CommLeader Spotlight|Derek Belt, Cohort 9

10991089_947227445317540_7288616875691685822_nTwitter Handle: @derekbelt

Graduation date or expected graduation date: 2011

Area of interest (within the MCDM/MCCN program or in general): Analytics, communication trends.

What exactly do you do professionally or what are your professional goals?

I am the Social Media Specialist for King County (Wash). I work with and support 100+ communications staffers at all levels of county government, from transportation and parks to courts, cops and elections. I oversee a social media program that has nearly 150 different pages engaging nearly 200,000 people, as well as an email and text messaging program that reaches more than 300,000 subscribers. I am one of the youngest people on staff but have embraced the role of “change agent” and are moving us forward 140 characters at a time.

How are you directly applying knowledge from the MCDM or MCCN program in your daily life?

I always tell people that I help King County staff do old things in new ways. Whether it’s the way we publish content to the web, engage with local and national media, or listen to public feedback online, there is so much opportunity for growth when it comes to digital media and government. The MCDM challenged me to be a critical thinker and to look at each project holistically, and I use those skills every day. For example, I helped pioneer a new strategy for sending press releases that uses our newsletter service to track the data on which reporters are interested in which topics, such as homelessness and early education. This allows us to build better relationships with reporters in our region, reach out to certain people for exclusives knowing they are legitimately interested in the subject matter, and ultimately tell better stories for the audiences we serve. There wasn’t anything wrong with the old way we were sending press releases—I just had an idea for doing it better. If it ain’t broke, break it. That’s the MCDM in me.

As a full-time or part-time student, how have classes worked into your schedule?

Some graduate programs say they work well for people with full-time jobs, but they don’t. The MCDM definitely does, and that was a huge selling point for me. Classes started at 6 p.m. on weeknights so I was able to get to the UW campus easily, and the homework was challenging and rewarding so it was never a burden. I know a lot of people punch their grad school ticket to unlock pay raises or because it looks good on a resume. I wanted those things, too, naturally. But the reason I made the MCDM decision was to put myself in the best possible position to grow. I wanted to soak up as much information as I could from the instructors, learn as much as I could from the talented people in my classes, and apply those learnings immediately to the work I was doing. I think having a full-time job made me a better MCDM student because it gave me a place to implement the stuff I was learning in class.

Which classes have had the most impact on you personally and professionally?

The very first class I took was “Economics of Digital Communication.” I wrote a glowing review of the social media book Groundswell by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li. That didn’t fly with my instructor, who gave it back to me a few days later and told me to rewrite the report focusing on what I didn’t like about the book. That was the moment I became a critical thinker, and it changed my entire mindset.

What’s your favorite Comm Lead experience?

I have two answers to this. First, I remember devouring the books I had to read for class. I just couldn’t stop reading, and I was highlighting passages and taking notes like I never have before. I carried Post-It notes around with me because I needed to bookmark sections so that I could reference later on. Not for class, but for work. I would read on the bus on my way to the office, get a new idea, and start working on that new idea as soon as I got to my desk. It was a huge rush, and it has never really left me.

My other favorite experience was drinking vodka in class one time. We did a client project for “Digital Media Marketing and Branding” with an organic vodka distillery on Bainbridge Island. One of its biggest advantages over the competition was in how the vodka was made—small batches using local grains from local soil. It actually tasted like the earth it came from, rather than the typical metallic taste you get from large-scale producers like Smirnoff who just make as much vodka as they can at once. There’s really not a lot of skill there, whereas our little distillery on Bainbridge was putting in a lot of work to make their product. Anyway, we had to talk about this in class to make our point about some of the marketing we were recommending for the client, and it only made sense to taste test, right? Little samples. Big smiles all around the room.

Career-wise, what is your ultimate digital media goal?

I seriously feel like I’m living it out right now. I spent some time at a digital marketing agency prior to my time at the county, and I always felt like we were on an assembly line. We only worked on small parts of a big project and when we were done the next part would come down the line. I realized early on that I wanted to do something more. I wanted to be part of something big that would take time to develop. That’s just my personality—and I found what I was looking for at King County. We are already doing some compelling work in key areas, but I just love that my career here is still in its first few chapters. This is not a stepping stone for me. I have big plans that are going to take years to deliver on, and that’s exactly what I wanted in a communications career.

What digital trends are you most intrigued by right now?

I’m sure most people would say mobile, and yes that’s something we’re planning for. But I’m really excited about using digital tools to pull in more public feedback. it’s easy to use digital media to “push” information, but it’s much more difficult to “pull” relevant information back in. Social listening isn’t a new idea, but government is always going to be a few steps behind the big-budget private sector trends and we’re quickly on our way to catching up. I want to leverage social listening to give people realistic alternatives to attending public meetings in person. I want to use Twitter to understand public sentiment and thus influence policy through those insights. I want to see if we can use text messaging for two-way customer service. I think we can do all of these things really well.

What’s the strangest food you’ve eaten and under what circumstances?

Rattlesnake bites. I went to Arizona to see the Mariners in Spring Training once and we ended up at a restaurant with rattlesnake bites on the appetizer menu. They tasted fine, but I chewed and chewed and chewed and chewed and nothing ever happened. It was like the Everlasting Gobstopper from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I finally had to spit it out and move on to something else. Total waste of money.

Ilona IdlisCommLeader Spotlight|Derek Belt, Cohort 9
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