Social Media Engagement: The case for Livery Companies to embrace root and branch change in communication

The topic of improved communications within and about the Livery has recently been one of much discussion among the Livery Companies, especially through the Pan-Livery initiative. The Lord Mayor raised the issue in his Address to the Masters and Clerks at Mansion House on 22nd November 2017.

In his speech the Lord Mayor said that the view of the Livery is: 'at best unknown, at worse unfair'. In my view the Livery does far too little to communicate its purpose, values and impact. What is does is defuse, lacking coordination and often inward looking.

This desire for better, or as the Lord Mayor put it in his address 'radical' communication, of the work of the Livery Companies is nothing new, but radical? Let's see...

Where My Lord Mayor was the live Periscope broadcast of the Address, or the Tweet stream, or the Facebook posting? Can I watch it on YouTube or follow up the discussion in a blog?

To be fair, radical is not a word that sits naturally or comfortably with many Livery Companies, however my handy thesaurus provides an alternative phrase more readily acceptable to and widely known among the Livery, to wit: root and branch!

Many past Lord Mayors have bemoaned the lack of inter-Livery communication and especially communications between Guildhall and the Livery during speeches to Masters and Clerks since the 1980s. It's a recurring topic and one that usually results in resolute calls of 'something must be done', yet what is this something and who will do it? Certainly it's not forming a committee and retreating to an oak panelled room to enjoy lunch with a glass of wine; not that there's anything remotely wrong with that but it is the natural inclination of the Livery to socialise over a meal rather than the web.

Recent efforts to commission surveys and conduct studies serve to confuse well-meaning activity that gathers data and generates reports with tangible progress that has targeted and measurable impact on the Livery's stakeholders. Where communications is concerned, the Livery must engage and mobilise its greatest communications asset - the membership.

The Livery Companies might argue that they already communicate widely. Company journals and magazines, annual reviews, parish notices, newsletters and internal company emails all have their place, but they lack the scale, speed and collaborative power of Social Media. Moreover the audience for Livery Company communications is often insular to the Company concerned, rarely to the wider Livery*, and only occasionally to stakeholders in the civic City and beyond. Even communications aimed explicitly at the Livery in general, such as the regular Livery Briefing, are likely to have little visibility outside the office of Clerk and more active members of Court.

What about the external view of the Livery?

What appears in the press about the Livery Companies usually opens with some allusion to their ancient or medieval origins and quickly moves on to their status as either posh dining clubs or secretive societies. Looking beyond the mainstream media one can quickly come across less benign opinions about the City and its Livery Companies, what they lack for factual accuracy they make up for in faux outrage and thinly veiled malice.

The Livery does little, if anything, to counter these perceptions and tends toward diligent and discreet philanthropic activity that cloaks the true nature of the companies in a cosy obscurity. Since the Livery doesn't ask for donations from the general public or seek corporate sponsorship there's little need to advertise. However there is a need to foster good public relations and cultivate trusted partnerships with journalists and opinion formers. An article in the FT Magazine succinctly described the challenge:

Say what you like about the British, but no nation seems to be quite so skilful at mixing charity and social life. Certainly, no other nation is as skilful at letting the past merge into the present, and nowhere more so than the City of London. The livery companies may be seen as the embodiment of both these characteristics. They could allow themselves to be less shamefaced about it.

- Matthew Engel, FT Magazine (2012) 

* I suspect I am one of only a handful of Liverymen who occasionally browse the journals of the other Livery Companies, so kindly sent to IT Hall by each Company on the off chance someone might take an interest.

The case for engaging via Social Media

The Livery has a very positive message to share, one that is replete with stories of lasting beneficial impact to society, those stories are diverse in scale, duration and theme. There is no shortage of good news to share, there is copious evidence, many testimonials and many innovative ways that an audience can be engaged, so in this article I focus on changing the means rather than the message, which is of course up to each Company to determine.

It is my belief the Livery needs to embrace root and branch change in its approach to communication, and while I make no claim to having all the answers, I humbly suggest that part of the solution is engagement on Social Media. In particular I encourage Livery Companies to engage in a conversation with their membership and their families, affiliations (military, cadets, church), prospective members and the beneficiaries of their charitable, occupational and educational activities by starting with one particularly effective Social Media channel: Twitter.

Follow City and Livery for regular facts, news and reports on the City of London and its Livery Companies

Why Twitter?

Twitter provides a quick and easy means to reach beyond the internal audience, to engage with stakeholders in the City and perhaps more importantly with wider society where knowledge and understanding of the quiet but vital work of the Livery is largely unseen and unknown.

Unlike newsletters, magazines, parish notices or email, Twitter is a many-to-many collaborative communications medium that allows followers to respond, to share and to indicate their approval in the moment. Twitter is limited to 280 characters, so messages have to be punchy - it's not a replacement for an in-depth article. Twitter is well suited to attention grabbing headlines that have most impact when sent with a relevant photo and a link to a website where the read can learn more.

In a nutshell: Twitter is a digital newsfeed akin to a ticker-tape of short announcements, photos, video clips and links to websites. An individual posting on Twitter is known as a Tweet. Twitter can be accessed on desktop, laptop, tablet and mobile devices and is free to use (the users time excepted). By the April 2019 Twitter had over 330 million active users (not including dormant or robotic accounts).
What about Facebook, Instagram and other Social Media tools?

Other Social Media platforms are better suited to different forms of communication, for example LinkedIn is ideal for creating closed group discussion forums for members to engage in a deeper conversation on topics that warrant more considered and long-term discussion (e.g., 'How should we shape our philanthropic activities to better align with the Company's occupational interests?'). Instagram and Pinterest are great for curating digital photography around themes (e.g., City ceremonies) and Facebook has better integration with tools for planning and advertising events, Periscope is the tool for broadcasting live video of events that are underway. Each has their pro's and con's, there is no one Social Media tool for all purposes.

What's my experience of engaging using Twitter?

Since I joined Twitter in December 2012 the number of Livery Companies and Liverymen who are active on Twitter has grown steadily such that by December 2019 eighty-four of the Livery Companies now have Twitter profiles, as do circa 3,000 Liverymen.  At the time of writing I have over 5,100 followers. These are all improvements over 2018 and 2017 when first I published this article.

In a typical month my own City centric Twitter account (@CityandLivery) will achieve circa 300,000 Tweet impressions from people who receive my Tweets either directly or as a result of being sent on (retweeted) by my followers on Twitter. Some 87% of my followers are in the UK, and 53% are in London. The largest audience outside the UK are followers in the US who represent 4%.

My experience is that Twitter provides and effective means of rapidly sharing news of events, achievements and facts about the City and its Livery Companies, while allowing others to comment, share and ask questions from any digital device. It's particularly effective during commuting hours, lunchtime and when linked to a live event such as the Lord Mayor's Show.

In a nutshell: My own Twitter activity achieves almost three million potential Twitter views in a year mostly focused on London based followers. The potential to rapidly scale to hundreds of millions of views across all the Livery Company accounts is clear and entirely achievable. All that’s needed is for others to engage by joining Twitter, following, tweeting and retweeting. This is cheap, fast, scalable, and the size of the audience, and engagement with them can be easily tracked measured.

Who else in the civic City is active on Twitter?

Most of the City’s civic institutions, Churches, and some of the Guilds and Ward clubs also have active Twitter profiles. The City of London Corporation has a plethora of active Twitter accounts for themes including Highways, Libraries, Open Spaces and much more. The City of London Police has almost 100,000 followers on Twitter. A recent addition to the family of City Twitter accounts is one for City consorts, a marvellous initiative to build a community among the better halves of the Masters, Prime Wardens and Upper Bailiff.

What does good practice look like?

An example of good practice may be observed in the way that Freemasonry has really grasped Twitter and is immensely effective at getting its message out there, attracting new members, showcasing its philanthropic and fellowship activities, and raising the profile of Freemasonry in a positive manner. I should mention that I am not and never have been a Freemason but I admire what they have done with Twitter, and their membership profile (gender aside) and activities have many parallels with the Livery.

Another positive example is that of the Church of England, which among many other innovations has a Tweeter of the month, perhaps a priest or member of the laity who drives engagement and brings their own personality to Twitter while representative the diversity and inclusivity of the Church.

A set of Social Media Engagement Guidelines, originally developed for use by the Information Technologists’ Company may be found on the website. The Guidelines provide examples of good practice for Livery Companies wishing to engage on Social Media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc).

Several Livery Companies have been particularly successful in showing their activities on Twitter beyond the trope of more chaps in black tie enjoying the loving cup. A good example is the Salters' Company that has regularly tweeted about its community engagement activities. Another is the Solicitors' Company which has (among many other themes) focussed on women in the profession.

What are the downsides?

For some the virtual world of Social Media may seem a fad followed by youngsters who prefer to send a Facebook message to their friend sitting in the same room than speak directly. Did teenagers communicate any more freely before Social Media? I think not!

There’s no doubt that Social Media provides many benefits, but as with any form of communication one has to be cognisant of the audience, the message, the timing, the tone and the manner in which it is shared. Social Media is at its heart a shared experience, it’s not a broadcast medium for ‘Now hear this’ messages from the Bridge, rather it’s a medium for conversation.

As with any facet of human society there are plenty of hucksters, mountebanks, mugwumps, trolls and other malevolent anti-social characters on Twitter. What they would not dare voice in person they feel empowered to say hiding behind the anonymity that a Twitter account affords. To deal with these characters, and mercifully I have experienced only a handful in six years, Twitter provides the gift of being able to electronically block them permanently, thus cutting off the oxygen of publicity they seek. There are also no shortage of conspiracy theorists, but they are a class of their own more misguided than malevolent and I have written about their musings on the Livery Companies in a previous article. Again, block or ignore - don't engage.

In conclusion

Twitter has proven its value to me as a means of communicating with a like-minded audience on topics related to the City and its Livery Companies. It has helped me learn, share and enjoy my involvement in the City far more than I could ever have imagined. It has become an extension of my thirst for knowledge, enthusiasm for sharing and passion for the City and its Livery Companies. I commend it to you all as an excellent means of rapidly improving communications within and among the Livery and at no cost other than your time.

Note: This article is based upon a shorter piece appearing in the City of London White Book (2017)

Want to learn more about the Livery Companies?

The City of London Freeman's Guide is the definitive concise guide to the City of London and its ancient and modern Livery Companies, their customs, traditions, officers, events and landmarks. Available in full colour hardback and eBook formats and now in its fourth or Masterpiece edition. The guide is available online from Apple (as an eBook), Amazon (in hardback or eBook) Payhip (in ePub format) or Etsy (in hardback or hardback with the author's seal attached). Also available from all major City of London tourist outlets and bookstores.

The City of London Freeman's Guide is available in all major City retail outlets and online

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  1. As usual a very well- researched and considered, pragmatic contribution. I totally agree with your conclusion and applaud your efforts in knowledge dissemination via social media channels; it's certainly how I discovered "The City" and livery. I'd be pleased to support and encourage future efforts in this style, especially since this seems like a very apt contribution for WCIT.

  2. Excellent and thoughtful article. However the age demographic within the Livery is still acting against embracing Social Media wholeheartedly. Many are of a generation that does not wish to engage with Twitter and Facebook, let alone Instagram, Pinterest and even Linked-in.
    A problem in many livery companies is simply getting members to engage regularly with their web-sites which often seem to be more aimed externally than internally.
    The net result has been a tendency for livery companies to remain in print - often at considerable expense. Print maintains one great virtue - it does add incrementally to a permanent archive with the best likelihood of long term accessibility in companies whose histories need to span centuries.


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