Jumping off a cliff

Photo credit: – Nolly on Flickr

Pretty much anyone who uses social media will tell you that experience is the best teacher. You can’t be taught to be human, empathetic, helpful and interesting by following rules or attending a training course. Get people started, immerse them in the tools, and they’ll blossom into social media natives.

But in a corporate organisation, where barcamp is understood to mean Soho spandex, things are rather different. “We’ll need a business case for that”. “What do the stakeholders think?”. “We’ll need to take a paper to the Programme Board”. I don’t think it’s unique to government; it’s probably just a feature of any large organisation with lots of people in specialised roles, with lots of time to think and talk about risk.

So when Neil comes along with a 20-page strategy for using Twitter, reactions are mixed. A lot of the comments are positive, with people trapped in corporate bureaucracies seeing a shortcut to making the case they know will have to be made before IT, Marketing, Line Management and HR all sign off on setting up a corporate Twitter account (or indeed allowing employees to access Twitter at work).

But some digital natives, particularly freelancers and individuals in smaller organisations, see the bureaucratisation of social media: the over-thinking and codification of what are really just basic social skills. Why stipulate how often one should tweet, or the frequency between updates? Where’s the free-flowing conversation in that?


For the last 18 months, I’ve generally had the blissful luxury of working in a corporate organisation which often behaved more like a startup, at least in terms of its approach to social media. I’ve been a runner with the ‘no rules’ crowd.

But most big organisations aren’t like that (I’m learning). There’s a strong argument for social media tools to support corporate digital engagement by big organisations, not just as a sideline by enterprising staff who figure out how to bypass the IT. The real value will come, frankly, when the people who don’t organise their social lives through Facebook and IM start to see how these tools let them hear from stakeholders more easily, keep in touch with colleagues in other offices better, help out customers who get stuck and report problems in forums, or start sharing their thinking out loud with the dozen people around the world who share an interest in the measurement of widgets.

For that to happen in a big organisation, you need to provide reassurance and context, and that’s what documents like Neil’s do. Will it take up all our time? No, here’s why not. Will it open us up to be sued? No, here’s how we’ll avoid that. Are we putting our heads above the parapet? No, here’s who else is doing it.

I found myself this week on the opposite side from the legendary DirDigEng in a friendly discussion involving a bunch of social media bright sparks. The supposedly old-skool IT guy was arguing for fewer rules and policies when it comes to digital engagement in government; and I (the flighty social media type) was arguing for a bit more. Weird, huh? I like the idea of a light touch approach, and I know that when you start to write down rules, it’s hard to find the right place to stop (I believe he experienced the pain of this first hand a while back). But I also know that in large organisations, people need a pretty firm basis to stick their necks out as managers or press officers or officials, and guidance documents with some well-crafted rules and tips can encourage them to do that*. Even Twitter itself is starting to provide a kind of explanation of how the service works to help convince a sceptical business audience.

Rules schmules. Anyway, I’m galled to see guidance and business cases like this misinterpreted as something they aren’t. If you know Neil, and you know me, and you know our team, you’ll know we’re not the idiots who’ll set a stopwatch between tweets. But to get to the point of tweeting at all in a big organisation, you need to take a lot of people with you on the journey.

*that said, I’m a total hypocrite. After 18 months in the job, I’m yet to have a completed draft of these. Doesn’t mean they’re not needed.

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The template is also helpful for teams who manage an organisational account. You might have one regular tweeter, but when they’re away or gone, it’s good to have some consistency. ‘Unwritten rules’ sometimes need to be shared.

I’m a big believer in a few basic rules of engagement to make everyone feel more comfortable.

As you say Steph, Bosses are less nervous if it looks like i’s have been dotted and t’s crossed. Measured and measurable helps them out no end.

Writers need to grasp who they’re writing for and the kind of tone to set. It’s all too easy to be stuck in news reporting or policy making mode – you need a little something to snap you out of it.

I think this is going to be hugely useful (and one day I hope to thank Neil in person) – in the past I’ve taken the path of just do it and ask permission later but to be honest that has almost always caused grief further down the line as (senior) management awareness kicked in and something like this is almost always successful at calming folk down :o)

I have been lucky enough to work in a very small, agile company where this sort of thing would have been laughed out of the door and also a larger (but forward thinking) organisation where this would have been invaluable. Its horses for courses and everything that helps us embed these ideas is great stuff as far as I’m concerned.

Agree with Matt’s comments and think that the strategy is useful – but needs to be used where appropriate. Some audiences do want details and guidelines others don’t and want “freedom”. Within government there will probably always remain the need to draw boundaries and guidelines but also let’s encourage enthusiasm and innovation.

‘Get people started, immerse them in the tools, and they’ll blossom into social media natives.’

Somebody had to write this stuff for the orgs,otherwise they will never get started,(they need paperwork and tick boxes) and Neil has done a great job.
end of.

I think we should encourage more press officers to sign up to twitter – it’s impossible to understand the benefits as well as the risks if you don’t really understand what it is and how it works.