When the union’s inspiration through its Twitter feed shall run…

People sometimes ask me “John, why should trades unions get involved with Twitter?” No, honest, they really do, my life is *that* exciting at times…

My standard response is that it all depends. The microblogging service Twitter is potentially attractive to unions as it’s something of a liberal and Labour ghetto, and it gets a lot of column inches for being flavour of the moment and making people look modern. However, Twitter is almost a platform in search of a utility, and different people/unions might get very different things out of it, or of course nothing at all, depending on how they naturally want to communicate.

Before deciding how you might use Twitter in your union, it’s worth thinking a bit about how your members and other people that you want to connect with will be using it themselves. Have a look at the profiles of some key people you’d want to communicate with – who they follow and who follows them. You can see patterns emerge that suggest the way they use Twitter, and how that might link in with you.


Some people view Twitter as a reading list for whatever’s happening absolutely right this very moment. They follow people or organisations that interest them and when they log in, they see the latest updates – be they from Twitter celebrities, media outlets, or thought leaders in their sphere of interest.

It’s not comprehensive – they’ll never see more than a fraction of this 24/7 river of information that fits their interests, but that’s not the point. They’re more interested in the chance to get the very latest news, or tiny insights – updates too small or niche for normal news channels, but in a world of throwaway publishing, still of value to a specialist group.

The new Twitter lists feature has been really valuable to this group. They can split the people they follow into different topics – friends, profession, industry, etc – and follow just the relevant people when they want to be up to date on a particular topic.

Tweets will always be better received if you’re writing them manually, but for skim-readers, there’s also the possibility of automating your tweets, if you’ve something that you regularly produce in a standard format. Press releases might be an example here. Use a tool like Twitterfeed.com to take your website’s RSS feed of press releases (You do have one don’t you? Try open.dapper.net if you don’t), and send new items every hour to your Twitter account. You’ll get less readers than a properly managed feed, but at least some people who want to use Twitter for news alerts and who want your news will be interested in keeping tabs on you this way. If it takes off, then look at investing more time in writing original content for Twitter, but this is a fairly painless way to dip a toe in the water and see what happens.

If you’re publishing for skim-readers, try it out yourself first to see what others are getting out of it. If you’re maintaining a press room on Twitter for example, follow the journalists you’re interested in. If you’re publishing from a blog, follow other bloggers in your area. You’ll get a way of seeing the buzz amongst the people you’re interested in, and at the same time they’ll notice you in their follower lists and might be interested in checking out what you have to say too.

Beware. Being plugged into everything like this is stupidly addictive, and not always good news for nature’s procrastinators like me.


Networkers build targeted lists like skim readers, but aim to use them to their professional advantage. They’ll follow people that they already know from their industry or interests, or influential people that they want to communicate with. They’ll use Twitter’s two-way features to follow up on other people’s tweets, making useful connections or contributing their own opinions.

Union officers with a particular specialism might like to work more in this way. An H&S practitioner could connect with other safety bodies, HR and medical sources and safety campaign groups, using retweets (where you forward on someone else’s tweet, with or without comment) to filter out interesting news from the wider community for your own readers.

It’s easy to get noticed if you’re bringing something useful to Twitter for those people who share your interests, and you may make useful new contacts you’d never normally come across, or be able to get useful responses from people who mightn’t answer (or even see) a cold email.


Some people prefer to use Twitter as a sort of time delay version of instant messaging, similar to Facebook status, but in a more extrovert series of interwoven conversations held in public. Chatterers will make much heavier use of replies (typing @ before someone’s username in a tweet draws their attention to it, whilst still keeping it public) and direct messages (DM – similar but hidden from anyone other than the sender and recipient).

Union branches might find this more useful, where the rep is more likely to be plugged in to members’ address books for regular conversation. Twitter gives you the ability to be contacted privately by members with concerns (if you and they already follow each other), or possibly a means for you to quickly solicit feedback on an issue.

It’s always good to make yourself open to members to communicate in the ways in which they’re most comfortable communicating – and for many this is now Twitter. The downside is that people might expect DM responses even more quickly than they’d get from email, and you’d end up putting in a lot of effort for only a smallish group of members who want to communicate that way.

Another issue to bear in mind is that anyone (such as an employer) could see all the people following the union, which some people might be reluctant to reveal, or worse might end up getting people into trouble.

Social searchers

Some people like to use Twitter to find out what the buzz is about a topic at any point, without necessarily building their own lists or followerships. They watch for and follow trending topics (Twitter lists the most popular topics at any one point for different countries) and hashtags (a convention in Twitter where you add a # in front of a word as a way of standardising keywords, so people can more easily find your tweet in searches – eg #trafigura).

Or they might use ‘social search’ engines like Topsy.com to find not the most relevant pages overall for a subject (as a traditional engine would provide) but the most relevant right now. Even the mainstream search engines like Google are moving towards factoring in this kind of social search (see Google’s “latest results” box).

A union can make use of this technique by tweeting about topical news they may have, but first searching to see if other people talking about the issue are using a hashtag, and including that too. This will bring extra people to your tweets – only a few, but they’re guaranteed to be interested in the issue you’re talking about, which counts for a lot.

If you’re engaged in a campaign or dispute and will be sending a stream of tweets on it, invent your own hashtag for it. That way you can monitor more easily what others are saying about the issue (if the hashtag spreads), and find potential allies, as well as making sure your own tweets are all front and centre for anyone following the tag.

If you can co-ordinate supporters to all use the same hashtag, you might notice your issue trending, and you’ll get a lot of interest. Try to make clear how people can translate that interest into some kind of action. The flip side to trending of course is that it lasts for hardly any time at all before some celebrity does something funny, or someone invents a new 140 chars meme to spread, and that displaces you from the charts.


Twitter’s wide-open nature makes it an ideal space for people who want to say something publicly. Addressing a message @ someone – be they a union, individual or campaign target – lets everyone else see what was said. If you start an organisational Twitter account, you’ll get people who disapprove of particular decisions/personalities/whatever sending you slightly narky messages that they don’t really want you to respond to – It’s more like a form of cyber-heckling.

Don’t lose sleep about engaging with anything you find offensive – it’s very easy to get wound up about criticism appearing on the web, as it’s there for ever, but in Twitter’s case, people move on after about fifteen minutes. Most people aren’t expecting a reply, they’re just venting, but will be happy to get one. The handy thing about being so restricted in what you can write is that people don’t expect you to reply with volumes. It doesn’t take a long time for any organisation that issues press releases to find a web link to a statement that shows you do care about their issue (or gives an honest reasoning for why you disagree), and whilst it’s unlikely to sway them on the issue, many will appreciate that you at least took the time to respond.

Of course, all this applies to messages you yourself send out to public targets too. You can tie a union’s message to a target’s Twitter account by sending it @ them, but for more popular companies, it will be tomorrow’s chip paper within minutes.

An interesting Twitter application for unions is the Twitter petition – Act.ly has a great tool that lets you petition Twitter users. You write a short demand (actually pretty tricky!) and it sends from your account, tracking a page of people who retweet it. This results in lots of @ messages to the target, making sure they notice it. They have the opportunity to reply, and have that reply appended to the petition on Act.ly. Numbers taking these petitions are low so far, but given the low number of @ messages that most companies will be receiving compared to emails, it may be noticed more than a low volume email action, and has the benefit of every signature bringing a viral effect.

You can reflect on-side heckler activity in other ways too. A Twitterfall is a stream of content published in real time by other users about your issue – it can be a nice web feature to show just how often people are interacting with your ideas. Just make sure you’re not opening yourself up to a spot of griefing. There are Tweet moderating services out there – betas of Tweetriver and Tidytweet are both nice tools – which might sacrifice speed, but will spare your blushes.


And of course there are a large number of people who want to use Twitter for things precisely because they can. The kind of people who will wrestle with an iPhone app for 30 minutes to order a pizza, because it’s more fun than ringing up in 2 minutes. These people love Twitter’s extensibility, and are the reason there are so many thousands of lovingly coded apps out there that actually do very little other than make you think “that’s pretty neat”. When you’re doing something clever with Twitter – run it past the “pretty neat” test to see if anyone in the real world might use it.

Some parting thoughts. In practical terms, I’d also recommend you use a Twitter client rather than the Twitter website itself. I like Hootsuite.com myself. And of course If you’re posting URLs to Twitter, do so with a URL shortener (otherwise they take a lot out of 140 chars) – ideally one like bit.ly that tracks clickthroughs so you can see if your tweets are being picked up and acted upon, or if you’re just talking to an empty room.

Twitter is low risk. If it doesn’t work out for you, just scrap it. You didn’t pay anything for it or need to drastically alter your comms strategy to make use of it, and most of your followers don’t really expect anything of you – they’re used to new people coming every day, and just as many old people leaving. Experiment with it – there are probably many other types of Twitter users out there amongst your membership or stakeholders, and actually putting a toe in the water may show you for the first time how you could be go about communicating with them.

Pls to share (thanks!):

4 thoughts on “When the union’s inspiration through its Twitter feed shall run…

  1. Twitter’s been an absolute revelation, for trade unionism and wider activism. It’s undoubtedly the quickest way to get information straight from the horse’s mouth, assuming the horse’s mouth Tweets quickly enough.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, John: over the past few months I see an upsurge in trade-union related tweets. Changes with this tool take place very fast and it is good to have a place to share experiences. Your sub-division of twitterati is very useful, unfortunately the number of twitter-issues is much bigger.
    A short introduction of myself: currently I’m helping the WageIndicator (collecting salary information now in 46 countries) to find their way in this new land of opportunities of the new media. That is no strictly a trade union angle, but comes of course close. Before that I worked as a Dutch trade union journalist and as a foreign correspondent in China – and that is where I saw how the new media can really transform a society.
    Twitter is one of the tools and i think it is useful to share some of the dilemma’s we face: it is too early to even suggest their might be too many solutions around.
    1. Personalized voice works best, but how can you personalize a twitter account for an organization? Most of my (China, new media) constituency is not very much interested in the wage-information I have, so I have split off @wageindicator from my more personal comments. Not a nice solution I find myself.
    2. Following friends is a problem and the list only work partially. I have become extremely selective in following friends. Of course, you kick out obvious spammers and people who have more than 50,000 friends and would never read your tweets. But where to draw the line: twitter has become part of my digital radar screen (where I would read in the past newspapers), and you also do not want to miss interesting information.
    3. Sending information out is similar tricky in this 2-way filter twitter is. Initially I have been sending out anything on salaries that sounded interesting: striking garbage men in Nepal, dropping wages in Japan, cut in public services in Ireland. I enjoyed doing that for a few months, but my colleagues felt it was just too much, too much clustered in sudden bursts of information. Now we are going to be more selective, although drawing a line will still be a challenge.
    4. Getting the right interface is important. Like John, I’m using hootsuite.com now, although it has some disavantages (it goes dead when you are not online, and you miss a chunk of tweets from other time zones), it does not translate, like tweetdeck does, or twittefall.
    Just a few issues, I hope for more input from other or upcoming users.

  3. Fons, I use Tweetdeck and have, currently, four different accounts, each following different people/organisations and each for different purposes, eg:

    @pcs_euston is the union branch
    @dwhcoalition is for a local campaign

    Having different accounts makes it easy to follow different things and I’m sure many people have many more than four!

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