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How civil servants learn to stop worrying and love Twitter

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Over the last few weeks we've had several discussions with civil servants about Twitter and other social media. These conversations usually feature one or two enthusiasts and several more slightly nervous people who see the benefits, but generally seem to come to the conclusion that the whole thing is a bit risky -­ what if they say something wrong! - and they'll let others be the early adopters, thanks.

We're used to the classic image of the nameless bureaucrat. It can be nervewracking to set up an account under your own name and write up a brief profile identifying you as a civil servant. It was for me, and I was already using a first-name-only Twitter to share my extremely important and fascinating feelings about Strictly Come Dancing. But with a bit of caution and thinking ahead about managing a professional Twitter (or account on other social channels) it can become a safe, useful part of how we do our jobs.

First, check whether your department has any guidance on social media, and let your manager know what you're thinking. (Sometimes this is easier - for instance if you're confident your Director is really keen on Twitter himself.) Once you're happy it's okay in principle for you to give it a go, the first thing to look at is the guide to using social media produced by the Cabinet Office.

If you can't say anything nice...

I like to do a bit of lurking (reading but not participating) before setting up an account on a new channel, and definitely before I start being active. Part of successfully using social media is understanding the culture that grows up around each online venue. Figure out the acronyms, how people interact with one another, how humour comes across, how other civil servants relate to their colleagues and stakeholders on that platform. Once I feel I understand the 'rules' I'm more confident.

Responding to other people is an easy way to get started. I do lots of favouriting and RTing (retweeting) - this shows you're there and lets you dip a toe in without feeling too exposed or nervous about saying too much. Once you're ready to start making your own posts, think about what you would and wouldn't say on a bus where you didn't know who might be sitting behind you. We're as bound by the civil service code online as off: is the tweet you're thinking of impartial, honest, objective, and showing integrity? I sometimes come back to a borderline draft later, or check with a colleague if I'm really unsure, but it's difficult if not impossible to completely erase a tweet that's gone out - so if in any doubt at all, don't post.

Check out the GDS social media playbook for ideas on getting the most out of your social media, and the Government Communications Service has produced a guide on getting started too. For more informal guidance, have a look at these posts from tweeting civil servants and think about how they might apply to your own work. And have fun!


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