Mastodon returns – what does it mean for PR and communications?

Mastodon for PR and communications
By Sergiodlarosa, CC BY-SA 3.0

The exaggerated reports of Twitter’s demise mean the geeky backwaters of Mastodon have suddenly been thrust into the limelight with mainstream media writing about it.

If you’re a public relations or corporate communications professional, you should be asking yourself what you need to know about Mastodon. In this blog post I’ll answer some questions you might be asking and introduce some new aspects that haven’t been properly explored elsewhere, such as its potential as a community platform and how to protect your brand on Mastodon.

It isn’t a Dummies Guide to Mastodon, as lots of people have already written articles and blog posts about how to get started with and use Mastodon.

  1. Why PR professionals should stay on Twitter.
  2. Should PR professionals join Mastodon?
  3. Should your brand or company join Mastodon?
  4. How do you protect your brand on Mastodon?
  5. How are influencers using Mastodon?
  6. Can you use Mastodon as your community platform?

Why PR professionals should stay on Twitter

The reports of Twitter’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Twitter is still very much the place where you’ll find journalists, politicians, academics, and other key opinion formers. You won’t find many of them on Mastodon yet, but you will find some.

My advice to PR and communications professionals is to continue using Twitter in much the same way you’ve always been using it. The benefits and risks haven’t yet changed significantly.

I’ll caveat the risks haven’t changed with, well the risks have increased substantially, but opting out will increase the risk, not decrease it. I am recommending to clients that they should PAUSE advertising on Twitter, but that needs to be planned carefully and shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction. It does not mean STOP advertising on Twitter and the fact you’re pausing doesn’t need to be announced with a great fanfare of virtue signalling.

It’s important to maintain both a personal and corporate presence. You need to be able to adequately monitor and understand how or if the platform is changing.

The main reason for staying on Twitter is the same as why you should have been on Twitter to start with. Twitter isn’t just a social media platform like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Its ability and potential to influence the news cycle are massively disproportionate to its number of users.

Twitter is where more of the people that ‘matter’ hang out. As long as key opinion formers such as journalists, academics and politicians are on Twitter then it will continue to be important for everyone in corporate communications or public affairs.

If you advise on reputation, relationships and issues, it would be irresponsible to quit Twitter.

Should PR professionals join Mastodon?

Bear - Mastodon for PR and communications
Photo by Gregory Rogers

Do bears defecate in the woods? PR professionals should join Mastodon to find out what it’s all about and understand it.

At the moment I don’t believe Mastodon can become a viable alternative to Twitter, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need to set up an account.

It doesn’t take much time to set up a presence, install the app, so you get relevant real-time notifications. You can then spend just a few minutes each week to see if anything notable is happening in your sphere. It probably won’t be.

The four main reasons you should create an account are:

  1. To monitor it and understand it better, as you might then think of potential effective uses.
  2. To learn how to use it and experiment, in case you need to use it later. If a crisis or issue occurs that requires you to use Mastodon it’s then too late to learn how.
  3. To secure your personal username or brand name – but, this is caveated with the fact that you can’t do this in the same way as you can on other social media platforms.
  4. To secure your personal name on at least one Mastodon server.
  5. Some influencers are creating Mastodon accounts, including journalists and academics.

When you do join one of the things you will need to learn is its curious culture. Some pieces of content will receive content warnings. Rather bizarrely, this can include entirely innocuous content if is deemed worthy of a warning by long-time Mastodon users, many of whom are concerned about the influx of new users. The content warnings can be bizarre as one account I follow that gets lots of content warning is Best for Britain. When I revealed the picture it simply turned out to be the front page of a newspaper.

You don’t just ‘join’ Mastodon, but first have to find and decide on a server or ‘instance’ in Mastodon geek speak. The idea is that to get started, you first need to find an instance that is the closest to your interests. This might be industry, geography, language, hobbies or indeed anything. Another factor to consider is the ‘rule’ or ‘terms’ of the instance. Because instances are run on servers belonging to individuals, companies, organisations or groups you also need to consider who is running it. Or you can try to find out where people you know are and join the same server as them. Another challenge is that the distributed instances mean it’s impossible to search for a user unless you know which server they are on! It’s more like email addresses than Twitter names.

My username is @stuartbruce@mastodon.online. To follow me you need to search for me on your instance using my full username which includes the instance.

It’s not hard to see why many people give up at this stage. You shouldn’t give up and should give it a try.

Should your brand or company establish a presence on Mastodon?

Probably not. The number of users is still so small that it is unlikely the effort you’d need to put in would be effective.

Although the number of users of Mastodon has increased dramatically, the total is still tiny compared to other social platforms. The biggest barrier is its decentralised structure, which makes it complicated to get started.

It’s also important to remember it is like the early days of Twitter, before it became polluted with marketing and brands. It is essential that you take the time to understand and respect the culture. This is even more challenging in that different instances can have subtlety different cultures and rules. Mastodon isn’t a place for you to broadcast and shout. If you are going to suceed it will be by becoming a valuable member of the community. Think about what you can offer participants.

How do you protect your brand name on Mastodon?

Usually I advise brands to immediately register their company name or brand on every new platform, so that they are protecting it from squatters or hijackers (you can get it back, but it’s an unnecessary hassle and takes time). On Mastodon, this isn’t possible as if you register on one instance it still means you brand or and can be registered on another instance.

In theory, you could register on multiple instances, but as new servers are being set up all the time it would be like playing Whack-A-Mole.

How are influencers using Mastodon?

Many of the early adopters and/or high profile users of Twitter are joining Mastodon, either to escape Twitter (not wise) or simply to see what it is and establish a presence. Actor Stephen Fry, entrepreneur Deborah Meadon and author Emma Kennedy, were all early adopters. I created my first Mastodon account in 2017 and rejoined (long story) again last month.

Can you set up your own Mastodon instance?

Another interesting idea is to create your own Mastodon instance and use it to create the accounts for all your brands or divisions. This is what both the European Union and the German government have done.

The EU has created EU Voice as a pilot project. It is part of the EU’s goal of supporting private and open-source software that can rival mainstream social media platforms which are predominantly US owned and focused, such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Many of Elon Musk’s actions since he bought Twitter show that he is almost entirely focused on the US and has no grasp of the fact that 70% of its users are in other countries. Even his diabolical treatment of staff was based on Californian law, rather than the law of the multiple countries where Twitter employees are actually employed.

On the same day, the European Commission also launched an account for PeerTube, another decentralized platform that revolves around video sharing.  

EU Voice - Mastodon for PR and communications

The EU’s Mastodon presence is new and apparently mainly a response to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. However, the German government has had a similar initiative running since April 2020.

Universities such as MIT have set up their own Mastodon instances.

Can you protect your brand by verifying your brand on Mastodon?

The best option at the moment for protecting your brand on Mastodon is to create an account on one instance and then verify it as the official one.

Compared to how hard it used to be on Twitter, it is a breeze to become verified on Mastodon. That is if you have some technical ability, or someone to do it for you.

To verify your account, you need to add a small piece of code to your website as shown in the screenshot below. If this doesn’t mean anything to you, then it’s something that is very easy for your web team or developers to do for you.

Mastodon verifcation - Mastodon for PR and communications

Can you use Mastodon as a community platform?

Because anyone can use a server to set up a Mastodon instance, it means there is the potential to use Mastodon as a community platform. A company or organisation could create its own instance and restrict membership. This would mean the community would be self-contained and private, but also enable users to interact with users on other instances.

The technology means it should be possible to automate some aspects of membership and privacy. For example, membership could be restricted to emails from a certain domain, so a company could use it for employees or a university for students or staff. It is also possible to restrict interaction with other instances, so some are allowed and others are blocked. MIT is one university that has set up its own instance.

An instance run by a recognised organisation also makes it easier to trust. However, it is questionable how many people would want to join an instance based on a specific brand or company.

These are some of my ideas for potential Mastodon instances – some of which are probably being created as I write this blog post!:

  • NGOs or charities around issues they campaign on
  • Video game brands or sports brands around gaming or specific sports
  • News organisations or publishers for readers and users

Although it’s theoretically possible to use Mastodon to run an online community, it’s probably not the best platform for most types of communities I’m familiar with. The set-up requires technical knowledge and ongoing maintenance (both of which we can provide!). The actual platform also isn’t as easy to use as other dedicated community platforms such as Guild (which is where I run Comms Leaders Club, my own community for in-house PR and communications leaders and aspiring leaders).

However, the real challenge of creating a Mastodon instance isn’t the technology, but the culture, content and moderation. This is something we can also help you with.

It’s something that we’ll be keeping an eye on to see if any organisations or companies do adopt Mastodon for an online community. Or if you already know of one then please let us know.

Why not join me on Mastodon?

If you already have an account then please follow me. If you don’t then this article is one of many articles that explains the various steps. I’m on the mastodon.online instance, which is based in Germany and relatively well established and mature. But there are lots of others to choose from.

My username is @stuartbruce@mastodon.online.

It will be fun to learn together.

PR Futurist Stuart Bruce on Mastodon

As usual, if you want advice on Mastodon or any other aspect of public relations or communications then please get in touch.

Please comment here as it lets everyone who visits my PR blog to see it rather than scattering it on other social networks where only some people see it.

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