10 Ways to Make Twitter a Useful Government Communication Channel

News Analysis: Twitter is a compelling social communication service, and governments can benefit from it if it's used properly. But before they get into Twitter messaging, government agencies have to be aware of concerns about IT security and the hazards of dealing with an online community that is mostly anonymous and sometimes hides behind the fraudulently assumed names of public figures.

Twitter is quickly becoming the most important social communication platform on the Web. Although Facebook still dominates the social networking arena, Twitter is leading the way in communications. It's a social phenomenon. And although some organizations are still trying to decide if they should allow employees to engage in tweeting, the British government has made a decision.
After mulling a 20-page Twitter strategy document written by a UK civil servant, the British government has decided that allowing workers to tweet is in its best interest. It claims that Twitter has significant advantages for those hoping to communicate with the public. And although it's considered a platform that is rife with discussions of what users had for dinner last night, that stereotype is not necessarily true. Twitter can actually be used for some good.
But before that's illustrated, it's important to remember that Facebook and Twitter have experienced some serious security problems. Both social networks have faced malware breakouts that hijacked profiles, installed malicious code on unsuspecting users' computers, and more. Although both companies have tried to increase the security of their platforms, they haven't been entirely successful. Furthermore, it's important to realize that some users are not who they claim to be. There are dozens of Sarah Palin Twitter accounts, for example.

Tony La Russa, manager of Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals, filed suit against Twitter in June claiming that a Twitter user created an account under La Russa's name and posted Tweets that defamed him and damaged his reputation. La Russa quietly dropped the suit a month later after Twitter shut down the offending account.

These cases demonstrate that you can't entirely rely on the identities and motives of anyone you may communicate with on Twitter. That said, Twitter is still a compelling platform. As long as those caveats are considered, it could make for a far better social experience in the government sector.
Here's how to make it work:
1. Social matters
Being social counts for something today. The public expects it. More importantly, they expect it from the government that's working for them. The public expects those employees to be forthright about what's going on behind the scenes. Twitter can play a major role in meeting that demand.
2. It's the new press release
Although press releases are still used by governments to disseminate important information, few people in the public read them. For the most part, they're ignored. But if that same information is syndicated to a Twitter page, all that would change. It would create a spirit of openness. And it might help the public trust the government just a little more.
3. Remember security
Government IT must always take security into account. Even though tweeting is a great way to make the government more accessible, it means nothing when workers are being affected by malware. Tweeting is a communications platform. It shouldn't provide a back door for data thieves to use to access IT systems and databases.
4. Education is key
When it comes time for workers to start tweeting, IT personnel need to educate government workers on best practices and on security issues that might arise. If they allow workers to set out in the world of Twitter with no guidance, it could spell trouble.
5. Quantity matters
Tweeting once every week won't be enough. Governments looking to start tweeting need to maintain a regular stream of Twitter updates. At the same time, they shouldn't go overboard-Twitter users don't want their streams overrun with government tweets. A good rule of thumb: Stay between three and 10 tweets per day.
6. Quality matters too
Once workers start tweeting, IT should remind them that users don't want to read tweets that they don't care about-they want to see tweets that are on-topic. It's also important to remind staff that they represent the government, so tweets should be grammatically sound. The public wants to know that the people working for them are qualified. That should come across in every tweet.
7. Engage in dialogue
Tweeting will help a government in its PR endeavors, but it can only go so far if workers don't respond to queries by other users. Did a few followers ask a question? Are they wondering what the last tweet meant? Simply ignoring those questions won't do anyone any good. They need to be answered.
8. Ensure relevance
Government agencies need to set guidelines for the topics their workers post on Twitter. They should be kept relevant to the work of the government. It's a simple rule, but it's extremely important.
9. It's a work account
Following those lines, it's important to remind workers that the account they are using isn't a personal Twitter account. It's a work account that should be handled professionally. Never should personal discourse become part of the conversation.
10. Some review might be needed
Simply educating employees and giving them some tweeting guidelines probably won't be enough. From time to time, IT workers will need to review tweets to ensure staffers are following the rules. IT staff should also check to make sure tweets are serving the agency's objectives. If they don't, workers should be reminded to keep focused on the agency's business.
Governments have many ways to communicate with the public. Twitter and the Internet are latest. Government agencies have to make sure they are using these new communication channels at least as effectively as they are using the long-established ones.

Don Reisinger

Don Reisinger

Don Reisinger is a longtime freelance contributor to several technology and business publications. Over his career, Don has written about everything from geek-friendly gadgetry to issues of privacy...