Trades Unions using Twitter

Shorter version of this post

  1. Twitter is a powerful tool. Increasingly, people who work in campaigns and communications believe this is probably true.
  2. They beleive it because thought-leaders in communications and marketing say it’s a powerful tool – and are known to use it very well. (See [social proof])
  3. What they don’t always know is why it’s a powerful tool. Once people understand why it’s a powerful tool, they will know how to use it.
  4. It’s hard to understand why it’s a powerful tool properly until you use it over a sustained period.
  5. If you don’t use it, you probably think that a lot of the conventions and language are absurd. Many regular users feel the same way. Get used to portmanteaus beginning with ‘Tw’ ( Tweetup, Tweeple etc)
  6. It’s a social skill. You need to have interesting information, wit and charm.
  7. Anyone know Chris Proctor of ASLEF? We know two things about him in relation to this article: a) He probably doesn’t use Twitter and b) if he did, he’d be fantastic at it.

Longer version

I’ve posted a few articles here about trades unions and social media, including a recent one on how trades unions have a lot to gain from understanding the potential of viral communications.

On Wednesday – on the eve of the public sector strikes – the TUC held a well-attended session for communications teams to discuss how Twitter can be an effective communications and organising tool. There were a few lessons I drew from the session and a few observations of my own that I thought I’d post here in no particular order:

Firstly, I’ve worked with almost every medium/large union in the UK at some point. All of them have worn an inferiority complex about their grasp of innovative tools like a badge of shame. It’s almost the first line in any conversation: “Don’t look at our website – it’s awful – and we’re terrible at using social media.”

In almost every case, these lines are largely untrue and are based on a misconception of how well other organisations adapt.

Talking to my old friend Andrew Chapman – a print designer who has worked with lots of sectors – we agreed: Unions may often take a while making up their minds and may sometimes be a bit conservative, but once they know what they want they’re usually much better at getting really good work out of the door than the private sector.

Next: The ‘why bother at all’ question. I find this the hardest one to answer. This isn’t because it’s really not worth bothering with. It just doesn’t always help organisations do the job that they think they need to be doing. As Henry Ford put it, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

If anything, the more a traditional press-officer hears about Twitter, the less attractive it looks. I stumbled on these stats this morning:

  • More than 40 percent of Twitter users don’t publish anything
  • 20 percent of users produce 80 percent of Twitter’s total content
  • Only five percent of users have more than 50 followers
  • 45 percent of the posts on Twitter are nonsense

The rest of the stats, however, give a more balanced view and one that I think would answer a lot of the objections.It’s not a mass communications tool – it’s a disruptive one. It’s a way of communicating with the people who influence mass communicatons tools (among others) – as Sarah Morrison, pointed out, it’s used massively by journalists.

But I’d also add that – if you’re going to do this – you need to undersand the medium and do it well. It’s a social skill they you either have, or have to learn. Billy has it….

Next point: @richsimcox of PCS made some very good points – but also hit on some of the snags: In no order, his (and other observations from the room) urged us to…

  • Don’t force it. If you’re a natural tweeter like Billy Hayes, that’s fine. If you don’t fancy the medium, you’re probably not the best person to be using it (though, in my experience, the penny can drop with a bit of training – often, people have the wrong idea about what Twitter is – when they understand it, they start to use it properly)
  • Be more informal and conversational than you would be in standard press work
  • Don’t get into arguments. You can’t win them most of the time. And don’t feed trolls.
  • Beware of ‘astroturfing‘ – it can damage your credibility
  • Sometimes, use anonymity to sample what people think to arguments you may be adopting. There’s a whole science around mining twitter for ‘sentiment analysis’ but a good start is to try it informally – do a search and see what comes up – especially when the issue in question is getting a lot of coverage!
  • Twitter isn’t like an email inbox. You don’t have to read every tweet you see – it’s more a sampling tool. Something that makes your peripheral vision more useful (OK, that’s my own synthesis there, but it’s what the room was saying in a roundabout way). Personally, I’d say that – if it creates more work than it gets rid of, don’t bother with it in the first place.
  • As Left Foot Forward‘s Shamik Das explained, it’s really important to learn about hashtags and use them for big events – if you’re commenting on #pmqs or #bbcqt, then your tweets will reach a much wider audience and get you into great conversations – it can allow you to introduce new elements into the national conversation.

I’d like to add one thing though, because I think it’s something that is so fundamental, but not something that’s really been looked at from the unique position of a union.

I think that this is the way of a lot of people who are new to twitter think of it: I tweet, my followers see it, I’ve communicated.

The more seasoned users will recognise this as a better (and more persuasive) one: How things can go viral.

And it’s even better than that if you do it properly. Hashtags mean that even non-followers can pick up what you’re saying and relay it to their networks. Unions are an alliance of people who want to work together to amplify each other’s voices in public debate. This is something that Unions could do very well with a bit of strategising and training.

So let’s think about that. It tells us that…

  • we need to be followed by people who will relay our messages – not just ‘broadcast’ accounts. We need to follow people who follow back and reply. In fact, ‘broadcast’ followers are useless
  • we need to be followed by a lot of people who use the service a lot – it increases our reach
  • we need to say things that others will relay. This requires wit, charm and interesting information. As they say, “if if doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” As trainee journalists learn, ‘dog bites man isn’t a story – man bites dog is’. A tweet saying that you’ve published a press release on your site is just pointless. You have 140 characters to sell a link to something that people want to see

Unions need to think about the implications of this. Is an ‘official twitter account’ much use? I don’t think so – unless it’s part of a plan to drop viral bait into a pool that a willing group of re-tweeters who will give these message legs.

Can unions do anything to build a network of people who are willing to make the medium work for the union? I think there is – and I told you who I’ve worked on projects like this for, I’d have to kill you straight afterwards. But it can – and has – been done.

And – most importantly – this is a human medium. It’s about people behaving like humans – being honest, open and interesting. In a communications environment, these qualities have often been ones that could have got you into trouble in the past…..

Times are changing.

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