As President Barack Obama and hundreds of foreign dignitaries converged on New York for United Nations meetings last month, the US Secret Service took to the internet to show off an all-hands-on-deck effort: helicopters, boats, surveillance planes, attack dogs and more computer monitors than could fit in a Best Buy.
The digital show of force, replete with photos, video and real-time updates, was part of an aggressive outreach strategy the Secret Service has launched on Twitter , Facebook , YouTube and elsewhere in a bid to repair its reputation. After a string of revelations in recent years about security breaches and agent misconduct, the Secret Service has set out to try to shape its public image.
The social media blitz has revealed little about sensitive security operations that the Secret Service wants to keep, well, secret. Instead, the goal is to give the public a taste of life inside the elite agency.
A Twitter site blasts out as-it-happens dispatches about White House security incidents and photos of snipers protecting this year’s political conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia. A Facebook page profiles the agency’s Belgian Malinois canines and announces indictments in Secret Service investigations. A LinkedIn page advertises career fairs where aspiring agents can apply to become one of more than 1,000 new employees the agency is looking to hire, following congressional investigations that highlighted severe understaffing.
The campaign started this year at the direction of Secret Service Director Joe Clancy, who took over last year after his predecessor was fired amid a series of embarrassing breaches. He brought in public affairs professionals to work with Secret Service agents who previously ran public relations, and the agency arranged meetings with Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for advice.
Clancy’s decision to be more pro-active about the agency’s public image reflected how tarnished it had become following a difficult multiyear stretch that included a fence-jumper making it into the White House and allegations of drunken driving involving two senior officials. A 2015 House investigation found the agency “in crisis,” suffering from low morale, leadership failings and funding shortfalls following government-wide cuts.
For flashy visuals, the Secret Service has turned to official photographers from its forensic services division. Traditionally, those photos and video were used to document investigations and for training, but are now being screened for what can be safely distributed to the public.
“People want a glimpse at what we do. There’s some mystique behind the Secret Service, just in the name,” said Cathy Milhoan, a former newspaper reporter hired in April as the agency’s communications director. “We’re not giving away any of the secrets, so to speak, but giving them a glimpse of things they’d never get to see.”
In half a year, the Secret Service’s Twitter account picked up nearly 50,000 followers, with tweets averaging 6 million views, the agency said. A paltry 452 followers on Facebook in February has grown to more than 43,000.