A sound, simple government Twitter follow policy

Because there isn’t a consistent strategy around government Twitter follow lists, I’ve been thinking more about how agencies and municipalities can better leverage this feature to support citizens.

Some government agencies/municipals follow only related agencies and departments within the agency, as well as elected leaders and appointed executive officials. Others appear to follow whomever might be affiliated with the person managing the account or, worse, whomever follows them. Following everyone that follows you isn’t scalable and could potentially be perceived as an endorsement of that person or company’s product and services.

Government should think of Twitter follow lists as an opportunity to highlight ‘Related’ services or provide a direct connection to its leaders. Use it as a way to help citizens understand who’s in charge of your agency or municipal and all the services you provide.

If you’re responsible for your agency or municipal Twitter account, here are some suggestions:

  • Follow your agency/municipal appointed/elected leaders.
  • Follow departments within your agency or under your municipality.
  • Follow related agencies.

Your follow list is an excellent opportunity to eliminate the perception that government is one big bureaucratic nightmare. If someone is on there that doesn’t help the common citizen, it’s a good idea to un-follow them as soon as possible.

Your constituents will appreciate it.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh, co-founder/CEO of ProudCity and co-host of the podcast, The Government We Need. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

17 Responses

  1. As a state agency we follow any individual who is following us and lives in our state (@wsdot). It has come in handy many times when people want to contact us but don’t want to publicly do so. Also lets them use our direct messaging features: http://wsdot.gov/inform/twitter/ . The crux is that we have to spend a little time on maintenance to unfollow those who stopped following us.

  2. Dan

    I manage NYC 311’s Twitter account. We follow all NYC agencies. Most other NYC agencies adhere to the same practice. However, the NYC Office of Emergency Management’s Twitter account auto-follows any account that follows it for the sole purpose of auto-DMing that account with a disclaimer.

  3. The three suggestions you provide, Luke, are good. I’d also toss out that it could be appropriate to follow commercial/non-profit accounts as well if they fit with your agency’s overall strategy/themes/mission. For instance perhaps Twitter.com/gatesfoundation could be appropriate for the CDC or other health-related government accounts to follow.

    I think what’s most important, however, is to formulate and implement what your follower strategy will be. Is it only your agency accounts? Other gov accounts? Personal accounts? Having a strategy is half the battle. Best practice would then be to set up a social media page that explains what your strategy/policy is for following (I’ve seen this but can’t recall where, and two of my go-to’s for best practice, EPA and HHS actually don’t address follow policies. EPAGov’s seem self-evident: follow other official agency accounts only; HHSGov seems to be *mostly* other HHS/health-related accounts)

    Not to pick on them, but if I had to guess, the recently launched FCC account (http://Twitter.com/FCC) probably doesn’t have such a strategy. They currently follow 25 accounts and to an outsider is seems a mish-mash. NASA, the Smithsonian, Veteran’s Affairs, the Spanish-language and English-language White House accounts, an unofficial USAID ID, EPA and others.

    For my personal account, I follow who I find interesting. For GovTwit, I’ve kept a strategy of following only those accounts that have been added to the directory. For a new account for my employer (twitter.com/DeloitteGov) I’m still in “soft-launch” mode and trying to frame out this very strategy, so interested what other response you get to this.

  4. Jeremy, how do you know if they live in your state? What if they are resident’s but on military duty internationally or in another state? Or at school. Or a business looking to relocate, etc Or just changed their location feature to “Tehran” last summer?

  5. I think you are providing a good framework to get started on twitter.

    I would also add that it’s important to interact with people. Ignoring @messages turns twitter accounts into another black hole for questions and comments. If an organization that services thousands of people has only a few hundred followers something is probably wrong with the engagement.

    It’s also very important to listen to what’s going on in the community. If you don’t do this by following people from your main account then you must do it through other means.

    Government twitter accounts still have to have interesting content and seem human. This is what builds affinity and trust. I have seen some government accounts that get this and some that don’t. Those that don’t have created a presence that might actually be detrimental to their long term mission.

  6. @Luke, Government doesn’t operate in a magic bubble, they operate in a world where they work with non-profits, associations, and other NGO’s to help meet mission at times and it *may* be relevant for certain accounts to follow an non-gov account.

    Yes, you need to be wary of perceived endorsement, but heck, even simply using a service like Twitter itself could be considered “endorsement” (ask the guys at Plurk). So, again, thinking through your strategy (and implications of things like following non-gov accounts) is what’s important.

    @Dan, they actually don’t need to auto-follow back to *send* a DM with a disclaimer, you just need to follow back to *receive* DMs. (& @Luke, disclaimer DM is one way to send folks to a more robust “policies” page; even if only a small portion cares, it’s better to make it available vs not, don’t you think?)

    @Justin – yep, interaction is huge benefit of Twitter and other collaborative channels, but again, I think how you interact needs to be thought about and baked in to your strategy. It’s fine to have an account that’s nothing but push IMHO, especially if you can’t staff up what you would believe would be the necessary level of interaction.

    There’s nothing wrong with using Twitter as push-only if it’s useful ala CNN.

    As Shel Holz discusses in another post I stumbled across today, there is not a right/wrong; there is “it depends”

    http://bit.ly/a0lXvf — “One of Twitter’s strengths is its flexibility. It can be used for just about anything you can dream up for it. In most instances, I agree that the authentic human touch is important. But to suggest that it’s a requirement, that every branded logo account would be better if it contained a real person’s name and avatar, is a mistake. It locks organizations into an approach that may honestly not be the best way to achieve their particular goal.”

  7. IMHO, I wouldn’t recommend following personal accounts.

    If you follow someone and that person tweets something political, crass, inappropriate or just plain dumb, you’re now associated with that person. Sometimes just the perception of association is enough to make you look bad, especially if you’re an agency under some harsh public scrutiny.

    Also, if you’re following someone, that means you’re going to at least occasionally peruse their tweets, right? If not, then don’t follow them. So if you’re account gets real popular and now you’re following hundreds of people, that’s a lot of time and resources just looking through your twitter stream, which can be overwhelming and a waste of time.

    If you want to keep track of your constituents, there are location-based and keyword search tools that are more effective than following back.

    If you follow back so you can send DMs, you better have a robust record retention and public information request policy, which could add a lot of administrative work on your end, because you’re dealing with the one area of Twitter that is not public.

    If you follow back because you’re afraid of losing followers if you don’t follow back, you might want to revisit the purpose of your social media initiative. Gov should not be concerned about being popular. If you’re using social media, it should be because you’re adding value to your constituents, and if someone stops following you because you don’t follow back, you’re probably not adding any value to that person.

  8. Luke, saw your post on GovLoop, and the comments here are great discussion. After working on an official local gov Twitter account for more than a year, and also having used it for specific causes in the past, a few weekends back I wrote a short white paper on Twitter for agencies and causes. It’s at http://bit.ly/TwitterforAction.
    Also, on my office’s account, we added “follow does not = endorse,” which got us a few funny responses, but is definitely worth having in the bio. It’s something I’ve seen on a lot of military accounts.

  9. Great discussion and a lot of recommendations to sort through. When we first started @ddotdc, for the most part we only followed other government agencies, news organizations, reporters, bloggers, etc. because we wanted to know what they were tweeting. But we often used DM – and still do – to respond to specific questions or requests and it seemed to frustrate some followers when they couldn’t DM us back. So in the interest of two-way communication, which I think is very important for an agency like ours that’s using Twitter, we started following people if we were sending them a DM, so they could respond in kind if they wanted to.

    Of course, that means we see a lot of tweets that have nothing to do with us, and it’s harder to keep up with the feeds we wanted to follow in the first place. We’re now using the “lists” feature which helps organize other government and media feeds, and we may go back and un-follow many of the other feeds we added, we just haven’t done it yet.

  10. @Luke – appreciate the thoughts but I would ask that you do more research before responding so quickly. It’s not just about following, for example here is our Twitter engagement just for yesterday: http://search.twitter.com/search?q=wsdot – Residents of our state contact us through our Web site, Twitter, Flickr, our Blog and daily emails. We do agree with you one one point however, engagement leads to tremendous success.

  11. Luke,
    This is an excellent post. Clearly some guidelines need to be created. I think there is a need for that. But – the engagement needs to be real for it to work. Excluding citizens is probably wrong in the long run. But maybe a curated list might work.

    I would add the following fields too:
    Verified Media accounts
    Constituents or Community leaders who others follow.


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