Twitter: this time it’s personal

Originally posted on the NFPtweetup blog – prior to the 8th meetup on September 15th

Many scoff at those of us who love Twitter, and frankly I couldn’t care less. It works for me (at least for the moment). But I recognise that others – particularly decision makers – need to hear more than that. Twelve months ago I wrote a post, which asked, Do you tweet out on a limb? – with some suggestions on how to convince colleagues of the value of Twitter. That particular battle is on-going – although for me, Cory Doctorow nailed it earlier in the year.

The real value of Twitter… is to keep the invisible lines of connection between us alive

These days – above all else it seems – I am asked whether you can be personal (as opposed to private) and professional in social media? While Dawn Foster has written eloquently around this subject on her blog, there is generally a good deal of uncertainty about how to represent the charity brand personally – so yesterday I asked my Twitter friends about their experiences (see the bullet points a bit further down).

It must be said that on the whole, charities are gradually giving their staff more visibility online – none more so than the always refreshing charity:water – who positively celebrate their employees with a blog ‘category’ all of their own. Other organisations prefer to maintain a Twitter ‘list’ of tweeting employees – although even this is by no means a straightforward ask, and more than one person told me (privately) that they had to stop their charity employer from adding them to a staff list, citing their tweets as “too political”, and potentially compromising.

Of the 200+ people I ‘follow’ on Twitter who work for UK charities, I’d say a minority actually name their employer – with a handful carrying the stamp of approval of a Twitter ‘handle’ that is ‘on brand’ – e.g. Colin Butfield (@Colin_WWF), Head of Campaigns at the conservation and sustainable development charity. Also in that category include @onekindMK, @redspesh_oxfam, and Carolyn Miller @MerlinChiefExec.

What I do know is that I much prefer to follow real people than a corporate charity brand. Over time, everyone who wishes to, can participate. These voices may evolve into a charity’s social ‘tone of voice’ – the aggregate of all their staff – and become a vital aspect to their brand.

Back to the question. Steven Buckley (@stevenbuckley), Head of Communications and Brand at Christian Aid, shared the following with me…

[It’s] Difficult to say anything that could be perceived as contrary to org policy and hard to let off steam about internal challenges. On balance I think a personal / corporate public profile is a good thing (credibility / opinion etc) but will admit that there are times when I’d like to say something about an issue – ‘chugging’ is just one thing that comes to mind – but I end up staying schtum.

A few people told me they give quite a bit of thought about what they do and don’t tweet about. Some admit to composing a tweet and, then thinking better of it. I’ve consolidated the feedback I received* into this brief list:

  • Include a disclaimer in your profile;
  • Common sense should always prevail;
  • Don’t tweet what you wouldn’t want to see in print – or your mother to read;
  • Keep it clean (a few people advised against swearing);
  • Try to stay clear of controversial topics – or at the very least refrain from using inflammatory language.
  • While your views are your own, bear in mind what you say could reflect negatively on the charity’s reputation
  • Take care not to announce a new initiative before the ‘official’ word is out, and if in doubt leave it out, or seek advice (even though embargoes are so last century);
  • Do not say anything that may damage relationships with corporate partners, suppliers, and other charities
  • Be transparent – if responding to any work-related social media activities always make a disclosure.

I’d say that is a pretty good list. What do you think?

There are a few things I would also recommend charity leaders consider seriously…

  • Begin from a position of trust;
  • Don’t outsource your charity’s ‘voice’;
  • Don’t make social media another silo;
  • This is more than just a question of adoption – which is not enough on its own. You want those who ‘get it’ to collaborate with others;
  • Build up the digital capability of your organisation – this should be endorsed as an HR objective;
  • The digital capability that comes on-stream needs to be rolled into the brand
  • Allow staff the freedom to be themselves – at least those who are already comfortable in their own skin;
  • Avoid jumping in with both feet; many staff will already be fearful of getting involved. Rather consider carefully how you can signal a gentle suggestion of permission – “We’re cool about you tweeting” sort of thing;
  • Recognise that much of the value in Twitter stems from its immediacy and the ability of staff to report and share what they are experiencing right in front of them;
  • As a general rule, social media is best done by those closest to the frontline, already talking about your work – i.e. contextual conversations that might lead to an action, rather than something staged;
  • Capture good examples of Twitter use that catch your eye, and share. This will help create a humanising effect that will invite staff to be part of an internal community.

That list is longer than what I had first intended. I guess it’s not that simple. But it is imperative; imperative that charities seek to build on the passionate community they (hopefully) have right under their noses: their People. For in the end, it’s all about the people.

Above all, charity leaders should recognise and encourage the ‘currency’ of connection that cements relationships and sparks new collaborations. Indeed, the best way to protect and embed the brand is the distribution of trust and the transfer of skills to the wider organisation. And as the internet for many has become a tool for everyday life, so charities should work to make sure every member of staff feels comfortable using it as part of their role – not least to allow for the free flow of ideas and to encourage innovation that often thrives in the grey spaces between ‘silos’.

Talking of which – I’ve witnessed how Twitter (among other things) can close those spaces between otherwise siloed employees – in a similar way to how Tom Peters describes the benefits of “manipulating the physical space” within organisations.

* Special thanks to @kanter, @AnnieGoss, @seidld, @medavep, @missnpatel, @lucycaldicott, @abougu, @benrmatthews, , @jacquiobeirne, @RobmDyson, @suefidler and others who asked to remain anonymous.

The 8th NFPtweetup will be held on 15th September 2010, and further information on this and previous events is available at As always, kudos to beautifulworld and JustGiving for sponsoring and supporting this event.

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5 Responses to Twitter: this time it’s personal

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