Or as I call it, Tweeting a meeting with limited seating.
The title for this is probably a bit misleading. I chose it because it’s probably what people will search for, but hopefully, if you’ve found this what you’re trying to do is make your company information, plans and decisions more accessible for those online. This is just one way to approach it.
OK, here’s the boring bit: some background for anyone who wants to compare organisations. I work as a Communication and Marketing Officer (fomerly Resident Involvement Officer) for Derby Homes Ltd. We’re an Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO), managing Derby City Council’s housing stock of around 13,500 properties. We’ve been around for ten years and have just been given a contract for ten more.
We went live with social media a year ago and are happily taking the slow and steady approach to building up our networks and making sure we have the right structures in place.
Before I started doing the live Twitter coverage, I looked around for existing good practice on the internet, but what I found was mostly about residents covering Local Authority meetings and not much about doing it from inside the organisation.
I decided to just do it anyway and learn from it.
Why are we doing this?
Right, lets get this straight. We’re not just doing this for the sake of it. I attend a lot of meetings and get frustrated that some crucial stuff gets discussed and decisions take place that potentially affect thousands of people. Normally, only a handful of people attend and key messages can be hard to find when the only point of entry for a resident is a formal board report or some minutes that are tucked away on a micro site somewhere.
I knew we could do better.
Co-regulation for the nation
If you’re aware of the current regulation for social housing, you’ll know that it’s all about co-regulation: self-regulation of your services by working with your tenants. This requires openness, transparency and more importantly, your tenants actually need to know about your organisation and how it works to even be able to begin to help regulate it.
All of that starts with better access.
Opening up your organisation’s information to popular social media channels makes it easier for people to know what’s going on. We use a Committee Meeting Information System (CMIS) site, separate from our main site. It’s a bit formal, but contains important stuff like board member attendance, dates of meetings, agenda’s, minutes and all relevant reports.
Tweeting or updating Facebook with this information (if done correctly) can show people were to find stuff, what’s in the reports, what they mean, why decisions are made and who’s made them. Even if your audience is tiny, or your broadcasting to no-one (which I reckon I was for the first few), you’re preparing for the future. You’re making sure that as soon as someone does tune in or starts looking back through your profile, that something is there. It show’s you’re catering for their needs (hopefully) and that you’ve made it easier for them to get involved or challenge what’s going on.
It’s useful for staff too. I remember doing one session and then later on finding out our Chief Executive had been following the stream whilst on annual leave.
What we do
We tweet our “City Board”. It’s a sub-committee of our main board, made up of board members and a high number of tenant representatives from around the city. This meeting normally gets all the meaty reports that have a direct, tangible impact of local services and issues that are important to most tenants.
Hardware and software
This is of course a personal choice. You may already have applications you’re comfortable with. Here’s what we use:
Firefox (We requested access to this. It gives us more flexibility, compared to Internet Explorer, which is the default company browser)
Tweetdeck (It gives us lots of options, automatic link shortening and alerts us to any interactions and live searches)
Personal iPhone 3GS/4 (We carry these anyway, so have the work account logged in ready. They’re useful for tweeting images or moving around the meeting beforehand)
A camera (can be a bit fiddly uploading images live, but people love pictures, so use one!)
Getting permission and support
This is even more crucial than having the right software and will vary for different organisations depending on their ICT policies, procedures and systems. We went for a gentle, nagging approach which has left us with a good level of access to what we need and the trust that we won’t abuse our privileges in any way. You need to make sure everything is going to work on the night or everything you’ve done will have been for nothing.
Our company uses software called Websense to control internet access. We had to be given rights to certain “categories”, such as social media, blogging, forums, etc. It’s important here that you make sure your IT department know exactly why, how and when you’ll be doing what you’ll be doing. We learned this by being cut off one night when a meeting went on past 8pm. IT had assumed we’d only be facebooking and tweeting within the confines of a normal working day and had actually only given us an access window of between 7am and 8pm! This has now been rectified, but you get the point. Be very thorough and specific when speaking to anyone about your needs.
If you request access to any special software, most of which is free, you’ll need to speak about how this will be maintained. Software needs updating and this will normally come under some kind of support contract. Anything you add may not be included in that contract. It’ll work, but it’s best to get advice to make sure whatever you’re using doesn’t suddenly become outdated.
Let the people in the meeting know
It’s also good to discuss it with key people, such as the chair and vice chair and key members of staff. Everyone will need to be aware of what you’re doing and why. Get someone to make an announcement and get people comfortable with it. Some people may be a bit wary. Don’t forget, you’re making a public meeting more public than it’s ever been before. That can be a bit scary.
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Before we did it for real, I sat through a meeting and did a series of test tweets just on a Word document. I judged 140 characters to be about a line and a half, and documented what I thought would work. I then emailed this to our senior management team and the board to demonstrate what sort of things we’d be publishing.
Now, our current set-up means we use the main computer attached to a projector in the meeting room. Everyone can see it. This puts our tweets centre stage, which is a bit scary, but actually is a good way of showing what we’re publishing in all it’s glory.
Facebook, Twitter or both?
I think you’re essentially speaking to two different audiences here. Twitter users may well be used to a constant stream of updates and if they’re big followers, they’ve probably adapted to be able to cope with fast moving streams and can tune in and out without too much bother.
Facebook users, in my opinion, could well be turned off if you start spamming their news feed with lots of updates. Especially in an evening, when all they really want to see is what their friends are doing. You could risk being hidden, or worse still, Unliked. Either way, you’ll have lost them and it’s unlikely they’ll ever search for you again to re-like or unhide you. Doh!
What we do is announce the session on both channels, but keep the live stuff to Twitter. I’ve not done it yet, but I plan to do a mini Facebook summary the next day, which will cover the main items and key decisions.
Here, you’ll need someone with skill, prior knowledge of the meeting, the organisaton, agenda, people and procedures. It really helps if you’ve read all the reports and understand them fully. What are the issues? What are the key decisions that will take place? How will this affect people? Who will it affect? Do the decisions affect everyone or a specific group or local area?
You also need to be mentally prepared. This isn’t minute taking. It’s fast, intense and a lot of pressure! I’ve had some tweets where I’m literally hovering over the send button, waiting for the final vote.
What to tweet and how to tweet it
Obviously, we probably all know how to tweet, but how can you maximise the content of your tweets in such a short space of time and in what can be a very fast paced environment?
I have thought about using pre-prepared tweets: ready made updates that already contain the right links, titles of reports and any relevant information for a particular audiences. In practice, I have never found the time to do this, but you could consider it.
I like to be human too. Admit your errors and other peoples. Add humour, talk about people and if you can take photos, show the people at the meeting.
Come on, what do you actually tweet?
OK, rather than talking about what we might typically do, I’ll go through some actual tweets and explain our approach. So here’s a run down of a typical meeting.
It all starts when we get an email from Governance. We realised that it was public information, so:
We also add in direct links to the reports, although we’re conscious that we are talking to a completely new audience, who may be turned off by the full report. It’s more about being open at this stage.
The trick is to summarise the report’s key points in 140 characters. Note also that we try to include relevant or established hashtags to make sure we reach key audiences who may not be following us, but who may have a feed for #derbyuk or #ukhousing, for example.
A9 proposes to defer capital improvement works for tenants in rent arrears who have no agreement to reduce the arrears. #cityboard
Doing this has been a good experience. It’s also given us more ideas. With mobile access you can do this anywhere, although maybe not as richly detailed. I recently used a mobile device to cover a board tour of key projects around the city.
What I’ve found is that there’s a lot of good information sitting on our site, in reports and other places. The trick is to bring that to the forefront in a way that makes access to it as easy as possible.
In my ideal world, every document would be designed for the customer or in a way that would help another member of staff pass accurate information on to a customer.
If you build it, they will come
Is anyone listening? Well maybe, maybe not. The thing is, if we don’t do this, noone will ever be able to. Yes, you may well do a fair amount of sessions wondering what the point of it all is, but you’d be surprised at how small the gap is from having no attention to lots of attention. When that happens, you’ll realise it’s definitely worth it.
At one of our meetings, we needed to boost the sound of the attendees. We already had a modest sound set-up (see picture at the top of this post) for live sound reinforcement and possible audio recording. If we were mixing the sound for the meeting, it was no real issue to just take a output from the mixer and record it (using the free software Audacity).
I wanted to show what was possible, so I used my personal laptop (an old MacBook white) running GarageBand (free, built-in software) and found that it was really easy to create a Podcast of the meeting with chapters for each report or section.
It still needs some work and is a bit formal, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t go further and create a custom podcast summarising decisions with customer friendly tone and content?
So there you go. It was a bit of a detailed post, but it may give you a few ideas or set you off thinking about how you could do something. If anyone else has tried this, It’d be good to hear how you approach it.