A bit of a media — well, not a storm — drizzle began in my city last week. My local newspaper ran the story “Four staff work on widely-unwatched PMO promo videos.”

The nub of the story: in January of this year, our country’s Prime Minister (already the subject of some severe criticism for his inaccessibility to media) launched a YouTube feature called “24-Seven” (“24-sept” en français). The videos, at least one each week, are published to the PMO’s YouTube channel. And viewership has been less than revolutionary. The March 20-26 edition has 30 views in English as I write this, and 12 in French. Four public servants produce those sparsely-viewed videos “as part of their regular web publishing duties.” Those public servants include a director (annual salary at least $105K), a “multimedia specialist” (starting salary $56K), a “project coordinator” (starting salary $72K), and an “analyst” (starting salary $52K). The story notes that information wasn’t available about the people who actually shot and edited the video.

It’s easy to scoff at videos that have two-digit view counts, and equally easy to be sniffy about the expenditures. But this initiative is far from the only federal one that has failed on YouTube. Canada’s National Research Council has a four-year-old channel with 29 videos. Two of them have more than 2,000 views. Industry Canada’s channel has 15 videos, of which one has more than 1,000 views. Health Canada has posted 97 videos over the last four years, and has relative success, with some videos approaching 70,000 views. Environment Canada’s most popular video of its 30 has 9,300 views.

This week, the opposition parties to our federal government are continuing to ask questions about the videos, according to a post by intrepid CBC blogger Kady O’Malley. The opposition parties are assuming, I guess, that there may be tidbits they can use to hold the government up to ridicule or attack.

It’s surprisingly hard to get high-level numbers about YT views. A 2009 study by Tubemogul showed that less than five per cent of Youtube videos got more than 5,000 views. If those numbers are still even close to accurate, even 1000 views is not a definite failure.

Why don’t videos produced by our government do that well? Because Canada’s federal government does not do a good job with social media. It’s that simple. It consciously turns its back on the things that differentiate social media from traditional government communications methods. What do I mean by that?

In no particular order:

  • Closed comments and strangled sharing options
  • Lack of promotion
  • Lack of interaction with potential viewers
  • Focus on the channel and not the strategy or the content

Comments and sharing. If you put your videos up and disable comments and prevent people from embedding them in other pages, you tell the viewer that you’re not interested in the conversation.

Lack of promotion. Videos rarely just magically find viewerships. You need to get them out there, with concerted effort at sharing. When even the most innocuous tweet is subject to a truly onerous process, it’s impractical to promote your video assets. Imagine if someone were to tweet “Would love to do my taxes, but I don’t think I know how”, and someone from CRA replied with a pointer to a video tutorial! But if that tweet has to be seen and approved by dozens of people, it’s never going to make a difference. That’s just one example of how social media could be used to promote video assets but isn’t. Another example: the Public Health Agency of Canada has a channel with 29 videos. It also has a FB page with 7,854 likes. I went through the FB page for 2014 and 2013, and there were no posts pointing people to the Youtube channel or to a specific Youtube video. Those types of cross-promotion have no “hard costs” attached; it’s not like you’re buying Google Adwords or FB “boosts” and spending real money. It’s someone’s time.

Lack of interaction with potential viewers. Canada’s federal government doesn’t allow its public servants to take individual voices online. There’s a long tradition in Canada where the Prime Minister speaks for Canada, his or her cabinet ministers speak for their departments, and the public service works impartially and anonymously, away from the public sphere. There are rare exceptions: Environment Canada meteorologist David Phillips is a bona fide star, doing countless interviews about weather. But Phillips has no online brand — no Twitter account, FB profile (that I can find), no blog. So his public persona is based on doing interviews with journalists, not with interacting with “normal people.”  Other jurisdictions allow their public servants more latitude. For example, the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office has nearly 200 of its employees on a blogroll. These posts are often engaging and VERY personal. They even allow UK citizens to guest blog, like this expat who now lives in Sofia, Bulgaria. Another example: the US FDA has a Twitter account, and while I don’t know who is behind its Tweets, they do engage with their readers from time to time, like this:

When everything is collective, impersonal, and when there’s no conversation at all, there’s no opportunity to build relationships with the people who might be interested in your content.

No focus on the strategy, content or presentation. Many federal government videos lack creativity and end up looking and feeling like really second-rate corporate products. I frequently point to this video, produced by the National Research Council as an example of what government gets wrong with YouTube:

Sadly, this is not a particularly isolated example. Slick? Yes. Professionally shot and edited, from the look of it. But the supers (the text that flies by) have no relationship to the images. The images themselves are simply an amalgam of people doing things that are more or less understandable. There’s no human voice to it. There’s no call to action; there’s no strategy or plan underlying the shooting.

Even when the NRC has cool content — NRC scientists spent two nights in the Louvre doing amazingly detailed scans of the Mona Lisa — the presentation of this content has a pedantic, “this is good for you but you won’t like it” feel. Why not speak with one of the scientists doing the work? Why not have him or her walk you through the painting? Why not explain why of all the countries of the world, the NRC’s equipment was the best to do this job?


I teach a lot of public servants about social media. And often, the classes are punctuated with “we can’t do that”s, with rueful head-shaking, with eye-rolling. I understand that there’s a value to government proceeding slowly in terms of its adoption of technology. But there is — or at least there should be  — a premium placed on innovation. The US Centers for Disease Control must believe that; they published an emergency preparedness guide to a zombie apocalypse, and garnered huge acclaim and attention.

The only thing surprising to me about the Prime Minister’s video channel is that it exists at all. That it’s poorly watched and takes four people to make the videos? No surprise. That its content is uninspiring and its presentation is not innovative at all? No surprise.

There’s one more thing that is disturbing about how our federal government uses social media, and it was stated perfectly by Ken Mueller in his recent post “Social media: where marketing goes to die.” I can’t say it any better than he did, so here’s his key paragraph:

When it comes to social media, I think most failed efforts are pretty much the same. It’s not that social media doesn’t work, it’s just that those in charge are generally guilty of some form of neglect. We spend a lot of time and effort on all sorts of marketing and communications campaigns, but somehow, social media comes last. Social media suffers from neglect. And then I hear “I guess it doesn’t work.”

No, you just let it die.

I worry that public servants will look at moribund Youtube channels, not understand the context of social media, and decide that even 70,000 views is a failure. And with no commenting or embedding, there’s no way to show other things that might indicate a video is catching people’s attention.

I don’t expect government videos to be as creative as those done by two creative individuals like Pomplamoose (keep in mind, these folks compose, perform, and record the music AND shoot and edit their videos themselves). Trust me. In an enterprise as large as the federal government, there are people who have the technical and creative skills needed to make truly good videos. But they’re hamstrung. Same thing with every social media channel. The potential for excellence is there. But surely there’s an inch of play that the government’s communications policies could allow the talented communicators who work there to exercise.

Pass on the flacklife:
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