Government Twitter etiquette: talk but don’t follow

My employer is one of a handful of UK government departments with corporate Twitter accounts.

It was set up and is run by my team, with input from colleagues in press office, policy teams and ministers’ offices. It’s working out well for us and we’re keen to grow its reach. But how?

We’re doing the obvious things: like cross-promoting the channel from the website, plugging it at the end of news releases and dropping it into offline communications. Promoted in these contexts, it’s just another push mechanism, like RSS feeds and email alerts.

But Twitter is more than that. It’s a two-way relationship, a network, and wherever possible we try to treat it that way.

But we can’t promote it that way. I’d love to, but we can’t.

For individual Twitterers, following your friends’ followers is one of the best ways to grow your network. It’s the norm. People can choose to follow you back, or not. I’ve done this with my personal Twitter account and can even converse with Stephen Fry as a result.

But if a government department starts to follow someone out of the blue, the followee is likely to feel a bit – well – followed. It has a whiff of Big Brother about it. Even if the user is already following other, similar channels, he or she could well wonder “Why is the department for X now monitoring my tweets?”

I floated this idea on Twitter over the weekend, and got some useful thoughts back. I asked:

Is it bad form for a corporate Twitterer (like a govt dept) to follow new people to gain followers?

These people answered:

Not quite a unanimous “no” from these early birds on Saturday morning, but a pretty clear “don’t be that guy“. After a bit more digging, I also found the same question being asked on this blog with one commenter reporting from direct experience:

I think corporate or govt use of twitter needs to observe some protocol when “following” folks.  I arrived home last night to a message that my local government council, @Mosmancouncil is now following me on Twitter.  Now, I am not a paranoid type and really quite out there, but I just found it creepy that a govt body is “following” me without a note or a message of why and no introduction and no identity of the person who is behind the twitter account, or explanation of how they plan to use Twitter.  So, what could have been a great and pleasant communication exercise was a bit weird and alienating.  It really boils down to good manners, introductions and permissions.

What I take from all this is that most people would definitely feel weird about a government channel following them, unless they followed the government body first. But – at least for some users – establishing a human, personal introduction at the point of initiating the follow or very soon after would mitigate the ill feeling.

But I’m not convinced that even then it’s the right way to go.

What are your thoughts? Is it OK for government channels (here, there and everywhere) to follow people on Twitter if it’s done in a personal, socially engaging way?

If not – how can government and other corporates build their Twitter following without following people on Twitter itself?

(This O’Reilly report may have some of the answers, but I’m not paying $250 to find out!)

Some related finds on corporate Twittering:

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I’ve never actually considered twitter in that way before – to be honest I’m still at the ‘deciding if theres any point’ in it stage (I’m leaning towards yes there is but needs good management side!).

Now you bring it up though yes I can definitely see why that would freak some people out – obviously not if you’re a consultant type (then you’d just be grateful presumably), but if out of the blue your local Council suddenly started following you that could be a bit weird.

When I saw your title ‘talk but don’t follow’ my thought was well whats unusual about that?! Not only from a Government perspective but I think in society we’re still largely set up that way – the higher up/more important you are the less you need to engage – not right of course but I think largely thats how people & organisations still behave.

So now I have thought about it I say no it shouldn’t be used as a marketing strategy, yes if people do follow Govt. departments they should definitely follow back – but they should only seek to use a tool like Twitter in the first place if they’re prepared to engage. If they just want to send out messages they should use a normal SMS service instead & market it in other ways.

Good thoughts Mike. Especially for a Sunday night :)

I really appreciate you dropping by.

I should clarify that the “talk” in the title is meant to mean dialogue not broadcast. I think best practice for corporate/govt Twitter use is to use the channel socially: asking as well as telling, and replying to feedback. And as I say above, we try to do that with ours. It’s not so embedded yet that we can *always* get a reply out quickly enough. Still a new channel for us, but we absolutely recognise the importance of the two-way conversation.

But promotion is another thing entirely. OK to follow people back but just creepy to follow them first.

You guys send out some really interesting tweets. As long as those tweets are *true* (honest etc) then what’s the problem? It seems sad that process has to get in the way.

I’m not sure about corporate Twitter accounts really. I can see the point of accounts managed on behalf of a public figure – like Obama, Downing St or even Mars Phoenix – but I’m not sure that proper corporate accounts are really in the spirit of the tool. Who is ‘CommunitiesUK’ really, why would they talk to me and why would I talk to them? I certainly feel slightly spooked when after mentioning social media tool X on my blog, I get followed by ‘it’ within 24 hours – and those are generally just a few guys in a Californian loft.

Hypocritically, we have a corporate account for one of our press desks – DIUS_Science – which is used almost entirely as a way to promote science news releases and visits. We haven’t really thought as deeply as you about the implications of it, other than that I’ve been nervous of setting up something more general purpose.

I’d like the rest of the organisation to use Twitter, but I think it works best as a personal network, not a corporate channel. So I’d prefer people registered and managed accounts under their own name, mentioning their employer, if they want to engage.

[...] Government Twitter etiquette: talk but don’t follow I'm biased because I'm quote din the article, but Neil Williams asks an interesting question: Is it bad form for a corporate Twitterer (like a govt dept) to follow new people to gain followers? If it is – how can government and other corporates build their Twitter following without following people on Twitter itself? (tags: twitter ettiquette) [...]

I’m going to sound like a broken record but this kind of thinking scares me a little.

There are clearly 2 types of usage of twitter – the personal and the more professional or institutional. This is clear and transparent. Both are acceptable in my opinion as long as people are honest about who they are and why they are there.

Surely a basic rule of thumb for anyone using twitter is that if you don’t want to be followed (or at least to control who can follow you) go private – or else live with it! I mean who hasn’t been followed by a bunch of randomers on a daily basis who you know nothing about?

At least you know its a credible institution that is trying its hardest to get out to where people are having conversations and trying to engage rather than expect people to come to them. Its not as if you have to listen to them, follow back – and you can even block if you like!

@James – thanks for the feedback. I’ll pass it on to people back in the office.

@Steph – know what you mean, but I’m with Dominic: there’s room for personal and business use of all social software. It’s a pretty well established model now wouldn’t you say?

@Dominic – I started out from that position and was all for doing it, until I started asking other people what they thought. Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t feel at all invaded by a follow from *anyone*. But it’s starting to look like that’s a minority view, in which case doing so would probably be counter-productive.

I follow FCO, not just because of my ridiculous crush on DM, and I find it vaguely interesting. I know that it is not cool, or trendy, to say: but I just don’t like twitter. I have really tried, and I don’t see a corporate value. It may start off as something that is done by someone ‘interesting’ in the department, very soon they will be replaced by someone who either can’t be bothered and/or will delegate.

Therefore this is a very short-lived public sector love-in with twitter. I don’t see any corporate value in it, or longevity, and believe that the escalation of the opportunity cost will kill it in departments.

Fun for a bit, and yes we should have a good old paddle and play, but in six months time, I would be very surprised if anyone is bothering any more.

Prove me wrong :) am often wrong

Time will tell Ms Mulqueeny. Like all this stuff, it is easy come easy go. Having the right people behind it is critical (and oh so fragile!)

Wondering what makes blogs so permanent and twitter ephemeral Emma, given your commitment to blogging? Thinking personal choice is all we’re discussing here. There isn’t any science to it…

My Department has one too – but personally I wouldn’t want to be followed by Hazel Blears…

@dominiccampbell (see what I did there?) Don’t get me wrong, I think blogs have a similarly short life in government circles, am struggling to see their benefit – and not sure that I have ever committed to departmental blogging?! All this stuff needs to settle, but as far as corporate public sector comms goes, I don’t see a longevity in this – for the mainstream stuff.

Consultation is different – tat I believe should incorporate all kinds of social technology.

But as you say, personal theory only.

The @uklocalcouncils feed is packed with amazing info and I can see some of that info working well in the local review vertical or in the domestic travel/tourism vertical. There’s a lot of substance in the tweets I see so, as a punter, I strongly disagree it’s ephemeral.

I remember feeling weird when I received the notification that No 10 was following me on Twitter – it did feel Big Brothery. But I was one of their early followers, and I could understand that perhaps they wanted to get a feel of the conversation among their early adopters. So I agree with charmermark’s answer to your original question – if the organisation genuinely wants to follow me and will read my tweets, then fine (particularly if I’m already following them, but also fine if I’m not). If it’s just to get me to follow back then not.

[...] Government Twitter etiquette: talk but don’t follow I’m biased because I’m quoted in the article, but Neil Williams asks an interesting question: Is it bad form for a corporate Twitterer (like a govt dept) to follow new people to gain followers? If it is – how can government and other corporates build their Twitter following without following people on Twitter itself? (tags: twitter ettiquette) [...]

[...] Government Twitter etiquette: talk but don’t follow I’m biased because I’m quoted in the article, but Neil Williams asks an interesting question: Is it bad form for a corporate Twitterer (like a govt dept) to follow new people to gain followers? If it is – how can government and other corporates build their Twitter following without following people on Twitter itself? (tags: twitter ettiquette) [...]

Interesting questions. I have just recently setup Twitter accounts for our local city via an @CityofShawneeOK, @ShawneeFD (Fire) and @ShawneePD (Police) accounts.

Initial concept is 1.0 broadcast only with news going out the City account and a subset of Computer Aided Dispatch/911 call data going out the PD and FD. I have only followed followers in the City account but I personally would feel weird if the ShawneePD were ‘following’ me as well so I doubt we will follow with those accounts for now.

BUT we should keep up with any DM’s or @’s that are generated.

Thanks for making me think…

To my mind, it’s very simple. Replace the words ‘is following you’ with ‘is listening to you’ – and tell me where the problem is.

But let’s not get carried away. Nobody believes Barack Obama was actually interested in what you had for breakfast, but so what? It’s a nice gesture, it’s better than not doing it, and there are functional benefits too. What the heck, just do it.

[...] by ulrn2twtr on November 16, 2008 An interesting question addressed in Government Twitter etiquette: talk but don’t follow is how can a government agency interact with tweeters?It’s a good article and the author and [...]

Further thoughts on this topic from a US blogger here.

[...] our three corporate government Twitter accounts. I re-visited the issue of promotion and etiquette first raised here and the sought group insight on how we measure the value of all this. There was a receptive, [...]

Update – Simon Wakeman has a thoughtful piece on the same issue in reference to local Council use of Twitter – see

I do not think it is bad at all to follow people just for the sake of following, may be a bit spammy but you are doing the work to gain the followers so why not?

I really believe that local governments should follow their local community on twitter. Surely Twitter is more than just a marketing channel? It should be a conversation. I can’t see any reason to follow someone on twitter if you’re not going to read the updates. For a corporation or local government they are surely looking to listen to what their customers or community is saying, with a view to responding accordingly where appropriate. If a particular user finds it freaky they can simply block that user from following them.

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