Governments Experimenting With Twitter

As Twitter experiences almost exponential growth (Nielsen estimates 1,382 per cent year-on-year growth from in website users alone), I’m seeing a rapid growth in corporate use of this emerging communications tool. Companies like Zappos, Dell, JetBlue, Comcast and others have done a great job of providing customer service, establishing relationships with their customers and putting a human face on their brands.

Still, even though Twitter has been around for more than three years, I’ve seen few examples of governments using Twitter with the kind of success that some companies have seen.

Resources

Steve Lunceford at BearingPoint runs GovTwit, a directory of government and related accounts. It’s growing regularly, and has a large number of US and UK-based accounts; however it currently has few from Canada.

Alexandra Rampy published a great list of US government Twitter accounts late last year, but again few standout examples and no Canadian examples (which is fine; it was deliberately a US list).

Mike Kujawski runs the excellent Government 2.0 Best Practices Wiki, which features a few Twitter-related examples from the provinces.

Potential uses in government

The lack of case studies doesn’t mean there’s nothing happening or no interest. I did a little digging and found a whole bunch of people and departments experimenting with Twitter. Being an Ontario government alumnus and having participated in efforts like an increasingly social news release, YouTube videos and even real-time social media monitoring during crises, I focused there.

My sources tell me there is still resistance to Twitter within the government, largely from people who haven’t really given it a cursory try, which is unfortunate. However, the variety of people experimenting is encouraging.

I can forsee a variety of uses for Twitter within government, including:

  • Early-warning issues management – identify emerging issues early before they bubble up to the media;
  • Monitoring reaction – through persistent Twitter searches, departments can track sentiment, content and other trends in reaction to announcements;
  • Direct-to-citizen communication – Twitter, and other social media tools, can help organizations communicate directly with their target audiences rather than going through the filter of the media;
  • Put a face on the organization – government often suffer from being faceless organizations, while politicians seem aloof. Social media tools in general can help to counteract this;
  • Emergency management – emergency coordinators need to get information out quickly to people in an emergency; Twitter could even work at a hyper-local level;
  • Raise awareness of resources – government websites can be impenetrable mazes, designed by committee to placate competing silos with information buried deep inside the site. Twitter can help to point people to the right place;
  • Identifying resources and information – a more individual use, which worked for me – Twitter can be invaluable for finding answers and identifying resources for those last-minute requests (contrary to popular opinion, government communications can move very quickly at times) – just throw the request or question out there for a rapid response;
  • …and many more.

Twitter isn’t going to be the right tool in every case. No social media tools are. Just as not every announcement necessitates a media event or news release, Twitter (like the social media release)  is an extra tool to add to your toolkit. Different functions will find different uses for this tool, and like other tools, it won’t be right for every one.

It’s ridiculous to think that a blanket one-size-fits-all approach would work for organizations that function in such a broad array of areas. It would be equally stupid to outright dismiss it and assume that because it doesn’t fit in one situation that it won’t fit for any.

Still, I’m encouraged to see the government’s communicators giving it a try to see what works.

Ontario government trying Twitter

From a quick search I found:

  • 11 organizational (non-personal) accounts
  • 28 personal accounts covering eight ministries and one agency

Organizational

  • @FoodlandOnt – Foodland Ontario
  • @ontarioparks – Ontario Parks (also see the Ontario Parks blog) – despite following no-one and posting zero tweets, this account has 122 followers
  • @oac_cao – Ontario Arts Council (surprisingly, despite the bilingual name, it features only English tweets) Thanks to the Arts Council for clarifying – the account is indeed bilingual.
  • @onfieldcrops – Ministry of  Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs – Field Crop News
  • @onhortcrops – Ministry of  Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs – Horticultural Crop News
  • @MNRcentral – Ministry of Natural Resources
  • @OntarioREV – Ministry of Revenue
  • @OntMinFinance – Ministry of Finance
  • @Ont_Ombudsman – Ontario Ombudsman
  • @OntMinLabour – Ministry of Labour
  • @OntMinLabourFR – Ministry of Labour – French account

Individual accounts, by ministry

Note: After careful consideration I decided not to publish the names of these accounts, as they are personal accounts and not on behalf of the government.

  • Cabinet Office – 13
  • Ministry of Children and Youth Services – 1
  • Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration – 1
  • Ministry of Community and Social Services – 3
  • Ministry of Education – 1
  • Environmental Commissioner of Ontario – 1
  • Ministry of Finance – 2
  • Ministry of Government Services – 4
  • Ministry of Natural Resources – 2

Missed opportunities

With all of the interest and discussion about Twitter within the government, I’m surprised to see some clear opportunities missed.

Most notably, the Ontario government is currently at risk of brandjacking, as we’ve seen happen with entities like Exxon Mobil and the Dalai Lama.

While @daltonmcguinty is claimed (though it’s not clear if it is by his office), a bunch of obvious accounts aren’t claimed. Try @mcguinty, @OntMinHealth and @georgesmitherman for example. Their staff need to get on that. I’d like to see a little more clarity around who is behind the ‘official’ accounts, too.

Your thoughts?

I think it will take a change of approach and mindset for government to effectively use Twitter, but the potential is there. 

What do you think about governments using Twitter?

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.