Tweeting for your Country: a personal view of some principles for social networking

John Sheridan - CIO & CISO
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Last Saturday, I attended BarCamp Canberra 2011, which AGIMO co-sponsored. An eclectic gathering of individuals, it covered a wide range of subjects with 20 minute presentations covering matters such as Gov 2.0, social media, robots, agile programming and lots more. There were about 150 attendees from Canberra and further afield including Wollongong and Sydney, and a very active Twitter stream during the day.

I presented on 'Tweeting for your Country', a further development of the principles of social networking, in and for the Australian Public Service, that I spoke about a week or so ago at the TransTasman CIO conference and later tweeted. I have had several requests to blog about these principles. It has been our practice to post presentations we provide so that they are freely available to all those interested. In that spirit, I have decided to post this. Please note, they are not official policy, just my observations developed in the 18 odd months during which I have had some responsibility in this area.

The principles are divided into three groups - guidance, risks and entry. These three are each represented by an acronym - LEFTS, RIGHT, and YES. I have liked acronym-based principles since my dad helped me memorize the rivers of NSW for geography in primary school. Of course, I can't remember them now - but I blame the drought for that.


Locate: to be successful in social media, you need to go where your audience is, not expect them to come to you. It's not like the 'Field of Dreams'. Just because you build it, it doesn't mean they'll come. Use hashtags on Twitter, find discussion groups or similar on Facebook, employ the RSS feeds on news sites - all these will help you find your audience.

Engage: people expect you to be involved, not just a tourist. Social media is two way communication.

Follow: tweeting without followers is like solitaire - even if you win, no one cares. Following people who are interesting or involved in the issues in which you are interested (hopefully both!) will encourage them to follow you. As this occurs, you build your audience and thus the effectiveness of your communication.

Trust [your staff]: one person can't engage with the social media universe on behalf of an organisation by themselves. We trust all manner of public servants to engage with the public every day, over counters and over the phone. We can trust them on social media too.

Share: collaborate not just communicate. Social media isn't about broadcasting (mostly - there's clearly a valid case for public interest social networking broadcasting for emergencies, etc).


Risks: all activities have risks and social media is no different. Here are some considerations:

  • Context: social media comments are made in a context but can be quoted out of it. Make sure your public comments can't easily be maliciously reused. Use links to provide the context so others can follow what you really meant.
  • Media: when media people 'friend' you they may not really be your friends! Nevertheless, social media tools do provide a useful mechanism for establishing the facts for readers. Commenting politely and factually on an online story to correct a misleading headline (sub-editors, I'm looking at you) or wrong information can stop a runaway story in its tracks. In a government context, it can stop such a story from becoming a full fledged media inquiry in the mainstream press, and the need for subsequent ministerials and question time briefs.
  • Profile confusion: be careful to distinguish between speaking in an official, professional or personal capacity. If you aren't commenting officially for your organisation but people could think you are, make your status clear. For example, as I said at the outset of this post, these are my personal views, not AGIMO policy. The subsequent headline could say "AGIMO executive states ..." but the status is clearly explained. Of course, the more senior you are, the harder it is to maintain the distinction - that's why they are called risks.

Incremental: you don't have to start your social media engagement with a major campaign. Start small, manage expectations, build your profile over time. Test things out, be prepared to deal with dead ends and occasional failures. Expect mistakes and plan for them. Gracefully apologise for mistakes and quickly correct them. The audience is more forgiving than you might think.

Groups and Lists: public servants know about organisation and so does social media. On Twitter you can create lists of followers to make following easier. This is particularly useful if you have varied interests and follow people in each of them. At work, I can keep an eye on my gov2au list and while watching the Brumbies, I can concentrate on the rugby list. If you are following lots of people, this can be very handy.

Hierarchy: don't forget your day job. Although it can be really interesting, it's unlikely you're being paid just to do social media. Before you make a career of it, make sure your boss is happy about it. Also, anarchy doesn't rule. Commenting about work related matters is tricky. It should be okay to tweet about what you know and what you do. It probably isn't okay to tweet about what other people do and what you don't know.

Trolls: don't feed them. Trolls make comments to attract attention, stir up controversy or just to be difficult. They are easy to recognise but hard to resist. You have to try. Also be wary of Twitter tough guys. These are people who are much braver behind a keyboard than face to face. Arguing remotely with them won't work - don't!


Yammer: Yammer is a social media tool like Twitter but only people on the same email domain as you can see what you send. It's like an internal Twitter account. There are other similar tools - Microsoft's SharePoint has one you can pay for (basic Yammer is free). AGIMO is also considering options to add more social media functionality into future versions of our govdex internal collaboration service. These provide a safe environment in which people can experiment with social media without some of the risks of the mainstream varieties. It can be a good place to start.

Educate: social media is a new skill. Not everyone knows what to do yet. Help others. Share ideas. Ask questions. There aren't that many experts in this field and there's nothing to feel overawed about.

Some simple steps (the four 'Rs'): register (get a log on to Twitter or Facebook or both), read (statistics suggest that for every one person who writes a blog post, 10 people comment  and 100 read it - just reading social media on line is a good start), retweet (retweeting is just like repeating a joke you heard from someone else - something most of us do every day), finally - really get stuck in, you'll be surprised how easy it is.

That's it then -- LEFTS, RIGHT, YES!


Comments on this blog are now closed. Please let us know if you would like to discuss this post or have any general comments.

Comments (11)

After extensive use of social media tools over the past 2 years I'm really not sure the public sector should be wasting money chasing this medium. Email is still the number 1 social media tool used today and the most effective way to communicate online. Conversation is much more controlled and slip ups are less likely. I run a 3 week course on marketing the internet (link removed - advertising - JMS) for small business and I always get time poor small business owners complaining about how much time is wasted posting and reading posts. Can the government really afford the expenditure. Just a thought

I think you're right scott,

That's if you consider social media to be a marketing device. It's usefulness is probably easier to see if you consider it "interactive" media, and compare it to the old "broadcast" model. Eventually, we'll have one complement the other instead of having people impose the old rules on the new.

The hardest part in all this is encouraging institutionalists to collaborate; particularly in the "education industry". Those who have already been though the edu mill are usually too damaged by the "publish and be damned" (media) routine to see what their network engineers are trying to offer them. i.e. federated services.

It's interesting though, if you've watched the media evolve since the web's intro (17 years). Useful stuff always starts as a dinky/tonka toy. But eventually playful people inside and outside institutions are able to figure out where the utility is and build "grown up" toys. But I don't see it happening in Australia. Too much money. There's no necessity to be inventive.

Excellent set of tips. Do we get a video of your excellent presentation as well?

I have included it in the notes for my ANU course COMP7420. So a video would be useful for the students. An open source version of the course notes are avialable: "Electronic Document and Records Management"

It's interesting to look back over the past 12 months and watching this evolution - from representative to participatory democracy - work it's way into the social dynamic of different cultures. I tend to believe, for .gov employees some guidelines are necessary.

The concepts of a 'social mainstream' media replacing mainstream/unsociable seems about right. So I do hope before much longer we might begin to see the beginnings of "the public sphere" work its way into the thinking about how government operates. Otherwise we're going to have and as separate domains where every conversation must be repeated.

I can hardly wait until we see a accounts issued. Seems the approach was a bit early. (please click). But samo samo. It takes the fences out of the way.

Very nice and practical blog. Thank you very much. I think your blog is also very helpful for Dutch civil servants. I translated your blog into Dutch, adapted it slightly to our situation and posted it on our own #gov20 site.

Again, many thanks.

Lex Sijtsma
Programadvisor New Way Of Work
Government Building Agency

Hi Martin

Thanks for your thoughts. I think this is an idea that works better in theory than practice. Unfortunately, if I made a bad error on Twitter under @sherro58, the media wouldn't ignore it, they'd say "government official" said/did/etc. The fact that I wanted it to be a private user name wouldn't matter. So my view is "why bother trying".

However, I think there are roles for organizational user names in some circumstances such as @QPSMedia. There are no hard rules though. It is too early for that.



Hi, John.

I attended your session at BarCamp and so thanks for posting your presentation here.

I suggest your 'tweeters as people' principle requires some development.

To aid in accountability and transparrency (as per Gov 2.0), to head off accusations of sock puppetry, and to minimise the risk of profile confusion, surely it's more appropriate for public servants tweeting for an agency to use an ID that instantly establishes that context. So you might use something like JohnS.AGIMO for posts here and on other sites when discussing government issues, and keep sherro58 nicely squeaky clean for personal use.

This would certainly help newcomers to a busy Twitter discussion work out who's representing what.


So where is AGIMO's twitter account? :)

I confess to being ambivalent about government using services like Yammer. I feel quite strongly that we should never put data of any type (including social media interactions) onto "external" storage in the first instance.
We should always have control of the hardware on which the definitive record is stored. We're opening up government data on numerous fronts, which (imho) is a "good thing", but I think it incumbent on us to be prudent in the background.
And yes, that opinion extends to the current fad for hosting applications out "on the cloud". We will find it far easier to exercise legitimate controls over our electronic information assets if we host our own storage.
...even if that is only being able to say that we have the definitive, authorised, record...

Anyone else, or is it just me?

Hi, all.

I'm not currently a public servant, but I have some background in the APS and I'm currently researching government use of these tools.

I'm afraid I don't see what possible advantage a tool like Yammer can offer over in-house platforms such as an intranet or extranet. Surely the use of Yammer would set off alarms in any security advisor's office? I don't think the Facebook-like interface is sufficient justification for exposing an organisation, the email accounts of its personnel and discussion of its internal workings to Yammer's terms and conditions, over which the user has no control.

I have similar concerns for how the terms and conditions of any social media site might open up liabilities for government users.

On the subject of public servants tweeting, I think it’s definitely preferable for them to differentiate official tweets from personal ones. The fears about ‘mistweeting’ can be alleviated by some basic training for the new media and setting protocols, I suggest.

Thank you all.


Nope. I agree with Di.

Casual chat is too prone to an inadvertent slip-up. In the privacy of an office, not necessarily a huge problem. Committed to electronic storage, it becomes immortal. Ask anyone who has had an embarassing picture go viral.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Last updated: 29 July 2016