In mid-June 2012 I went to a number of conferences, meetings and gatherings as part of a wider project related to making Cambridge – my home town – a better place to live and work in. Part of this also involved pulling up my socks and getting stuck into organising and expanding the Teacambs network of people interested in public sector digital and social media in Cambridgeshire. I’m pleased to say that the results of that push have been positive, with a number of new people committing to our monthly gatherings from the various public and quasi-public sector organisations.
Three of the gatherings that I went to provided insights into both the potential and the problems with using Twitter from different perspectives. These gatherings were with Junior Chambers Cambridge, The European Parliaments London Office’s Thinktank London event, and The Campaign Against Climate Change’s ‘Alternative Rio Summit‘. Essentially all three were at some point asking how they could reach out to people outside of their own bubbles.
How can Twitter help me/my organisation reach outside of my existing bubble?
I’m going to assume that readers know the basic functionality of Twitter. If you don’t, have a look at the guide produced by Twitter here.
Centralised control of communications
The temptation for many organisations is to have their social media functions run by their communications teams. After all, it’s about communicating and you want to be sure that anything that goes to and from social media accounts is ‘on message’. After all, you want to avoid those social media firestorms, don’t you?
In pre-social media world, chances are you came across management-speak concepts such as ‘everyone is a communicator’. It was bland, safe and didn’t really mean that much to most people day-to-day. Change it to ‘everyone using social media communicates with the whole world whether they choose to or not’ and things start to get interesting.
What established organisations – in particular hierarchical ones – struggle with is relinquishing control. They want to have all of the benefits of social media while trying to minimise the risks. Understandable, but in order to achieve the latter they run the risk of holding on to control of communications even tighter than before. Are social media platforms blocked in your workplace? That’s an example of it.
A technological solution to a human resources/management problem?
That’s what blocking social media platforms is an example of. Rather than using a HR or management solution to the risk of people not working and using social media frivolously all day, too many organisations think that blocking such websites is a solution. 10 years ago that might have been the case, but in a world where more and more people have web-enabled smartphones such steps are pointless. People have used technology to get round such bans. What you are left with is an organisation that is not getting any of the benefits of social media in a professional context while failing to stop the risks associated with people using it. Far better to say to your staff that you trust them to use social media sensibly and not excessively until proven otherwise?
Separating the corporate from personal accounts
This for me is essential. What people want from corporate accounts and what they want from personal accounts are not the same thing.
What do I want to see from a corporate account?
From a sound corporate account I don’t want it to be an additional channel for bland press releases. What I do want to know is if you are publishing something significant, whether another organisation in your field is doing the same, or when and where you or a related organisation are hosting an event that I and the general public can come along to or follow online.
I don’t want to see bland and meaningless statements condensed into a few tweets unless it really is emergency/crisis handling stuff. For me it should be ‘hook’ (headline), hyperlink (to new webpage) and ‘send’. I also think that this account needs to be separate from a customer services account – that needs to be separate and staffed by people with the mandate and authority to handle complaints. You don’t want it run by interns or minimum-wage staff. You need to demonstrate to staff and customers that you value this function and remunerate and resource it accordingly.
In the Twitter profile for a corporate account, I also want to see a link to the personalised account of the person mainly responsible for the tweets, and a hyperlink to the homepage of the organisation concerned. The reason for this is I want to interact with people inside the organisation. This is difficult with a corporate feed. By saying “There are people behind this feed – and here they are” you remove a barrier and can allow your staff to have a much richer level of interaction with those people that follow you.
What do I want to see from a ‘professional personal account’?
A human being. Someone who, if I really get on with them I and others can meet up with at an event or for coffee. I use Twitter to filter great people into my life. I’ve not looked back. When I do meet people for the first time that I’ve previously been corresponding with on Twitter, it’s as if we’ve known each other for a very long time. You don’t have those really awkward moments of silence because you – and potentially others who are there – are already familiar with your social media persona.
I also want to see variety. If there is something really interesting that you are working on, feel free to tweet about it. If there is a problem you are facing, feel free to ask for help. Chances are your social media network has access to a far greater level of expertise than your office does. Seen a really interesting article? Retweet it – and perhaps say why too. Vary some of the media – but don’t overload the cute baby animal pics! Seen a particular short digital video? A newspaper front page? Even something random in the street seldom seen? Snap it, tweet it, share it. If it’s all ‘work, work, work,’ don’t be surprised if people get the impression you might be a little dull.
Recommendations are also good. Websites, facebook pages, organisations and individuals. If you are going to make recommendations, please give reasons for them.
It’s also good to see proactive engagement. Don’t wait for people to respond to you – go out and find interesting people. Look at hashtags, use the search function and comment on what people are saying and ask them questions. If you make the effort to engage positively with people, the latter are much more likely to reciprocate.
Be honest with what your interests are. If you have a niche interest that no one in your workplace is interested in, chances are there is a hidden world of people in social media world to make up for it. There are goldmines of people and knowledge out there.
I’m a senior manager. How do I manage the risks?
Sensibly. For example making sure your staff understand what their responsibilities are with social media use – but not being too draconian. Block sites on your work systems and they’ll use their smartphones.
How are other people and organisations in your sector managing their risks? Chances are they are facing similar issues themselves. Engage with your staff – chances are you have got several for whom using social media is second nature to them. Are you bringing on and nurturing that talent or is it stuck away in some back office somewhere?
If you are really unsure about the risks, don’t be afraid to ask. The worst thing you can do is bury your head in the sand. One charity and government contractor found out the hard way recently. Not having a social media account does not mean social media users won’t talk about you. They will. If you are in a social media firestorm and have no official social media presence, you have no way of engaging and defusing the situation.
In terms of who should manage your social media functions, ideally you want someone who is knowledgeable and passionate about both social media and the work your organisation does, and someone who is empowered to take decisions on the back of feedback that you receive. What you don’t want to do is to have a low-paid temp who knows little about your organisation running it. One thing you do not want is for posts by the person responsible to be effectively overturned by someone higher up – by which time the social media firestorm may have peaked and the damage done.
It’s also worth noting social media is not just for young people either. Young people today have grown up with the internet and social media as the norm. “We the web kids” is a brilliant insight into what this means. But this does not mean older members of staff won’t “get” social media. There may be some in your firm that already do, or show a potential to take to it like a duck to water. Harness and nurture them.
This is an issue all sectors of the economy are facing. The civil service has chosen to embrace social media – and accordingly has to manage the risks associated given the sensitivity of some of the information it holds. I was one of the ‘external critical friends’ that contributed to new social media guidance for the civil service – as denoted by the mention of my social media handle @Puffles2010 in the media release. That in itself speaks volumes. Could you have imagined Cabinet Office launching a major piece of guidance in the form of a blogpost – within which it acknowledges a social media account in the form of a mythical creature? Our old assumptions of what is normal and what is crazy or childish is being turned on its head. Think of Twitter itself. Twitter, tweets, tweeting…think of what those words meant ten years ago. Now think what they mean today.
Social media should have at least some element of fun! That’s my approach. I’ve found that nice medium that blends my online presence with my offline presence. Yes, I often turn up to events with a big cuddly dragon fairy called Puffles in tow, but it’s what people are familiar with. People also like seeing Puffles – have a look at these photos.
Social media should not be seen as something ‘bolted on’ but as something which is integral to the running of your organisation. There are risks involved – and things will go wrong at some stage. What matters is how you deal with them. After all, I’d rather fail and learn than not try at all.