What PR Professionals Can Learn from the CIA on Twitter

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This is a guest post by Kara Alaimo, Assistant Professor of Public Relations in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. 

This summer, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) famously launched its Twitter handle, @CIA. Three months, nearly 750,000 followers, and 184 tweets later, their handle offers important lessons for public relations professionals about how to communicate – and sometimes how not to communicate – on social media platforms.

First, a few things the agency is doing right:

  1. Using Humor: The CIA’s famous first tweet on June 6 was: “We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet.” When employed appropriately, a bit of humor – and even self-parody – can be a great tactic for humanizing an organization, particularly when it is controversial or under attack. Another favorite tweet of mine was posted on July 7: “No, we don’t know your password, so we can’t send it to you. #sorrynotsorry.”
  2. Sharing Good Deeds: Although always a smart strategy, when an organization’s activities are controversial it becomes particularly important to highlight the upstanding behavior of its staff – especially its leadership. The CIA’s Twitter handle does this regularly, from a tweet announcing “This summer, CIA employees donated 11,798 pounds of food to the Capital Area Food Bank!” to posts about the men and women who have given their lives in service to their country.
  3. Posting Human Interest Stories: A large portion of the CIA’s posts are fun facts about countries around the globe from their World Factbook and photos of their slick equipment, from a robotic catfish to a camera flown on the belly of a pigeon. These kinds of fascinating, somewhat off-kilter posts are widely shared and keep followers interested and even entertained.

Given the classified nature of much of its work, it is unsurprising that the CIA refrains from engaging in protracted debates on public platforms. In regulated industries such as government and healthcare, there are different rules for social media use. While many brands may be able to actively engage and respond to comments on Twitter, Facebook, or blogs, regulated industries have to take a much more conservative approach. Unless you also represent a brand in a regulated industry, however, here are a few practices that you will likely not want to replicate in your social media strategy:

  1. Ignoring Current Events: After two weeks of coordinated international air strikes in Syria that the administration has said were based upon intelligence gathering, a reader following only @CIA would not even know that the Islamic State or Khorasan exist.  While the CIA’s guidelines may prevent the agency from mentioning current events, in general it is best to remain current on social media. Tweeting about other topics during a major event can seem cold and out of touch.
  2. Employing One-Way Communication: Some of the only evidence that the CIA’s tweeters are aware of the conversations that other people are having online is a July 7 post answering five of the top questions they have received. Otherwise, the CIA’s handle stays mute in response to comments on Twitter. However, reams of studies have found that communication is most effective when it is two-directional. So, while the CIA has clearly decided that it is not appropriate for the agency to engage in discussions online, this is emphatically not a tactic for other practitioners to emulate.
  3. Letting Critics Go Unanswered: Ostensibly for the same reasons that it does not participate in conversations online, the CIA also chooses not to respond to its Twitter critics. However, in most non-regulated industries, critics should be answered. Last week, for example, a tweet by a Senator stating that “#CIA Dir. Brennan’s contradictory statements only underscore his failure of leadership & need for his resignation” went unanswered by the CIA. While a response may be inappropriate for the CIA, you should strive not to cede control of online narratives to your competitors or detractors.  In such situations, a short, factual statement is usually helpful.

From a public relations perspective, the CIA’s decision to join Twitter was the right one. The agency’s tweets show a lighter side of an agency whose behavior is otherwise shrouded in secrecy and controversy. However, the CIA’s inability to go all in and engage in the conversations actually happening online may ultimately limit the effectiveness of this tool for enhancing its reputation. Make sure you are maximizing the benefits of Twitter for your brand.

Kara Alaimo is Assistant Professor of Public Relations in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. Follow her @karaalaimo.


[Featured Image courtesy of Tony Fischer on Flickr]

Tags : social media

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