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Tweeting about work? get it right

PC Hanif Sanghar was so pleased to have been involved in an operation to catch two vicious attackers that he tweeted he had “arrested the offenders”, even though the suspects had yet to stand trial. The tweet was deleted and he was reprimanded.

mumbai Updated: Jun 10, 2012 00:49 IST

PC Hanif Sanghar was so pleased to have been involved in an operation to catch two vicious attackers that he tweeted he had “arrested the offenders”, even though the suspects had yet to stand trial. The tweet was deleted and he was reprimanded.

Doctors and nurses at a hospital in Swindon were suspended after posting pictures of themselves lying face down on resuscitation trolleys, ward floors and on the Wiltshire air ambulance helipad on Facebook as part of an internet craze called “the lying down game”.

And in America teacher Ashley Payne lost her job after a parent spotted a Facebook picture of her with a glass of wine in one hand and a beer in the other.

Reading these stories could give you the impression that there are certain careers where using social media is a recipe for disaster. But while much has been made of the benefits of tools such as Twitter and Facebook to the corporate world, there are advantages to using them in other more sensitive jobs. Those who are doing so say the rewards outweigh the risks — but you have to take careful steps to get it right.

The tweeting teacher

Science teacher Rob Butler began tweeting as @cleverfiend about three years ago and has since built up a band of more than 800 followers. He also blogs, at fiendishlyclever.com, and has a Facebook page. “I’m an advanced skills teacher and do outreach across the county, so I see Twitter and my blog as an outlet to share what I think is good practice,” he says.

Butler tweets links to resources he has posted on his site, questions on how to approach issues, thoughts on new developments and links to stories he thinks will interest his followers, predominantly fellow teachers. And he occasionally chats about what he is watching on television.

“I think of my Twitter feed as being semi-professional,” he says. But he is always mindful that parents and students might be watching. “You have to bear in mind that anything you say is public. You wouldn't refer to an identifiable group of pupils; you wouldn’t swear. It’s your public persona.”

Butler spends about two hours a week using social media tools, with some of that dedicated to a weekly conversation under the hashtag #ASE where science teachers discuss ideas for teaching approaches. He has gained insights into how to work, used his website and tweeting as part of his ongoing appraisals, and has landed a publishing deal through them.

He was encouraged by the school’s headteacher to use social media and has been given guidelines from the local education authority on how to do so. Amanda Brown, assistant secretary employment conditions and rights at the The National Union of Teachers, says: “What we advise is that the same distinction between your professional and personal life that has always applied should apply to social media. You do not go out of your way to befriend parents or pupils, and if you do so for any reason you make sure that your school management is aware.”

Tweet on the beat

For the police, social media is a great tool for speaking to the wider public. Ed Rogerson, a police constable with North Yorkshire police who has been tweeting under his call sign @hotelalpha9 since late 2009, took to Twitter because he “wanted to be able to quickly and easily communicate with residents on my beat and be able to reassure them that I was working to deal with the issues that concern them”.

He now has 4,000 followers from around the world, but says: “I always feel really happy when a local person follows me — they’re my target audience and it’s for them that I tweet.”

Rogerson started out using Facebook and YouTube, posting pictures and videos of graffiti and appealing for help from the public. “Just a few days after posting the images, I received a message naming one of the offenders and giving his address. I arrested him and he admitted to doing the graffiti,” he says. The culprit received a conditional caution.

Following that success, Rogerson made further videos, most of them offering advice on how to avoid falling victim to crime. “The crime prevention videos I post usually get more views than the number of people I could possibly speak to in person or deliver letters to,” he says. “I think social media has a valuable place in communicating with the public.”

As well as tweeting about his beat, Rogerson tweets links to pictures of crime suspects posted on the force's website, reaching people who would not normally be looking there, and, if a crime is very serious, appeals for help. He never tweets about his personal life or what he had for dinner. He says “self control and common sense” stop Twitter becoming more of a distraction than a help.

Rogerson got permission from his force’s legal department and professional standards department before he used any social media for his job, and follows guidelines about what employees should and should not post online.

Social media medics Anne Marie Cunningham, a GP and clinical lecturer at Cardiff University, uses a wide range of social media tools but is very careful not to cross the line. “I don't say if I am in the practice, and I don't mention any patients,” she says.

She once wrote a blog post about how she reached a decision with a patient about whether to take a particular drug. “There was nothing in the post that would identify the patient but they might have recognised themselves, so I asked for their permission to share the story.”

Cunningham started using social networking tools in 2008 to try to connect with other people working in medical education. Through her Twitter feed @amcunningham she tweets about medical advances, medical education, and links to articles. “I like my privacy, so I rarely say much about my personal life,” she says.

How to get started

If you do want to start to use Twitter or Facebook professionally, you should first speak to your employer. Most organisations now have social media policies that you should follow.

Unless you are manning your organisation’s Twitter stream or Facebook page, make it clear on your profile that you are tweeting in a personal capacity, even if it is all work-related.

Choose your privacy settings wisely. If your Facebook page is designed to be read by the world, let everyone see it, but if it is where you talk to your friends about issues outside the workplace, set the privacy settings to the maximum. On Twitter, you can opt to protect your tweets so that only the people you accept as followers can see them. This will probably limit the number of followers, but give you more power over who can see what you write.

Once you get going, think carefully about what you write — imagine you are standing up in front of a massive room of people. If you’re about to publish something you wouldn't say in front of them, press delete. Even people working in public relations have earned themselves a bad press through an injudicious tweet, so if in doubt don’t do it.

The Guardian