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Talking Twitter

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Zoe Kleinman | 10:31 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

This article was originally printed in the BBC staff newspaper, Ariel.

Barack Obama does it, Stephen Fry does it and Britney Spears does it too. Twitter is the latest Web 2.0 tool to get everybody talking - and people and programmes all over the BBC are at it as well.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a very simple idea. You answer the question 'what are you doing?' in 140 letters or less, as often as you like. Other people can then sign up to 'follow' you and receive your updates. They can also reply to you, either in public by using their own update or in private via a Direct Message, a bit like an email.


Twitter is 'a highly conversational, lightweight and highly interconnected blog,' explains Portfolio Executive (Social Media) Roo Reynolds (@rooreynolds), whose Twitter feed gets more followers and reaction than his conventional blog.


Generally people use it to gossip, gather information and share news - from the mundane (at time of writing Twitter user Stefnet is 'enjoying a cup of tea') to the significant (director of Global News Richard Sambrook looked to Twitter for UGC updates during the Mumbai attacks).

Twittering as the BBC

It's very easy writing short sentences about what you are doing as an individual, but writing them on behalf of the BBC is a different matter. The tone has to be informal and conversational because that's the nature of the site - but with the underlying authority and impartiality the audience expects from the BBC whatever platform it's on.

Getting that right is difficult, whoever you are, warns James Cridland (@jamescridland), Head of FM&T, A&M Interactive. 'If a presenter wants to use Twitter in a personal capacity, that would be brilliant - but I'd recommend them asking for guidance,' he says. 'While he's excellent at it now, Jonathan Ross' (@wossy) first faltering steps were a little like watching your dad dance at a disco...'

Public vs Private

Technology correspondent Rory Cellan Jones (@ruskin147), a veteran Tweeter, says he always has in mind that his Twitter updates are like updates on any other newswire. His tweets, as the updates are called, tend to be technology focused but he does also write about his private life - from casual snippets about walking the dog and cooking for the in-laws to a recent mention of his son getting a place at Oxford University.

'I'm self-aware,' he says,' I know Twitter is public. Writing about my son felt weird but I was just so proud! The borders between personal and professional break down with social media - you get to know people more. But people have always built relationships in business - I don't think it gets in the way.'

It's a delicate balance though, warns James Cridland. 'I'm fairly careful about what I publish online,' he says. 'There are some people out to 'get you' on the web, so it's important not to give them too much ammunition.'

Working Lunch

Also bear in mind the editorial responsibilities of your part of the BBC. For example, as a business programme, Working Lunch (whose Twitter feed I look after) has additional journalistic guidelines on top of standard BBC policy. We follow the financial journalism code laid out by the Financial Services Authority - so does our Twitter feed.

I post a variety of Working Lunch updates generally no more than 3 or 4 times a day but almost always at least once - sometimes links to things we're doing on the programme, sometimes I ask a question (it's an amazing way of getting a swift snapshot of opinion, and even finding contributors), sometimes it's just a small piece of gossip or chit chat, like the time I lost my voice half way through recording a voiceover for a film I was working on.

I reply to most of the messages that address Working Lunch - even if it's a case of 'thanks but no thanks'. I also check out the Twitter site of everyone who joins us and, if they're not direct marketing or spam (Twitter spam accounts are easy enough to spot and are usually swiftly taken down by the site itself), Working Lunch follows them back.


The most well-meaning Twitter feeds cause massive irritation when they fail to engage with their followers. Be warned though - it's time consuming. With a few hundred followers it's manageable for us at the moment... although that may change as the number of subscribers snowballs, as it has done this week.

I soft-launched Working Lunch (@workinglunch) on Twitter in October 2008 and acquired about 100 followers by mentioning it in our weekly email newsletter but never on the programme. Until last Tuesday, when we ran an item about Twitter on the show, looking at how businesses are using it to make money (one of our guests, a wine merchant, runs virtual wine tastings, in which Twitter folk post their tasting notes on the site after simultaneously sipping wherever they are). We also mentioned our own Twitter address - twitter.com/workinglunch - and the inbox instantly went mad with subscribers.

Fake Account

Hundreds of people signed up to follow us, started sending us replies and direct messages - and then a problem arose. Someone set up a fake Working Lunch account. After an hour (and a couple of very stern Direct Messages from me) the imposters owned up and deactivated their account.

The Twitter crowd was up in arms about the deceit. 'Why on earth would you want to pretend to be a TV programme?' asked one indignantly. Well quite, I thought... but the lesson I learned was about branding. I had registered 'workinglunch' but hadn't thought to register BBCworkinglunch. I was lucky - the fake Working Lunch didn't say anything editorially compromising - they were mainly re-tweeting the official updates. But don't make the same mistake.

Building Relationships

Overall so far, the experience has paid off though - it's brought us into immediate contact with a whole new section of the audience who probably wouldn't think to send us an email. We now refer to Twitter regularly on the programme and reference Twitter responses to topical finance issues as well as the traditional emailed opinions from viewers.

It's becoming a very useful tool for programme support - but the time consuming process of relationship-building online is essential to its success.

Interaction really is the golden rule. 'Follow users, be a good citizen, don't just broadcast,' concludes Jem Stone (@jemstone). 'Don't just use it for feeds for an event and then vanish. Twitter is for life, not just for Christmas.'

Zoe Kleinman is a Website Broadcast Journalist on Working Lunch. Follow Working Lunch updates on Twitter here.

You can also follow the BBC Internet Blog on Twitter here.



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