Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

“It’s more an approval of an approach” for the win

Hire good people, and trust them

A few weeks ago, there was a great profile in Maclean’s of the person behind the CAFinUS Twitter account. CAFinUS is the official account for the Canadian Armed Forces working in the United States, and the account is run by Capt. Kirk Sullivan, based at the Canadian embassy in Washington DC.

The entire article is worth a read, especially given how much of an anomaly the CAFinUS account is in comparison to practically any other Government of Canada social media account. It’s charming, it’s thoughtful, it advocates for inclusion and anti-racism, and through it all it comes across as very authentic and human.

Most government social media accounts, as anyone familiar with them will know, tend to be cautious, sterile, and denatured by the layers of hierarchy that tweets and posts go through before being published. Lengthy communications approval processes take the human-ness out of social media posts, and make it hard for them to get out the door in time to be part of whichever fast-paced conversation is happening at a given moment.

The article shines a light on this in a way that makes me all that more impressed that the account exists:

The account doesn’t shy away from current events.“It takes a point of view on some of the issues that are so important right now, like Black Lives Matter,” writes Scott Simmie, a communications specialist, in an email. “Government historically would not take a position on something like this unless it had gone through 47 committees. The honesty and spontaneity really impresses me.”

In June, Sullivan tweeted: “Do / not / think it’s over … do / not / think it’s someone else’s problem / Racism is our problem / They are Us.” When a woman responded, saying: “Systemic racism is a myth,” he wrote: “Dear Katherine: We hope all is well with you and yours during these uncertain and trying times. Please know that racism is very real. Please know that it’s unacceptable … Please understand that it hurts us, Yours, @CAFinUS.”

Sullivan doesn’t need approval for his tweets (“It’s more an approval of an approach,” he says), noting that the account does not make announcements but rather echoes existing military policy, reflects the CAF’s code of ethics and takes its cues from statements already made by leadership.

That line near the end – “It’s more an approval of an approach” – is brilliant and astonishingly rare in the government communications field. It’s exactly the enabling, not blocking approach that I think reflects public service leadership at its very best.

Capt. Sullivan’s writing and social media style is brilliant, without question. But there’s really two heroes here, and the second isn’t mentioned in the Maclean’s article. The second hero is, whoever Capt. Sullivan reports to (in the Canadian Armed Forces hierarchy). That person, maybe some public affairs manager in the CAF, did three things that I think are really spectacular:

  • Approved the process for Capt. Sullivan to tweet, autonomously and without needing specific approvals for each post (which is wonderful and basically unheard of in Government of Canada communications divisions)
  • Let Capt. Sullivan do a media interview with a major publication like Maclean’s
  • Didn’t try to take public credit for Capt. Sullivan’s work or insert themselves in the story somehow

Any of you that have worked in or with government communication folks (or in any large institutional hierarchy) will know how rare all three of those things are. The folks in the hierarchy above Capt. Sullivan demonstrated, implicitly, a level of humility and trust that isn’t always found in government management layers. To Capt. Sullivan, and to your boss, and to anyone else above them that enabled this to happen, you’re all doing amazing work. Keep going.