Bringing BBC Watchdog to Twitter

This week, I’ve been helping Watchdog, the BBC’s consumer affairs show, start a Twitter feed.

Last night was the first broadcast of the new series. We were tweeting in the lead-up to the show, and during the live broadcast. I even ended up on TV – sitting in the background with a studio laptop, working Twitter while my colleagues called people and monitored emails incoming from the public.

The show is broadcast live, and there’s a fair amount of audience interaction. Members of the public suggest many of the stories of rip-offs, dodgy dealing and unscrupulous business that feature in the show through their emails, texts and phone calls. So Twitter really seems a natural fit for Watchdog – especially given how common it is for people to complain about products and companies via their Twitter feeds. For a program that’s all about making sure that customers get fair treatment, it all fits.

I’d say our first night went well, especially considering that there’s an election campaign on in Britain, and we were up against the second leaders’ debate (#leadersdebate) – on Twitter as well as on TV. Most people who were watching TV and tweeting yesterday night were doing so about politics. Still, we got more comments about the show on Twitter than we did through direct texts – including a few who participated in a live experiment.

Mind the Gap

During the show, I had to work the Twitter feed through a frustratingly slow studio laptop, and via to boot. (For security reasons, BBC studio laptops are closed up tighter than a clam at high tide, so I wasn’t able to install Tweetdeck.) Working through instead of a higher-performance client, as well as the slow computer, made the whole experience feel a little sluggish and disconnected. Normally, working a Twitter feed on a popular hashtag feels something like surfing to me – you’re carried along on a wave that you can’t really control, so just ride it with style.

Working the Watchdog Twitter feed felt something like surfing on a wave of molasses, controlling the surfboard remotely via an overhead drone aircraft.

I wasn’t able to participate as much as I’d have liked to in the discussion; it was simply happening too fast. It’s a microcosm, in a way, of the BBC’s general interface with social media in general and Twitter in particular.

Aside from the equipment, there were a lot of rules to remember, too – who we could reply to, what we could say, and so on. There are very good organizational reasons that the BBC can’t participate in social media with the same flexibility as a person or even a commercial company. The BBC is built and organized to produce mass media, which it generally does exceptionally well. It’s also designed to do this for the public good, and not for profit. This means that it’s got a whole canon of editorial policy regulations, all designed to deliver value to the public and ensure the BBC’s objectivity, impartiality and so on.

These rules are all designed by smart people who are keenly aware that the power of the BBC as a broadcaster needs to be carefully controlled if it is to stand for the public good.

Therein lies the rub; Twitter is not broadcasting. It is social media, not mass media. Mass media is all about scale. Social media can have scale, but it is characterized above all by interactivity, flexibility and responsiveness. So sometimes, when the vastness of the BBC focuses on something like Twitter, it can be like watching an old bull elephant trying to mate with an attractive gazelle. (I briefly considered photoshopping an illustration of this, but I’ll spare you.)

For instance, at first when I was brought on board I was told that Watchdog definitely wanted to “be on Twitter”, but that the show couldn’t use hashtags, couldn’t follow anyone, and definitely couldn’t @reply or retweet anything. It would just broadcast lines from the script on Twitter as they came up live on air.

I resisted the urge to run screaming from the room, and explained that, while we could technically do that, it would result in a massive case of FAIL, which wouldn’t benefit the show, the public, or the BBC. In the week leading up to the broadcast I spent quite a bit of time (meetings, meetings, email, email, meetings, more email, off-email phone conversations, more meetings) convincing people that we really needed to do all those things, that they were essential to the medium of Twitter, and that they could help us deliver real value to the public.

Ultimately, people opened up. The feed as it is now does follow people, reply and retweet and so on. Overall there’s a feeling of curious excitement in the programme team when it comes to Twitter.

I think it’s going to take some time to work out a balance between the rules of a large organization and the rules of Twitter. I’ll be helping to run the Twitter feed for another week, until next Thursday’s live. After that the programme team will take over exclusively.


The experience has taught me a few things.

Local is Best.

I was brought in from outside the programme team to help them set their feed up. I know a lot about how Twitter works, but I’m not an expert about the Watchdog show itself. I certainly don’t know the show as well as the people who wrote the script, researched the stories, filmed the pieces. Twitter is a conversation, and It’s essential that whoever runs the Twitter feed is an expert on the subject matter.

The technical and cultural knowledge of how to work Twitter is important, but not as important as the editorial content that goes into the conversation. So while it’s a good idea to bring in someone who knows Twitter to kick things off, ultimately it’s essential that someone who knows the show back to front takes it over. I’d say this would apply just as much to any brand or company trying to run a Twitter presence. The most important thing is that whoever is running it really knows the subject matter inside out.

Translation, not Conflict.

A lot of people put ‘old media’ and ‘new media’ in opposition, a conflict between the staid 20th-century dinosaurs of Old Media and the nimble young mammals of Social Media. I don’t think this is a productive attitude. Ultimately, both are trying to do the same thing. Both old and new media operate on the axiom that information is valuable, and that increasing its flow adds value to the public. Each simply goes about this in different ways, following different rules – because they’re built differently. A gazelle can leap about quickly and nimbly, but an elephant can uproot trees and break through walls. But they’re still going for the same goal, even though each can contribute something different to the voyage. It’s just a question of making sure they understand each other.

3 thoughts on “Bringing BBC Watchdog to Twitter

  1. Interesting and totally agree about local/them vs us stuff.

    For browser-based hashtag surfing, you could use TweetGrid? It’s great for hashtag mentalism and I use it in a few of the #chats – works better than the mighty Tweetdeck, in fact.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll give Tweetgrid a look. It’ll be handy to have something better for next week’s show.

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