Communicating Secrets at the CIA

December 1, 2016

[photo by amy jacques]
[photo by amy jacques]

“Conversations happen with or without us,” said Carolyn Reams, social media lead and outreach for the CIA’s office of public affairs, and Preston Golson, chief of the CIA’s public communications branch. The two spoke on Oct. 23 at an afternoon PD session at the PRSA 2016 International Conference and shared social media best practices and lessons learned from managing the Central Intelligence Agency’s Twitter handle @CIA.

“It’s important to humanize the CIA,” Reams and Golson said. At the CIA, they do this by telling stories, recounting declassified cases from history, and relating to the audience by using current events or pop culture, such as referencing the musical “Hamilton” and the film “Argo.” (The agency also recently acknowledged the existence of Area 51 in a tweet and discussed its role in helping publish the book “Doctor Zhivago.”)

The CIA has proven that a government agency can remain relevant, innovative and informative on social media despite the constraints of secrecy, they said.

Be flexible and be able to adapt to what’s going on around you while maintaining your own voice and brand, said Reams and Golson. “If referencing pop culture on social media, then relate back to the brand mission,” they said, adding that you have to be selective and can’t touch on all of it. “Pick content carefully and don’t dilute your feed. We treat Twitter like we’re curating a museum exhibit. The aim is to inform, instruct and inspire.”

Know your audience, how best to engage them and who you’re writing for. They consist of “Skimmers” (who just scan the tweet), “Swimmers” (who read the tweet and click a link) and “Divers” (who want to go even deeper and want follow-up information).

Reams and Golson also shared three important lessons that the social media team has learned:

1. Keep an eye out for opportunities and plan ahead, but be flexible. (@CIA honors various anniversaries, but also mentions events like World UFO Day and adapts to the changing news cycle.)

2. Ensure that you can draw a direct line for management between tweets and your core message.

3. Show management you’ve really thought things through, and utilize two sets of eyes before sending anything out.

“Your social should be accessible, easy to understand, relatable and contain visuals,” they said, “so avoid the pitfalls and use the platform to your advantage.”

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


Heather Hiller says:

This is a timely article. No additional wording needed.

Dec. 12, 2016

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