Social Media Lessons from the #MDGovTweetup

January 24, 2012 •

@GovernorOMalley sits down for Maryland's first #MDGovTweetup.

Social media catalyzed revolution in Egypt and basically stopped SOPA. But it’s also affecting the way politics and government work on an everyday basis, in states and neighborhoods throughout the world and the U.S.

Yesterday, I took part in a Government 2.0 experiment—the first tweetup organized by @governoromalley’s team at the State House in Annapolis. Here’s my take on how it went.

Social Media is Changing How We Work Together

While technology and new media is nowhere near as powerful as the human heart, O’Malley stated in his opening remarks, it has enabled humans to be more connected than ever. In his opinion, using this connection to improve our communities as tough times continue is critical.  While his opening remarks were general, his actions prove that he’s willing to put muscle behind this notion. I for one hope that this small tweetup is just the beginning of a flood of political leaders helping constituents play a larger role in policy conversations.

All organizations should take note—just as social media has the potential to transform politics, it is transforming the rest of our economy as well. If your organization isn’t thinking about how you can grow or adapt to take advantage of social media, it is missing a huge opportunity.

Turning the Tables

At the beginning of the tweetup, Jeremy Johnson (@tanlife) asked O’Malley what he thought of Baltimore @mayorsrb’s initiative to bring 10,000 families into Baltimore in 10 years. O’Malley gave his thoughts, fighting the assumption that we can do nothing about problems like crime and trash, but also turned the tables to ask Johnson what he thought would solve the problem. Johnson works with a nonprofit, Operation Oliver, which believes the answer to this question is putting “boots on the street”—getting started, picking up trash, and making things happen.

This particular issue aside, this exchange showed the power of new media to bring regular people into policy discussion. Because of this event, and the power that social media presents for the individual, Johnson and his organization had an opportunity to be heard.

Just as social media changes government, it can also change business and nonprofits. Are you asking your customers what new products they want to see? Are you asking your donors what they think the next priority for your non-profit should be? If not, start.

Answering Tough Questions

At one point in the event, I pushed Governor O’Malley on an issue that’s sure to be contentious this assembly—shifting some of the responsibility for teacher’s pensions to the counties without sacrificing classroom funding. I got an honest answer—we haven’t worked it out yet, and have to make some tough choices. O’Malley went into more detail, but fully admitted the complexity and risk of the situation.

Throughout the session, O’Malley confronted questions like mine honestly. This approach is vital in a world where word spreads about mistakes and inconsistencies faster than ever—attendees had fact checking capabilities at their fingertips and were live tweeting their thoughts and O’Malley’s answers.  If he had glossed over an issue, we would have called him out.

The same applies for companies and other organizations. If your company is dealing with a complicated issue, you can’t hide it just by not having a press conference about it. For example, 75,000 people have liked a Facebook page urging Mattel to create a bald Barbie to which children with cancer can relate. Mattel has released only vague statements in response, making their brand seem inflexible and old fashioned. Tackling hard issues quickly and truly responding to difficult questions is essential in a world of crowd-sourced, instant media.

Takeaways For Your Organization

New media is a fantastic marketing tool, but at yesterday’s event, it showed that it has the potential to be much more. O’Malley learned about the issues important to a group of his constituents, and I won’t be surprised if we see a few policy adjustments and programs arising out of yesterday’s conversation.

Here’s how your organization—political, commercial, nonprofit, or educational—can learn from and build on yesterday’s social media integrated event.

  1. Hold real life tweetups. At least among the folks I talked to, the consensus on yesterday’s event was that it was cool, and should be repeated. Whether you’re a politician, CEO, President of a University or Executive Director of a non-profit, why not host an annual or quarterly tweetup? They’ll grow both your social media presence and your perspective on what matters to your audience.
  2. Ask questions that matter. Don’t just use your Twitter handle to ask people what they think of the Ravens game or what their plans are for New Years. If you’re a politician, ask what people think about same sex marriage, or who should be paying teachers’ pensions. If you’re a school, ask students what their dream dorm would be like—and incorporate their answers next time you build one. If you’re a business, ask about what kinds of products or services your customers or clients would like to see next, and use their answers to form your plans. Asking questions that matter will get you answers that matter.
  3. Hold a Twitter Town Hall. President Obama held a Twitter Town Hall back in July that allowed people from all over the country to ask questions that were answered live, shown on a streaming feed, and tweeted on the @whitehouse account. O’Malley and other politicians could do something similar to bring more voices into policy discussions. If your business or organization has a large enough online audience and a geographically disparate customer base or clientele, you could consider doing the same—whether it’s “Live Answers to Accounting Questions” or “Live Answers About Adopting a Pet.”
  4. Hold Twitter “office hours.” Politicians—or someone from their office—could be available for a given number of hours every month so that citizens can ask questions and get an almost instant answer tweeted back. No live streaming video necessary—just guaranteed attention to a Twitter account and a commitment to answering tough questions. Your business or nonprofit could provide a subject matter expert to do the same, whether it’s a marketing expert or an on-the-ground medical aid worker in Haiti.

Did you follow the #mdgovtweetup? Is your organization doing anything similar? How do you see new media transforming politics, business, and the world? Please comment below—I’d love to continue the conversation.

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