Social Government

Twitter In Government Agencies: Best Practices

With Twitter being all the rage lately, there are bound to be questions about how the popular microblogging tool should be deployed in government. Some agencies fully embrace Twitter, giving the intimidation of government a human face.

Others simply have no clue what they’re doing. Accordingly, their follower count reflects that. But, you can’t blame them for trying.

With the help of the must-read GovTwit Directory, here are some Do’s and Don’ts when using Twitter in a government agency, with examples.

  1. Use Twitter as a point of customer service. While most government Twitter accounts are happy to respond to user’s inquiries, they should do something that @washingtonpost does every Friday: ask “what do you want to know?” This is a great way for agencies to interact with their constituents. Perhaps at a designated time each week, senior managers should come onto their agency’s Twitter accounts and host a Q&A? It’s a simple idea with endless possibilities. Possible examples include the Transportation Security Administration answering questions about security restrictions, the Internal Revenue Service answering tax preparation questions and the National Park Service connecting people to information about various national parks.
  2. Twitter is not only for automated feed dumping. I am a believer that twitterfeed hurts more than helps. After reading that a Nebraska newspaper dramatically increased followers on Twitter last year by turning off their twitterfeed, the same has got to be true about government. I have also turned off the @socialgovt twitterfeed. While Twitter should be used to promote blog content, do it yourself if you really care about your followers. People like to know that there’s an actual human on the other end! Twitter presents itself as an opportunity to write creative headlines that will draw users to your content. Perhaps the best of example this is @NASA, an agency that fully understands the meaning of Twitter and social media (more on that later). @NASA teases press releases and YouTube videos with tweets written by a human, among other things. The result: over 12,500 followers. Bad example: @Greenversations, which just feeds in content from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenversations blog. But the agency does have alternative Twitter feeds which are better.
  3. Be conversational. Use @ replies and retweet as much as possible. This goes for everyone, not just the government. Twitter is a two-way conversation, and people will be more likely to follow you if you respond to their inquiries and retweet content as much as possible. If you look at @AFPAA, which is the “official Twitter site of the US Air Force,” you’ll see plenty of community interaction. The State Department’s @dipnote does a good job, too.
  4. Have fun, be human. I’m referring to what NASA did with @MarsPhoenix, the rover that landed Mars over the summer. By writing in the first person and being cute, followers were treated to what seemed like a firsthand perspective of the what was going on with the successful rover. Tweets like “Iron Chef on Mars? Set the oven to 1003 degrees Celsius (1837 F) and baked a soil sample and find secret ingredients 😀 Minerals, that is” explained complex technology to the masses. Currently, over 42,000 people follow @MarsPhoenix, making it one of the more popular government Twitter feeds. NASA continues to make good use of Twitter with their many feeds.
  5. Don’t do the exact opposite. @CBP_update, of U.S. Customs and Border Protection is not a good use of Twitter. It seems that someone copy and pastes headlines of new press releases into Twitter and tweets them out. No links or anything. Hands down, the worst government Twitter account I’ve seen. This is not something to be proud of.
  6. Don’t share classified information. This may sound obvious, but that’s exactly what Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., did on a recent trip to Iraq. He tweeted that he was in Iraq when the trip was classified and his location was not to be known. Hoekstra got reprimanded by the mainstream media for his lapse in judgement. If such an incident were to happen again, congress might try to pass laws restrict this type of candid communication.

This is a list that I hope to build on. If you have any other suggestions, let me know.

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  • US Dept of Labor, Office of Public Affairs

    Great information. Thank you

  • Jeffrey Levy

    @greenversations is an interesting case. We started the feed last May as an experiment. Generally, I agree with you that the best use of any social media tool is to be, well, social. However, at least as of today, more than 1500 people follow @greenversations. So many people do find value even in an RSS feed.

    Remember that all of these tools take staff time. So to us, it looks like 1500 people approve of even the minimal effort of setting up twitterfeed.

    But we’re looking at how and whether to “personify” Twitter accounts. Stay tuned!

  • Barb Chamberlain

    I manage the @WSUSpokane account for my campus of Washington State University, and believe we’re generally following all these practices. I’ve been evangelizing on Twitter to my colleagues and we have quite a few university accounts now; I’ll point this out as a resource to them.
    A few more thoughts, some for internal accountability and management as well as user interactions:
    – Track results to show others who don’t yet “get” Twitter.
    I’m using low-end free tools (twurl to create trackable links, with results dumped into a spreadsheet–yes, I should probably do some research and find something easier but this works for now). I can thus demonstrate how many sets of eyeballs I drew to our content, as well as to shared content I RT’d from others.
    I also look occasionally at our rankings on twittergrader, twinfluence, and a wiki that lists higher ed accounts. It’s not science, but it gives me some sense of whether we’re improving/expanding our presence.
    – Use tools as necessary to keep up a consistent presence.
    I use tweetlater to tee up messages to go out on a regular basis highlighting events and news. That way even if I have a busy day, the account is providing information.
    Then whenever I have time, I jump on, read recent tweets, RT a few things, and engage in conversation. The mix of the two keeps the account real, without being a total time suck.
    This isn’t an automated feed; I’m thinking about what to put out. We don’t yet have a blog, and when we do I’ll maintain that personal touch for tweets that provide a link to it.
    – Promote the account; otherwise, you’re a tree falling in a forest with no one listening.
    We have a presence on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. I use each space to increase awareness of the others, as well as on-campus tools such as our email faculty/staff newsletter and a big-screen monitor in the student center.
    If we’re going to put time into these spaces for communication, we need to have people there with whom to engage. For Twitter in particular, I can’t assume that our students are there yet, so I’m promoting the service as well as our presence there.
    – Use it to make info on your web content more accessible and relevant.
    Not rocket science (we’re not NASA :D), but easily overlooked. We have all this web content and from inside, we know where to find things because we look at it every day. Pointing out relevant pages is user-friendly and drives/draws web traffic–another metric to demonstrate the value.

  • Steve Lunceford

    Ethan, I was re-reading this today and realized the GovTwit url points to the old site. Any way to point it to

  • Ethan Klapper