By now, just about anyone who's likely to be reading a PR blog is aware of what Twitter is, and (in general terms, at least) how it's used.
In a nutshell: it's an online platform that enables the sharing of short thoughts, information and links among people around the world. On Twitter, you "follow" people to receive the messages they send out (called "tweets"), and your "followers" opt in to receive yours.
Twitter can be a hugely effective tool for PR, because it gives us the opportunity to engage with people who share interests; for more on that, please read this post from this blog, last year.
If you're using Twitter as just another way to connect with friends and colleagues, or as a way of gathering information, or as a way of providing information in case someone comes looking for it, this post isn't about you (Twitter is a great way to do all of those things). But if you intend to use Twitter as part of a strategic social media plan aimed at enhancing your relationships with your (or your employer's, or your client's) audiences, you might want to consider the points below.
New-fangled communication tools are still about people
Here's the thing. Online media like Twitter give us the opportunity to reach audiences well beyond the bounds of geography and even mass media markets. But people aren't just sitting around waiting with bated breath for our next pronouncement (well, not for most of us, at least).
Common sense (offline and online) would dictate that:
If we want people to listen to what we have to say, we have to say something worth listening to; that is, provide something our audiences will value.
If we want people to want to listen to us, we have to respect their time.
If we want to build relationships, we have to listen at least as much as we talk.
I've recently un-followed a number of Twitter users I'd been following because their tweets have, quite frankly, annoyed me for having ignored one or all of these basic truths about how people relate to one another. It's not that we shouldn't ever tweet personal thoughts or ideas - we absolutely should. But we have to remember we're interacting with other individual human beings using online media - human beings who have tastes, preferences, and demands on their time, and are going to want to see some benefit from having engaged in the conversation.
The examples I'm providing below come from my own observations of Twitter accounts belonging to people or organizations who could and should be using Twitter to build/enhance really valuable relationships, but are missing the mark.
What Twitter isn't
1. Twitter isn't a soapbox and a megaphone... or a fax machine.
Twitter is about engagement. It's said so often now that it's become cliche -- but it's true. Unless you are someone with Very Important Pronouncements to make (and even then, really), you are not going to get the maximum benefit from a Twitter presence if all you do is talk about yourself.
Good PR, regardless of the shiny new medium, will always be about relationship-building, not just about talking about yourself. So a politician is smart to set up a Twitter account for an election campaign, but should use it to listen to voters and have exchanges and conversations about the issues that matter to them. If the account sends out tweets but doesn't follow anyone, the message is "I am going to say what I have to say, but I'm not interested in listening to you." Not great PR.
2. Twitter isn't the online equivalent of ribbon-cutting events.
I follow a number of politicians whose tweets are largely "Am in beautiful Komarno, Manitoba enjoying delicious perogies!," and "Am in beautiful Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, enjoying delicious lobster rolls!" with the occasional "My opponent is a bad Canadian" message thrown in. Twitter users (that is, "people") are generally intelligent enough not to confuse name-dropping with actual engagement.
3. Twitter isn't a means to spew marketing messages for your clients, disguised as independent thoughts or opinions.
This is one I've noticed among fellow PR folks. I'm not at all saying that PR, advertising and marketing professionals shouldn't use Twitter to share messages about their clients -- but that shouldn't be all they offer, unless that's the understood purpose of the account. If your account is "@MLLdeals" and all your tweets are advertising for MLL products, that's fine. People can choose to follow the account because they want MLL ads.
But if you're in the PR business, you don't want your Twitter feed to become the online equivalent of an ad flyer for your various clients; people will simply choose not to read it. Again, it's always about what your audience wants. MLL's audience wants MLL's deals; but your audience wants insights from and interaction with you.
4. Twitter isn't a collector of people who have nothing better to do than to read your every thought.
The people who follow you on Twitter have chosen to do so because they think they will learn something, or be entertained, or receive information they want by doing so. They are also likely to want to know about you as a person, not just a "source," so by all means share (appropriate) information about yourself. But don't over-share, either in terms of content (i.e. information that is too personal) or in terms of volume (i.e. too many tweets).
I recently un-followed a community leader who published 17 separate tweets in under 24 hours on the same topic (hyping a product he was really pleased with). I don't know whether he works for the company behind the product or not, but it was just too much. He may tweet things I'd like to hear tomorrow, but I won't read them. I'm fickle, I know... but so may your audiences be. So tweet wisely.
So, how should we use Twitter to build relationships?
The same way we build relationships in real life: listen, and talk, and listen. Respond. Share things of value, and respect others' time.
On Twitter, as it is in so many other facets of life -- and as it will be on the "next big thing" to come along in social media -- good PR comes down to treating people the way they want to be treated.