Earlier today, however, a mechanical engineer named Claudio Ibarra commented on a Google+ thread that he thought that the animated GIF was a “waste.”
Is that true? The White House has had a communications staff for a long time. What’s wasted time — and what isn’t?
Prior to the Internet, the White House devoted resources to television broadcasts from the Oval Office or fireside chats on the radio. Devoting resources to communicating with the people isn’t new. Well, every federal agency has a public information officer. Some have more staff In this case, we’re talking about a few 20-something staffers — a 30-something, in the case of Macon Phillips — extending their use of communication tools from press releases to blogging and social media.
A majority of the American people — and a billion people around the world — is now on Facebook. They’re here on Google Plus, Twitter, Pinterest and Github. They’re massively online in many other places. Does it make sense to share details of policies there? To upload speeches to YouTube? To publish the federal budget or government data? To devote resources to directly communicating with everyone interested, as opposed to the media?
If you answered “yes” to any of that, then going on Tumblr makes more sense. There’s a different, younger demographic there that may not be found on Facebook, read newspapers or visit the White House blog. If they’re able to reach those young people and engage them, they may become more politically involved. That’s one reason that using social media makes obvious sense, in terms of resource allocation, for communications staff.
For policy staff, like national security, environmental, health or science advisors, there is more of a tradeoff. If citizen engagement around rulemaking, legislation and regulation makes sense for a given mission, then public-facing social media use will increasingly be part of their work. If not, then there’s a legitimate case to be made that spending time there while they’re working would be wasting resources.
Could the time spent making an animated GIF be devoted elsewhere, explaining the tax code in plain English, summarizing complicated laws or engaging the public about proposed regulations?
The answer is clearly yes. The sticky wicket there is that few citizens are reading reams of regulations or participating in the rulemaking that leads to them. If you were trying to engage 18-25 year olds, would you point them to the Federal Register? Send them a PDF of the US Code or tax code? How about Regulations.gov? (There’s an API there now, BTW, if anyone reading this wants to pull proposed notices of rulemaking or regulations out and make them more interesting to the public.) Would you send them to HHS.gov to read the rules from the PPACA, AKA “Obamacare?”
Young people don’t generally watch the evening news. They’re not reading newspapers in the same numbers as the previous generation. They’re hanging out on their phones and sharing transitory, ephemeral media in rapidly expanding universe of “dark social” options. Should government ignore that new context for communication and expect young people to go find government websites or visit the library? Or go try to engage them where they are?
Postscript: Michelle Chronister, a senior content manager at the General Services Administration, librarian and Tumblr user, thought I was taking a dig at libraries in that last paragraph and pointed out that young people still use them in high numbers:
— Michelle Chronister (@mchronister) May 2, 2013
That was definitely not my intention. Rather, that it was important to consider multiple channels of communication to find the 40% who aren’t going to libraries. I certainly still go to them, including the Library of Congress, below: