UK Government Tries Twittering By Committee - InformationWeek
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12:49 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner

UK Government Tries Twittering By Committee

Reading about U.K. government guidelines for participating in Twitter, I'm reminded of a joke: A woman says to her workaholic husband, "We need more spontaneity in our marriage. Surprise me!" And the man says, "Great idea, honey! Why don't you prepare a list of ways that you'd like me to surprise you spontaneously, and then we can schedule a meeting to discuss it!"

Reading about U.K. government guidelines for participating in Twitter, I'm reminded of a joke: A woman says to her workaholic husband, "We need more spontaneity in our marriage. Surprise me!" And the man says, "Great idea, honey! Why don't you prepare a list of ways that you'd like me to surprise you spontaneously, and then we can schedule a meeting to discuss it!"As my colleague Deborah Gage reports, the British Cabinet Office recently issued a 20-page document explaining Twitter to its civil servants, and offering guidelines for its use.

In a document that included objectives, metrics and five appendices, civil servants last week were advised to produce between two and 10 Tweets per day -- at least 30 minutes apart to avoid overwhelming followers -- in an "informal, 'human' voice' to promote "comprehension of and engagement with our corporate messages."...

The Cabinet Office has also considered several risks of using Twitter -- accidentally leaked information, other security issues, and intermittent down time, among others -- but sees it as a good way to update the public on news releases, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, ministers' movements and insights and directions during a crisis, "when Twitter would be used as a primary channel alongside our corporate Web site."

The Guardian, a UK newspaper, has more, noting that the 5,382-word, 36,215-character document would require about 259 separate tweets to transmit on Twitter.

It's a pretty good document, providing a solid platform for government IT managers in the U.S. as well as the U.K. But there are also a few significant points I disagree with.

For instance, the document says that Twitter accounts should automatically follow back anyone who's following them, or run the risk of seeming rude or, in extreme cases, being kicked off Twitter.

That's just plain wrong. While government IT managers-and businesses, too, for that matter-should keep track of what's being said about and to their organizations, they're better off using Twitter's built-in search. If you follow someone, you're making an implicit statement that you plan to read at least some of their tweets, so you shouldn't follow someone unless you plan to follow through on that.

Likewise, you don't run a risk if you follow too few people. Just tell that to President Obama, the @whitehouse account has 823,307 followers as I write this, but follows only 69 people. The risk is the other way around: If you follow too many people, Twitter might decide you're a spammer and kick you out. The reason: When you follow someone on Twitter, the person you're following receives an e-mail notification; spammers quickly signed up to follow a lot of people, thereby getting their messages out in bulk. Twitter now has controls in place to limit that behavior, although of course, as with any spam, attempts to control it are only partly successful.

Likewise, the document says that Twitter users are hostile to the over-use of automation, such as RSS feeds. I don't have to look very far to find a refutation to that one-the @informationweek account is almost entirely automated, fed by RSS feeds, and has proven pretty popular.

Ultimately, what matters on Twitter is that you're giving people information that's useful or entertaining, and that you set expectations accurately. A person only has to glance at the @informationweek page to see that it's made up entirely of headlines and links to articles, and we're followed by more than 200 times as many people as we follow. People can look for themselves, and decide if they want to follow us. If they do, great, if they don't, that's fine too-we part ways without generating any ill will.

The part that caused me to raise my eyebrows the highest was the reference to holding meetings to decide what to tweet.

He suggests that nothing too onerous is involved. Each department's "digital media team" should only need to spend less than an hour a day running their Twitter streams. A quick discussion of potential tweets at the morning press cuttings meetings should be followed by emails to minister's private offices to gather more material, and any incoming messages should be replied to.

Most of us who've been on Twitter for a while use it as a spontaneous medium-read it and send a message when you have a few moments, without giving it much thought. The idea of holding meetings to plan out Twitter activity for the day seems preposterous on the face of it. And yet it's probably a good idea for government.

Overall, though, the U.K. guidelines present a good introduction to Twitter for government IT managers on both sides of the Atlantic. It hits the essential points: People participating in Twitter need to sound like human beings, not emitters of committee-generated bureaucratese. And you need to be in conversation with the people following you on Twitter, not just talking at them.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on leading-edge government IT -- and how the technology involved may end up inside your business. Download the report here (registration required).

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