don’t accumulate on social media; they have to be earned anew at each moment. You’re only as relevant as your last tweet.”

The lessons here: Be authentic. And be authentic all the time.

How has your agency Trumped social media? Share your comments below!

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