Applying lessons from Barack Obama’s tech-savvy presidential campaign, the administration is working to revamp the federal government’s out-dated Web sites, with the Justice Department the latest to undergo a makeover.
Last month the department unveiled a new logo, and new black-and-gold color theme, information organized in a more user-friendly manner and — in a major innovation for government — a big presence on social-networking sites.
In less than a month, the Justice Department has gained about 92,000 followers on the microblogging site Twitter, 1,400 Facebook fans, and 500 MySpace friends. The department was the fifth federal agency to join Twitter.
In 2008, Obama’s presidential campaign made novel use of social media — including texting, email, contests, videos, and blogs — to keep his supporters engaged, informed, connected and donating money.
Republicans have lagged in using social media in political campaigns. Now, as the Obama Justice Department applies some of these same techniques to its government communications strategy, conservative reaction ranges from grudging respect to conspiracy theories.
“Had we done something like this under Attorney General Ashcroft and President Bush, the howls would be deafening,” said Mark Corallo, who served as spokesman for Attorney General John Ashcroft and now works at his consulting firm, The Ashcroft Group. But as Corallo scanned the new site, he added: “This is truly professional. This is really well done.”
The brains behind the new design is Tracy Russo, who was in charge of blogger outreach for John Edwards‘ 2008 presidential campaign. In May, the department hired Russo to handle new media and oversee the site design. The position, in the Office of Public Affairs, is new. Russo, a former blogger for the Democratic National Committee, did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.
The Web site is graphically driven and more intuitive than its predecessor. The new visual elements include professional photos of DOJ events and personnel, videos, and a new blog covers DOJ officials’ speeches and appearances.
Users can access videos of Holder, Deputy Attorney General David Ogden and Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli – on the site and on a DOJ YouTube channel – explaining their jobs and the department’s mission. Soaring music fills the background. One video is aimed solely at highlighting the public service of department employees. “Everyday they come to work thinking, ‘How do I do the right thing for the government?’” Ogden tells an invisible interviewer.
“It’s a very slick public relations campaign, but if it the department can do this and show America a 21st Century approach to communicating the mission, I give them a standing ovation,” Corallo said.
Matt Miller, director of the department’s Office of Public Affairs, said that updating the site and venturing into new media were priorities early on, and that they had “nothing to do with public relations.”
“This is a question of being open and transparent,” he said.
But some conservatives have condemned the changes. “The Obama Justice Department’s Secret Blogging Team — Is It Illegal?” was the headline on a recent post by blogger Warner Todd Huston, who added: “Eric Holder has created his own little propaganda unit.”
The site bears resemblance to whitehouse.gov or any modern Web site, really — uncluttered and dynamic, with a blog prominently displayed on the main page. Miller said the department looked for best practices but did not consult with other agencies or the White House.
The department did not provide Main Justice with figures related to costs; Miller said the efforts drew on existing contracts and in-house staff. Pragmatics, Inc., an IT company based in McLean, Va., had five employees working on the blog, which runs on the WordPress platform, according to this privacy impact study.
With Obama in the White House, it’s no longer unusual for government agencies to communicate via social media services, but today’s announcement that the Justice Department is now on MySpace is something of a milestone. For years, MySpace was under intense pressure from law enforcement officials from all levels of government to clean up what some considered to be a breeding ground for dangerous and criminal activity.
On both Facebook and MySpace, users can post comments on the department’s pages. On MySpace, there is an open forum. People have posted solicitations, requests for criminal investigations, aspersions, messages of gratitude and cat pictures.
“How sad it is that a government organization is on myspace… propaganda is becoming easier every day….,” wrote one user.
Another enthused: “I think it’s a great idea to set up a MySpace page for this kind of content. I wish everyone at the DoJ a wonderful day; thanks for everything you do!”
The department’s Web site was last updated in the middle of the Bush administration. But it lacked horsepower and offered little aesthetically. Other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, were years ahead.
A working group was formed to explore legal and privacy issues related to new media, laying the foundation for DOJ 2.0. But the department under Bush had less of an appetite for a major overhaul, said former Justice officials. One concern was that the efforts would be perceived as political, said a former DOJ communications official.
“DOJ was clearly antiquated in its ability to communicate,” said the former official. “But these are the kind of changes that make a lot of noise. They can appear political, and therein lies the challenge.”
Pete Snyder, the CEO of New Media Strategies, suggested a formula: “About 80 percent of the time, you should be informing the public. Twenty percent of the time, it should be about pushing your message.”
Snyder, a former GOP pollster and media consultant, said it was too early to tell how the department was deploying its new media.
Still, he offered measured praise.
“[The department] can communicate with millions now versus what it used to be 15 or 20 years ago when you had community liasons going out there and having coffee,” Snyder said. “With the right leadership, this could be a great thing.”
Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of communication at George Mason University said concerns about the Justice Department’s efforts were misplaced. The new site reflects the evolution of technology and “somewhat different message delivery” used by the Democratic and Republican parties, said Farnsworth, author of ”Spinner in Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves.”
There’s a huge difference between the [Democratic National Committee's] Web site and the Justice Department’s — as there should be,” he said.