Social media has become an essential part of travel. It’s an easy way to stay connected with new friends, post envy-inducing photos, and learn what’s going on at exotic locales. But if you suffer a grave weather event or political unrest while you are in a foreign country, social media can also be essential to quickly get the information you need to stay safe. As you tuck your sunblock, chargers and passport into your bag, take a moment to also follow TravelGov on Twitter and Facebook.

These social media accounts are managed by the Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State. The Bureau of Consular Affairs is responsible for the welfare and protection of U.S. citizens abroad, the issuance of passports and other documentation to citizens and nationals, the protection of U.S. border security and the facilitation of legitimate travel to the United States.

Lori Lawson, Digital Engagement Specialist, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State, recently answered some questions about how The Department of State uses social media.

Joanna Belbey: Tell us about social media at The Department of State. What’s your reach and mission?

Lori Lawson: The Department of State has more than 2,000 official social media accounts, primarily on Facebook and Twitter and largely at U.S. Embassies and Consulates abroad, with a combined follower base of more than 89 million. Within the Bureau of Consular Affairs, our primary platforms are Facebookand Twitter. Consular Affairs has a combined audience of more than 921,000 followers on these two platforms alone. During a crisis, however, our safety and security messages routinely reach millions of people. For example, during this year’s hurricane season, we reached more than 14 million people with approximately 800 messages across Facebook and Twitter. The mission for our accounts is simple. We call it “news you can use.” Everything we post is tied to some action item for U.S. citizens or travelers to the United States. Our number one goal is to be useful to our followers. Here’s a recent example of a post after Hurricanes Irma and Jose.

With that goal in mind, we use our accounts as a way to build and reinforce our commitment to customer service. To help us deliver great customer service, we hold several regular chats on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. During these chats, we work with subject matter experts to provide an accurate, helpful response within minutes of receiving the question. We also answer questions that come in through social media even when we aren’t holding a chat. In a world where people can easily contact almost any organization on social media for customer service, it’s important that we’re available there as well. We try to incorporate a human element in our responses across all of these channels. We’re not a bot. We’re real people who genuinely want to help – and we want that to show in our responses. For example, if you’re asking about changing the name on your passport after you get married, we’re going to congratulate you on your recent marriage. It doesn’t matter if we get the question one time or 100 times, we will respond to it authentically.