Communication Currents

Social Media and the U.S. Coast Guard: A Case Study

June 1, 2016
Organizational Communication

Government agencies are increasingly using social media as an important part of their public affairs plans to engage with citizens, disseminate information, and deliver services more effectively. With this in mind, Abbey Blake Levenshus of the University of Tennessee embarked on an ethnographic study of the United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) social media team and efforts. She maintains that looking at government agencies’ communication practices is necessary because “public sector communication is unique from business and nonprofit communication and needs its own theories and best practices.”

Levenshus’ study of the USCG takes a closer look at how a U.S. federal organization conducts social media activities and navigates challenges specific to its status as a government agency. She observed and participated as the Coast Guard managed its five social media accounts, including the official Coast Guard Compass blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a YouTube Channel, and a Flickr photo-sharing stream. Levenshus spent more than 205 hours engaged in participant observation in the Coast Guard offices during 28 visits between October 2011 and January 2012.

From her research, the author identified five influences that either enable or challenge the USCG in executing its social media activities: organization (the USCG itself), military (as part of the Department of Defense), parent agency (as part of the Department of Homeland Security), federal government, and the U.S. public sector. The USCG organizational context and the Coast Guard’s place as a military organization had the greatest influence on the social media program and are discussed in more detail below.

USCG Organizational Context 

The Coast Guard’s organizational context, especially its history, culture, and structure, had the most immediate influence on its social media practices. The organization’s long history and its legacy agencies, such as the U.S. Lifesaving Service, are parts of Coast Guard storytelling. According to Levenshus’ observations, USCG’s history includes a culture of transparency, which also plays an important role in the agency’s content choices. Study participants “credited USCG’s history of fostering a transparent culture with why social media came naturally to the organization and saw social media as a way to maintain transparency,” Levenshus writes.

Study participants credited leadership support for the very existence of the social media program and team. When the USCG public affairs officials first appointed an official social media team, they knew they would need ongoing leadership support. According to the social media chief who participated in the study, the Coast Guard has a “transient nature,” as leadership changes every two to four years. In the midst of the 2010 leadership change, the fledgling social media team successfully pitched a program and a strategy to its incoming leaders. By early 2011, USCG legal and other organizational authorities had approved the social media policy and program, and a social media chapter was added to the public affairs manual.

Another organizational factor that affects the Coast Guard’s social media program is that the agency has 11 missions. USCG’s social media chief told Levenshus that USCG social media channels’ ability to feature “real people doing real things” rather than “all produced content” offers a great way to build credibility with audiences. However, communicating about all 11 missions can be challenging given USCG’s resource constraints, primarily a lack of human resources. The efficient, lean social media team is not staffed at the level that would be needed in order to facilitate consistent, real-time engagement.

While studying the Coast Guard, Levenshus also observed that although the USCG is headquartered in Washington, DC, a certain “decentralization” defines the culture. Public affairs activities take place at headquarters, while the social media team uses a “ground spring approach” to collect its content from area and district offices within individual units. “The non-headquarters field is considered the richest source of social media content, especially operational visual content highlighting locally deployed personnel performing missions,” writes Levenshus. But this strategy is constrained by a lack of content flow from regional/local offices to the national social media team, she notes.

Military Context  

USCG’s context as part of the military challenges the social media team in different ways. First, the larger military culture and chain of command has not fully embraced the open and transparent nature of social media communication. Second, because of strict military guidelines, internal compliance is seen as an important aspect of the social media program.

Because of the Coast Guard’s centralized/decentralized dichotomy, meeting compliance standards outside of headquarters can be a challenge. Compliance is so important that the team has a person dedicated to ensuring that content conforms to policy. Regional/local offices act somewhat independently on social media, so the compliance officer on staff cannot force these offices to be compliant with headquarters standards. To solve this issue, the compliance manager has devised a strategy: (1) coaxing field communicators into compliance and (2) visually standardizing headquarters social media accounts so that non-compliant sites appear unofficial.

Another way that the military context can be challenging to the USCG’s social media team is that content is often linked to Coast Guard military operations. But the emergent nature of the work makes planning difficult. To overcome this challenge, USCG normally approves a social media editorial calendar two weeks in advance, while designating specific spaces for emergent posts to “fill in the blanks” with more current content.

Implications 

Through this study, Levenshus elucidates the complex layers of factors that influence the real-life practice of social media strategy and management in governmental agencies.  Her study looks behind the curtain of public-facing social media content to offer an insider’s view of social media management from an applied context. While this study is not generalizable, it provides a baseline understanding of the practical applications of prior research related to government communication, which Levenshus says needs its own set of theories, best practices, and studies.

About the author (s)

Abbey B. Levenshus

Butler University

Assistant Professor

Abbey B. Levenshus