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Think Before You Tweet

For years we’ve had an editorial cartoon hanging up in my office’s kitchen that shows a stern-faced reporter holding a microphone out to an activist, asking, “In 30 seconds, can you tell us why your complex, multi-layered message isn’t getting through to the public?”

In a nutshell, social media poses the same problem. Twitter limits you to 140 characters, but add in a user tag and a hashtag or two, and it can seriously squeeze your main message. Sometimes distilling a message down into a sound-bite fundamentally alters the intent. It can be worse than saying nothing at all.

Nonprofit communications staff are in a tough spot. Social media is growing in popularity in our sector: it comes with a host of free tools and options, and the online community is constantly creating the latest “hot new thing.” Its style works best with short, catchy and simple messages. But this can be a tough fit with the complexity and seriousness of the work we do, where people’s lives are literally on the line.

We also understand the importance of good relations with the people living in the communities where we work. Yet we all know of cases where a word or phrase innocently or unintentionally used has done serious damage to relations between a nonprofit and a community—damage that can take months or even years to overcome.

Getting the message right can be hard even when you have time to craft it and a larger number of words to work with. Writing for social media only makes it harder to avoid such missteps.

Moreover, nonprofit communications staff get asked to push out many last-minute tweets and posts with no prior planning because social media is “free,” and there is no perceived cost to the organization. But that’s a misperception—there may be no financial cost, but the organization’s reputation is on the line in all its communications.

Given the important issues that we tackle, we have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t make gross missteps that fundamentally affect the messages we convey. Here are a few examples of things to try to avoid.

There is a growing attitude among social media professionals that “my audience will know what I mean.” Look at the tweets that go out around the various days for causes recognized by the UN. These days may bring attention to critical issues, but many of the messages seem carelessly constructed. On September 8 there were tweets like, “Happy International Literacy Day! 775 million people are illiterate. Explore the solutions. [link]”

The problem with this tweet is that people often don’t read social media, they skim it, and at first glance this tweet looks like a celebration of the fact that three-quarters of a billion people are illiterate. While that is a staggering statistic to highlight, and I love that they included a link afterward for anyone who wants to help, it’s not exactly “happy.” If someone wanted to take a celebratory route, why not instead highlight the progress that’s been made by saying, “Happy International Literacy Day! Illiteracy rates have fallen X% in the last Y years. Help us finish the fight: [link].” I saw similarly careless tweets around World Humanitarian Day—a day that both celebrates current aid workers and honors those who lost their lives helping others—that could have been avoided by ensuring that the tone of the tweet was appropriate to the content. “Happy” is fine if you’re celebrating what aid workers do, but if your tweet is about honoring the fallen, consider starting with “Today is” instead.

Another avoidable minefield, which isn’t always obvious, is to check if people are already saying something on a hashtag before you use it in your tweet. Over the last few years, several InterAction members have participated in campaigns using the hashtag #CutsCostLives to support U.S. foreign assistance funding. A few months after we started using it, I noticed that another country’s fire and rescue service had also begun using the same hashtag to protest budget cuts. The mixed messaging is unfortunate, but in this case wasn’t a crisis.

However, in 2012, just a few hours after a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado, the hashtag #Aurora began trending. A clothing company outside the U.S. had just released a dress called Aurora. Its social media staff saw the trending hashtag but didn’t click on it to check what people were saying. They used it to send a promotional tweet for the dress, which got inserted into the larger discussion about the tragedy. This wasn’t a malicious act. But it was a careless mistake that could have easily been avoided. Imagine the reaction in 2010 if a humanitarian relief nonprofit started tweeting Haiti relief updates using a trending hashtag, only to discover that the hashtag was mostly being used by a travel company to promote Haiti vacation packages.

The people who created these tweets—and others like them—in no way intended such negative connotations. I’ve spent several years doing nonprofit communications, and there’s not a week that goes by when I’m not rushed through a project. I’ve tweeted things that in retrospect I wish I’d devoted just a little more attention to. And I was called out once by a third party on Twitter. Though the way it happened it angered me at first, in the long run I’m glad it happened. How can we be good communicators if we don’t take the time to think through what we say and make sure we’re not misunderstood? Now when I write a rushed tweet, I spend an extra two minutes to read it over one last time and I think of different ways my words could be taken.

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