3 Ways to Win at Social Media (like the CIA)

By Matter

I’d like to congratulate the U.S. Government. You’re winning at public relations right now. No, really. Two well-known and often maligned government agencies have found respective niches to educate and entertain, helping to project a friendlier image to the masses. There’s a few lessons we can all learn from their social media triumphs.

Let’s start with the CIA. The agency renowned for keeping tight lips about its intelligence gathering and secret keeping efforts turned the spotlight on itself with a tongue-in-cheek announcement that it would be tweeting news and updates in 140 character bursts.

The CIA wasn’t afraid to poke fun at itself. It was smart: more than 300,000 people Retweeted their first Tweet.

A slight twist on the iconic spy catch phrase garnered more than 302,000 retweets and over 188,000 favorites. Now the government agency with secret agents operating incognito around the world has more than 712,000 followers watching its every tweet.

The TSA has been on Instagram for a little over a year now, but Wired.com recently profiled some of the unusual, and even frightening, items that have been confiscated from travelers. It’s both scary and funny to see what people have attempted to smuggle on airplanes. And yes, these are apparently batarangs someone had in their carry-on:

From bizarre to extremely serious, the TSA uses a mix to send a message on Instagram that security screenings are working.

Mixed in the assortment of weapons are photos showing the good work of TSA agents (and their K-9 teams – another smart move because, well, dogs are social media gold) and key messaging about important TSA travel initiatives. The overall point being made to the TSA’s 77,000+ followers is crystal clear: those controversial body scanners and ensuing pat downs are making a difference with regards to safety.

Here’s my three takeaways for what we can all learn from the newfound social savvy of the CIA and TSA.

  1. Pick a channel that fits your message: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, YouTube, Vine, Snapchap – there seems to be a new social media channel popping up every month, and it can be daunting to try to master each one. Every channel is unique. Instagram, with an exclusive emphasis on photos, is the perfect fit for the TSA to showcase bizarre, confiscated items. (It has a Twitter account too, but with only a quarter of the audience.) Don’t try to conquer every network at once. If you’re just starting out, pick one or two that best suit your needs.
  2. Don’t take yourself too seriously: Mission critical is a cliché tossed around in business all the time, but when it comes to the CIA, its work is truly mission critical to our safety. But that doesn’t stop it from taking an irreverent poke at the pop culture spy vs. spy perception most of us have of its operations. There will be plenty of time to broadcast your company’s core values, key differentiators and repackaged sales collateral. With the need to post up to three times a day depending on the channel, there are also many opportunities to inject personality and pop culture in your brand (within reason, of course.)
  3. Make a commitment: Social media is not one-time deal. Rather, it is a full-time if not 24/7 endeavor. Even though the CIA is already approaching three-quarters of a million followers, not everyone will experience that rapid growth. When it comes to a brand or executive looking to build a following, growth is achieved through a steady stream of content and engagement. If you want to reach an even larger audience, seriously consider tossing a few advertising dollars to support the effort.

It’s trendy to make jokes about Big Bureaucracy, but in this instance, we should tip our hat to the CIA and the TSA. They’ve provided creative examples of how brands that at first glance have no business being on social media are totally winning at it. (And maybe with this praise, the TSA will let my teams cut to the front of the airport security line the next time we travel to support a client’s trade show efforts or shoot a video.)

If you want to check out the CIA’s Twitter or the TSA’s Instagram, just click the links. If you enjoy shameless plugs, I’ll plug myself right now with a link to my own Twitter right here. Most importantly, for a great example of the best way to leverage a collection of social media networks, I’d encourage you to check out Matter’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

OK, we’ll stop asking.

Do you follow any businesses, organizations or brands that unexpectedly have a sneaky good social media channel? Let us know who it is and why its great in the comments section.