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What IG Overlooked In State Dept. Facebook Flare-up

Inspector General's slap at State Department bureau for spending $630,000 on Facebook Likes misses important lessons of social media's role.

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The State Department is often recognized for its forward-leaning use of social media to connect with populations around the world. However, the Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) might have leaned a little too far forward.

That's according to a recent State Department Inspector General's report, which took issue recently with the bureau's decision to spend $630,000 on two campaigns to build its base of Facebook fans. The promotion campaigns were a success at one level: They helped increase the number of fans of the bureau's English Facebook pages from about 100,000 to more than 2 million.

At question, however, was how many of those fans were meaningful to the Department's mission. The IG faulted State Department employees for "buying fans" and focusing on the raw numbers of social media fans instead of public diplomacy goals.

The incident highlights the challenges leaders face in focusing a little too closely on only what can be measured, and in particular, how to properly gauge the success of new technologies such as social media at an enterprise level.

I preface this with my own strong belief of the potential promise that social media holds. Having worked for a federal agency and as a consultant in the private sector, I believe that if done right, social media can be a new foundation of cultivating reciprocal likable relationships in an era of transparency; it can also make the world a more likable place.

[ It's easier than ever to search Facebook. Time to revisit your privacy settings? Read 3 Facebook Privacy Settings To Check. ]

Good social media communications obviously starts with leadership establishing a goal, a way to measure that goal, an implementation strategy and overall organizational policy that has radiated throughout so employees understand what their role is or isn't in reaching overall goals.

Leadership, however, can also get the goal wrong. Although I've been in strategic communications my entire professional career, it was only over the past three years that I studied social media in depth and started seeing how clients were struggling to grasp how to use and measure social media.

In the beginning, many clients would indicate their social media goal was "to go viral" or to "get 1,000 Facebook Likes within six months." Many were disappointed to learn that rarely does content go viral and that simply focusing on getting Likes on a Facebook page can be misleading. When I asked my clients what was next after 1,000 Likes toward their social media goal, many were under the impression that then their sales would increase or some other miraculous thing would happen quickly.

Tailoring those types of goals is more complicated for government agencies, where success is sometimes as much about preventing bad things from happening as it is delivering services. And often, those services are delivered indirectly through other government organizations.

But there are some principles worth following -- and some important distinctions about what the State Department did.

First, let's not confuse buying social media Likes with bona fide efforts to market a brand in social media. What does buying Likes mean? There are people out there who will actually sell a person or organization Likes. And this transaction is merely dollars for Likes that are fake; in other words, robots and not real people behind email addresses.

This is not what the State Department did. Rather, what the State Department actually did was roll out a social media campaign. This is not unlike a communications campaign that, for example, the Office of National Drug Control Policy might have done toward keeping young people away from drugs. Nearly every large organization, whether public or private, has rolled out such campaigns in one form or another.

This is what contributes to a brand -- whether it's a public or private institution. Most of us probably would not consider this newsworthy. But given that Facebook is a social media platform with over a billion users -- if it were a country, it would be the world's third largest -- we as a society make Facebook "newsworthy".

Second, establishing a social media policy and then implementing it with specific measurable goals takes time, a lot of time -- unless of course a notable personal brand steps up, like Hillary Clinton the citizen not the former Secretary of State, and gets hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers within days. A brand can endeavor to accelerate the pace of getting followers or Likes through purchasing Facebook ads but a typical brand won't see rapid growth like that of a celebrity even if they buy Facebook ads.

It's important to note here that a typical Facebook audience only sees 16% of what a Facebook brand (person or organization) posts. So it stands to reason that those interested in getting more of their messages read by more people would buy ads to up their odds and increase their brand awareness.

Buying Facebook ads can increase how many times Facebook decides to put your post into the news stream which in turn increases your visibility and finally that could lead to more Likes.

But this is not akin to buying Likes. Without going into the weeds, what the State Department did is not illegal, immoral or quite frankly, not newsworthy. Social media is one more tool available today in an advertising campaign. Advertising is not free. Typically, the way an organization determines its social media goal is how it's inextricably linked to their overall business goals or to their overarching public relations goals.

The heart of social media is getting people to know, like and trust your brand. Again, a brand is something we all as individuals have, as do our public and private institutions. People will talk about an organization's brand whether an organization has a strategy or has no strategy. In this era of transparency, most organizations choose to have a strategy and dialogue with their targeted audience. In other words, the world is talking and we need to have meaningful engagement with our targeted audience in order to cultivate relationships.

Think of Facebook like a gated community for nice people. Facebook has to approve your ads. Some organizations will do unethical things such as redirecting a link to another page after Facebook approved the ad. That's not a good idea. If Facebook finds out you're doing that they'll ban you.

My advice is that successful campaigns need to play nice and reflect a desire to help make the world a more likable place. The IG recommendation that IIP's digital outreach focus more on public diplomacy goals rather than raw numbers of social media fans is a universal reminder to us all that it's so much more than just the Likes. The merits of IIP's social media actions, from my view, does show a commitment to the broader goal toward enhancing public diplomacy, and not just buying Likes.

At the same time, its campaign also serves as a helpful reminder that especially in the climate of U.S. diplomatic policy, we can and should be offering quality content, meaningful engagement and working toward a more likable United States of America.

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