Neil Lampert, Probation Association PR and Communications Manager, runs their corporate Twitter account
Why I Tweet
I was curious about Twitter for a couple of years before taking the plunge and opening the PA corporate account.
It seemed that to even know what you were doing, let alone be effective, you had to understand a bewildering array of insider shorthand.
Some tweets looked like little more than code. But for the prospective corporate tweeter the biggest issue was – will we have enough to say?
For organisations who have previously been used to issuing a press release or publishing a blog once a fortnight or less, jumping into the swirling social media torrent can seem like a leap of faith.
At least, it certainly looked that way in the early summer of 2011 when we decided to bite the bullet and join a tiny handful of Probation Trust Chiefs and other criminal justice accounts on Twitter.
But the events that unfolded in subsequent weeks rapidly transformed my views.
The violence that exploded out of Tottenham on 6 August before spreading to other areas of London and other English cities was of course shocking – and so without parallel that it seemed the entire country was glued to the rolling news.
For a journalist turned criminal justice comms manager like myself, they represented something impossible to look away from and it soon became apparent that stories were breaking on Twitter before they made the national news.
I watched frightening, yet extraordinary, handheld video footage that didn’t seem to be making it onto television.
Thanks to the general public, along with some remarkable behind-police-lines reporting from Twitter adepts like the Guardian’s Paul Lewis (@PaulLewis), Twitter was the only place to go if you wanted breaking news on the riots.
Twitter was accused by some of being part of the problem by facilitating incitement – but in time the opposite was found to be true: most rioters did not use Twitter and the site became a focus for those organising and attending clean-up operations.
New versus traditional media
What all this showed me was that traditional forms of media were fast becoming redundant. I also began to see arguments some were using for not engaging with social media as just as redundant as those that I used to hear about the need or otherwise for corporate websites in the early 1990s.
Eighteen months on and it is clear that actively subscribing to and consuming information from individuals and organisations we personally value on social networks, rather than passively receiving it via the traditional media, is fast becoming the norm. This provides opportunities, but also challenges, for the corporate tweeter.
As does the conversational nature of Twitter.
Broadcast or engage?
The Probation Association primarily tweets to broadcast its key messages and general views.
But that isn’t really what Twitter is about and so we are generally keen to interact. We have had important conversations with politicians, stakeholders and journalists via Twitter that would either simply not have happened or have been less effective via other means.
Corporate tweeters will know that they have to maintain an engaging, consistent tone and must exercise caution and restraint when responding to replies. I do not respond to all replies to PA tweets but try to respond to most.
We do not shy away from serious debates. On the contrary, we encourage them.
But Twitter is not always the best arena in which to conduct them. As Richard Garside (@richardjgarside follow him – he’s always got something interesting to say) eloquently points out in his article in this series, exchanges with those “with strong views and a tenuous grip on reality” are unwinnable.
I would counsel against a corporate account blocking anybody. My advice is to quietly ignore the less rational in your @ column.
Breaking into public consciousness
As a friendly barrister once tweeted at us, it often feels like we are having an internal conversation on Twitter between friends in the criminal justice world.
How can we engage the public?
One way is via activity on hashtags promoting justice-related television programmes.
For example, the drama Public Enemies broadcast by BBC1 12 months ago may have shown probation in a less than glowing light, but it provided us with an opportunity to correct some of the less accurate portrayals of probation work live, engage in conversations with the public about probation and pick up hundreds of followers we would otherwise not have been reaching.
There have been prison-related documentaries over the past year that have also provided fertile ground for justice tweeters.
I’d like to offer two pieces of advice which have the potential to transform Twitter experience.
Find a third party app you enjoy. Test a few out – they’re bound to be better than Twitter.com and the native mobile app. I’ve tried a few and now use Echofon as it sits in a tidy, thin column down the side of my Mac allowing me to leave it open all day and I find it simplifies use on the iPhone. [For other apps, see here]
I’m always amazed at how few tweeters use Lists. I would find it impossible to follow more than 100 or so without splitting by profession/subject to create smaller, more easily digestible feeds.
This is the 33rd post in the criminal justice/legal Why I tweet series. Read the others here.
Check out Russell’s half day courses on Tweeting for work/business: