Riding on the #sandwichvan – some lessons for enterprise use of social media

Last week I read a very interesting guest post on the new Scottish Public Sector Digital Group blog. The blog was posted by an e-government manager at Aberdeen City Council, and recounts the Council’s experiences in using a recent trending story on Twittter to push out information to citizens in Aberdeen.

The blogpost is a essential reading for any organisation that uses social media – not just those in the public sector.

The background
The backdrop to the story is the so-called “Sandwich Van” email, where last month an employee at an engineering company in Aberdeen accidentally copied an embarassing email exchange between her and her fiancé to the entire office (with the subject line “Sandwich Van”). That email was then sent out of the organisation by another employee and within a matter of hours had made its way around the world. As is the way these days, the email was also posted on Twitter, and the hashtag “#sandwichvan” quickly started trending.

The e-government manager at the Council saw this, and used a bit of ingenuity when posting a tweet (using the council’s official twitter account) with a link to information about road gritting in the Aberdeen Council area:

Whether you drive a #bus #car or #sandwichvan in Aberdeen you’ll find useful gritting + snow clearing info here: http://bit.ly/WMYGfj

The reaction
The tweet didn’t link directly to the original story (or tell you anything about it), but was (I think) an innocent and fun attempt to widen local awareness about road conditions that night by riding on the tails of a trending hashtag. According to the blog post, initial analytics suggest that this was successful.

However, another employee at the Council (not familiar with social media) was apparently nervous about the tweet and the Council’s association with a story that ultimately led to the people involved resigning from their jobs, and decided that the tweet should be deleted. It appears that no discussion took place with the original poster before the tweet was deleted.

The reaction on Twitter (as evidenced by the healthy and informed debate in the comments section of the blogpost) was equally split:

  • Some people commended the Council for actively engaging in social media in an entertaining way – something that many large organisations are not always very good at.
  • Others felt that it was not appropriate for the Council, as a public body, to (or to be seen to) be capitalising on the public embarassment of two of its citizens.
  • Some felt that the tweet breached Twitter’s house rules as it was unrelated to the #Sandwichvan hashtag (although given the vagueness of Twitter’s guidance on this, in my view this is a moot point in relation to this particular tweet).
  • Others were equally outraged that having posted the tweet the Council then deleted it, something that is often considered as bad online etiquette.

What can we learn?
I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not it was appropriate for the Council to post the tweet.

For any organisations that use social media, this story provides a number of issues to think about:

  • Who should have access to a social media account within an organisation? Do you even know who has access to your social media account? HMV certainly didn’t.
  • An inappropriate tweet can have a big impact on an organisation’s reputation. Do you have a policy on what sort of tweets are appropriate and what are not? Do you give your staff sufficient guidance?
  • A third party approval process for tweets isn’t practical. It’s therefore essential that those empowered to use an official social media account know what the organisation considers appropriate and that they are responsible for ensuring that the tweets they issue comply with those requirements. If you don’t think that person is capable of making that assessment, then they probably shouldn’t have access to the official social media account.
  • What is you policy on utilising hashtags? Is the organisation happy to be associated with trending stories? Do your staff know about Twitter’s house rules on behaviour that might lead to accounts being blocked?
  • If you subsequently decide that a tweet might not have been appropriate, what is your policy for dealing with that? How do you resolve differences of opinion internally? Who has authority to delete tweets? Is it better to simply issue an apology rather than delete it and pretend the original tweet hadn’t been posted?

These are all issues that should be addressed in an organisation’s social media policy, and should be communicated to all staff involved in the use of social media.

If you’d like to discuss your organisation’s use of social media, or would like assistance in developing a social media policy, please get in touch.

Martin Sloan

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