JUST BE SOCIAL: 27 ways to give your organisation a smiley face with Twitter

Originally uploaded by Maniackers Design

Channel 4 news reader Jon Snow apparently once told a Local Government conference: ‘The trouble with you lot is this. You do wonderful things. You’re just a bit boring.’

As an ice breaker it’s bold. Trouble is, he’s right. Partly.

Councils deal with people. They help them in all sorts of ways with 800 services – many of them amazing.

But how do you give them a human face?

That’s where Twitter can work brilliantly for councils.

Since April ’09 Walsall have used Twitter.

We were within the first 100 councils in the world and with @walsallcouncil we’ve had more praise than criticism.

We’ve been asked a few times for how we do it. That’s very nice to hear but we certainly don’t profess to have invented it all ourselves. In fact we’re still learning.


If there’s is a secret? Good listening. 

For a kick-off we listened to what Nick Booth had to say. Nick – @podnosh – showed us what was possible. He’s a hugely inspirational and talented man who specialises in social media for social good. You can find out more about him here http://podnosh.com/blog/ – or someone like him – can put you at basecamp equipped with an ice axe, crampons and goggles.

We also listened to Alastair Smith @alncl at Newcastle City Council who was generous with his time. We also paid attention to David Hamilton at @fenlandcouncil for their chatty approach. We also looked at the excellent research work of @liz_azyan @barryearnshaw as well as @sarahlay. Amongst others. 

Seeing as I’m unavoidably detained from #localgovcamp in Lincoln here’s a note of what we learned next.


1. Tweet for yourself first. Take some time to get to know the platform, how people use it and the language they use. Then you can tweet as an organisation with confidence.

2. Do use a human voice. Be polite. Be helpful. Be approachable.

3. If it helps, think of Twitter as walking into a pub. There’s some friendly people. There’s some who are a bit misinformed but friendly. There are some who are just plain hostile. If you can’t move the conversation on, don’t take part. If you can, do.

4. Don’t argue with an idiot. My Uncle Keith told me this. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. If someone is being daft you really don’t have to engage with them.

5. Do respond within 24 hours. Many councils have a promise to respond to a letter within 21 days. In the world of social media that’s just too slow. By the time that letter is sitting on the doormat the debate will have been long lost. Even a ‘thanks for your tweet, I’ll pass on your comment,’ will be appreciated.

6. Do have a deputy. It’s great you are in charge of the Twitter account. But get someone to stand in if you’re on holiday.

7. Do Tweet everyday. Frequency builds an audience.

8. Do tweet out of office hours from time to time if you can. You may well reach a different set of people. They’ll be impressed you have.

9. Don’t tweet by committee. You’ll end up with a camel. Take a steer from someone if needs be what the answer should be but writes it yourself.

10. Do use the search button to see what people are saying about you. And then get involved in the conversation if you need to. Be polite and point people to where they can get help.

11. Don’t use RSS. This is the automated service that sends out a message based on your press release intro. What works well on social media is a human face NOT a machine. Don’t do it. Please. You’ll be missing the point.

12. Don’t put out an out-of-office.’We’re going on holiday now. Back in three weeks.’ It. Looks. Rubbish. At a push switch to RSS.

13. Be named. Put your first name in the organisation biog. It at least shows a human face.

14. Change your profile pic regularly. Landmarks and seasonal shots work better than a shrunken logo.

15. Re-tweet. RT. This means you’ve read something interesting and you’ve cc’d it to your group of followers too. If its a third sector or public sector tweet that’s relevant. That’s the spirit of social media. eg RT @walsall_hospice great to see so many people at our fundraising event at the Arboretum yesterday.

16. You are allowed to #followfriday. This is where you can recommend good people to follow. If you are a council suggest other council departments that are on Twitter. Or maybe a local charity.

17. Do use smileys if the need arises : ). It’s part of the landscape of Twitter. But use it wisely. It won’t be appropriate next to a link to the death of a former Matyor : (

18. Do listen and feedback. Forward comments to the right place. Let officers know what is being said. It’s a good listening device.

19. In the long term think of Twitter for services. Have a general council one. But think about one specifically for jobs too. Or planning applications. Or library events. Or maybe any of the 800 services. 

20. Use pictures. They’re full of win. Link to pics on flickr the photo sharing website, for example. You’ll also build connections with your community.

21. Live tweet an event or a press conference. Widen up the event to a bigger audience.

22. Use hashtags. Hashtags are a way of joining in a wider conversation. For example the hashtag #iranelections saw over a million tweets a day at its peak.On a more routine level put the name of your town or borough in. eg #Newcastle, #Derby, #Brownhills. Or even the service #environment #libraries or #countryside.

23. Be prepared for people saying unpleasant things about you. But remember that they’d be saying it about you anyway. This is your chance to listen and connect.

24. Get used to the fact that you can’t control Twitter. But by being part of it you can take part in the conversation.

25. Be prepared to speak with hyperlocal bloggers. They’re part of the conversation too.

26. Keep a note of what you do month by month. Analysing the impact of social medioa is still in its infancy and there are no clear universally adopted industry standard ways yet. An average followers multiplied by tweets gives an opportunities to view-style marketing figure that is compelling to those within the organisation. In Walsall in June, for example, there were 40,000 opps to view. Even accounting for the fact that Mashable says that 20 per cent of accounts are dormant that’s a serious figure.

27. Let people in your organisation know your social media activity. Keep them in the loop. A monthly update should do it.

That’s a long list. It works for us. It may not suit your organisation.

If it seems daunting rewind to point 1. Stick with it. You’ll get there. Make a few mistakes under your own flag.

There’s a stack of best practice out there. Take some time to look at how other councils do it.

Have a look at:





@cultureleisure – great use of Twitter by a council department. 

But also keep tabs with social media by following:

@mashable – Anglo American daily social media blog for people who don’t usually read blogs. Full of good research

@scobleiser – US social media commentator.

@davebriggs – UK local government and third sector commentator

@paulocanning – UK local government and third sector commentator

@liz_azyan – brilliant and inspiring UK local government researcher and http://www.lgeoresearch.com/

Local Government: Check Liz’s list of good people to follow of Twitter:


Check the LGEO Research list of Councils on Twitter:


Join the Conversation


  1. Dan


    First, your team beat mine.

    Second, you’ve slightly deflated my view of how @ndevoncouncil has used Twitter.

    I’d agree with most of what you say. But, there’s one or two areas where I’m not sure your model is applicable everywhere.

    As you quite rightly say, the key to succesful use Twitter is the personal voice, even if you tweet on behalf of a faceless bureaucracy. We (or should I say, I) have tried to do this with some success.

    And that, perhaps, is one of the challenges of your model. So long as the dedicated tweeter is available to tweet, then that personal voice is there to respond – for @ndevoncouncil that’s me. But, trying to find a deputy to take up the reins is not always straightforward.

    I work with a great team in the press office. They ‘get’ what I’m trying to do with the web and social media. But, none of them can devote the time that I do to monitoring and tweeting.

    In fact, neither do I have the time. I can use a client to monitor and respond as needed, which I do. But, I’d find it too time consuming to convert all our RSS feeds to dedicated tweets.

    Does using RSS miss the point of social media? To some extent yes. But, feeding Twitter with RSS was one of the selling points for me and the rest of the organisation. That is, little extra work.

    I’d like to think that the press team already writes press releases that are suited to Twitter. But, as a result of your post, I’m going to discuss with the team whether there is a better way to do this.

    Over time, our use is evolving as more of our customers use Twitter. That personal voice is developing. For example, we had a lovely little conversation recently that derived from a Flickr photo pool post (pushed out by RSS).


    Kali the cat will now get her sardines.

    We’ll continue to use RSS for some areas, but your post has made me rethink our reliance on that service. Decentralising tweets might be one of the ways forward.

    So, in a roundabout way, thanks for sharing your experience and success. You’ve made me think (or rethink) how we do things.

    Hopefully, I can take solace that Spurs we still finish above Stoke!


  2. Pete,

    What can I say? Cheers on two counts.

    Firstly, for mentioning Spurs 0 (NIL) Stoke City 1 (ONE). A historic game of football for oh, so many reasons. I was three the last time we were victorious at White Hart Lane It’s safe to say I have no memory of this feat.

    Secondly, thanks for taking the time to make a detailed response.

    As a press officer myself, I know the demands on time and resources. The phones can be ringing. There are reporters firing off questions that have to be answered in the next hour. Meanwhile, the inbox is filling up with requests for press releases. Why in jiggins would anyone want to open up a further Front and get involved with social media?

    I suppose the reason for that would be twofold.

    Firstly, it’s another way of communicating. Why have a communications plan that only hit a section of the population?

    Secondly, because it’s the future. If we don’t get our heads around this stuff others will and in five years time we may well find ourselves unemployable if we don’t. Questions on the subject were asked when we recruited a press and publicity officer recently, for example. I’m sure we’re not alone.

    As far as the demands of time are concerned, it can be as little or as often as you like. Once the ‘must’ stuff gets looked at in the morning I devote some time to it. Checking replies and DMs. Passing them on and giving an answer. Send out pro-active tweets linking to news releases on the website. The same goes for the afternoon.

    If you wanted to you could limit to 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon and give servicable coverage.

    You raise a good point about RSS. I’m incling to veer away from it because it doesn’t fulfill the full social media criteria of being a channel for listening as well as broadcasting. I can certainly recognise the value of doing that rather than nothing at all.

    Where I think RSS may really have a place would be for specific feeds such as jobs and planning applications that wouldn’t stand or fall on a human face.

    As far as departments tweeting, I think in the long term it’s imperitive. Think of the Sunday papers. Or the BBC website. They’re organised into sections. If you don’t fancy the jobs section of the Sunday Times you take it straight out and line the budgie’s cage with it. Simple.

    The same should go with @anycouncil_jobs. You can opt in or out. Would you expect the web pages of the BBC to be mixed together? Probably not.

    Yes, having a deputy can be difficult. Particularly if you’ve carved out a distinctive voice but if nothing else it’ll show the members of the team what you are doing day in and day out.

    I love your sardines, cats and flickr conversation, by the way. It’s absolutely superb and shows brilliantly how a council can have a human face with Twitter.

  3. Thanks, Dan.

    Yep, communication is the key. That’s what social media is all about. It’s another channel and we need to learn how to get the best from the tools available.

    There’s a lot here to reflect on. Add in all the great ideas that came out of #lgclincoln and my head is about to explode. Rather fortuitously, I’m about to have a week off sick recovering from minor surgery. Good time to organise my thoughts and plan ahead.

    My abiding memory of Stoke City is seeing them play at Highfield Road when I was at Warwick Univ in the early 80s. Stoke’s Garth Crooks was subjected to most appalling racist abuse, but shrugged it off to be the best player on the pitch. Admired him ever since.

  4. I was gutted not to get to #lgclincoln.

    If it was half as good as #localgovcamp in Birmingham last June then it will have been very, very inspiring, thought provoking and very empowering.

    Thanks for the kind words about Stoke and Garth Crooks.

    Mind, they do mutter about him in the Potteries. Something about him not talking all posh when he started his career with us in the youth team, me duck. Or something.

    Hope your operation goes well. And the thinking time.

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