Why is Twitter hiring a government liaison? Thoughts from @SG and more. [#gov20]

Twitter goes to Washington

Twitter goes to Washington?

A job posting for a government liaison has ignited plenty of controversy in the blogosphere, Twittersphere, and, one might imagine, in the halls of Twitter HQ out in San Francisco.

The Department of Human Services’ new media guru, Andrew P. Wilson, offered up a thoughtful “Top 10 Requests for the New Government Liaison at Twitter.” Adriel Hampton, a former Congressional candidate and a leading voice in the government 2.0 community, wondered if Twitter could reimagine democracy.

And earlier today, Mark Drapeau, the director for innovative engagement at Microsoft, considered whether government 2.0 had passed Twitter by.

I don’t disagree with Mark that it would be useful for Twitter’s staff to be more of a part of the Gov 2.0 community, as Jack Dorsey has at times been, but I was surprised to read Drapeau write that “the help is really not needed.”

Given how lawmakers are tweeting, with many mistakes, lack of engagement or misunderstanding of conventions, some guidance would seem to be of use. More to the point, the fact that they’re not tweeting at all is no doubt of interest to Twitter HQ.

After all, for every Claire McCaskill or Darrell Issa, there are a dozen Congressmen and women who aren’t using the service well – or at all. Many others have staff do it for them. Focusing on the role of Facebook’s Adam Conner here on Capitol Hill is spot on; hiring someone who understands the lingo, conventions and effective communications strategy for this role would be useful for both government and Twitter itself.

I found Drapeau’s selection of Kawasaki as a model to be particularly surprising, given the polarizing effect his use of Twitter has had, particularly with respect to “ghost tweeting.” Using Twitter authentically and personally is precisely what has been effective for politicians like Cory Booker. The blowback that came from people learning @BarackObama wasn’t tweeting himself should be instructive.

My own comments aside, Twitter’s VP of communications, Sean Garrett (@SG), shared more insight on Drapeau’s post into the microblogging juggernaut’s thinking in posting the job opening. I reproduce his comment below:

I’m Twitter’s head of communications and I have spent very little time ivory towers in my career. You?

Before Twitter much of my career was devoted to building bridges between the technology community and the policy world. Did things like helping start TechNet in 1997 and worked with them for a couple years to creating the first technology-policy focused communications consultancy and serving as a partner there for 6 years. This is all to say that I have a pretty decent view how policymakers and political types view and use technologies, tech policy issues and where gaps remain.

We’ve done a lot of research and talked to a lot of people in Washington (including members of Congress and staffers, administration officials, think tank folks, etc) and elsewhere about what would be a good first step for us as we build a policy presence. That step is this position.

I also think it is important to recognize that when you say that this is a type of position that should have been filled one or two years ago that in January of 2009, we had 22 employees. As recently as last October, we had 70 employees. We just crossed the 200 barrier and now have the ability to do things proactively as opposed simply fight to keep the service up and do the basics everyday.

Do you think that Twitter should have made employee number 23 a DC-focused position or a network engineer?

Finally, and most constructively, thanks to the great work of the Gov 2.0 crowd that you mention, this hire won’t have to start work on day one with a blank slate. There’s a whole community that he or she could tap into to become more effective faster. They can attend the right events and get involved in the existing conversation that promises exciting transformation.

At the same time and in just one example, there are real live members of Congress who at this very moment are wrestling with whether to open a Twitter account and, if so, how to get the most out of it. Having someone being able to walk over to their office and sit down with their team is going to be more helpful than telling them to just follow Guy Kawasaki or absorb the collective wisdom of the “countless consultants working inside the Beltway” through osmosis.

As the relationship of lawmakers, citizens and technology companies evolves, one thing is clear: there will continue to be plenty of discussion about how social media disrupts the playing field here in Washington and beyond.

UPDATE: Steve Lunceford of GovTwit posted an interview with Sean Garrett this morning that provides more detail on Twitter’s search for a government liaison. It’s worth reading the entire post but two answers will be of particular interest to the government 2.0 community:

Q: Is this U.S Federal-focused only, given that you’re hiring in Washington, D.C.?

@SG: Twitter is not just interested in government from a U.S. federal standpoint, but [also] outside the Beltway in states and localities. We’re obviously global as well, and this new role will look not only to U.S., but also how other governments use or don’t use Twitter; how campaigns work/don’t work and how they translate from one level to another.

What need is Twitter trying to fill here?

@SG: We believe Twitter will be better off having a direct dialogue with public officials who use our service. And I would say that yes, the “Twitter 101″ conversations are still important. Many in D.C. are eager to engage on Twitter and we want to help them maximize this experience. And, there are some who don’t understand how to use it or where the value is. We’d like to change this where we can. Having a point person that can help verify government IDs, someone that can be down the street to meet with officials in their office, or serve as an overall point person for government outside the Beltway is the initial goal here.


Filed under social media, technology, Twitter

14 responses to “Why is Twitter hiring a government liaison? Thoughts from @SG and more. [#gov20]

  1. Great post Alex.

    There are many ways Govt (Federal, State, and Local) can use Twitter to engage with and serve citizens.

    As I’ve mentioned before, much of the Technoratti (iPhones, Smartphones) are focused on cool apps and smartphones.

    Unfortunately, most Americans don’t have Smartphones (yet) and Twitter is perfect because it works with and was founded around SMS communications.

    Interestingly, minority communities are using Twitter more than the rest of the population.

    Could this be a way for Twitter to really help Govt and elected officials engage with ALL citizens?

    Oh, and I’m in the ring for the position.

    My website > http://hireshaundakin.posterous.com/
    My Twitter Account > @TweetGovt
    My Hashtag #HireSD


    Shaun Dakin

    Winner, @Mashable Open Web Award for Non Profits in 2008 for @EndTheRoboCalls

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  5. Help is probably needed, on the assumption that some people are “doing ‘it’ wrong” (whatever that means).

    Help from Twitter Inc. on how to use Twitter.com is *not* necessarily needed, however, and that is an entirely different point.

    • Alex Howard

      There are thousands of examples of how to “do Twitter right” now after more than three years. The 140 Conferences, like the upcomingDC event, showcase many of them. There have also been a commensurate number of case studies in poor usage, from spam to abusive behavior to plagiarism to indecipherable l33tspeak.

      Given how thoroughly you’ve critiqued the social media world over those years in multiple outlets, Mark, I’m sure you could call out many more examples on both sides. It may be fashionable to suggest that “doing it wrong” is inscrutable or subjective. I disagree. Successful use of platforms or media is predicated upon the desired outcomes for the business, organization or individual. Or, in this context, government.

      A journalist might use Twitter to find sources, gather feedback, distribute work or crowdsource reporting. A marketer might find leads, identify sentiment or test campaigns. A PR rep might get an organization’s version of news out, publicize new products or respond to critiques from media. A government agency might ask for feedback on policy, listen to concerned citizens, tap into collective wisdom on technical solutions or leverage it for open government initiatives.

      In each case, the tactics used on Twitter will vary, as will the strategy behind them. What’s right or wrong for you, in your role, may be different for me, and vice versa. It’s certainly possible to point out potentially “bad ideas” for politicians, like tweeting locations in war zones, ignoring repeated public entreaties from constituents or posting sensitive information about trade negotiations.

      Blogs, YouTube, texts, email and cellphones have all posed similar challenges (it’s about discretion, not the tech) but Twitter still continues to trip up people from all walks of life. In other words, tabling the “doing it wrong” argument might be sensible.

      I’m not sure if “help from Twitter Inc” is necessarily needed either, per se. Given Garrett’s comments, it seems like they’re looking for a person to help be a connector within the community, not to present a monolithic face or a lobbyist.

      I suspect, however, that there are thousands of staffers, staff and other govies that could use help from an experienced hand, working more or less exactly as Adam Conner does for Facebook.

      For instance, that person might explain that using Twitter well means leveraging all of the third-party tools that run off of Twitter’s API, like Tweetdeck, Seesmic, PeopleBrowsr, Tweetie, Twazzup, CoTweet, Hootsuite or any of the other thousands of apps listed at oneforty…. as opposed to “how to use Twitter.com,” which is, despite many recent tweaks, usually not the best way to use Twitter.

      • Du4

        You said it better than I could have, Alex. I like your characterization of the duties required of this job.

        I still think there’s something transformative about Twitter that none of us have adequately been able to put into words yet. Everyone has different experiences, uses, and challenges with Twitter… just like they do with everything else. Our social connective tissue allows for greater collective learning, and maybe that’s the transcendant aspect of Twitter I like the most. I would never have discovered the value of the Gov 2.0 community, for example, without first following people I like and trust on Twitter.

      • Excellent summary of what can be improved and what is the art of the possible, Alex.

        Let me throw out a couple more areas to consider.

        You mention the API. To follow an Anil Dash thread, how about working with smart people to create applications that are largely government specific? How can they best leverage the API, themselves?

        Also, Twitter won’t remain static. It will naturally evolve as users create new usages and techniques and as Twitter, Inc. enhances the service. We, naturally, want to be able to keep key users (and the broader community) educated about this evolution and get their feedback and input first hand.

      • Justin Herman

        Excellent post per usual, Alex.

        While it’s easy to get caught up in philosophical motivations and roles in this case, a user need look no further than Twitter’s World Cup initiative to start our minds reeling on potential applications for elections and public services.

        What is available now, while still requiring more education and advocacy throughout the government, is only the beginning. It’s arguable that through developing these new practical uses, it will serve as the catalyst needed to get the attention – or change the mind – of slow-to-adopt key actors who need a firmer response to “what’s the point?”

        With the help of this new Government Liaison, the point will be made.


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  8. This is a Washington DC field office position. This is a corporate sales/trainer position, with a splash of government relations.

    Let’s call it what it is.

  9. I heard Twitter is still occupied with anticipating the breakdown during FIFA World Cup. I’m not sure why they have another projet with goverment. Seems too much to handle.

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