How the CIA hit its storytelling stride on Twitter

The spy agency’s former social media director shares insights on tailoring fascinating content for a diverse audience of ‘skimmers,’ ‘swimmers’ and ‘divers.’  

CIA Twitter guidance

We can neither confirm nor deny the brilliance of the CIA’s social media strategy.

Carolyn Reams, the intelligence agency’s former social media director, shared broadly applicable insights with the audience at Ragan’s 2020 Social Media Conference on Friday, March 13.

Reams shared a fascinating peek inside Langley’s social media comms ops, which she says took 11 months’ worth of approvals to launch. The agency’s legendary first tweet laid the groundwork for showing a more human side to the CIA.

Reams, who spent 12 years as deputy director of the CIA Museum before assuming her social media role, recommends a curator’s approach to presenting content. She says to think of a museum exhibit when you tweet.

“Inform, instruct and inspire,” she says. “Successful exhibit content is accessible, highly visual, easy to understand and absorb—and relevant. Why should social media be any different?”

Despite having north of 15 million pages on its website, identifying stories to share was a daunting task for an agency cloaked in secrecy. But Reams had to firmly, consistently remind nervous leaders that social media is a wonderful place to “explain your mission or to clear up misconceptions.”

She faced initial resistance publishing stories about Area 51 and other previously classified events but eventually earned trust for storytelling leeway. That opened the door to spin yarns about CIA icons such as Virginia Hall, the first civilian female to win the Distinguished Service Cross and a woman the Nazis deemed “the enemy’s most dangerous spy.”

Refrain from barging in

“Don’t insert yourself into the conversation and appear desperate,” Reams says. Instead, make sure your topics and tone match your mission and the groove of your other messaging efforts.

The CIA, which obviously can’t divulge too much about what its staffers are up to, focuses on highlighting (non-classified) events and people. There’s plenty of newsjacking on trending topics, too. Whether it’s highlighting the agency’s progressive history of celebrating Pride Month—or timing a story about Julia Child’s shark repellent recipe to coincide with “Shark Week”—Reams’ team covered multitudes of compelling stories in creative ways.

To capitalize on “Hamilton” mania, her team tweeted about “The Legend of Hercules Mulligan,” an unsung hero and spy from the Revolutionary War. They timed the tweets to coincide with Independence Day.

You might not ever helm digital platforms for a spy agency, but Reams offered plenty of practical advice for any social media practitioner. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Use recurring content or series to your advantage. Having “Throwback Thursdays,” “How-to Wednesdays” or “Cat Pic Mondays” penciled in each week saves time, energy and effort. However, make your postings worthwhile.
  • Prioritize useful stuff. Reams pointed out how the CIA—which has a K-9 corps—published top dog training tips from its own pooch handlers. Drawing on internal sources from the agency’s library, Reams’ team also compiled a handy “Top 10 research tips from CIA librarians.”
  • It’s not just about you. Don’t overpromote yourself or your products and services. Be a selfless part of your larger industry community. The CIA, for instance, posts content about a multitude of intelligence-related stories or events—including some fun Mr. Bond facts.
  • Be creative, and tell interesting stories in attention-grabbing ways. After the movie “Argo” debuted in 2012, Reams’ team took to Twitter to distinguish fact from fiction—or to clarify “real vs. reel” to dispel myths.

She shared the tale of Lulu, the passive pup who adorably flunked out of bomb-sniffing school but garnered the agency huge media clips around the world.

She also recounted how the CIA ginned up interest in its covert Cold War book program, which aimed to get Western ideas of freedom and free thinking behind the Iron Curtain. Reams persuaded a Russian-speaking colleague to translate a tweet into Russian, which piqued no small amount of interest online—and within the agency. Reams said at least one superior conveyed concern that it would appear the CIA had been hacked by the Russians. That was exactly the point, she says.

As qz.com wrote about the clever ploy:

Once again, America’s most secretive institution is making noise on Twitter. In a series of tweets, the CIA described how it snuck Russian copies of Boris Pasternak’s subversive novel Dr. Zhivago into the Soviet Union during the Cold War, where it was banned. The CIA then linked to 99 declassified documents detailing the operation, codenamed AEDINOSAUR.

Reams closed with an exhortation to reach three kinds of readers: skimmers (those who might scan tweets), swimmers (folks who enjoy reading your content and want to go deeper) and divers (those who devour your content).

The goal is to convert skimmers into swimmers by “meeting people where they’re willing to learn,” as Reams puts it. To do so, Reams suggests following the C.A.T.S. acronym:

Creativity: How can you present information in a different, attention-grabbing way?

Applicability: Don’t just post about big news because a topic is trending. If it doesn’t apply to your mission, don’t risk the backlash.

Timing: When is the most appropriate time to publish? How can you maximize your content?

Simplicity: Less is usually more—especially on Twitter.

For more insights from top social media practitioners, register for the webcast of Ragan’s 2020 Social Media Conference

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