Twitter: online engagement without having to engage at all

There is an ever expanding list of Australian Government agencies who are using Twitter. These encompass all levels of Government and the list is growing rapidly, much more rapidly than agencies using blogs or forums to engage. While this enthusiasm for Twitter is very welcome, I have been wondering why it is becoming the online tool of choice for so many agencies when so few Australians use Twitter (there are about a million Twitter accounts in Australia but anecdotal evidence suggests many of these are inactive).

Twitter is generally used by agencies as a broadcast tool and it can be effective in that regard too, though only for the relatively small proportion of the community using it.

Twitter is more effectively used as a communications and monitoring tool when integrated as part of a broader online engagement strategy that includes use of tools such as blogs and forums which are not exclusive to twitter users and which are a little easier for the beginner to engage with. Unfortunately this practice doesn’t seem to be as prevalent (though there are some notable exceptions such as Mosman Council in NSW and Port Phillip in Victoria).

If agencies want to open up to the community the first step should generally be to consider having members of staff blogging. This presents a human face to the organisation (which many Government organisations desperately need) and is very effective yet low risk. Blogs are also not costly to run or particularly time consuming.

Looking at sites listing Government blogs in Australia and the US it is clear that blogging in Government has failed to take off in Australia in the way it has in the US where there are a plethora of agency blogs.

So what are the obstacles to blogging in Australian Government agencies?

Generally it seems that the obstacles boil down to trust and sign off. I will leave the issue of trust alone here – any manager who does not trust their staff needs new staff (or the staff a new manager) but I am more interested in the sign off issue because it needs to be challenged.

In Government agencies public pronouncements have typically had to be signed off at multiple levels – sometimes right up to a Ministerial office. This makes blogging difficult if not impossible. A blog should contain something personal – it should be about an individual and their thoughts. A blog is also best if it is timely. If you take these posts and then subject them to a typical Government signoff and editing process then what comes out will have been edited half to death, be full of spin and be anything but timely (there are plenty of tales of 4 week sign off processes for content).

But what exactly is the risk that leads to this paranoid process?? Train a group of people to be bloggers. Give them clear guidelines to stick to and a single level sign off and they will be able to blog effectively. Surely this is safe? Much more safe than letting staff go on the radio (which happens routinely).

So is blogging as safe as Twitter? Well no actually. You see Government use of Twitter is usually bland, opinion free and just broadcasting. Have a look at some of the tweets from the agencies in the list above.

By way of example have a look at the last 10 tweets from

  1. Employers in the Northern Territory – are you eligible for the Indigenous Training for Employment Program? 10:51 PM Mar 22nd via web
  2. Nominate now for the Canberra BusinessPoint gala awards: 10:20 PM Mar 21st via web
  3. Come and see us today and all weekend at the Sydney Franchising Expo: 3:30 PM Mar 18th via web
  4. Get the latest business information, advice and support with our free email update service: 10:47 PM Mar 17th via web
  5. Come see us at the Franchising Expo this weekend in Sydney: 9:39 PM Mar 15th via web
  6. ACT Business Health Checks – register for a free session: 9:31 PM Mar 15th via web
  7. Ensure your innovative idea is a success with Commercialisation Australia: 6:49 PM Mar 15th via web
  8. Insulation Workers’ Adjustment Package – assistance for employers: 6:49 PM Mar 11th via web
  9. Assistance for primary producers and small businesses affected by flooding in South West Queensland: 11:05 PM Mar 9th via web
  10. Victorian workplace bullying seminars: 10:27 PM Mar 8th via web

Not much engagement going on there is there? I’m sorry to conclude that’s why lots of organisations start with Twitter. Because they can tick the online engagement box without actually relinquishing any control at all.

Photo Credits: marek.sotak

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