Three Years of Social Media: Marketing Lessons Learned

By Leonard Sipes and Timothy Barnes

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio, television and transcripts.

This is the seventh article in a series on podcasting and social media. The purpose is to explain social media and to attempt to “cut through the clutter” and offer an understanding of effective methods.

We were one of the first federal agencies to engage in social media and a large number of government, criminal justice and nonprofit agencies have come to us for advice and guidance.

This article summarizes what we’ve learned about marketing our four federal social media websites, our friend’s sites and our assistance to government, non-profit agencies and national organizations.

We may use terms that some of you are unfamiliar with (happens to me everyday). Please go to http://www.youtube.com/user/leelefever#p/u/11/MpIOClX1jPE. The Common Craft store on YouTube provides simple explanations for many additional terms. Please do not be put off by their simplicity. Sometimes, simplicity is just what you need to learn or to explain terms to others.

Some Background

Social media is an internet based effort to give customers interesting material so they have a better understanding as to what your agency is or does. Customers read, watch or listen to your offerings and respond; thus giving the agency the feedback it needs to accomplish operational goals.

The key word is “social.” You have an on-line conversation with your customers. You offer content that’s compelling; they offer their opinions or provide needed information. Social media is today’s focus group.

An example would be a law enforcement agency providing Twitter or Facebook messages about burglaries and “customers” respond with suspect information. You Tweet-you arrest–you accomplish your objectives.

Another example would be a national association or nonprofit providing really interesting video, audio and fact sheets backed-up by Twitter and Facebook accounts. You provide compelling content; you interact with tens of thousands of new people who join and financially support the organization.

Social media accomplishes operational goals. We’re not doing this to be interesting or informative; we’re doing it to advance the mission of the organization. There are endless corporations doing it to both serve customers and improve their bottom-line.

The Reality

It sounds so simple but the reality is anything but. Those entering social media have expressed considerable dismay regarding the complexity and work required and they have every reason to express concern.

Social media is like a dog-fight; it’s quick and furious and confusing. Those inhabiting the internet can be sophomoric and crude – they can also be insightful and informative. It’s like having a party for thousands of people where some bring something to contribute and some get obnoxious and loud.

For those who like things nice and tidy, social media is not for you. For those who like to get things done, well, the reality is that social media is a daily and ongoing process.

Two Kinds of Social Media Efforts

Keep in mind that there are two kinds of social media efforts. Some sites are static. You do your best to create really interesting content; you update that content and have a method for customers to contact staff–that’s it. I suggest that most of you start with a static site and gradually move towards more frequent postings.

Dynamic social media can and often does mean daily or frequent creation of content. Every day (or fairly often) you are offering new material (often referred to as a blog) or a great video or television show or a dynamite audio or radio product or an analysis of someone’s work.

People come to your site because you frequently post new material. People will come to your site often because they like what you do. You end up with thousands of contacts every week or month that may join your association, contribute money or tell you want you need to know to improve operations.

Your association goes from little influence to an adequately funded national source of information on the subject you care about.  But getting there involves a price in time and money and there are many who are justifiably unwilling to pay the price. Most drop out of the process of daily or frequent postings. It’s simply too confusing and time consuming.

Marketing

Through this article, we want to end some of the confusion. We assume that you have a website and it’s has some really interesting content and you have methods for your customers to contact you. You are dedicated to conversations that get people to interact with you.

Posting daily (or frequent) content is marketing and may be the best form of reaching people. But content does not have to be long or complex; it can be a couple paragraphs about a new initiative or recent research or data from another organization (virtually all government data is public domain). The bottom-line is that it’s interesting and informative. People like it.

But most bureaucracies hamper writers or other content creators with a lot of control that discourages someone who wants to write or create. Your management need to understand that content creation needs a simple approval process.

We need to get beyond what we were taught in school about writing; material for the internet needs to be short (200-400 words) and it needs to get to the point quickly. It should be completely free of jargon. It should be light and breezy. It should “sound” like a person talking to someone. The use of bullets is encouraged. Telling a story is key.

Internet readers skim rather than read. They will spend a minute or two on your site and move on.

What’s the minimum number of new material you can get away with? Two short articles a week or one audio or video program a week.

Don’t Kill Yourself with Options

The internet is filled with thousands of strategies for improving your site or improving your search engine optimization (SEO). People go crazy trying to know and understand them all. What you need to know:

* Create sites with great content that’s easy to find and easy to explore.

* Good sites get visitors to create links back to your site (people placing an address on their site that points back to yours).  Links are like a vote of confidence. Search engines send traffic partially based on the number and quality of links.

* Spend ten minutes a day asking similar sites to link to you (as you will link to them). Spend time on their site. Interact. See what they are doing right.

* Use key words in the title and throughout the article. If people are searching for material on crime prevention, having those words in the article helps them find it.

* Use a blogging platform that allows you to add key words and descriptions in the background so search engines have more to access.

* Everything else is close to unnecessary.

Advertise by Posting your Material on National Social Media Sites

Posting material from your website to additional websites gives your material greater exposure and creates links back to your site. You either manually submit material or the site automatically picks up your RSS feed

You don’t need to manually submit your material to a lot of sites. At this writing, Twitter, Facebook, StumbleUpon and possibly Reddit seem to work best for non-profits and government agencies. Note that every organization will discover for themselves what works best, but many doing social media are posting their content in too many forums. It’s exhausting.

Some of the big social media sites don’t like our content.  Social media likes technology, politics, and entertainment. Most of the big sites don’t have categories for the material we offer. Some of the people I’ve assisted have sites rejecting their material calling it spam, especially when it’s frequently posted. They willingly embrace something weird or wacky but reject research-based posts that contribute to the social good. Many sites reject insertions of links in articles regardless as to worthiness. You include a link to a great government report and they reject it as spam.

There are blogging sites like Blog Catalog that automatically pick your new material via your RSS feed. Search the internet for “free blog catalogs.” MySpace, Blogged. OnToplist are additional examples of sites willing to carry your RSS feed.

Warning – when you interact with Facebook and Twitter you are creating new websites that have to be maintained to be successful and Facebook is a confusing platform. But Twitter and Facebook are developing new search and linking capacities that may make them indispensible.  Google Buzz and Google Me (forthcoming) may evolve into a useful method to exchange information. All need to be approached with caution, especially as they apply to privacy.

Video and audio?

Doing a short (one to two minutes) audio or video post on a new subject and posting it on your site and YouTube takes minutes to do. A gazillion 14 year-olds do it every day.

There are high-definition flip video cameras that cost less that $200.00 (many closer to $100.00) that will allow almost instant creations and posting to your site and/or YouTube.

Please note that internet users (and all learners) want a variety of formats; there are people who would rather watch or listen than read.

Does it have to look like the evening news or sound like National Public Radio?

Nope. Believe it or not, people like their internet offerings unpolished. I’ve read articles about the hours some people spend editing audio or video. It’s our experience that people like it genuine.

Different audiences with different needs

ProBlogger (http://www.problogger.net/) asks “What problems are you solving for your audience?” Well, you start your site seeking an audience interested in crime or teaching or social change and you get people interested in segments of your topics. They aren’t teachers, but you start getting traffic about the most effective methods of helping kids with homework. And you find that this topic is the most frequent request. You reach out to people in the criminal justice system and end up with scads of people wanting to know how to pick the safest neighborhoods to live in.  The internet has two different audiences, your targeted professionals and everyone else. You will find that demand may move your site in unanticipated directions.

Dot Gov or Dot Org – the Google Sandbox

Search engines like Google like government sites so if that applies to you, get a dot-gov as part of your domain name (address for your site).

For those of you who have associations, woe be unto you. Google and the other search engines distrust new websites and will not send you traffic until your sites ages (at least a year) and you have a sufficient number of links (100). Most successful sites are a minimum of two years old and have hundreds of really good links

That means that you will create all that great content and few will see it during the first year or more, but they will see it later when Google starts sending you greater amounts of traffic (be sure to make it easy to find via key words, categories, etc.).

One more item to consider; Google and the other search engines do not have the ability to judge the quality of sites. I’ve seen sites that haven’t posted material in years with inaccurate content rank higher than great but new sites with wonderful content because the competing site is older and carries many links.

Old Sites

If you have an older site, please develop your social media effort within that site; don’t start a new site.

Why? I assisted a national criminal justice organization that had a website for the last ten years and they were not aware that had hundreds of high-quality links. All they had to do was create new content and use keywords within that content (keywords are the words-phrases people are searching for).

They went from being un-findable to quickly going to the top of the list on Google searches (for those keywords) all because that added relevant content (with key words) and posted frequently and were willing to interact with their “customers.”

Interacting with Customers

Don’t worry about the time you need to spend with people who react to your sites. Develop fact sheets on all of your main content areas and use the fact sheets to respond. Most people using our sites simply complement us on our efforts. But when they offer information you can use, thank them. When they offer good information or criticism, interact with them; ask them what it is that they need or get clarification. It’s important to your mission.

Sites with Movement

Don’t develop sites with extensive and annoying Flash (software presenting motion). Keep it simple. Users want simplicity and quick access. Big corporations use Flash but they can get away with it. You want to keep your site relevant to the needs of users.  In addition, the computer industry is currently moving away from Adobe Flash-based technology, which is proprietary, to the new HTML Version 5 open standards.

We’ve all seen sites created entirely in Flash. But the search engines can’t search Flash or photographs; search engines only recognize words. All their efforts to become a presence on the internet were doomed to failure because no one could find their site unless they already knew the address (URL).

Finding People to Interact With or Market to–Facebook

For many of us, finding our key audience is very challenging. For me, finding people interested in criminal justice related issues is very hard unless you have the budget to advertise in publications or websites.

People who represent issues that are popular and who use the internet frequently have a much easier time finding like-minded individuals or organizations. There are people interested in topics like technology, religion or politics that use the internet frequently.

But if you are looking for cops, firefighters, teachers or plumbers, how do you find your audience?

Facebook offers the most interactive web presence on the internet. They now have hundreds of millions of daily users (500 million users total) who stay on the site longer than any other. Facebook claims to drive more people to websites than Google.

Facebook gives you two options, developing a “page” (for businesses and organizations) and developing a “profile” site organized by an individual’s name. Please note that as I write this, Facebook is making changes and may offer a new kind of presence for organizations.

A Facebook page almost seems to be a questionable option. You can open a Facebook page and use your key term but that term will be buried by all the organizations that have come before you. You could be “the” authority in your field, but everyone who came before you will come first in the Facebook search regardless as to the worthiness of content. In essence, people can’t find you.

Every major corporation has a Facebook page and thousands of people become fans of that page, but for us it does not seem to work nearly as well as a Facebook profile.

Creating a Facebook site using the name of a trusted person within your organization is the way to go. That person creates the site and asks others who have the same interests to be their friend.

Once they have accepted your offer to be your friend, you have access to everyone else who are their friends and you contact them as well. Soon you could have thousands of people representing thousands of organizations similar to yours creating a mechanism to interact.

But beware that Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz and similar sites also get you many who have no interest in your topic. They sign up or agree to be your friend solely to market to you. It’s part of the price for doing social media. There are people who feel that their Facebook and Twitter efforts produce a lot of garbage. Out of every 100 people who follow you, maybe 20 are really interested in what you have to say. Don’t be afraid to delete the rest.

Accessibility

All federal government agencies are required by section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act to make their websites accessible to handicapped individuals.  This means that all video must be closed captioned and transcripts for audio and video programs must be provided in addition to the program.  Websites should also be compatible with “machine readers” which speak the content of websites for those who are visually impaired.  Many state and local governments as well as corporations have similar regulations or policies.  Make sure you are aware of any legal or policy requirements regarding accessibility and plan them into your social media strategy.

In summary, these are the most important ingredients to marketing a social media site:

* Choose your strategy – a static site or one with frequent postings.

* A simple word-based website. Leave the fancy graphics to General Motors

* Use a  dot-gov address whenever possible

* Build your social media presences within the framework of an older, existing site

* Have a content approval process that works quickly.

* Ad material frequently

* Post what your audience wants

* Make it very easy to find (create categories – post categories at the top of your site)

* Post material in a variety of formats (audio, video, fact sheets, and story-based articles)

* Place your content on Facebook, Stumble Upon and Twitter (or the sites that work best for your audience). Don’t worry about the endless options.

* Create fact sheets on key topics to respond so you won’t feel overwhelmed by user requests.

Conclusion

We understand that some people feel that all of this is simply too much when it occurs in conjunction with existing jobs. You’re right, it is. For those of you who choose a great static site, good for you. Make it the best.

But for the remaining the question is exposure. Would you rather have 10,000 people interested in what you do come to you and spend two minutes a day being exposed to your material? Most corporations would love to have that interaction.

Just remember that speed, relevancy and interest rules the internet. Most organizations move with the speed of a wounded snail thus taking them out of contention. The question remains, are you willing to talk to millions or are you willing to concede the opportunity to others? For local governments, nonprofits and national associations, this becomes a defining issue.  For some of us, it becomes a matter of public safety or national security.

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Using Social Media to Protect Public Safety

Please see http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television programs
Please see www.csosa.gov for the web site for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency

DC’s Fugitive Safe Surrender Prompts 530 Offenders with Warrants to Voluntarily Surrender in a Church

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks


It’s not easy to understand why anyone with a warrant would voluntarily surrender to law enforcement. But I spoke to many offenders during an event in the nation’s capitol who told me that they were looking for a safe opportunity to turn themselves in. They wanted another chance to return into normal society.


But they and family members needed to learn about the program and be convinced that it wasn’t a scam. We had to earn their trust. We did that through social and conventional media efforts. This may have been one of the first efforts on the part of a federal agency to use social media during a campaign.


The thrust of this article is not Fugitive Safe Surrender in Washington, D.C. (www.dcsafesurrender.org) but an overview of the possibilities that social media affords the criminal justice community. By social media, I’m referring to radio and television on the Internet (podcasting), articles on the Internet (bloging) combined with more traditional efforts such as web site creation, a telephone answering system, e-mail and radio and television ads.


Fugitive Safe Surrender in DC

Before we delve into social media we need a quick overview of Fugitive Safe Surrender in Washington:

The effort encouraged those wanted for non-violent felony or misdemeanor crimes in the District of Columbia to surrender voluntarily to faith-based leaders and law enforcement in a church. Fugitive Safe Surrender recognizes that many offenders are looking for a way out. The program provides an opportunity for individuals wanted for non-violent offenses to resolve their warrants and get on with their lives. Surrendering within the confines of a church (or other religious entity) provides the assurance that they will be treated safely and fairly.


Fugitive Safe Surrender (FSS) was successfully implemented by the US Marshals Service in six cities where over 6,000 people surrendered. Those participating generally go home that day with a new court date or have their charges adjudicated on the spot. Violent offenders (yes, they surrendered as well) are held for trial.


The entire criminal justice community in D.C. came together to create the structure for FSS. I was asked to lead the public information effort.


530 offenders with violent and non-violent warrants surrendered in a church in northeast Washington D.C. over the course of three days during November of 2007. There was extensive media coverage.


Social Media

Explaining why an offender would voluntarily surrender is easier than explaining social media. Social media is more a philosophy rather than a list of strategies.


One of the lead agencies for FSS was my agency, the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, D.C (a federal, executive branch entity). We do a series of radio and television programs under the banner of “DC Public Safety” at http://media.csosa.gov. The program includes a blog (articles) and transcripts. Some consider it the most popular criminal justice radio and television Internet site in the nation.


But the use of radio or television or blogs or transcripts or any other form of social media is not the point; they exist to create a comfortable experience for the user. People learn in a wide variety of formats. Some want to read while others want to listen or watch. For those who want to read, it’s preferable that the document be “story based” with an emphasis on enjoyment and readability. Audio and video programs need to follow the same philosophy.


Why?

The criminal justice system, like all bureaucracies, is usually conservative when it comes to news ways of communicating. As someone who has spent close to 30 years in communications for national and state criminal justice agencies, I understand the complexities and resource limitations.


Social media opportunities available for criminal justice agencies are enormous and very cost effective. Radio shows for the Internet (podcasting) can be done for cost of a computer and an additional $500.00 for equipment and broadband access. Once purchased, you have almost unlimited opportunities to communicate with a local and national audience without additional cost.


The primary objective of social media is a personal, non-bureaucratic style of communicating that respects various learning styles and encourages the development of conversations with the public and media.


The bottom line is that social media, in combination with traditional media, creates a powerful and effective method of communicating. You can accomplish organizational operational goals effectively with social media.


Social Media and FSS

When we brainstormed media outreach efforts for Fugitive Safe Surrender, we realized that money was very tight and that Washington, D.C. is an expensive market to communicate in. Campaigns like ours usually depend on unassigned airtime donated by radio and television stations. In a market like D.C., available free air-time is almost nonexistent (especially for TV).


Planed bus ads and timely television ads were cut due to budget. Money for a telephone answering system and web site dried up. This left us with radio ads developed through the Broadcaster’s Association, a telephone answering system cobbled together from our telephone system and a web site created by Mary Anderson (webmaster) from my agency (www.dcsafesurrender.org). It became clear that our use of social media would go from an accessory to a primary strategy.


The first thing we did was to go to a city that had already conducted a successful FSS (Indianapolis) and do interviews with offenders who surrendered. We were able to get compelling testimony from them and family members as well as judges who heard the cases. That testimony was mounted on our web site.


The radio and television ads that we had produced were mounted on the website. This established a one-stop shopping opportunity for offenders, their families and the media.


The concept of social media embraces the personalization of communications. To insure that we knew what to communicate and how to communicate, we conducted three focus groups of offenders under our supervision. It was the focus groups where we discovered that friends and family members would do the bulk of the research on FSS and the majority had Internet access. We now knew who we were talking to and how to reach them. But to be on the safe side, we implemented a telephone answering system with recorded messages.


We created radio ads in Spanish to accommodate that part of our population.

We created a radio show that fully explained the program.


We mounted easy to understand print materials on the web site.


All radio and television ads referred people back to the web site and telephone answering system.


We posted the radio and television ads on the same server used by our “DC Public Safety” programs.


But possibly the most powerful strategy was to interview the first person in line to surrender every day. The interviews were mounted on the web site by Enterprise Architect Timothy Barnes and publicized to media via e-mail and press release within an hour of their creation.


These individuals told compelling stories that resonated with the mainstream media and they presented those stories to the public at a crucial time of the campaign. One offender walked several miles to the site beginning at 3:00 a.m. at the request of his mother (it was her birthday). He described the surrendering process as a pilgrimage for change to a new life. He and several additional offenders agreed to be interviewed by mainstream media which furthered coverage.


Throughout the process, we looked for additional compelling stories to tell. We understood that story-based accounts communicated better than a public safety angle.


Results

The social and traditional media approach employed (with very little money) worked beyond our expiations with 530 surrendering during the three day process. Friends and family members told us how they heard the radio ad and went to the web site and how the audio and video ads and testimonies of prior participants convinced them that the effort was legitimate. They became so comfortable with the process that surrendering mothers brought in their children. Some offenders were accompanied by multiple family members and friends. A son recently released from prison brought in his father for a theft warrant.


It’s important to understand that the social media approach worked with reporters, DJ’s, talk show hosts and their management. Several told us that they thought that the program was a bit silly until they went to the web site and listened to the audio and watched the video. The web site convinced them that this was a program worth investing in and, through the stories we provided, they helped us to publicize the program.


Podcasting and other forms of social media are powerful strategies that everyone can use. Whether it’s a quick form of emergency notification, getting the word out about a dangerous criminal or talking about new strategies, citizens and their leaders like the informal and informational aspects of audio, video and story based written material.


It’s time for all of us within the criminal justice system to use social media tactics within our own communities.

Articles on social media, podcasting and community outreach for criminal justice agencies are available through our blog at http://media.csosa.gov. I look forward to your suggestions.

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So You Want to Podcast?

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See http://media.csosa.gov for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See www.csosa.gov for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

We started podcasting in October of 2006. As the Chair of the web site committee for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, it was our desire to add audio and video content to our redesigned web site (http://www.csosa.gov/). The new site will be up and running this summer.

The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) is a federal, executive branch entity providing parole and probation services to Washington, D.C. The agency has a national reputation for excellence in design and execution, so we wanted a web site to match our reputation. We desired an experience that would be user-friendly with a choice to read, listen or watch story-based accounts of our operations.

In consultations with our IT department, they suggested that we do more than add audio of video content to our web site. They suggested that we do audio and video podcasting.

Podcasting was something I had heard about; that was it. I was reasonably proficient at word processing, e-mail and Internet searching, but no one would accuse me of computer or technological excellence. The thought of podcasting was daunting. I was intrigued by the possibilities, but woefully lacking in the skills necessary.

We started to populate our podcasting site (http://media.csosa.gov) in November 2006. We started advertising the site in January 2007.

The title of our radio and television shows is “DC Public Safety.” We are now one of the highest ranked shows for criminal justice issues (per key search terms) when searching sites like Google or iTunes. As of this writing, we have 250,000 hits to our podcast site, although the actual number of people listening to the shows is much smaller.

We have been called a “National model for communication” by the International Community Corrections Association. We are a resource for major national web sites, like “Justice Talking” by National Public Radio. Our programs are featured on the front page of a Department of Justice faith-based web site. We are featured on the US Government’s primary web portal.

What is Podcasting?

Podcasting is recording your voice or a conversation onto a computer and placing the recording on a server so others can listen. It uses an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed that allows others to download the recording onto their computer or a portable device, like an MP3 player. Your program is now available to anyone in the world with Internet service.

You do not need an iPod or other portable MP3 device. Most people listen or view podcasts through their home computer.

Video podcasting uses the same principals. You load a video program created by your agency or a local public access station. Throughout this article, I’ll refer to both audio and video efforts as podcasting.

After five months of production, it strikes me that audio podcasting (and possibly video podcasting) is something that all of us can and should do. I hosted radio and television shows about the criminal justice system for close to 20 years for my prior agency, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and for the last three and a half years for CSOSA, so I knew something about what it took to create interesting shows. But I knew nothing about the technical end. My guess is that you know little about it either.

By the way, podcasting is less expensive and less complex then many of us think. It does require patience (and humility) as you stumble your way through the process.

Why Podcast?

All of us in government and the private sector complain that we lack opportunities to tell our story without the filter of media. Without access to money for an advertising campaign, we are almost solely dependant on the media to tell our stories.

Web sites were our first opportunity to portray ourselves in the way we wanted to be displayed. The second is podcasting.

All of us want the public, media and partners to understand who we are and what we do. Podcasting provides us with that opportunity. There are many who will watch or listen before they will read.

With podcasting and handheld digital devices, you can take citizens along as you serve warrants. They can participate as the correctional officer walks his or her beat in the most difficult part of the prison. Judges can bring all into their courtrooms. For the first time, you can bring an endless array of sensitive issues directly to the public. You control the content. You get to say what you want to say and how you want to say it.

You can respond to emergencies. You can have recorded statements up and running in a matter of minutes. With little technical knowledge or expense, you can provide studio quality recordings quickly, and change them as necessary.

Police departments can warn the public that a new wave of burglaries are occurring in a certain part of the city and what you can do to prevent your home from bring broken into. You can send an alert about a missing child. You can communicate a wide array of crime prevention activities.

You can communicate with members of Congress or your local or state representative. You can talk to key partners or community leaders.

If you doubt the power of podcasting, it will all be erased when someone critical to the well being of your agency compliments you on a recent show and indicates that they have a better understanding of the issues involved.

At the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, we are recording podcasts in Spanish that contain information for our Spanish speaking offenders. They will be advised of the rules. They will also be told of services available. We will make copies of the podcasts on CD’s to hand out. Spanish speaking line staff will produce the shows.

Employees love the exposure they receive. Probably for the first time, they and their missions are highlighted. They get to participate in the communication process.

For those who have a role in communicating with the public, you will be like a kid in a candy store. You have many choices and many ways to portray your message.

The final issues to understand are that podcasting is affordable and you do not have to be a studio engineer to do it. Using a computer and inexpensive microphones, I get quality sound that a couple of years ago would have required me to go into a professional recording studio. If I can do it, anyone can.

What are the Responsibilities of Podcasting?

To podcast, we are taking on a new set of responsibilities. You now become your own publisher. You need to publish what is fair and accurate.

As someone who has spent nearly 28 years in public relations for the criminal justice system, I fully understand that agencies can see situations through blinders. If you are going to podcast, you need to tell all sides of the story. Control of your message means that you must be fair, honest and accurate; the same things we demand from the mainstream media.

At the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, we provide a forum to the offenders we supervise. We also bring in former offenders. They can be critical and unsupportive of the larger criminal justice system or us. There are times when their comments make me a bit uncomfortable. But short of profanity or slander (which has never happened) their comments are recorded as presented.

When I host our shows, I will ask the same questions any journalist or citizen will ask. There are times when employees are a little too complementary of the agency. I’ll specifically ask about some of the more challenging parts of the job or some of the difficulties they face.

We have the responsibility to be completely accurate and honest. I suggest that you listen to our shows and tell me what you think. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I think most portrayals meet the standards I suggest.

You also need to understand that podcasting is not about the chief or director or superintendent. Podcasting means involving people directly responsible for doing the job. If you want citizens to understand your sex offender unit, that means interviewing line staff who do the job. My administration agrees that staff needs to take the lead when it comes to podcasting.

You need to be interesting but also understand that you are not in the entertainment business. The criminal justice system is serious business.

But if people are going to listen, that means you (and your guests) have to be worth listening to.

I recently watch a video podcast of an administrator with another government agency giving a speech. His delivery was bland and it made for an uninteresting podcast. This is what some of us fear in government podcasting; uninteresting and pointless podcasts. If we in government are going to podcast, we need to hold ourselves to good production values.

Again, I invite you to watch or listen to our audio or video podcasts. It’s not “60 Minutes” or any other commercially produced show. It’s just myself and guests trying to do the best we can. You be the judge. Some comments about the show are complementary. Some are not. We learn from our mistakes and move on.

The Technical Stuff

I’m not the best-qualified person to tell you about the technical stuff. But because of the similarities we share, I’m going to try.

Audio podcasting will cost you about $1,500 for a computer, software, microphones, headphones and a mixer. Obviously it will cost less if you are using an existing computer. It will cost an additional $500.00 or less for a handheld digital recorder; get one that is easy to use. User-friendly software exists for both Microsoft and Apple products.

As a federal government employee, I cannot recommend a commercially available product, but I can tell you that good recording software exists. I recently saw a podcasting package offered by a major retailer of music supplies that included everything you need for two-microphone podcasting. You’ve heard of home theater in a box? There is now podcasting in a box where everything you need is included.

You can take your existing computer and download or install the software you need. While the geeks in podcasting can argue endlessly about the type and quality of microphones and mixers and settings, a trip to any electronics store can solve the problem.

There are standard settings on all podcasting equipment that are perfect for beginners. As you get more proficient, you can alter the settings. It’s like my camera. I can set it to automatic settings, but as I became more proficient, I moved on to more technical shots. But either setting gives me a good photograph.

Please note that you want a two-microphone set-up. That will increase your start-up costs a bit, but doing interviews are necessary components to keeping your show interesting. It takes gifted people to inform and entertain by themselves.

There is great news about the cost of servers. The server is the device you put your podcasts on so anyone with Internet access can watch of listen. There are a wide variety of organizations (available via an Internet search) that offer you the ability to rent a server or part of a server for ten to twelve dollars a month. Low prices are a recent breakthrough that provides anyone with the ability to podcast.

Hundreds of people can access your shows at one time without server failure. Your IT department will likely thank you because they often do not have the bandwidth to provide the same service from your web site.

My ultimate suggestion is to find an IT expert who will show you how to operate the technical side. There is someone who podcasts in your community who will be happy to show you the ropes and get you up and running. Without our IT department, I could not have done it myself. They were wonderfully patient and walked me through the intricacies of the technical and production stuff.

As to video podcasting, there are public access stations throughout the country that will record shows for free or reasonable sums. You can record a TV show in some places for a couple hundred dollars. Try to include footage of your agency or issue (known as B-roll) into the show. Let them create an opening and closing video and music. Place the video on your rented server as a video podcast and use the audio as an audio podcast.

My bottom line is that the costs are reasonable and the technology understandable. I went trough lots of trial and error to get to this point and yes, it was a humbling process at times. I continue to make mistakes and learn. But it was worth it.

There are books and web sites that explain the process of podcasting. Plug “books” and “podcasting” into any search engine. Go for the books that describe themselves as basic introductions. Books exist for intermediate levels and marketing. Professional consultants are available if you can pay $100 to approximately $150.00 per hour. On-line instructions abound. Courses are available.

If you search the internet for information on podcasting, you will fine a wide array of sources ranging from Google to Yahoo to iTunes. Many sites offer discussion groups. iTunes offers podcasts on podcasting. But beware; some of these discussions involve geeks talking to geeks. The discussions can be hopelessly technical.

Final Suggestions

As stated, I strongly suggest that you get thee a geek. Get someone who is excited about podcasting and who looks forward to showing you what equipment to buy and what to do. They are at the local community college and in the community. They want to show you how to do it!

Buy and read the books. Don’t worry that you do not know what an RSS feed is. Nether did I. Yep, your going to feel like you’re out of your element and on uncomfortable ground. I still do. I probably invested 150 hours in reading and Internet searching.

The professional and personnel rewards of audio and video podcasting are endless. Your agency will reap the rewards of quality communication. Citizens have a wonderful opportunity to learn more about what you do. You will find that you get comments from people from around the world.

Also note that the media will be impressed “if” you do it responsibly. The media likes agencies that are confident enough to participate in the public discussion. They respect those who are willing to serve citizens in new ways. Just make sure that the mission is to serve and not a platform for political or narcissistic behavior.

Podcasting is the wave of the future. It will become as important as your web site. It’s like having a team of proficient public relations specialists on duty 24 hours a day. The time to invest is now.

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