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by Kate Shannon
12 September 2014
To tweet or not to tweet

To tweet or not to tweet

Almost everyone knows the feeling: you’ve accidentally sent a disparaging text message or email to the very person you’ve been moaning about. Or worse still, you hit ‘reply to all’ and sent it to everyone in your address book. This is one of the horrors of modern technology but it’s very common and can usually be smoothed over with a grovelling apology and maybe some flowers.

However, add even more forms of communication – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – into the mix and you increase the number of pitfalls and potential stumbling blocks exponentially.

This was made apparent in a recent incident that one council social media officer will be wishing to forget. During the second televised independence referendum debate between Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling, Twitter users on both sides of the debate were very aerated, with many passionate and often disparaging messages tweeted from different users. However, in the midst of everything, one tweet stood out.

“Alistair shut yer pus!!!” – appeared on East Renfrewshire Council’s official Twitter page, and was immediately met with shock and disbelief from the local authority’s 9,900 odd followers. The post was quickly removed and the council apologised profusely, saying steps had been taken to ensure it did not happen again.

A council spokeswoman said: “We would like to apologise for any offence caused by an inappropriate tweet during the referendum debate. This was an unacceptable use of the council’s Twitter account. This would appear to be a genuine human error, which we are investigating, and measures are in place to make sure that this does not happen again.”

It is quite clear that whoever was in charge of the East Ren Twitter was tweeting from a device with access to numerous accounts – their own personal one and the council’s – and the “shut yer pus” message was meant to come from the personal one. A virtual slip occurred and the unfortunate tweet sallied forth into cyberspace, and even deleted, it remains, thanks to countless screenshots and retweets.

I do feel very sorry for the individual involved, it was clearly an error and humans will always make mistakes. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. Councils and civil servants must maintain the strictest political impartiality in order to operate effectively and while no one would think for a minute that East Renfrewshire Council as an organisation had decided to take this view about Darling, it does raise questions about who uses social media and from what medium.

All councils have social media policies to a greater or lesser extent and all use the likes of Twitter and Facebook to engage with the public and convey council news. When used correctly, they are highly successful tools in the local authority communication toolkit but as the East Renfrewshire example shows, they are not infallible. 

Personally, I love Twitter but my account is strictly for work. Yes, I send out a mix of tweets (let’s face it, I wouldn’t have many followers if I talked local government 100 per cent of the time) but it’s all appropriate. I have a personal Facebook account too, locked with as many security settings as I can muster, which I use in a more informal way but even there I am very conscious nothing is 100 per cent secure.

I get the feeling that some serious memos were sent out to East Ren’s staff the day after the debate about the importance of being vigilant about keeping work and personal opinions separate (and the effective use of Tweetdeck). However, it’s a message we could all take on board. Social media might be a part of everyday life but it must always be used responsibly and with a calm head. My motto these days is if in doubt, think before you tweet.

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