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Technology Twitter Canada’s new head Paul Burns reimagines the platform as a business-intelligence tool

Paul Burns, the new head of Twitter Canada, poses for a portrait at the company's office in Toronto, Oct. 2, 2018.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Paul Burns wants Twitter Inc. to be a game-changing tool for brands to engage customers – one that works with clients to create behavioural change rather than just get the message out.

In some ways, this is already happening. Mr. Burns, who became managing director of Twitter Canada this summer, looks to examples like Nike Inc.’s latest “Just Do It” 30th-anniversary launch featuring former NFL quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick, and The Gatorade Company Inc.’s "Like a Mother” campaign featuring Serena Williams, as two of the biggest recent cultural conversations spurred on by the social-media service.

Mr. Burns has big dreams for the platform as a force for social justice and change, be it grassroots or brand-led. But the 280-character social-posting platform comes with a loaded reputation. In his first print interview since taking the job, Mr. Burns was alternately effusive about Twitter’s potential for good and cautious about responding to the platform’s widespread problems with hate speech and fake news prematurely or unfairly. The toxic environment created by those problems, he said, requires "thoughtful,” "long-road” decisions with broad input from Twitter staff and the public, ultimately steered by its "wildly humble” chief executive Jack Dorsey.

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As the manager in a country one-tenth the size of the United States, Mr. Burns’s power at San Francisco-based Twitter is limited. From a west-end Toronto office, he oversees much of the company’s 45-person Canadian team, largely made up of sales staff. Twitter Canada’s two previous managing directors, Kirstine Stewart and Rory Capern, arrived at the company from the media and tech sectors, respectively – she as executive vice-president of CBC’s English services, he as Google Canada’s head of partnerships – but 37-year-old Mr. Burns came to Twitter from the ad-agency world.

After spending the early part of his career in digital media, including as a vice-president at Shaw Communications Inc., Mr. Burns spent much of the last four years building and running the Toronto office of the global digital agency Huge. Advertising is crucial for the platform – it made US$601-million from advertising last quarter, up 23 per cent from a year earlier, with engagements up 81 per cent – and as it trends upward with help from video ads, Mr. Burns’s first job is to keep growing that business in Canada.

Just as he sees brands using the platform for cultural moments, like with Nike and Gatorade, Mr. Burns wants to help client companies re-imagine Twitter as a business-intelligence tool to learn about their customers, adapt to their needs and engage with them on their terms. With Twitter, "whether you’re a grassroots movement or a Fortune 50 brand, your ability to influence and almost change culture is very real. I get excited about that,” he said. "What we can do is help brands actually change and drive behaviour.”

Many of Twitter’s users, however, aren’t as excited as they used to be. Its growth in monthly active users has been uneven. There were 335 million monthly active users last quarter, down a million from a quarter before; for the final quarter of 2017, growth stagnated entirely. Part of this has to do with the health of conversation on the platform, which the company has taken steps to address, including a promise in July to delete millions of automated "bot” accounts.

The health of the platform, Mr. Burns says, is the company’s top priority. In recent years, Twitter has gone from being a source of cultural optimism – since the social-media-fuelled Arab Spring, Mr. Burns cites the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements as crucial Twitter-centric moments – to one that has been implicated in the spread of toxic hate speech and false information.

Twitter’s CEO, Mr. Dorsey, has been known to approach these issues at a cool distance in the name of free speech, in turn sparking further outrage on the platform. Recently, Twitter lagged behind other platforms to ban far-right U.S. commentator Alex Jones of the website InfoWars from the service for hate speech, because he wasn’t directly contravening any rules. Eventually, Mr. Jones was banned, and Twitter expanded its hate-speech rules to prohibit "content that dehumanizes others based on their membership in an identifiable group.”

Mr. Burns said this was an example of what he liked most about the company. "As culture evolves and culture changes, and as the world moves forward, we have to adjust our policy to make sure it is taking into consideration the things that are happening on the platform,” he said.

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