All around the world, governments are trying to be more involved in social media to leverage its power to engage citizens. The current hot social media item going at time of posting in late April 2009 is Twitter, the 140 character maximum update that’s like mass texting. Governments are trying to figure out whether or not to tweet, and what to tweet if so. Unfortunately, I don’t think there a definitive answer, but here are some alternatives and things to think about.
If government is going tothink about this for another year, or can’t put a timeline right now on when it will start tweeting, then forget about it. I don’t believe Twitter will last much beyond the end of 2010 as a big channel of communications among the public masses so taking a year to decide will mean a lot of efforts devoted to this for next to nothing.
If government is going to tweet, get a plan together by summer’s end, jump in, do it and learn some things from its “mistakes”, or less than the most effective strategies. 140 character blips of communications isn’t worth that much planning as the consequences aren’t that severe. Waiting so long to decide whether or not to tweet is like taking a week to plot your tweet, which is counter to the point of tweeting to spread what’s going on now, the latest and greatest thing happening.
That out of the way, if government tweet, what should it tweet?
First, it shouldn’t be government that tweets. It should be its departments, branches or whatever divisional units that do. Nobody is interested in all things government, and each should not expect anything like a huge population following. Government tweeters are each for something like a cult following who would be interested in what each tweeter will have to say.
Once the tweeters are decided, which could be as each department, unit, branch or whatever is ready, then each should ask itself what it could offer on a regular basis that might keep someone interested. Two themes I could immediately think of are of the “did you know” and “update” nature, though they are hardly the only ones, of course. However, I think a theme is important to establish identity. Fix it and/or expand later based on response… which is that adopt as you go strategy I was talking about earlier.
The “did you know” theme is not only a challenge to people, but also a way to promote something in a different light. Whether government is trying to promote awareness, or just generating conversation by sharing some information it has at its disposal that’s not well known, getting people to talk about government and/or where they live (city, province, country) is a good thing. It’s even better when it’s in a positive light that government can steer it in with the choice of information it chooses to share. Just be ready to answer some questions on the tweets from the followers.
Updates are also great for tweets. Maybe not everyone chooses to get their information this way, but for those who do, while they still do, update tweets can act as another channel like RSS, email feeds, news releases, and so on, to share information. You can update everything from road conditions, especially closures, to pulling stunts like tweeting news conferences as it happens, or giving heads up of news releases half an hour before the latter appears. With updates, regularity may be a challenge. Roads aren’t always going to close with regularity, for instance. However, that tweeting would be very different from an audience engagement… plus, you could answer things like questions of alternative routes to those wanting to know. That’s pretty direct service. As for advanced notice of news releases, it’d be for those wanting to be on the ball, whether the press, or bloggers or what have you. I would suggest backing this sort of tweeting with responses on the actual news releases and such, though, not to tweets. Too short and challenging for that.
One interesting thing to try might be to tweet by practical topics rather than departmental topics. How’s a tweeting channel of public consultation meetings of any type, for instance?
One thing not to do, though, is to try and use tweets like propaganda. Don’t try to convince the public of things, and keep the politics out of it. Present things and let the followers decide for themselves. Keep as much a neutral tone as possible, aside from positive energy. Also don’t try to be what you’re not, or take the authority role, even if government is a respected authority. You can be authoritative without flaunting it. It is a fine line among all these things. Talk to your communications people about that. That’s their job.
In the end, tweeting is just another communications means with some different rules. But because it is a means of communication, a lot of the communication basics will still apply. The pros just have to make adjustments, on the level of talking into a microphone, telephone, by sign language or whatever, but it’s still just communications. As for resources needed, a central listing of tweeters would be very nice, and then a person or two to do the tweeting from each twitter source, but make sure they have time to respond to genuine questions, which is not necessarily every question. Aside from direct personal communication between friends, I would bet most questions asked twitter to twitter never get answered. At least that’s my experience looking into tweets of people with over 500 followers. How could they?
If one tweets and no one reads it, does anybody hear?
Any thoughts, suggestions or questions?
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Reading Level: 9.0