Lead or respond – why Twitter is a must-have for NGO CEOs

Having been in non-government organisation (NGO) management roles now for six-ish years (with a period of speechwriting in between my first and second gigs), a comment I had from a colleague the other day stunned me.

It was a relaxed, note-swapping chat over a coffee; a relatively young NGO head talking with a far more experienced private sector colleague about organisational values and the mechanics of a new leader coming into an organisation.

We were talking about how the organisation which I head was using the opportunities through online engagement, with the support of the Board and interest of the team, to have the organisation become even more collegial and build our strategic relationships. I used Twitter as an example of us beginning the process, as well as the importance of me getting my soles on the pavement and out meeting people – as you do in a new role.

He remarked to me that he’d never seen Twitter, though his (adult) children used it; that he wouldn’t know much about it because it wasn’t part of his work; and anyway, wasn’t it just celebrities talking, well … cr#p?!

It made me think – was it my relative ‘youth’ in terms of management (though I’m hardly a babe in the woods professionally); was online stuff just an interest (after all, I’d never used Twitter until a fellow Charles Sturt University (@charlessturtuni) student did an impromptu master-class for us last September); or was it a case of hey, when you’re coming into a new role, why not use the tools that have worked for you previously?

This is NOT the forum for a discussion on the attitudes of baby-boomer leadership styles or management preferences – I’m sure they’ve been had at different places at different times; and nor am I ageist (I hope!). So, what was my more experienced colleague saying that I didn’t get? What was I saying that he didn’t get?

Perhaps it comes down to style, and preference and a practicality. Yes, I’ll tweet. Yes, I’ll blog – both personally and professionally, though as we go forward at work, the tweeting and blogging will be shared and anchored to a team-approach and set of values we’ll agree on.

Perhaps in leadership / management roles you focus sometimes on your ‘ist’ background, as my father would say – the role you had before you went into management. If that’s the case, then my ‘ist’ is a political / public affairs ‘ist’ (and bless my BA in Australian politics and history! – who’d of thunk it’d come in handy?!) and so my natural preference is to the communications part of the role? (though you can’t ignore all the other equally important parts of an NGO CEO / Executive Director role either!).

Core skills

If NGO leaders / managers are meant to have a core set of skills – including but not limited to HR, finance, Board relationship and public speaking, doesn’t it follow that one of the new skills in the communications part of your leadership/management ‘toolbox’ is an awareness of the potential and challenges faced with engaging online? If, as an NGO leader, you’re expected to be able to speak at functions, write well, be across the finances, run a team and look at the big picture stuff, then it follows you should be able to get a handle on the opportunities Twitter and other online tools provide.

Why? Well, why not?

If you’re new to Twitter (as I was not long ago), maybe think of Twitter being a conglomeration of news, opinion, satire and often (yes…) celebrities. It’s out there – and it’s soooo much information.

But, amidst the initial glazing of eyes, consider isn’t better to know, say for example, when the local TV or radio station is going to be running a story on your sector (or you?!). Or an issue occurs and you want to be able to address it – bit hard if you think hashtags are things Maccas use to track one of their breakfast products.

They use it – and they are the rating leaders

Melbourne’s top-rating 3AW puts it like this on their blog page:

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?


Why? Because even basic updates are meaningful to family members, friends, fans or colleagues – especially when they’re timely. In 3AW’s case, we will keep you up to date with what you need to know from the world of breaking news, sport, entertainment, talkback and humour.


With Twitter, you can stay hyper-connected to 3AW Radio – in addition to the services provided by 3AW.com.au – and always know what we’re doing. Or, you can stop following them any time. You can even set quiet times on Twitter so you’re not interrupted.

Twitter puts you in control and becomes a modern antidote to information overload.

“Twitter puts you in control” – very true! And this from Melbourne’s top-rating radio station. Hardly an ill-informed influencer.

Used creatively, it will save you time

Another reason is that, if used efficiently, Twitter will save you time.

By following those who I use for work, those who I follow for ‘me’ and those sources I use for uni, and by using the iPhone TweetDeck application, first thing in the morning I can, for example (with the source in brackets):

  • Find out what the weather’s going to in Melbourne (or wherever I’ll be) (@ABC News Melbourne)
  • Know if there are any issues traffic wise, or if I’m ‘tramming’ or ‘training’, public transport-wise (@3AW, @ABC Melbourne, @ABC NewsRadio)
  • Learn about the major news headlines by the papers I follow (some much better than others!) – both in Australia and overseas (@The Age, [The]@Australian and Wellington’s @Dominion Post are three Twitter newspaper sources I read daily)
  • Decide which sports stories I want to read later on the in day (@BackPageLead, @The Age, @ABC Grandstand)
  • Flick through some professional reading tweets from the States / Canada and Europe overnight (@douglasi, @Twitter_Tips,@FastThinking) and Twitter-triage (Twitteriage?!) those which I will want to read later.

I do this while I’m waiting for my coffee to kick-start my day and have gotten into the habit of making time at the start, middle and end of my day to read, ‘Favorite-ise’ and use or save tweets. It doesn’t take long – think skim reading and instant decisions – if looks good, Favorite it and your can read it later.

TweetDeck’s notifications means I can monitor, and if necessary respond – and though that is not as applicable to my new role, although it was in my last role- and we were dealing with local, ACT / Canberra focused media – mainly….! As a national NGO / lobbyist / association head, Twitter would be even more important; you would simply follow specific media outlets and politicians and others talking about your organisation or sector; search for keywords to your industry (HootSuite tabs and columns!) and be able to respond.

Issues management means engaging on the media platforms where the issues are

Managing issues in the context the ‘traditional media’ of the dailies, radio news on the hour, ABC current affairs on TV and radio, one’s own state-based commercial talkback station/s and industry specific magazines is gone. By way of an example, yes, in Melbourne, I can be told at 5.00pm or 6.00pm or 7.00pm on Ten, Nine or ABC1 respectively, which footballer’s done a hammy. Or I could follow 3AW, ABC Melbourne, SEN or a bunch of others – and be told about it when it happens with links and commentary. The TV news staple of 1:45 intro, journo, grab, journo, another grab and the journo piece to camera may still exist, for example, but it’s not the only form of news – in fact, by the time you’re seeing the issue on the TV news at night, there’s a good chance that it has moved on – and other people have commented.

Another reason why Twitter is so useful is that it can – if you wish – become your own private news service. For example, many of the ABC current affairs programmes tweet about their stories after they’re loaded on their websites; which you can then click on, listen, watch (or with the transcripts, read!) and then share – to your team, Board, others. Commercial radio station 3AW now has its breakfast and morning presenters tweeting live – @RossAndJohn; @3awNeilMitchell both have interviews online often shortly after they go to air.

Effectively used Twitter will become a defacto media monitor – and if you’ve got staff in your organisation to monitor and advise you as ‘stuff’ happens, and you understand that by being proactive and astute in your consideration of it, you can better manage an issue, you’re well on your way to leading an issue rather than responding to it – and as has been seen, once the hashtags start getting nasty, you are on the backfoot.

In my last role in Canberra, I used Twitter to media monitor – both ABC 666 Canberraand @2CC and its breakfast host, Mark Parton, are frequent tweeters and for a locally-based NGO spokesperson, knowing what’s about to be said means you can decide whether or not you want to tweet something during an interview about your sector; or call the producers and offer to be interviewed. From an issues management / crisis communications perspective, having online access means you’re ahead already (e.g. The Australian doesn’t wait to run its hardcopy articles online at 9.00am – there’re up overnight). (A shout out here to ABC Local Radio’s Nightlife‘s Tony Delroy – What the Papers Say before midnight is very helpful at times….!).

If you can anticipate an issue, then you’re able to better manage it and respond to it – or if you can, minimise the risk to your organisation. That principle hasn’t changed. What has changed is the speed in which news is gathered, disseminated and reported – and now, with Twitter, commented on – by anyone! The fact is these days you need a computer or iPhone or Blackberry with Internet access and away you go – you’re a commentator. Add WordPress to your iPhone and you can blog about it. Download Facebook on your Blackberry and you can join in discussions with others who are miss their favourite Wellington cafes and the joy of the mighty Wellington Lions beating Canterbury in provincial…er…rugby.

This sure ain’t Kansas no more.

A core tenet of effective issues management is being able to communicate – and now, with Twitter, you don’t necessarily have to be roaming the halls of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery, or wherever your local media influencers are, to establish a professional relationship with media or other influencers. Follow those people or organisations you identify as important to your organisation’s core role – and they may follow you back – and if you gain some credibility or your brand’s already mature enough for a journalist to want to seek your comment, then you don’t necessarily have to endure that awful bumpy flight into Canberra (says he who commuted for six months every week from Melbourne) to get your message out. Third-party advocacy is an oft-forgotten skill in relationship management. Engaging online means that virtually anyone is a potentially a third-party advocate, or someone who can trash your brand online. Fake BPGlobalPR or b*tchy Facebook groups, anyone…?

A narrative approach to issues management

My thesis at uni looks at if the organisations I’m researching meet the principle of ‘lived values = public narrative’ – that is, do the organisations being investigated (all of whom have strong publicly-communicated organisational values) actually live them in defined periods of crisis. Without going into the theory too much, there are two sets of principles being examined to see how they were applied in the case studies. The first, provided by Dan Millar and Robert Heath in ‘Responding to Crisis – A Rhetorical Approach to Crisis Communication‘ (LEA, Mahwah, NJ, 2004) looks at the manner in which an organisation should respond (including having a positive brand reputation in the first place) and the other focuses on the importance of the organisation’s leader / key leaders being SEEN to respond and how they should.

In the Twitter-verse, these theories can be applied – and – critically – easily quantified. There are many analytical tools for Twitter that identify the reach of one’s tweets – The Huffington Post had a great article on it. So, you can count the effectiveness of what you’re tweeting, the reach and its effectiveness. Media monitoring for free 24/7 on your desktop. For. Each. Tweet.

From an issues management / crisis communications perspective, Twitter allows you to

  • Build a positive brand for your NGO in the first place by placing it as a key tool in your communications mix
  • Develop relationships with key influencers, media, academics, industry heads and – shock horror – real people!
  • Monitor media and commentary on your sector, industry and your organisation (and yourself)
  • Identify key issues and develop responses
  • Respond openly and honestly (using the principle of lived values = public narrative) – and critically – admitting error when it occurs
  • Show the organisation’s personality – and yours – in a positive light (why not?!)
  • Recognise the differing types of opinions and attitudes and levels of awareness of your organisation
  • Quantify, track, count and analyse your Twitter-reach with publicly-available (free) tools
  • Allow you to assess the performance of others in your sector or in other sectors as issues happen (as a young political staffer I was taught by a very good Chief of Staff in our senior minister’s office to always read the news in other portfolios and ask myself how I’d respond to an issue, and how I’d advise my minister. It’s a good habit I got into and as the public face of an organisation, a simple technique to practice).

I could easily spend all day on Twitter. That’s not my job. My job is to implement the Board’s vision for our organisation, with my team, with the best tools I have. Twitter is an important tool because it allows me to maximse my time (be it on the tram, in the office or at home) and thereby be more productive and have more time for my family and friends, and my uni studies.

As an NGO CEO, Twitter allows you to lead, anticipate, prepare and then if necessary, manage (and worst case, respond to) an issue. The alternative to is getting a call from a journalist on an issue that’s been in the media for hours and you don’t know.

…. and since when in an age of 48/7 media coverage did not knowing cut it for NGOs CEOs?

Finally, a quote from the University of Houston’s Robert L Heath, an academic from the University of Houston whose work on narrative I draw heavily from for my thesis (and who edited the book mentioned above with Dan Millar). Heath stated in the Journal of Public Affairs (November 2002 – sadly no longer available free..!)

The essence of issues management is the daunting realization that there is always a better way of finding, using and responding to issues. The advantage of that thinking is organizational growth and vibrancy.  Each day should not be devoted to seeing what is right about an organization but looking for ways to improve it as its brand equity and issue positioning are the bases for its success. (p. 214).

If you place that quote in today’s media reality, then the case for engaging online via Twitter for NGO CEOs makes itself.

[Declaration/ disclaimer – I did work experience in Year 10 at 3AW’s newsroom; and work experience in Year 11 with ABC Radio News Melbourne and a second week with ABC-TV news and current affairs in Melbourne…. and would love to commentate Question Time and cricket for the ABC in my spare time. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone and do not reflect the policies or opinions of my current or past employers, or CSU].

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