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Secrets from the CIA Social Media Playbook

By Mark McClennan, SVP, MSLGROUP

Aside from the VR/AR sessions, the best session for me at SXSW to date has been one in which the social communications leads of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) discussed their social media strategy and approach. It was amazingly well thought out, strategic and engaging. There wasn’t anything groundbreaking – but the content could be a textbook for many brands on how to plan and execute their core social media activities.

Following are some refreshing reminders from the @CIA.


  • Treat your social activities as a museum exhibit – Three goals – inform, instruct inspire.
  • Structure your social activations around three types of audiences
    • Skimmers – the quick snapshots and tweets that grab attention
    • Swimmers – Those that want a little more detail. Link back to more long form blog content
    • Divers – End your posts with additional resources for people to explore (ideally in different sections of your Website)
  • Segment your social activations into five main categories
    • Interesting history (company milestones, past events, human stories)
    • Current events – Launches, trendjacking
    • Diversity
    • Spy gear (well this one might be just for the CIA)
    • Useful tips
    • Humanizing the story (CIA telling the stories of officers killed in the line of duty, brands could profile interesting workers, particularly for open jobs)
  • Don’t chase every social channel – Make sure the channel is right for you and your audience. While CIA used disappearing messages decades before Snapchat was launched, due to FOIA and other issues, won’t touch the channel today.
  • Allocate time for review – Make sure the appropriate legal and risk officers review every post. Surprisingly, while there are very clear guidelines on what the CIA can and can’t do – their review process seems to be much less onerous than many businesses in the pharmaceutical and financial services industry
  • No matter what your brand, don’t be afraid to have some fun – To raise awareness of one of their Cold War initiatives (Dr. Zhivago) they did the tweet in Russian.

Social media managers may complain about the stress in their jobs. And it is very stressful. But it is worth remembering – that if we screw up, we damage our company’s brand. If @CIA screws up, they create an international incident.

This article was first published on

Mark McClennanMark is a social media, privacy and fraud expert who has worked tech PR for 19 years. He is chair-elect of the PRSA. Connect with him on Twitter @McClennan.

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