Friday, November 21, 2008

Government etiquette on Twitter

Neil Williams of Mission Creep has published an interesting question around how government should use twitter in a post, Government Twitter etiquette: talk but don’t follow.

It talks about the agency twitter account his employer runs - which is working well - and whether they should 'follow' others (which allows you to see what others are saying on twitter) or whether this is too Big Brother.

The post doesn't answer the question, but does present some views on the topic.

Here's mine....

Twitter is a very loose two-way mechanism. Its design does not foster the level of debate that is supported via a forum or allow for the level of indepth personal commentary (with comments), as does a blog.

The two things it does really well are placing short stream of consciousness messages, announcements and comments into the public eye and allowing for brief Q&A style exchanges of views, without enormous depth or follow-on.

This has made Twitter an increasingly popular medium for government (and for corporations), particularly in the US, to announce VIP schedules, status information (such as traffic status) and notices pointing to indepth website or media information.

It it less used as a method to respond to customers and constituents - but in its two-way mode can be used to gauge public satisfaction and collect top-of-mind responses as part of a consultation process.

It is important to have a goal when using any tool and, depending on the goal and level of resourcing, following has its place.

If it is being used solely as a one-way mechanism (as the BBC, CNN and NewsCorp do for article notices), there is little value in following others.

However if you wish to engage and extend the reach of the channel for your agency, following and responding to direct questions/comments, humanises your organisation and integrates you into the Twitter community. It does require ongoing resourcing and monitoring, which is beyond the capacity of many organisations - but perhaps not Mosman council.

I think the big brother concern is more linked to unwanted follows - following someone before they follow you, however if someone chooses to follow your government department's Twitter feed, if appropriate for the goals of your agency, you should follow them back (perhaps with a notice somewhere to state that you do so).

I can only think of rare occasions where a government department on Twitter should follow individuals who have not followed them - though following some of the one-way twitter feeds.

What do you think?


  1. One of the things that's so wonderful about Twitter is the fact that it's open and transparant. Most people don't have closed accounts so you can see what they're doing, search through their tweets, get a message when certain words are used, etc. It's a handy way to see what the buzz is around topics that you're concerned with as a civil servant.

    My point is: you don't have to follow anyone to get an idea of what's being talked about. Is that big brother? I don't see why. When someone says something out loud in your presence, are you eavesdropping? I think it's good when civil servants keep an ear to the ground to find out what's happening in society.

    Notice however that I'm talking about civil servants, not about agencies. Agencies can use Twitter as a channel to publish information, but agencies can't converse. If you (re)follow someone, you're starting a conversation, it's supposed to be two-way. If that's not your goal, don't do it, because that would show that you don't understand what Twitter is about and that you're only trying to use them to get your message through. Very 1.0.

    So: following without conversing will be bad publicity.

  2. I would respectfully disagree. Governmental agencies have used clipping services, and prepared daily news digests. Twitter is no different than a digest because it is public. It allows those who wish to be private to lock their "tweets".

    There are a number of people on Twitter that a governmental agency may wish to follow. News people like @ricksanchez of CNN come to mind, as do, here in the US, several members of Congress.

    I follow people that I want to hear from on a regular basis. That should be allowable for a government agency as well.