Technical and Professional Communication: One tweet at a time
Posted by Dan Lea
I’ll admit it. There was a time I never though I would tweet, or snap, or instagram (apparently that can be used as a verb). As a broadcast journalist at the time, I already complained that some of my newscasts were only a minute long. What on earth could I say in 140 characters? Eventually I saw Twitter as a way to parcel out bits of breaking news, stay engaged with my audience when I could not break into programming, and develop an interactive relationship with them. Now that I work on the public relations side of media, I am continuing to learn how social media can be used in a professional way, allowing me to reach an interested audience, form relationships, establish credibility, and collect useful feedback.
The article, “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media,” by Hurley and Hea, illustrates many of these points in arguing that technical and professional communication students should take seriously the study of social media for professional use. I am lucky that, after a long break from school, I completed my undergraduate work recently, and my coursework included study and practice in social media.
I now work for a large and very credible health care organization that uses social media for many of the purposes outlined by Hurley and Hea. My organization distributes helpful and interesting health and wellness content, written by doctors, nurse practitioners, nutrition educators, and others, in order to establish a relationship with patients (and potential patients) and to establish credibility.
We do not solicit readers to provide their own helpful insights on how to perform cardiovascular surgery, so crowdsourcing is not really part of what we do, but I have seen it in action. I first became aware of online crowdsourcing way back in 2000, when I was experimenting with home music recording. I was trying to pick out the best combination of equipment to make reasonably professional-sounding recordings in my spare bedroom. I discovered the online community at homerecording.com, where I could search for answers and post my own questions about specific microphones, multi-track recorders, and other gear, as well as how to use them. It didn’t matter to me that those answering were not employees of a company, or even trained experts. It was like calling up a friend who knew about the subject and asking what they would do, except it was a total stranger.
The examples Hurley and Hea use, such as Instructibles.com, show how a user can use such a platform to not only reach an audience, but to obtain free feedback, serving as market research and consulting help. While many comments may be inane and unhelpful, some will help the producer create even better content.
Social media analytic tools can help a content creator evaluate what kinds of content will be most widely read, though I have see the concept of the “economy of likes” at work. We were recently discussing how an article about potential health benefits to allowing your pets to sleep in your bedroom was being widely shared, much more so than articles containing more “hard hitting” health information. The students in Hurley and Hea’s classes were right to point out that just because something is more widely read and shared does not indicate it is of the highest informational value. Still, this is nothing new. Traditional media are driven by ratings and readership. TV programs that rate the highest aren’t necessarily of the highest value; they simply catch the attention of the most people.
Having worked in traditional media through the rise of the worldwide web and social media, I watched my peers first sneer at, and then embrace platforms such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, gradually learning how to use them effectively to maintain a relationship with their audience. Not that I had tremendous foresight. I had to be coaxed along, just like everyone else.
I’m a believer now. The technical and professional communicator who dismisses any channel that they think only their children will ever use will miss huge opportunities to reach and engage an audience, but he or she should take the time to evaluate how and why they will use a particular channel for a particular purpose.