Twitter at work: The good, the bad

17:00, Jun 25 2010
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NETWORKING: As more Kiwis latch on to the microblogging trend, employers and staff are grappling with the risks and potential of TwitterWork.

As more Kiwis latch on to the microblogging trend, employers and staff are grappling with the risks and potential of TwitterWork.


It's marginally more discreet than the open-plan-office phone call to the boyfriend. But look around your workplace and it's a fair bet there'll be at least one screen pasted with trademark Twitter blue.

It doesn't take much investigation to realise a good portion of the incessant chorus of New Zealand's daytime tweets are chirupping from workplace computers.

Which means staff are probably also using work time to trawl thousands of 140-character messages for anything of interest.

It's a fact that hasn't escaped the notice of Employers and Manufacturers' Association head Alasdair Thompson, who sporadically tweets about employment matters, and checks the site about once a day to follow his contacts' comments.

"Most of the people following me are business organisations, but there are one or two individuals. One, I quite enjoy reading her tweets, but it's pretty obvious that they are not business tweets and she's doing them throughout the day. It's obvious that she also works.

"She could be tweeting from a personal cellphone, but it's still on work time."

Trade Me used to be employers' biggest concern in terms of staff time-wasting, Mr Thompson says.

The Dominion Post revealed in 2006 that Government workers spent at least 35,000 hours a year on the auction website.

New figures show public servants spend more than twice as long logged in to Twitter. However, it's not known how much of that is for legitimate work, including maintaining the official Twitter accounts run by five Government agencies.

Despite most departments now having clear internet policies, staff continue to be caught out. In the year to April, 14 public servants were disciplined for excessive or inappropriate internet use. That included six police, one of whom resigned.

One Education Ministry worker also resigned -  one of two warned for viewing objectionable material. Another two Education staffers were disciplined for excessive internet use.

A Conservation Department staff member was also told off for deleting anti-1080 information from Wikipedia while at work.

Opinions are divided on the value of social media at work. A study last July, by global technology research company Nucleus Research, estimated Facebook reduced work output by 1.5 per cent.


Of the 237 office workers surveyed, 77 per cent had a Facebook profile, and two thirds used it during office hours, for up to two hours a day.

But Melbourne University research found workers who periodically surfed the internet for fun were more productive.

Companies are also split in their attitudes. Many large corporates like law and accounting firms block time-sucking websites such as Trade Me, Facebook and Twitter.

The Social Development, Justice, Corrections, Fisheries, Defence and Maori Affairs ministries also limit access.

But others see social media as a good way of tuning in to public opinion, without commissioning expensive surveys or focus groups.

Westpac Bank is formulating a "how to" social media policy and encourages its staff to use the technology to network.

Telecom is also happy for its staff to tweet, within reason, says spokeswoman Julia Bell.

"We need to be in touch with New Zealanders wherever they are. If people are talking about us on Facebook and Twitter it makes sense to be able to watch or join that conversation."

One company boss spoken to by The Dominion Post, whose staff use social media for both personal and work purposes believes companies should not be afraid of Twitter. But the pitfalls are greater for staff.

She follows all her staff on Twitter, partly to ensure they don't say anything inappropriate. And most companies are on the alert for any mention in tweets, by staff or otherwise.

"I still think a lot of people have not got their head around the fact that once it is out there you lose control of it. Anyone can see it. You can't take it back."

While you're unlikely to be sacked for a rogue comment to an individual at a cocktail party, the viral and permanent nature of social media makes it much more dangerous.

In one of New Zealand's first court cases involving social media, ambulance worker Alana Adams last week challenged her sacking over out-of-work comments she made on Facebook.

Employment law expert Peter Cullen says the rules are clear: staff can be reprimanded for their actions outside work, if it reflects badly on their employer.

He believes it's inevitable that people waste more time at work than they used to, tweeting and updating their Facebook profiles.

"People get addicted to these things. The time spent on it is phenomenal."

Though there have been few employment court cases involving social media, excessive internet use is often raised in disciplinary processes.

"You are basically stealing. Your employer is paying for your time and you're using it for something unrelated."


It can't be often that a public servant gets to be cheeky and randy in public, and keep his job. Just look at Shane Jones.

Fortunately, Sam O'Leary has the sanction of his employer. The Conservation Department web team member is the face behind DoC's Twitter spokesbird, modelled on Sirocco the randy kakapo made famous by the YouTube video of his attempts to mate with zoologist Mark Carwardine (

The hilarious outtake has been viewed by almost 2 million people worldwide, and DoC decided to capitalise on the rare parrot's popularity by giving him his own website and Twitter moniker.

A musician and photographer in his spare time, O'Leary already used social media to share his creative exploits.

He's been using Twitter for about two years, but for most of that he was listening in, rather than disseminating his own views.

That changed when he became the skraarking voice of Sirocco, "bringing news of my kind to the world".

"It's always in character as much as possible. The bird is cheeky and randy and looked after by DoC. I keep it in that vein."

His four to five tweets a day range from expressing moral support for his oil-coated cuzzies in the Gulf of Mexico, to lambasting kereru killers, to suggesting works by SAVE (Society of Avian Vocal Entertainers, aka the dawn chorus) as an alternative national anthem.

That tweet, with a link to a bird call symphony, attracted so much feedback from homesick expats wanting to use it as a ring tone, O'Leary had to add downloadable tracks.

Good marketing: undoubtedly. The best use of conservation time: debatable.

Though he estimates the time taken researching, tweeting, co-ordinating the blog and replying to feedback equates to about one fifth of a full time job, he believes it's worthwhile for getting DoC's message out to a different audience.

The kind who are interested in conservation or nature but don't want to trawl through turgid Statements of Intent.

Of Spokesbird's 2677 followers, 32 per cent are from New Zealand, 26 per cent are from Britain and 20 per cent are from the US.

Distance, and its accompanying cultural differences, can complicate matters, as O'Leary found out when he tweeted his congratulations to Otago's annual Easter Bunny Hunt, which felled 23,064 of the rampant pests.

The tweet provoked venom-spitting from his nature-loving followers.

"Oh Geez. I had to explain to these people that it's a bit different over here. We don't have native mammals. These things really wreak havoc."

DoC is one of five Government departments that have set up official Twitter accounts to push their message.

The Health Ministry set up an account to provide instant swine flu updates.

The Economic Development Ministry has four Twitter monikers, which take one staff member and $2000 a year to maintain.

Both Creative New Zealand and Corrections investigated setting up Twitter accounts, but concluded it would take too much staff time without any clear benefit.

Private organisations nationwide have been quicker to embrace the technology, to talk to potential or existing customers.

Telecom assembled a techie geek team around two years ago to answer questions on Facebook and Twitter.

The Air New Zealand Airpoints Fairy's magic wand has liberally sprinkled feelgood vibes over her 4378 followers since her birth last September.

A good example of the potential benefits of companies following what's said about them on social media, she took flight after an aspiring traveller randomly tweeted "wondering where the Airpoints Fairy lives...I could do with a few thousand right now".

Bus card company Snapper recently followed, with its Wish Fish Twitter account granting small wishes.

The biggest problem for organisations and businesses is knowing whether it's worth investing time and effort in updating a Twitter profiile.

Employers and Manufacturers' Association chief executive Alasdair Thompson has a twitter account which he uses to point to relevant news items or comment on employment matters.

The EMA also runs seminars advising businesses how to use social media to market themselves. But he admits that he has no idea how many of his 152 followers hang off his every word. The only response he gets from his tweets is an occasional call from a journalist picking up on a twitter comment.

"Some of these things will come and go. There will be new forms of social media in future. A lot hold out more promise than actual benefit.

"Often there's a lot of hype suggesting it is going to be a silver bullet for all your marketing needs. It's not."

Te Papa collections information manager Adrian Kingston also has little idea how many of his 1244 followers track his every tweet.

Many of those listening to his conversations are similar institutions overseas.

Some are culture vultures tuned in to all the New Zealand arts organisations signed up to Twitter, and others are simply Wellingtonians interested in city happenings.

Kingston spends about an hour a week selecting quirky images or objects from the museum's online collection, to promote through Twitter.

They can be entirely random, like a cannon from Captain Cook's Endeavour, or carefully-selected, like Brian Brake's 1965 photograph of children playing soccer next to Roman ruins in Algeria, timed to coincide with the start of the Football World Cup.

Or even a dusty 1880 medicine chest, touted as a panacea for winter sniffles.

The account is a good way to build relationships with other institutions, both in New Zealand and overseas, Kingston says.

He joins Australian museums and galleries in "collection fishing"  looking for items fitting a nominated weekly theme.

Though it takes time to monitor and reply to comments, that's simplified by filtering application TweetDeck.

And every institution has a social media success story, where a member of the public has provided information about an item they knew little about.

Te Papa's include a French postcard translated by a helpful follower, and an unidentified photograph of Dadaists, which a twitterer was able to fully identify, with relevant references as proof.

The Dominion Post