What are the “Rules of Engagement” for Twitter?

The subcouncil team has had some active discussions about policy aspects of Twitter for government agencies over the past few weeks. At a time when Government agencies are starting to actively engage with constituents using social media tools, there’s still different schools of thought about how to approach Twitter.

On a recent episode of Government 2.0 Radio, the point was raised that government agencies are now listening to the conversation happening online, but there’s still some hesitancy to actually engage in conversation.

Questions come to mind about whom to follow and when to engage in the conversation. Twitter is no different than any other social media tool: how you use it really depends on your communication goals.

For the Massachusetts Governor’s Office, the rules of engagement are clear, and posted right online.

To paraphrase:
-They follow people who follow them.
-They use Twitter to connect citizens with government and to get feedback.
-They review and update “as much as possible”, along with other channels of feedback, outreach and engagement.
-They explain how the feedback they receive on Twitter is incorporated in the same way as feedback they receive through more conventional channels.

Some agencies have yet to take the plunge into full engagement. They aren’t following anyone. They may be monitoring @ replies, but are not responding directly to them in the public forum. Although this cautious approach may be appropriate under certain circumstances, does it send the wrong message about openness and willingness to engage?

There are probably 101 uses for Twitter, so there’s probably no 100% correct answer here. In establishing best practices for Twitter use by government entities, we want to consider all factors.

The Social Media Subcouncil asks you: what are your rules of engagement? How do you use Twitter, and how do you engage with followers?

Marilyn Clark is the Manager of Online Communications and Services for the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and a member of the Social Media Subcouncil. You can connect with her on Twitter or GovLoop.

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Greg Licamele

Fairfax County is using Twitter (@fairfaxcounty) to engage our residents, answer their questions, suggest programs/events to people who aren’t even following us and more (read how The Washington Post covered our Twitter presence recently: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/06/AR2009050601534.html).

We view Twitter (and Facebook…we’re having the same interactions there, too) through many lenses, with one being customer service. If someone sends us an E-mail, we reply. If someone calls our main phone number, we talk with residents. In each of those cases, our replies are public (and even more so if someone posts an E-mail thread to a blog or records a conversation and posts to YouTube), so what we say on Twitter will not vary from what we’re telling people in E-mails and on the phone.

Our updated social media policy includes this language:

“Agencies may choose to reply to comments so we’re engaged with our residents much like we reply to phone and E-mail inquiries, but business decorum must prevail and factual responses, not opinions, must be shared. Agency staff monitoring for and replying to comments are strongly encouraged to coordinate responses with other agencies, if appropriate, so the best response can be provided. If you are replying on a social media platform, know that it is a series of conversations that constantly evolve. Be a part of them, provide constructive information that mirrors county information elsewhere and don’t try to control other peoples’ opinions.”


For the govloop twitter profile, I began by following everyone that followed me. Then I stopped as it became overwhelming and I didn’t want to do it as a bot. Then I began to follow interesting people that may not know about GovLoop but are in similar conversations on Twitter around similar hashtags. I think the interesting piece is there are no standard rules of engagement now. If someone says there are, they are wrong. We are learning and defining Twitter every day. I also think there is not only one approach to Twitter. I think there can be simple RSS push Twitter feeds. There can be interactive accounts. And there are pros/cons with all types. So we need to experiment and learn what is and isn’t working and help define the new standards. It’s great to see so many agencies out there working and creating the rules as we speak…

Jeffrey Levy

Good post, Marilyn. I think the best thing you’ve shown is the power of publicly stating the agency’s strategy, whatever it is. So good job to Mass.!

Marilyn Clark

Thanks for the comments. Everyone makes it sounds so easy! Not sure if you can tell, but in my personal experience, I have been met with “what if” roadblocks every time we try to move from pushing out press releases to actually engaging with our followers. I have found some great models to follow and I agree with Jeffrey that publicly stating our strategy will help in this area. Thanks all!

Benjamin Strong

We had an interesting experience with our Twitter account when we received a notification that an American had gone missing off the coast of Honduras. The missing man’s brother had notified the authorities using traditional methods (called 911, the State Department, and the USCG) but thought he could generate additional support using social media. As part of the Coast Guard the post was brought to our attention by one of our Twitter followers.

We notified the correct USCG response authorities but the incident raised the question “Do we need to act on distress notifications received via Twitter?” The short answer is yes. If it turns out to be false we have a mechanism in place to punish people who make false reports.

If your organization is using Twitter are you prepared to act on notifications received? What if you are a social service organization and somebody claims a child is being abused? Do you have an obligation to act? Probably.

What do you think?