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Why hashtags can change your life – or at least your day

This week, I set off to buy some topiary, hoping to do a post for my blog www.themiddlesizedgarden.co.uk. But I ended up on the BBC news….and writing the post for this blog instead. It was a fascinating example of how important Twitter and hashtags are in communicating with journalists.

My gardening friend, Kylie O’Brien, and I checked the traffic news before we left. It would be an hour and a half’s drive from Faversham to Architectural Plants, and there was already news of an accident on the M25. We waited till the Traffic News update said ‘cleared’ and found driving conditions perfect. Free-flowing traffic, a sunny day…and then, about five minutes after we got onto the M26, we came to a complete halt. There was stationary traffic as far as the eye could see, and no traffic coming the other way.

Hector the dachshund on the M26

Hector the dachshund enjoying an unexpected walk on the central reservation of the M26.

When around seven ambulances, five fire engines and other support vehicles dashed down the hard shoulder, sirens blaring, and two helicopters clattered over us, we realised that something terrible had clearly just happened. Everyone turned their engines off, and got out of their cars, using Twitter, the internet and their phones to try to find out what was going on. We all asked each other for news, and it filtered out that the M26 would be closed till 4pm at least.  Although we all knew that the priority was the injured in the accident, we were all worried – we’d been there since 10am so far – and it was a hot day. We didn’t have food or water. A couple in a car ahead of us said: ‘we’re just wondering about breaking into the Easter eggs we bought for our nephew…would you like some chocolate?’ They had a lovely little dachshund called Hector. I think I had my eye on Hector’s water rather than the Easter eggs.

Meanwhile BBC News Southeast had picked up my tweets, along with others who were using the hashtag #M26. (A hashtag is #. #M26 means that if you click on #M26 you can see all tweets with that hashtag, so it’s useful for finding out information.) The BBC wanted to know if I had any pictures or videos they could use. I went up and down the central reservation, getting muddled between Instagram and Twitter and nearly sending them pictures of my own nostrils peering at my phone.  (Instagram doesn’t really ‘talk’ to Twitter, so it’s better to take pix with your phone, not on Instagram, if you want to tweet them)

The police then began turning us all round, car by car, allowing us to drive off the motorway via the hard shoulder and a road that is usually an entrance slip-road. Lorries which were too big to turn round were parked on hard shoulder as lanes became free. This involved a lot of cones, manpower and shouting, as people were anxious to get out, or were wandering around the motorway asking for information. ‘Get back into your vehicle!’ ‘Do not move your vehicle!’ and lots of very emphatic signalling was required to keep people from driving off at the wrong time, or in the wrong direction.

We got home after only three hours being stranded (all motorways around the M26 had seized up by then, so no expeditions to buy plants). I tweeted that I thought #kentpolice had done a very good job on the #M26.

BBC Southeast then asked me – by tweet – if they could talk to me, and sent a camera crew to interview me at home about my experience. While I wasn’t sure that ‘Woman Stuck In Traffic Jam’ was a headline story, there was still very little information emerging from the accident itself – except that seven people were badly injured in a collision involving two lorries, a van and a car – so the press focus was on the thousands of people who had been stuck in the hot sun and the police response.

By this time, those of us tweeting about #M26 had started chatting to each other over Twitter (for example, @batonflipper didn’t get home to Birmingham till 1am and @SezzaF1 was interested because she’s an insurance investigator, so she follows all the police tweets).

My BBC interview appeared on both the 6pm and 10pm regional news slots, and a longer version, including the offer of chocolate, was on the website. Some other news websites seem to have picked it up from there, as Hector’s owners spotted the Easter egg story elsewhere, found me on Twitter (we didn’t know each other’s names) and tweeted me ‘At least you got to meet Hector!’. Friends from all over messaged me, and the Sevenoaks Chronicle also rang for an interview.  I asked their reporter, Sean-Paul Doran how much of their information comes from Twitter: ‘In news terms – almost 100%,’ he said. ‘If something is going on locally, we immediately check out the hashtags #Sevenoaks and #Westerham.’

But does it promote your work? I was described as ‘motorist’, rather than ‘author, blogger or blogging coach’ by the BBC, so it’s hard to see that anyone would directly link my blogging workshops to my interview (quite rightly – this was a serious and tragic accident, not a promotional opportunity). But at least one of the messages was from a friend following up on some workshops I’d suggested to a colleague of hers. And it will be an invaluable case history when I talk about how to publicise your blogs and events. While a multiple pile-up on a motorway will always get more press attention than a gallery opening, you should always add a local hashtag for a local event. You never know.

And if you do get caught up in a major event, it’ll always make a blog-post. Though, as my son said to me: ‘if you’re ever in something really serious, like a tsunami, could you get out safely before you start tweeting and blogging about it?’

My next blogging workshops are on 28th April in Chiswick, London (book here) or 14th May in Faversham, Kent (book here). There is also a Boost Your Blog Clinic on 11th June (book here)

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1 Comment

  1. Only you could manage to make something so interesting out of something so inherently dull as a motorway queue.
    Like the look of Hector! Quite a cool dog.

    Comment by Miranda - April 19, 2014

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