PARIS -- On June 6, the Central Intelligence Agency joined the social media platform Twitter with its first tweet: "We can neither confirm nor deny that this is our first tweet." Presumably this is an attempt by the agency to develop its "brand." Here's why this is a really bad idea:
-- The CIA doesn't need a brand. If anything, the agency is supposed to be all about discretion and secretiveness, meaning that it should be defined solely by its conspicuous absence. In fact, if the CIA ever wanted to run a TV ad, it should consist of 30 seconds of silence and a black screen. People would be left scratching their heads, unsure about who would even pay for such a thing, let alone what the objective was. And that would be the whole idea.
-- The CIA doesn't need to be funny. It's understandable that a government agency would be compelled to humanize itself. Oh, wait ... no it's not. It's a government agency. No doubt there are funny guys who work there -- guys who would do really well in front of a packed house on amateur stand-up comedy night. One of those guys might actually be the best bet for manning the social media feed and cracking jokes on a daily basis. But could he convey the seriousness and discretion reflected in the CIA's mission? And in light of the fact that the agency receives billions of taxpayer dollars every year, could a guy cracking jokes convey "fiscal black hole" seriousness? No. Taxpayers don't want a $14 billion comedy routine when they can buy one on iTunes for 10 bucks.
-- The CIA doesn't need to advertise. Thanks to Hollywood spy films, much of the general public is under the impression that CIA personnel spend their time creeping around the Kremlin in disguise, dodging bomb blasts and killing people with their bare hands, rather than (more realistically) warming ergonomic chairs in embassies, lamenting an expanding waistline from the cocktail circuit, trying to convince locals to manipulate their friends in exchange for cash, and filling out paperwork about all of this. The myths are as good as it gets. Best to stop there.
-- The CIA is already overexposed. I'm not just talking about the highly classified intelligence disseminated through the WikiLeaks-Assange-Snowden axis of leakage. When a local guy offering to braid my hair in Ocho Rios, Jamaica; a panhandler in downtown Paris; and at least 10 vendors in New York City's Times Square are all wearing CIA T-shirts, then it would seem that the marketing problem for this clandestine service agency is one of overexposure rather than underexposure. Ask any Canadian to name that country's intelligence agencies. The majority likely couldn't name more than one (if any) and would be hard-pressed to accurately describe what that agency does. And whatever they could describe would no doubt be so boring that their interlocutor wouldn't want to hear more than a sentence about it. That's the kind of public image you want for your intelligence service.
-- The CIA has injected itself into the ranks of satirical jokers and social media account squatters. A satirical Twitter account for Government Communications Headquarters (aka GCHQ, the United Kingdom's equivalent of America's National Security Agency) has a bio that reads: "Defending the realm from the plebs on the internet. Listening to you." Someone established a satirical Twitter account for the "KGB" (the former name of Russia's domestic intelligence service). The most recent tweet from that account: "From the CIA world fact book: The Drone is the national bird of both Pakistan & Yemen."
-- The CIA has to behave with some decorum (at least in cases when it operates out in the open). This isn't the case for other social media users, who not only don't have to follow the same rules but, in many instances, enjoy a more established public platform. For example, the CIA's second tweet read, in part: "We look forward to sharing great unclassified content with you." A response from the WikiLeaks account read: "We look forward to sharing great classified info about you" -- and included links to numerous items, including classified intelligence.
-- The CIA should be off social media entirely and communicating with actual journalists in relating its successes. Were you instrumental in stopping a terrorist attack? Did you assist in destabilizing a foreign country to the benefit of America's economic and political interests? Excellent. Tell us all about it!
Whatever the CIA is hoping to achieve, it's not going to do it in 140-character blurbs. Unless, of course, the CIA's objective is to turn itself into a punch line.