Two years is a long time in the digital world. So when I came to work in the Department of Health (DH) digital team after a career break of 2 years, I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. Twitter for instance. I’d never used it professionally and certainly not for ‘digital policy engagement’, which was also a new concept.
It’s hard to understand twitter if you don’t use it and some months down the line I still find myself trying to explain – not terribly successfully – what it is and why it’s now so vital to my work. I think plenty of people still think twitter is all about celebrity gossip and pictures of cats and I suppose it is for many. But now I realise that twitter is different for every person, depending on what conversations they are tapped into.
I set up an account @AnnaHepburnDH to represent me in my work role, making a conscious decision not to include my views on Strictly Come Dancing or cakes that I’ve baked. This is an official account, one of the 3 types of account described in the Department’s twitter guidance. So it’s me – not the whole me – but still me, a real person.
The @DHgovuk twitter account has more than 47,000 followers and it provides a very effective way of highlighting DH stories and driving traffic to our sites. But when it comes to getting to know an online community, showing interest, enthusiasm and empathy, you need to be a real person.
The dementia world on twitter is rich with emotion. Sometimes there is the anger and frustration you might expect from people living, caring and working with dementia. But the most dominant feelings are of positivity, compassion and support. As Gill Phillips wrote in her recent blog ‘Changing the world of dementia – one tweet at a time’ the #dementiachallengers, as they call themselves, are like a “large extended family... following each other’s ups and downs with real care and compassion”. Back at the beginning of the year, I never would have anticipated what a strong and passionate twitter community there is around dementia, or how much I would learn from the people who make it.
As a real person, I can chat with one #dementiachallenger or a small group. I can make suggestions. They can ask me questions. And their questions make me think and give me ideas about how DH can get better and better at digital engagement.
Some managers feel uneasy about the idea of their staff being on twitter as themselves, writing tweets on the hoof that haven’t been cleared by several people. It’s good to work for people at DH who trust staff not to be stupid and who realise the enormous benefits to be had from being a real person. Being me on twitter has allowed me to engage with people that I probably wouldn’t have connected with in any other way.