How to Tweet without embarrassing yourself

By John Howarth @johnhowarth1958

It's one of those days when the subject of the blog selects itself. Twitter, for a communication channel that has been around for less than a decade, has an impressive record of bringing political careers to a premature close. You can read quite a few things about using Twitter to good affect and a few on the downside, most of which are common sense - at least for businesses. The rules are slightly different in political life - more stringent - so it is worth asking why common sense so frequently deserts otherwise intelligent people on Twitter?

Twitter is the most deadly of the social networks. It is leading edge, immediate, has massive reach and, because it is limited to 140 characters, is prone to ambiguity:

Leading Edge: The leading edge has always been high risk as well as potentially rewarding. However many people profess to be experts this is still a developing medium and is still new to a lot of people. People will pretend to 'know' because they don't want to appear 'uncool' or 'out of date' and will bluff when they should take the time to learn. Remember David Cameron tweeting "LOL" with no idea of what he was actually saying!

Immediate: The instant nature of Twitter is also it's biggest single risk. Politicians live in a 24 hour news culture when there is a perceived value in being first, or at least fast. Also Twitter is quick, easy and mobile. Too easy - too easy to comment without checking facts, too easy to spout glib platitudes just to be seen and far too easy to comment without engaging the brain. And this is the Internet - once you've said it, chances are it will be there forever. Tweet in haste, regret at your leisure - so question whether speed is really so important. If the subject really matters it will still be around next morning.

Ambiguity: 140 characters isn't an ideal length for engaging in complex debate! The need to get your point into a tweet can sometimes limit the clarity of a comment. So take care before you tweet to mean what you say and say what you mean - if in doubt phone a friend.

Reach: It's amazing that some people treat a conversation on social media they way they would speak to their friends in the pub seeming without any concept that the world is watching - or could be. Just as you shouldn't write anything on a blog that you won't want to stand by or at least justify five years hence. And just as you shouldn't say anything to a journalist that you wouldn't want to stand by in print you shouldn't say or share anything online that you wouldn't want the world to know or see.

So Twitter is a high risk medium, but applying a little common sense will keep your political career intact. Avoid these pitfalls

The same laws apply. Twitter is publishing - a one to many medium - so the laws of libel apply. Sally Bercow forgot that and subsequently paid. She wasn't the first and she won't be the last. Libel is bad politics too - so be careful what you say about people and ask yourself if it is really worth it. Understand too that re:tweeting a libellous tweet is compounding a libel and also actionable.

Drunk in charge of an iPhone. Using Twitter in a chemically altered state is a thoroughly bad idea, but it's easy, so it happens. Be professional, make a rule and just don't go there.

Criticising the electorate. It's just a truth that the electorate can say anything about a politician, but politicians aren't allowed to criticise the electorate. If you can't live with that, don't run for office and never tweet about it - ask Emily Thornberry.

Things aren't always what they seem. It's the Internet. People are not always who they say they are - ask Brooks Newmark. The link that you are about to retweet might not lead to what you think it might - so unless you are sure of your source it's best to check.

Who you represent. If you are an elected representative the fact is you are never off duty. The vast majority of pubic representatives know this perfectly well. But if you put @uklabour in your profile you are representing the Party, like it or not. Maybe not formally, maybe not legally, maybe not officially and maybe the Party doesn't see it that way but those outside political parties will judge Labour by the behaviour of Labour members

It's the way you tell 'em. Humour can backfire. What works in the bar doesn't necessarily work online. So be careful with jokes - especially topical jokes. Sometimes it's better to think twice and be boring.

Contempt. Contempt for the people we seek to represent is lethal. Contempt of Court is to be avoided. Even if it is unlikely that you'll be dragged before The Beak commenting on matters currently before the courts doesn't suggest you are trustworthy - it still baffles me that David Cameron didn't seem to understand this.

Manners don't hurt. Getting involved in a debate is one thing - and it's in the nature of the medium. But keep it political, keep it professional and don't get drawn into abuse - leave that to others and once it starts disengage. It's one of the remarkable things of the medium that some individuals are prepared to say things in public to and about people they have never met that are wildly inappropriate.

Don't be put off. Just stick to some basic principles:

  • Be sensitive - don't use a crisis or a tragedy to make a point

  • Stay positive - play your own game and don't be personal

  • Literate - check the language you use - and beware of predictive text. If your not sure then get someone to check.

  • Clean - stay away from content that might offend - it might be harmless but not everyone is as open minded as you are - you have nothing to gain

  • Clear - say what you mean, mean what you say, avoid ambiguity

  • Sober - know your limits, don't drink and tweet!

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