Wednesday 28 June 2017

#respect: Twitter Ireland's new boss Sinead McSweeney bans iPhones and laptops at meetings

Former special adviser Sinead McSweeney tells Group Business Editor Dearbhail McDonald why respect is key to Twitter's success

Sinead McSweeney Picture by Gerry Mooney
Sinead McSweeney Picture by Gerry Mooney
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

If you cross Twitter Ireland's new MD Sinead McSweeney, she might have an MMA style kick-boxing glove in the one hand and a crochet hook in the other.

Oh, and don't expect one of the most powerful Irishwomen in global tech to allow you to tweet your way through a meeting.

Unless you're making a presentation, the use of devices such as iPhones and laptops have been banned during meetings since McSweeney took over as the social media giant's Irish boss last December.

Staff swarm around Cumberland House, Twitter's new 85,000 sq ft Dublin HQ - nestled between Pearse Street Railway Station and Merrion Square - with paper-thin computers tucked under their arms. But it is old-school notebooks and pens they use when meetings are under way.

The partial device ban is part of McSweeney's philosophy of "resilience and respect" which she has set out as her stall in her new role as MD of Twitter's operations in Ireland. She also believes it will lead to better business decisions.

"Respect is everything, it's about being present," says McSweeney, who also leads Twitter's public policy and communications team in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA).

"When people have gone to the trouble of putting together a presentation or setting an agenda for a meeting, you engage for that 25 or 30 minutes. Not only does it mean that we have better decision-making and better outcomes, it's also just respectful."

McSweeney's appointment as Twitter's Ireland MD marks a very public stepping out for one of the most formidable back-room stars of Irish politics. A former special adviser (Spad) to two attorneys general and former Justice Minister Michael McDowell, McSweeney served as the inaugural director of communications for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) before crossing back across the Border to serve as director of communications for An Garda Siochána.

"It feels very strange," says McSweeney of her transition of becoming the face of a brand instead of driving one.

"I've always been kind of the person in the background with a principal," adds McSweeney who joined Twitter in 2012 as its EMEA policy lead, charting a path for the company on issues such as privacy, abuse and curbing terrorist content online.

Former PSNI chief Hugh Orde and Fachtna Murphy, the former Garda Commissioner, both speak of McSweeney's "eye" - the look she would throw at them - from behind the press corps lines at news conferences. "It [the look] was just this barely imperceptible motion which meant 'you need to stop talking - now'," she says with a laugh.

Dressed in the cornflower blue hue of Twitter's famous birdie logo, McSweeney - a qualified barrister - exudes a calm and confidence that stands in stark contrast to the highly volatile year the San Francisco-based social media pioneer has just endured. Twitter, which has reclassified itself as a news rather than a social networking application on Apple's iTunes App Store, is the medium beloved of celebrities, journalists, newshounds - and new US President Donald Trump.

Twitter has 313 million monthly active users, a key metric for investors. Total revenue in the third quarter of 2016 reached $616m (€573m), up 8pc year-over year. But Twitter has struggled to meet market expectations for both user and revenue growth.

It has done so at a time when rivals such as Instagram and Facebook bask in eye-watering figures.

Last week, Facebook, en route to reaching some two billion users per month, saw its quarterly revenue surge by 50pc as it continued to benefit from that social network's aggressive push into mobile and video.

Twitter's stock, which once reached $69 (€64) a share in January 2014, months after it went public at $26 (€24) a share, has seen its value plummet and soar - up to $20bn (€18bn) at one point last year - amid a series of acquisition plays that have failed to take flight.

Many suitors, such as Disney, Comcast and 21st Century Fox, have reportedly run the rule over Twitter, which has a market capitalisation of just over $12bn (€11bn).

The little bird, which cut its global workforce by 9pc last year, at times feels perched out on a proverbial limb. Yet for all of the regular reports of its demise, Twitter is still dominating the online news agenda. McSweeney is confident that the company can revive and thrive following the return of its founder Jack Dorsey, who came back to Twitter last year as chief executive to lead a turnaround. "People will always want to know what's happening in the world, that will always be our advantage," says McSweeney, who is married to barrister, author and political pundit Noel Whelan with whom she has a seven-year-old son.

"We are fast, it [Twitter] is real-time and the better we get around context and personalisation, the more impact we will have," says McSweeney, who began her political life as a parliamentary transcriber in the Dáil before convincing one Bertie Ahern that Fianna Fail needed someone to prepare people for parliamentary performance and that she was the woman to do it.

Since Dorsey's return, Twitter has made a sharp, steep pivot towards live streaming, video and corporate partnerships.

It is trying to own the live space by streaming videos of live political and sports events such as last week's deadline day live-streaming deal with broadcaster Sky.

Whatever the metrics, McSweeney is convinced of the power of Twitter as a platform, a power deployed to superb effect by US President Donald J Trump, its current star/bete noir.

"Trump recognised and harnessed the power of the platform," says the avid crochet blanket maker, who kick-boxes four mornings a week.

"If you want to talk directly to people, Twitter is where you should be. You have a mass audience in real time, it's unmediated messaging and it has this incredible reach.

"The reality of the Trump effect is that it became part and parcel of mainstream media coverage of the campaign. So his voice has amplified significantly, but we see that in other circumstances".

That much is true: last week a tweet by an Irishman who jokingly changed the BBC Breaking News logo to "Oh f**k, what now" went viral.

"Suddenly everyone in the world knows who he is. Things just take off," says McSweeney.

Things really took off for McSweeney when she joined the PSNI. As a Spad, McSweeney was the eyes and ears of her political masters. At the PSNI, she learned to manage teams, budgets and deal with a vast array of stakeholders, preparing her for future executive roles.

"It [PSNI] was definitely what changed my career trajectory," says McSweeney, who has just returned from an executive level -setting exercise in New York. "Then, I needed to come home".

McSweeney returned to start a family, giving birth to a baby boy a year or so after she joined the Garda. "I only have one, it wasn't by choice," says McSweeney quietly, adding that being a mother is her greatest achievement.

"I would loved to have had more. Being a mother remains, for everything I have done, the most fulfilling thing and probably one of the few things that I haven't felt the need to have external affirmation in terms of feeling am I doing an OK job?"

McSweeney, whose mother has dementia and has been in hospital for 18 months, feels passionately about the power of Twitter to galvanise communities.

The platform has been a powerful communications tool as hashtags such as #hometovote (used during Ireland's marriage equality campaign), #PorteOuverte (used by Parisians to open their doors to victims after the Paris attacks), and #illridewithyou (which offered solidarity to Muslims in Sydney), testify.

But for McSweeney, it was the disappearance of an elderly Alzheimer's sufferer from Belfast who was guided to safety by a Twitter user, after the woman's family tweeted her absence, that demonstrates the power of the platform.

As a Twitter vice-president and EMEA lead for comms and policy, McSweeney has been at the frontline of debates about Twitter's handling of issues such as trolls and other abuses and predicts that Ireland could become a major centre for litigation on "the issues of our time".

Twitter has moved to address the issue of online abuse following the departure of a number of high-profile users, but McSweeney is adamant that account anonymity is critical.

"I have never made any apology for the fact that we allow anonymous accounts," she says, adding: "On Twitter, bad actors get called out. Lies get called out."

McSweeney is reluctant to comment on the recent $13bn Apple tax ruling and says Twitter has had no recent direct liaison with the Government over tax.

"But I will say this," says the emphatic supporter of Ireland's 12.5pc corporate tax rate.

"There is an overly simplistic narrative about the corporate environment here in Ireland."

McSweeney is the third MD of Twitter Ireland in less than a year following the departure of Stephen McIntyre last June and a six-month spell by Storyful founder Mark Little.

Resilience is McSweeney's calling card - it is her staying power that could yet see the Cork native become one of the most influential women in tech, far beyond Irish shores.

'In my spare time I crochet ... and kick-box'

What do you do in your spare time?

I crochet blankets, which make great gifts, and I do some kick-boxing.

What book are you reading?

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George - about a literary apothecary who prescribes books for healing.

What's your music taste like?

Pretty mixed - Duke Special, Van Morrison, Nick Cave, Lana Del Ray, film scores ...

What's the best piece of business/career advice you've received, and who gave it to you?

Always work with people from whom you are learning - a friend of ours, Paul Kelly, who is now ceo of Fáilte Ireland, told me that.

What's your favourite gadget?

Probably my Apple watch - completely non-essential but fun!

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