The Rise and Stall of Social Media Director Positions in Government Agencies

I came across a recent article in Government Technology magazine about the rise of “Social Media Director” positions in government agencies. According to the article, “From the White House to New York City to small cities and counties, people are being hired to focus on how social media strategies and efforts can best be used by government to interact with the public.” And while the article does cite several examples of these new social media/new media director positions, I don’t think that this trend will continue in today’s economic environment.

Yes, I do believe social media is here to stay.  Yes, there are dozens of examples in which governments have found a social media niche. But I don’t think social media as a “solution” has gained enough ground to warrant a dedicated position just yet, unless you are a large organization such as the White House or New York City or Chicago. That is not to say that there isn’t a need or a justification, because there certainly is. But most governments that I am aware of today are not investing heavily in R&D and new ventures in communication. They are looking for cost savings, cost avoidance and cost cutting measures. It doesn’t seem that new positions, particularly ones that do not directly and positively impact the bottom line, are very common. In fact, during the research we conducted for our upcoming Social Media in the Public Sector Field Guide (Wiley Publishing, November 2012), Ines Mergel and I learned that many agencies have distributed the responsibility for social media management across multiple positions throughout an organization:

Some agencies, particularly those that ventured into social media use early, have evolved their strategy and now make social media the responsibility of “everyone.” A recent decision at the Department of Defense was to abandon the role of the social media director and instead transfer that position’s responsibilities onto many shoulders in the organization. It is very difficult for a single department or division to speak with the knowledge and authority of all the business units of an organization. “Official” responses often require time and research. They frequently result in formal answers that do not fit the casual tone inherent in social media. By formally distributing the tasks and response functions to those who have the knowledge required to have meaningful online conversations on social media channels, you can decrease maintenance costs, increase trust in those exchanges, and reduce the number of missteps or rounds of interaction it takes before citizens get the “right” response from your agency.

Other agencies, such as Oak Park, IL, (used as an example in the article) convert or add duties to an existing position to fulfill the social media director responsibility. It will be interesting to look back in a few years and see how this need plays out. Will social media directors become a common, dedicated need (akin to the way most government organizations now have a centralized “web” person) or will social media use continue to evolve and become a decentralized, albeit valuable, function of multiple positions and/or departments? What do you think? Does social media demand a dedicated position? Will this need change as more agencies adopt social media tools and methods?