What Every Labor Leader Should Know About Twitter

That said, you’re probably still curious to know more about Twitter. The service has had tons of buzz over the last couple of years and the whole Twitter phenomena shows no sign of abating. So you have to figure it’s good for something, right? There’s a good chance you visited Twitter and maybe you even signed up for an account to see what it was all about. And most likely that’s probably about as far as you got because, on the face of it, Twitter seems to be almost worthless as a communication tool.

And to a large extent, you’re right. Because the truth is that Twitter is not an efficient way of getting your message heard, at least at first. Although your Twitter messages, or “tweets,” will be visible on a public web page, they are unlikely to be seen by anyone there. Instead, your tweets will probably only be seen only by those who actively follow your account. We call these individuals your “followers.” It can take weeks, months, even years before you build up any significant number of followers. But even after you have a large following, there’s a good chance your Twitter dispatches will fall on deaf ears. The dirty secret of Twitter is that you’ll likely to be read only by a small minority of your audience. If you have 500 followers, you’re lucky if one of your tweets reaches 50 of them. If you’ve got something important to share, you’ll reach a much wider audience by getting a letter to the editor published in your local newspaper (and even if your letter doesn’t get published, at least someone in the mail room probably read the damn thing).

So, what good is Twitter to your union and to you as a union leader and why should you invest time learning more about it?

The first important thing to understand about Twitter is that it’s a better tool for networking than it is for messaging. In other words, Twitter is excellent for building relationships with people but not terribly efficient for disseminating information to a broad audience. Think of Twitter like a cocktail party. You don’t go to a cocktail party with a megaphone and start whooping up the crowd with strike line chants. Instead, you go there to mingle with a handful of people to exchange interesting stories or private bits of gossip, and spread your own influence. Twitter is used in much the same way. It doesn’t really matter that not everyone at the cocktail party hears every word you utter. If you get an opportunity to create good vibes and bend the ear of a journalist, a politician, one of your union members, or a peer, that’s huge.

Twitter is also a great way to simply “be seen.” Imagine if you suddenly stopped going to your labor council meetings, to political rallies, and other functions in your community. People will wonder if your union is still relevant and they’ll start questioning the strength of your organization. Becoming a recluse may be a cool PR stunt for artists, but it’s a deadly strategy for your labor union. Even if no one reads a single one of your tweets, merely having an account signals that your union is ready and willing to engage with the community around you. Of course, you have to make sure people know you have a Twitter account. One good way to accomplish this is to place a link to your Twitter page on your local’s website or by embedding your Twitter messages into your website and have them automatically update.

Another way Twitter can help your union out is by building its mind share. In the good old days (about ten years ago), we had a much simpler media environment. Sure the Internet existed, but it wasn’t nearly as large or as ubiquitous as it is today. And back then, unions had a distinct advantage because they had the resources to print and distribute flyers or send out mailings and advertise while other organizations couldn’t. But now we live in a much, much noisier communication environment and there are tons of tools for individuals and organizations to promote their message on a very low budget. Twitter is a cheap way to help you break through that noise, at least to those who follow you. Your tweets, along with your union’s logo attached to them, are like mini-advertisements that remind your members and the community that your union is there, even if they don’t read every one of your tweets.

The real power of Twitter won't be unleashed until you get a large number of followers. That's when Twitter can be much more useful as a messaging system. When you have a large following, your tweets, if considered significant by others, are much more likely to go viral and be retweeted to their followers, who in turn will retweet to their followers, and so on. Of course, not all of your messages are going to go viral like this. It has to be of enough importance to others that they will retweet it. But if your message does go viral, your message will travel very quickly to hundreds, or even thousands of other Twitter users. From there, people will start posting your story on their blogs, Facebook accounts, email and other communiation channels. When this happens, you have harnessed the full potential of Twitter as a communication tool.

The last thing you should know about Twitter is that the very small investment in time needed to set up and maintain a Twitter account is worth the effort. Tweets are short and can be as simple as a link to an interesting news story you want to promote. And you can tweet right from you cell phone when you have a spare moment. If you tweet some interesting stuff that gets passed around by your followers, you will gradually amass a fairly substantial following. Just be persistent about updating it, and the service will pay off for you with time. There are also ways to automatically update your Twitter account from your Facebook page or you website. But beware of doing that. Like anything, you get out of Twitter only what you put into it. If you treat Twitter as an afterthought instead of an integral part of your union’s overall communication strategy, don’t expect Twitter to do much for you. And be careful to not totally neglect your Twitter account, otherwise it will just become an embarrassment.

I’d like to hear your thoughts and questions about using Twitter. Let me know!