Everything New is Old Again

File this under The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same.

My daughter, my boyfriend and I bond, as humans always have, tut-tutting and cracking wise over the missteps and follies of others. Our ancestors might have done it over a meal, or while riding a covered wagon over the grassy plains or while watching sheep graze. The three of us do it the way most folks do it these days — sitting in front of a glowing screens and keyboards in our three separate cities.

Today’s story was about the Twitter hashtag created by the Washington NFL team. There’s been a growing push to get the team to change its name, which many people consider racist. Most recently, 50 senators (including Harry Reid) sent a letter to the NFL commissioner, urging him to endorse a name change. As a pushback, whoever is running the team Twitter account sent out this Tweet:

Tweet @SenatorReid to show your and tell him what the team means to you.

No. No no no.

As soon as I read that tweet I could see the events unfolding, like a slow motion train wreck. Fan after fan expressed no only support for a name change, but also frustration and disgust at team ownership for not doing it sooner.

Because I spend time nowadays teaching folks — folks who are often very smart and thoughtful but not very tech savvy — how to use social media, I can justify my Schadenfreude as “research.” But to keep it from being just a snarky pastime, I need to deconstruct it a bit for myself and my co-workers and clients.

There is a Wild West aspect to Twitter that often takes people by surprise. When we create a Twitter account, we pick and choose who to follow. Generally, we pick people with whom we agree on most things. So, our Twitter feed becomes a bit of an echo chamber. It’s easy to forget there are people out there who might not like you all that much. Or people who are just bored who want to jerk you around for fun. Or people who might take your well-intentioned tweet the wrong way.

Because of this Wild West atmosphere, anyone can misstep on Twitter. Luckily, the Twitter-verse has a short memory and it’s usually pretty easy to recover, or ride out, a bad tweet.

But it seems to me a lot of organizations make one of two very basic mistakes when choosing who will run the official Twitter account.

The Hot Shot. The account is run by someone very close to the top. Maybe the CEO has a “personal” account or the president takes over the Twitter account for a Q & A. Maybe it’s a candidate or a politician who wants to take part in this new type of baby-kissing. These can be fine, if the individual involved is smart, has a thick skin and has a sense of humor. But too often of these accounts start out sounding pompous; they are used as just another platform for speechifying and pontificating.* Then someone tells the Hot Shot they need to engage people, so a hashtag is created or a question is asked. And then comments and answers flow in from the supporters, the detractors, the bored, the hostile and the sarcastic alike. The Hot Shot gets upset and fires back with snark of their own or — worse yet — reprimands the uneducated masses. Either way, the crowd won.

The Intern. Yes, Millennials tend to be more comfortable with social media. And yes, Danny the Intern might have 2,394 people following his personal account. A lot of organizations actively seek out social media interns on the assumption that “the young folks get social media.”  Besides, it’s “just” Twitter. For the most part, younger people are more social media savvy than older generations. But an intern doesn’t always have the marketing know-how to effectively express the organization’s vision and values in 140 words or less. They are less likely to have the maturity to walk away from a flame war. And they are most often left alone to do that Twitter thing, a sign the organization views social media as a thing unto itself, not a fully integrated part of their communications plan.

Here’s what I try to do to avoid making an ass of myself and my organizations on Twitter:

  • Be clear about why we are using Twitter. Despite what “everyone” says, everyone doesn’t need to be there.
  • Be clear about how we are using Twitter. I like know what information, thoughts and views we are going to share, as well as about how often we will be tweeting.
  • Develop a voice for Twitter. Generally, I like to keep the Twitter voice of organizations a little lighter, a little less formal and a little more fun.
  • Check out hashtags before using them. It takes just a moment to search on a hashtag before you Tweet it. I want to make sure our women’s church choir isn’t using a hastag already being used by an extreme boxing club. Unless a bunch of our sopranos are boxers (see below).
  • Know out followers. Every so often, I take a spin through our followers’ profiles and feeds. I like to see what they are into. Maybe our church ladies are also pugilists. Maybe if I mention boxing every so often, I’ll get retweeted, then maybe we’ll get some more followers and maybe then we’ll gain a couple of altos.
  • When I misstep, I apologize quickly, briefly and humbly.

Many people of all generations seem to view social media, and especially Twitter, as a brand-new, game-changing thing. One one hand I agree with that. They are changing the way we can do something we’ve always done — something I think we are hard-wired to do — communicate with others.

We all know how to do that. Most of us do it quite well. Know what you are going to say before you say it. Be polite. Be interested in the people you are talking to. Tailor what you say for the people you are talking to. We just need to remember to apply that knowledge in these new mediums.


*And I say this as someone who loves to speechify and pontificate.

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