Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Why Tweetfests Could Harm Our Profession

The first time I saw a public sector Twitterthon I was quite impressed. It was probably done by Walsall or Coventry Council, who seem to lead the way on social media, and it added some colour to the traditionally dour or closed world of local government work. Then Greater Manchester Police took the innovative step of tweeting all their incidents in a 24-hour period*. I seem to remember being told it aimed to highlight the full breadth of Police work, as part of a wider strategy to try to minimise Government funding cuts.
Now, though, these Tweetfests seem to be twoapenny and, frankly, are becoming a little boring. Far, far worse, however, is that they could begin to undermine our profession by reinforcing senior managers’ long-term prioritisation of technical aspects of communication over the strategic.
An over-reaction? Well, to explain my thinking, one only has to consider the proportion of times an organisation’s communicator is summoned to deal with a problem, or promote some good news, with the cry: “We need a press release”; when actually, what was needed was a wider approach to consider the implications of that decision, and a strategy to manage its consequences. Or a discussion about whether a press release is actually the best medium by which to put that good news across.
It is many years since professional communicators stopped measuring their success in terms of press releases distributed or newspaper column inches. How many people actually read those articles? And what tiny proportion of that small number actually changed their behaviour as a result of that article? In my Fire Service, our comms team’s role is aligned with the Service aim of making people safer. There’s a bit of reputation management in there, but we measure our success in terms of our contribution to reducing emergency incidents. Sending out a press release often isn’t the best way to do that, but all too often a manager’s comms instinct is still to call for a press release instead of a strategy.
Twitterthons are now in danger of perpetuating the perception that the technical communicator’s role of writing stuff and send it out is more important than planning and managing a strategy to achieve a business objective. They have their place as one element of a wider plan to achieve a specific goal. But we should resist at all costs the morphing of the “write us a press release” request into “do us a Tweetfest”.
The Japanese inventor and industrialist Sakichi Toyoda pioneered the “5 Whys” concept – basically whatever your idea or problem is, constantly ask “Why” to boil the issue down to the key issue. As a communicator, our first question when asked to do a Tweetfest should be “Why?” If the answer is for a bit of good publicity, or to do something of interest to people, it’s probably, at best, a waste of valuable time. And if, by the time we’ve asked “Why?” for the fifth time, and we still haven’t reached a core organisational objective or work priority, then we need to be brave enough to say “No.”

UPDATE (24/1): I am informed that GMP's came first, but Council Twitterthons followed soon afterwards

1 comment:

  1. Hi Steve,

    Your update is quite right. The first one was GMP which I helped to shamelessly rip-off for #Walsall24 for Walsall Council.

    It's a bold question you ask and I'm a bit torn really.

    You are both right and wrong.

    Are Twitter events a golden bullet that should be deployed always? Not on your nelly.

    Are they damaging the PR profession? Not on your nelly too.

    Let me explain with the story of the disappearance of two children in Walsall this week. Aged 12 and 10 they had vanished with only £20 to their name, not much in the way of clothes and snow deep on the ground.

    The Police were called. Superintendent Keith Fraser pressed the big red button marked 'vanished children' that sets all sorts of alarms blaring. Officers were deployed. The press office started to circulate the details to the media and online. Mr Fraser turned to Twitter where he has 1,600 followers and asked the public, the bloggers who he talks to and the council he has good links with to help share the description. They did. In great numbers.

    Several hours later a member of the public sees them getting off the coach and remembers the description then calls for help. The children are re-united with their parents.

    Without the social media links he wouldn't have been able to get the message out as quick. In other words, his network amplified the appeal.

    I absolutely think that frontline staff should have access to social media across the public sector. Not just the comms team.

    I also think that social media is about conversation and discussion and about showing a human face to places that can often be faceless.

    Without that conversation and human edge digital communications becomes disinteresting spam and links to press releases. That's a whole heap of rubbish and doesn't work online.

    Supt Fraser's appeal worked because we knew him and we knew he cared about Walsall. In other words, his day-to-day communication wasn't obviously linked to a core organisation other than to look human and to have channels in place for those occasions when he wanted people to know a key message or appeal. He sort of followed the 80/20 split and was human for 80 per cent of the time and 20 per cent was that police commander sending out messages.

    A neighbouring police officer Supt Mark Payne reaped the rewards when he used Twitter to shoot down in real time rumours during the riots of 2011.

    Digital communications shouldn't be just about key messages but should also be a means of making connections and listening and if a Twitter event - or any other channel - builds a base to do that then that's fine. It'll also start to shatter glass ceilings in the organisation over the merit of this stuff.

    But I am with you, Steve, on the idea that Twitter events should be as common as a photocall.

    With so many different channels and ways of communicating available there is a whole battalion of different ways we can connect with people.

    We've not done anything of the scale of Walsall24 since. That's sort of deliberate.

    But what we have done is worked with people who saw the possibilities of social media to do a range of other things.