Twitter follow etiquette for councils

Twitter follow etiquette for councils

We’ve been running @medway_council on Twitter for a few weeks now.

One thing that I’m still unsure about is how councils should use Twitter’s concept of “following” others.

People are choosing to follow @medway_council for their own reasons, and we are, of course, very happy that they have chosen to do so. But should @medway_council follow those people back? Should @medway_council follow other people who haven’t followed us?

On my personal Twitter account (@simonwakeman) I follow people that I’m interested in hearing from. I look at everyone that chooses to follow me and if their bio looks relevant to me (PR, marketing, UK-based, possibly public sector) I’ll follow them back.

However I can’t help feeling the situation is different for a council on Twitter. Looking around I can see different councils have adopted different strategies, and I can’t see a great deal of consensus about which is best.

Here are four different approaches for councils and their followers:

1) Autofollow

There are tools that allow you to automatically follow those that follow you on Twitter, including some that allow you to automatically message the new follower.

The advantage of this approach is that is it doesn’t require any time to review and process new followers – saving valuable officer time.

However I can’t help but feel autofollowing is fundamentally missing the point of a microblogging platform – where it’s all about people interacting with other people – even if some of those people are doing so under an organisational or institutional guise.

If a council autofollows (and it’s fairly obvious if it does because the follow back and message happens pretty much right away), what does that say about the organisation? It just feels impersonal to me and doesn’t seem to help create a network of value to the council.

So for me, autofollowing is a non-starter

2) Manual follow those that follow you

A better way would be to check out those that are choosing to follow you and see if they’re relevant to the network a council is trying to build through Twitter.

It might be that a council is seeking to build a local network, so location might be a criteria for following back, or it may have broader aspirations leading to a different set of criteria for whether it follows.

However while this may well be a manageable approach now, when the numbers of council-citizen interactions on Twitter aren’t huge.  But can this strategy work in the longer term as the numbers get much larger – is it feasible to manually review each follower?

3) Manual follow people that don’t follow you

Anyone that uses Twitter regularly will know that its power is in the intertwined networks of people that exist. The value of these are in allowing the Twitter user to discover new people who are quite likely to have shared interests and may become valuable new connections.

This is something I’ve definitely experienced, particularly in “meeting” new people in Medway and beyond who share professional interests with me. When I discover someone like this I often follow them, regardless of whether they’re following me.

But I’m less sure how this would apply to a council. I’m not entirely comfortable with the concept of a council going out to follow people that it’s not had any previous contact/interactions with on the Twitter platform. It strikes me as a bit intrusive and I can see residents being uncomfortable with this approach.

4) Don’t follow

One of the key things I keep banging on about with social media and public sector communications is that social media is inherently two-way – a conversation.

So it may seem a bit odd to advocate a strategy which appears on the surface as not enabling a conversation on Twitter between a council and other people on the service.

However councils can still listen and have conversations on Twitter without following other people. We use free tools to scan for all mentions of “@medway_council” (as well as other keywords) on Twitter.

My feeling is that if someone includes @medway_council in a Twitter message, they’re effectively initiating a conversation with the organisation, and so then it’s fine to message that person back. Indeed with scanning in this way it means we’re picking up conversations throughout Twitter, not just within the people that the council has (or hasn’t) chosen to follow.

But a real disadvantage with the way Twitter works right now is that conversation can only take place in Twitter’s public timeline. Direct messages can only be sent between people on Twitter who follow each other – which isn’t an option if a council has chosen to not follow.

At Medway we’re primarily using the “don’t follow” approach at the moment. But I’m really not sure if that’s the right way to go.

I’m convinced autofollow is a bad idea, but I feel like the jury’s still out on what works best. Plus I’m sure there are other approaches that may be worth exploring too.

What do you think? What other strategies are councils using on Twitter? As a resident, how would you feel about your council following you?


I work as a fractional Chief Operating Officer (COO), consultant and advisor. I created the B3 framework® for company building and I also write a newsletter called Build for leaders who care about creating resilient and sustainable businesses.