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‘I just don’t get Twitter’

It’s a common complaint, but if you work in crisis management you have to be Twitter-literate

If you’re old enough to remember when Google first elbowed it’s way into our lives, ask yourself how long it took to understand it? Probably just a few keystrokes at the end of which you were saying, oh this is rather good. Then you probably didn’t give it much further thought because you were too busy using it.

What about Twitter? Even if you use it now and are aware of its potential as a crisis management tool, I’m guessing it took you a while to get it. It certainly did for me.

What do you mean you’ve only got 140 characters and hold on; what are all these hash tags, squiggles and endless links? Come to that, what is a hash tag? And how do I know who to follow and where do I find the information I want? It’s all a mess.

Yup that was me. But I stuck with it because for better or worse I’m in crisis comms and it really wasn’t an option to ignore it, but it probably took at least a month for me to get it. Perhaps you’re still not convinced.

Twitter and some other social media layer a depth of social and cultural subtlety on top of a technical platform in a way that wasn’t true for information technologies such as Google that appeared in the earlier stages of the internet.

This creates a gap between the people who have invested the time to understand Twitter and appreciate its possibilities and those who don’t and in some cases never will. Put simply, it’s not entirely obvious why it’s so good.

But if crisis management is part of your job description then you really do need to understand it even if you don’t work in communications.

Most journalists reporting a breaking story are glued to the Twitter feed on their smart phones. It’s there that they’ll find information right from the heart of the story. And let’s face it; what is a breaking news story if not a crisis for somebody?

Now that just about everyone has a smart phone it’s not surprising that crises often break on social media. And as everyone who works in crisis management knows an early presence by an organization in crisis is essential as it shows that they are aware of the problem and have a plan in place to solve it. Social media is the perfect platform to disseminate messages to as wide an audience as possible.

But what you don’t want to do is start using Twitter for the first time in the teeth of a crisis. Writing tweets is like writing haikus; it needs practice!

So if you want to become Twitter-literate I suggest you start by following a breaking news story that interests you. Find the hash tags that relate to the story and you’ll be astonished by the facts and information you can find. Not all of it will be accurate or entirely correct so beware, but also be amazed at what those little chunks of 140 characters can convey.

If you don’t understand Twitter, you are missing a major part of the crisis management jigsaw.

Jim Preen (head of media)