A Twitter guide for the perplexed

Some federal managers have already mastered Twitter, but the social media site continues to baffle others who struggle to find the best way to use the microblogging tool to connect with their audiences. Fortunately, a recent report called “Working the Network: A Manager’s Guide for Using Twitter in Government” seeks to demystify Twitter by offering insight and practical tips for federal leaders.

The guide was written by Ines Mergel, assistant professor of public administration at Syracuse University, and published by the IBM Center for the Business of Government. The material below is excerpted and adapted from the document with the center’s permission.

Strategy 1: Push

The first strategy can be called push: Twitter is used as an extension of the existing (usually relatively static) Internet presence as an additional communication channel to get the message out. This results in (relatively unmoderated) Twitter updates that are mainly used to publish press releases or appearances of the [department] secretaries.

As one agency social media director explains: “Let’s put it this way, maybe it’s 1/100th of my week being applied to this because we have everything automated. We want to take a buckshot approach, as long as it does not take up a ton of our resources. As long as we can manage that, there’s no reason not to go out there and be able to communicate with the people in the form in which they are comfortable. It is all through word of mouth. Whoever is out there getting it has found a real value for it, and it will get to the point where we will be comfortable enough to at least somewhat publicize this. And once we somewhat publicize this, more and more people will get on there. It is easier for people to get notified of things if they are using Twitter. If they have Twitter open all the time, it’s easier to tell them about that. People are using that, almost as much as they’re using e-mail now.”

Strategy 2: Pull

Twitter can also be used to bring audiences back to an agency’s website, where the news is aggregated (to avoid losing control of what happens with the information). Pull strategies actively involve audiences using some degree of interaction that results in a few retweets (reuses of messages by other Twitter users) or answers to comments on responses from Twitter followers. Examples include the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] use of social media tools to alert and inform the public about peanut salmonella outbreak or its H1N1 flu campaign. Another example is an active engagement tactic, such as Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s use of Twitter during the 2010–2011 snowstorms in New Jersey. He used Twitter to actively inform the public about snow removal and his personal help with and engagement in the process.

Another example of an efficient pull strategy is [the U.S. Geological Survey’s] “Did You Feel It?” platform requesting citizens’ experiences of an earthquake. While the results are not meant to compete with scientific evidence, the so-called citizen scientists are providing insights beyond the officially collected data and provide an additional layer of interaction with the public.

[The platform] reports the “felt intensity” as experienced by the public. USGS states on its website: “We can get a more complete description of what people experienced, the effects of the earthquake and the extent of damage than traditional ways of gathering felt information.” The magnitude is quantitatively measured on a Richter scale recorded by a seismograph; the intensity is a qualitative measure of the effects of the earthquake. Intensity information is gathered in an Internet survey, and responses are displayed on the USGS Community [Internet] Intensity Map.

In addition, USGS compiles tweets of Twitter users mentioning the keywords or hashtag “earthquake” in their Twitter status updates and displays them on a map. The USGS Twitter Earthquake Detector automatically collects messages and provides narrative accounts of felt earthquake intensities in real time on a geotagged map, visualizing how citizens perceive the intensity of an earthquake in their neighborhood.

Strategy 3: Networking

The third strategy — and the least observable — is a networking strategy. Twitter can be used in highly interactive ways with a lot of back and forth between the agency and its diverse constituencies. By closely observing the agency’s Twitter encounters, an account holder will quickly get a sense of who is following them and who they should be reaching. Twitter can be used very strategically not only to control and direct messages to influencers in the network but also to have eyes and ears on the channels where actual issues relevant to an agency’s mission are being discussed.

Examples for networking tactics include the innovative use of hashtags, such as the Department of State’s use of the hashtag #AskState that was used as an online town hall meeting. Citizens were prompted to use the hashtag to ask questions.

Leading up to the event, the hashtag #AskState was used to collect questions for the speakers. Questions were answered during the live event, and the speakers also had an opportunity to directly respond and react to real-time feedback on Twitter. Since the event, the hashtag remains in use and the Department of State responds to ongoing questions posed by citizens, moving the time-bound campaign into a continuous conversation mode. This strategy helps to facilitate issue networks and helps the department be part of the network, reacting to discussions and questions by providing facts and formal statements.

Strategy 4: Customer service

The most challenging strategy is to use Twitter as an actual customer service delivery tool. Examples of companies in private industry that actively provide customer service on Twitter include Southwest Airlines, Hewlett-Packard, Yelp, Xbox, Etsy and Comcast. All provide strong e-service via social media technologies. Going forward, government agencies have the opportunity to think about ways in which social media can be used for ongoing customer service.

In 2011, the Office of Management and Budget directed agencies to set service standards and use customer feedback to improve the customer experience. Agencies and departments are currently following up with implementation plans, establishing customer service task forces and finding ways to use innovative technologies. Twitter can be used to collect feedback from citizens but also to provide timely responses. While this pace might challenge the current standard operating procedures of providing or even collecting input from citizens, OMB provides additional guidance on how to ensure the maximum quality of information provided in these exchanges.

National museums and libraries are using Twitter in innovative ways to provide real-time assistance for requests posted by researchers, teachers and students. Others are using Twitter to provide information that is not available on their websites.

Best Twitter practices for administrators

All social media interactions need to follow your organization’s social media strategy and resulting daily tactics.

The strategy will include information about acceptable social media content, tools, and social media channels, and will help you manage your day-to-day updates.

Don’t do it on your own.

A social media team should be responsible for the main functions, but reach out to knowledge experts if you can’t answer the questions you receive via Twitter on your own. You will raise your reputation by including those in your organization who have specialist-level knowledge about issues.

Daily content curating.

Public affairs officials are not necessarily the ones who can curate all content. Set up routines to search for updates or encourage those creating news in your organization to provide content that can be distributed through your social media channels. Think about when to respond, retweet or comment on your audience’s tweets.

Find a human voice.

Twitter is a great tool to provide agency information in plain language. Use IDs or other types of author identification so that your audience knows who is tweeting with them this week, on a specific day, or during a campaign or event. Remember that Twitter is a public conversation.

Keep routine updates among your team.

Prepare routines that will alert your team about upcoming events, schedule updates and responses, and line up automatic updates that reach out to difference audiences at different times throughout the day. Don’t spam or you will lose your audience.

Make sure to distinguish between your personal social media accounts and the organizational accounts you are responsible for.

Your updates on behalf of a government organization might be temporary. You might move on to other types of jobs or assume other responsibilities. Use a Twitter account name that can stay with the organization or team when your responsibilities change.

Get training in social media data analysis. Use free tools, such as Google Analytics, Facebook analytics, or Klout to understand how your audience perceives its interactions with your agency. Create a business case for your social media impact and acquire additional resources to build a professional suite of analytics tools.

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