Twitter: A how do guide for journalists still not sure it’s for them…

Twitter announced, at the end of last month, that it was doing away with the “what are you doing” phrase which sits above the comment input box.

In its place, the phrase “what’s happening” would appear instead. This is probably a reflection of the type of comments which now appear on Twitter – put simply, it’s now much more than just a place where people say what they are doing (if, indeed, it ever was).

But will it convince those detractors who consider Twitter to be little more than a place where people discuss what they had for tea? For those of us who use Twitter a lot, it’s easy to scoff at people who don’t “get” Twitter. But seeing as Twitter now no longer provides the ammunintion that “it’s just a place where people say what they’re doing” I thought I’d have a go at a “how to” guide to Twitter for journalists yet to take the leap.

As ever, if there’s anything I’ve missed, or anything you think I’ve got wrong – please let me know.

1. Decide what you want to use Twitter for

If you’re going to use Twitter, I’d argue you have to use it properly. There’s no point just lurking in the background. Sure, you’ll get some information from it, but journalism has always been based on getting involved with the community you write about.

That said, there are many journalists who use Twitter “just” for work. It can become a place where you talk to new contacts, or a place where they can contact you. I believe the journalists who get the most out of Twitter are those who don’t just talk about work on Twitter. You can decide what you talk about, but the more open you are, the more people will respond to you.

2. What your name says about you

Picking a Twitter username will probably tell people a lot about you. Some people put the name of their newspaper/news organisation in their username, other people choose just their own name (as I do), others pick a nickname. If you plan to use it just for work, it probably makes sense to chuck the name of the organisation you work for into the mix, but if you plan to use it for a lot more than that, go for something close to your original name.

3. Fill out the biography section – and pick a picture

When joining Twitter, tell people about yourself. Spam is rife on Twitter, and possible tell-tale signs of spam is an empty biography box, or Twitter’s default icon instead of a picture. If you’re using Twitter for work, surely you want people dropping by your profile to know what you do?

4. Don’t lock down your account

Of all Twitter’s feature, the locked down account is the one I’ve never understood. Why use a social media tool if you want to run a private party? Isn’t that what email or a Google group is for? If people are going to the effort of following you – often on the suggestion of another of their Twitter contacts, or because they’ve seen something interesting said about you – don’t make them wait for your permission to hear what you have to say. If you were in the pub looking for a story, you wouldn’t lock yourself in the toilet cubicle with a glass to your ear to hear what people were saying back in the bar.

5. Finding people you know

Contrary to a lot of recent publicity, Twitter is actually quite a friendly place to be. If there is someone you know already on Twitter, start following them – you can find them by going to inserting their username after – and have a look through the people they follow. Alternatively, you can always use Twitter’s finding people functions which will search any web-based email accounts you have to find people.

6. Don’t just stick with your friends

If you plan to use Twitter for your work, then it makes sense to search for people who are talking about the things you might be interested in. A good, if basic, way to find such users is to use Twitter Search, typing in the search phrase you might be interested in, and then selecting the right people to follow.

7. Build your network carefully

While you shouldn’t seek to exclude people from following you, be careful about using free services which offer to get you thousands of followers quickly. It might look impressive to have 15,000 followers overnight, but what’s the value of that if nothing you say is really of interest to them? Likewise, if you followed those 15,000 people back, would you Twitter feed be anything other than a cluttered mess?

8. Prepare for silence

Don’t be disappointed if your first few tweets don’t get a response. If you’re the new reporter in town, would you expect everyone in the local pub to immedately latch on to you? There are ways of getting a better response,  though:

9. Retweet, retweet, retweet

If someone you follow says something interesting, retweet it. If you’re using the main Twitter website, there’s a Retweet button which appears when you place the cursor on a particular Tweet. If you’re using Dabr (see below) click the speech marks button.

10. Reply to people

Don’t be afraid to reply to someone you’ve not spoken to before, especially if you can answer their question. Isn’t that what people normally want from journalists – information?

11. Say something useful

Some people make the mistake of seeing Twitter as broadcasting. It’s not. It’s about talking. Don’t just tell people what you’ve written, or what you’re working on. Seek opinions, ask advice, ask for information. By all means link to what you’ve written – but don’t make it the sole reason for your Twitter account.

12. Tweet on the move – use Dabr

There are two ways of tweeting on the move. You can set your Twitter account up to receive text messages from your mobile phone (details here) from UK mobile phones, but if your mobile contract is web inclusive, then is for you. It’s a simple, effective way of using Twitter through a third-party which is very quick. What’s the attraction for journalists twittering on the move? You can tell people what you’re seeing and what you’re doing – and hopefully get them involved in what you are doing.

13. Have a look at TweetDeck

TweetDeck is an easy to install package which enables you to keep montioring Twitter for the things which interest you all the time on your desktop. As well as displaying all the tweets from the people you follow, it lists replies to you and direct messages to you. You can also create columns which allow you to follow tweets which mention a specific word of hashtag

14. Have a look at TweetBeep

If TweetDeck sounds a little full on – and it can be a little distracting – TweetBeep is another alternative. You pick the phrase you want it to check up on, and it will email you once an hour with any references. There is a paid-for option, which allows you to set up more alerts which are delivered every 15 minutes. It’s an alternative to Tweetdeck if you don’t like the idea of being switched on all the time.

15. And if you decide Twitter is not for you…

Then don’t just let your account fester. It looks bad. Delete it. Not everyone will find Twitter works for them, but much like newspapers which shut their district offices but leave the sign above the empty window, nothing looks worse than a journalist who doesn’t appear to be interested.

Over to you…


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