Twitter: is it still optional in communications?

You seem to like Twitter a lot. Should it be part of our communications strategy?

It was a question posed to me during a recent job interview. Many of my friends should be surprised to hear I responded ‘not really.’

The company for which I was interviewing is based in a smaller city, one where social media — at least Twitter — hasn’t really taken off as a business communication tool.

Sure, I said, the competition is using it and that means we should be listening and posting when necessary. Twitter should be a bit player in the overall strategy, I said, but our key communications tools should be traditional media.

It made sense at the time.

I know Twitter can be somewhat intimidating to the uninitiated, a foolish waste of time to others.

I was introduced to it in 2008, taught by the great Joe Thornley, CEO of Thornley Fallis in Toronto, on how to use it for media relations, community relations and business promotion.

I started the Bow Valley College account but our reach — and our students’ access to technology — was limited at the time. Calgary was still in its early stages for using social media for public, community and media relations.

Since then, three major events have occurred to underscore for me Twitter’s use as a communications channel.

1. YYC4Haiti: Camilla Di Giuseppe, Alex Ruiz and I led a group of volunteers to organize a charity event following the devastating Haiti earthquakes. We used only Twitter, Facebook and a website to spread the word. We brought 1,500 people into Flames Central for a night of fun and entertainment and raised $70,000 for the Canadian Red Cross earthquake relief fund.

2. Calgary Civic Election 2010: Naheed Nenshi brought thousands of voters to Twitter by engaging with them, posting regular updates and responding to questions. He mobilized the youth vote in Calgary and stormed to victory in the mayoral race. He has become regarded as one of the most engaged politicians in Canada.

3. #YYCFlood: Calgary is still recovering from the swell of the Bow River just two weeks. The state of emergency was only lifted this morning, while communities within the city and surrounding areas have been devastated. Possessions and memories are lost, many homes destroyed. Mayor Nenshi and the City of Calgary were tireless in their efforts to keep everyone updated every single step of the way.

Centre Street bridge in Calgary

The Calgary Police account reached its daily limit (1,000) in quick order and its mastermind, Jeremy Shaw, was forced to use his personal account, while many beseeched the Twitter gods to verify the account and remove its tweet limitations. The limitation demonstrates one of Twitter’s few drawback during a crisis situation, but its usefulness cannot be downplayed.

“Twitter has become really important for crisis communications,” Simon Fraser University communication professor Peter Chow-White told the Vancouver Sun.

Journalists — with special kudos to my friends Dave Dormer of the Calgary Sun, Darren Krause of Metro Calgary and CTV’s Di Giuseppe — worked around the clock to bring people news updates and pictures of the devastation.

The #YYCFlood hashtag was flooded — ugh, no pun intended — with more from the regular Joes … people who were evacuated from their homes, many who were already organizing volunteer cleanup efforts, and others — like me — who could only watch helplessly as the city they love was pummeled by Mother Nature.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi talks to a crowd

Beyond the news media that did a tremendous job covering the event, no matter what publishing form, Twitter was a vital communication tool.

And I’d like to change my answer to the interview question.

It now should go something like this:

“Yes. We absolutely should have Twitter as an integral cog to our communications strategy. It is important to build our following, listen to our audience’s concerns and earn their trust as a respected leader in our industry. Beyond the need to keep our interested and engaged community members updated on a regular basis, Twitter becomes an incredible tool for communication in times of disaster or crisis. Our followers will need someone to look to for important information and advice on what steps to take, and we should be that voice.”

(All photos courtesy of Camilla Di Giuseppe.)

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