How should Commons select committees use their new Twitter accounts?


Why setting them up is only the start 

I’ve listed most of the Twitter accounts I could find in this Twitter list.

Picture the scene. Your boss has been to a workshop not too dissimilar to the ones I’ve run which introduce you to the basics of social media. He or she then says your organisation needs to ‘get with’ this social media ‘thing’ and tells you to set up a Facebook or a Twitter page. Five minutes later, you return having set up said accounts, inform your boss and later on overhear a phone conversation saying “Yes – we’re up to speed with this social media thing – we’ve got a Twitter account!”

“Congratulations on getting that far?”

Depends if you’ve done your preparation or not. In Puffles’ Introduction to Twitter digital video guide, Ceri, Michelle and Dana spent the first couple of minutes explaining some of the basic preparation organisations need to do with corporate Twitter accounts before a single tweet has been posted. The House of Commons authorities have done a fair amount of co-ordination here (at least by the looks of it). The consistent naming convention tells us this. Some have already started tweeting and following, while others are yet to tweet or follow anyone.

A soft launch

This is what seems to have happened here – nothing wrong with this approach at all. In fact, it probably suits it from an institutional perspective. A number of people in corporate world who are getting into social media are taking baby steps to start off with. What with Twitter dragons and the like hanging around, you can never be too careful. Actually, a soft launch is more likely to mean that a social media cascade will result in people finding out that the accounts exist and choosing to follow only the ones that interest them. I have no intention of following each and every single one. However, I know the nature of Puffles’ social community is such that they will ensure all of them are covered with sufficient scrutiny one way or another. I can live with that. Hence inviting people to have a look at the list of Twitter accounts, briefly describing them and inviting them to take their pick.

“But they don’t have House Rules!!!”

Um… ***Eeeek!***

The reason “Eeek” is because having such things in place (like Puffles has) is that these set the expectations of your interactions with other users. My local council, Cambridge City Council has a very good set of house rules. The Department of Health also has some very good pages too, under the stewardship of Steven Hale. My recommendation? Ideally for Parliament to come up with some basic guidance for members of the public on how to engage with these Twitter accounts. If anything this will give something to hold to if you need to block someone – which you will. Later on, as you get used to your followers and those you engage with, you can customise your social media house rules to meet both the needs of your select committee members and those that are engaging with them.

What sort of content can and should be posted?

It’s still early days but there is huge potential. At the moment it’s likely that they will start with flagging up what is on and when. Several committees are already doing this. Further things these accounts can be used for are already being done by accounts such as BBC Question Time and BBC Free Speech. These include:

  • Posting short quotations from when a select committee chair is speaking in that capacity. (i.e. NOT as a party political figure). A standard format is “[Quotation]” followed by the web address (for example a press release for a select committee report).
  • Advising users of a #hashtag for a select committee hearing where there is likely to be raised interest from the public. For example a serious issue being discussed or a well-known figure appearing.
  • Posting quotations from MPs on the committee or witnesses appearing before a committee – along with the relevant hashtag (similar how the BBC – eg Radio 4 Today Programme does).
  • Posting links to relevant publications, transcripts and submissions of written evidence.

What should be avoided?

As it is a corporate account, the people running it are going to be the messengers rather than the decision-makers. The decision-makers will be the MPs on the select committees, not the clerks there to help them with day-to-day business. Therefore, avoid getting into extended Twitter debates. Leave that for the politicians. There are enough of them on Twitter for that.

Remember too that select committees are committees of the whole house, not just of one political party. The clerks will be familiar with this but the general public may not be. Therefore a general house rule around party political tweets & retweets will need to be put in place. Otherwise it becomes very difficult to judge where the fine line of party political point vs genuine contribution to the debate is.

What sort of public profile should clerks to parliamentary committees have?

This for me is where the convention is still to be set. Civil servants have much greater public profiles than they had in the past because of social media. Just have a look at this lot. In much older blogposts I have also called for very senior civil servants to have a higher profile – especially those on six figure salaries. As for parliamentary clerks, they too are paid for by the tax payer. What’s the best convention? To keep them out of the public eye altogether? I’m not so sure. At the same time, select committees have a very small – too small a number of staff along with huge demands. But the social climate is anything but suitable to be spending more money on support for politicians, much as I believe there is a strong public interest for strengthening support for select committees.

One thing that could work – especially when live tweeting a session of a select committee (which I hope will become the norm) is that the clerk tweeting from the account introduces themselves. This is a convention that a number of private sector firms do – in particular train companies. That way you get the sense there is a human being at the other end. At the same time it also keeps a level of responsibility and accountability for the social media account with managers. 

I’m particularly interested to see how the use of these accounts develop. I also think it’s worth looking at Facebook fanpages – even though a number of people have commented that Facebook has peaked. Twitter is used by a lot of niche audiences – Facebook has greater general coverage. Better for outreach?

Finally – and one for the webmasters: Can you integrate the new social media accounts with the committee webpages in a manner that makes switching from web page to social media page feel seamless?


3 thoughts on “How should Commons select committees use their new Twitter accounts?

  1. Really interesting post. We work with local authorities in Wales, but I must admit I hadn’t previously considered how committee tweeting might differ, but lots of food for thought here. I especially like your point about the introduction of individuals to show that it’s a human at the other end.

    One thing that has become clear in the last few days with all the snow in South East Wales is how much goodwill there is towards some statutory organisations, not just Twitter abuse! And it’s the councils who are well versed in social media who are harnessing this feedback and showing how responsive they are. Quite cold but exciting times!

  2. Why are councils responding to a select group of voters (if they are indeed voters of that particular council) who have both the skills and access to social media? Councils should surely be inclusive?

    Great to see councils responding to the haves? The have-nots, a group that that is growing ever larger are thoroughly excluded. That’s great, in the same way excluding the have-nots from our villages, towns and cities is. That is no democracy I want to see. I want a democracy where all people to have equal voice. When everyone has access 24/7, great, but until then, no this is wrong wrong wrong, skewed, not equal.

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