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What not to Tweet: Social networking tips for safety pros

By Stefan Dubowski
| www.cos-mag.com

Social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook can help safety professionals spread the word about their programs, and engage employees in workplace health initiatives. But according to those in the know, there are a number of things to keep in mind before jumping into social networks.

A number of health and safety organizations use social media, largely to get their messages out to wide-ranging audiences.

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) – the federal government agency focused on eliminating workplace illness and injury – uses its Twitter account to update followers on stress reduction, handling negative workplace interactions, and government regulations.

The organization also has a Facebook page, where more than 300 members exchange best practices for employee training, details on safety-specific events (such as May 2 Steps for Life walk, in support of injury- and illness-free workplaces), and updates on WHMIS.

“It’s the same mission, with new tools,” says Krista Travers, the CCOHS’s marketing and communications officer. She explains that the organization has always focused on providing information to help businesses operate as safely as possible. Facebook and Twitter are just two of the latest communication implements.

The Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE) created online presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Plaxo, an online address book that automatically updates users’ contact information.

For the past few years, the CSSE has paid particular attention to new technologies, and how they might help the organization connect with industry, government and the safety professionals who count themselves members of the 31 chapters that the group has across the country.

“Meeting in person is not always an option,” say Dani Couture and Becky Harris, the CSSE’s social media experts, via e-mail. They point out that the organization has almost 4,000 members. “However, with an Internet connection and a smartphone or computer, you can stay connected to the society and community by logging in whenever and wherever you are.”

One of the charms of social networking is the fact that most of the tools are free to use. A health or safety professional could set up a Facebook page or a Twitter account to communicate with employees, without having to spend a dime. And the tools are also simple to use. If you can operate an e-mail program, chances are you’d be able to navigate Facebook.

Use with caution

But even though social networking is free and easy to use in some respects, experts say you shouldn’t take a free and easy approach to the technology.

For instance, it’s important to connect with your company’s communications department before putting any social networking plan into action. Facebook and Twitter are public-facing systems. Anyone can access them. And if you want to say anything with respect to your organization in the public realm, it’s always a good idea to talk to the people tasked with making public statements on the company’s behalf.

“It’s one of those cases where acting now and begging for forgiveness later doesn’t work,” says Stuart Crawford, senior advisor and partner at Ulistic Inc., a Calgary-based Internet consulting firm. He points out that people have been fired for making public statements about their companies without permission.

If that’s an issue, the organization might have to consider investing in an internal social networking system, Crawford says – something like Microsoft Corp.’s SharePoint server or IBM Corp.’s Lotus Sametime system. These messaging platforms offer Facebook-like features that allow authorized users to communicate.

That would do away with concerns regarding public statements, but it would also spell a cost that reaches well into the thousands of dollars.

It’s important to recognize that social networking operates a bit differently than other technologies. “Social media and social networks are collaborative efforts that thrive in a ‘give-more-than-you-take’ culture,” say Couture and Harris from the CSSE. “There is more to social networking than promoting your own agenda. It’s about community.”

That means you have to commit to the social networking agenda – update the Facebook page regularly and send messages over Twitter (“tweets”) often.

The CCOHS produced a comprehensive list of tips for Twitter specifically. Published in Liaison, the organization’s newsletter, the advice includes:

•    Making a good first impression: Check your spelling; watch your grammar. Remember, Twitter is a public platform.

•    Learning from the experts: Follow people like Tom Fleming, former health sciences librarian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., and at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He regularly updates his Twitter list of health and safety news: http://twitter.com/tomflem/health.

•    Asking questions: Engage your Twitter followers in discussions by asking for their opinions on a health and safety initiative you’re considering. By opening the lines of communication, you can increase the level of connectivity with employees.

But all of our interviewees say that it’s terribly important to ensure your social networking plan jibes with corporate communications, especially if the messages are going to hit a public-facing system. It’s not only a matter of public relations – it’s also a matter of providing straightforward and useful information.

“If you’re posting for an organization, it’s important to identify one person to champion the account to ensure it’s regularly updated with a consistent tone and voice,” Couture and Harris say.

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Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer in Ottawa. You can reach him via sdubowski@rogers.com.

(Follow COS on Twitter and join us on Facebook for the latest updates in health and safety)

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