How local politicians are using Twitter and social media

Summary

Some thoughts on how local politicians can and are using Twitter and other social media platforms. This is different to the post How I use Twitter.

I use the term local politicians as opposed to those with a national profile/holders or national public office because this post is looking primarily at councillors and how they interact with constituents and the local media. It’s also based on a number of thoughts and comments from Cllrs Jo Beavis and Stephen Canning of Braintree District Council at a social media seminar I attended at South Cambridgeshire District Council on 29 February 2012. (Leap year!)

The first thing involves stating the obvious: Not all politicians are using social media. The second thing is less obvious: Some politicians do not want to use social media – it’s not for them. The use of social media is not something that is essential for all politicians any more than having a mobile phone is. For me, what matters is the strength of the team. That said, non-social media users in the political world need to be aware of the impact of social media on local politics and on the expectations of some of their constituents.

Learning to use social media is a bit like learning to ride a bike. You may need stabilisers to start off with – which is a bit like having a locked account and using it to observe only rather than engage. When you take the stabilisers off, things are a bit wobbly to start off with as you move at a relatively slow speed, before becoming more confident. With the confidence and moving off the side roads onto the main roads means joining the traffic – and the increased risk of accidents, or what we call in the social media world, a mini firestorm. Which means it’s best to take precautions – such as wearing a crash helmet/not cycling like an idiot on the roads, to drafting and sticking to a set of personal house rules for social media.

What to tweet? What to post?

What a number of politicians do is separate their professional lives from their personal lives. Cllr Sarah Brown is a good example. Sarah sets the expectations of those following her public office account – e.g. you’re more likely to get views and comment on what’s happening in Cambridge City Council and less likely to get the thoughts of last night’s telly.

Posts and tweets from political types generally seem to fall into four themes. (At least that seems to be the case from the ones I follow).

    • Posting a link to an article that might be of interest
    • Posting a comment for public circulation
    • Asking a question or asking for a piece of information
    • Engaging in an online conversation/debate

As with many things in social media, these lines are very blurred. What might feel like the equivalent of a conversation in the pub may be taken by others to be a statement of local party policy. Social media firestorms have been started by less.

Expectations

Being a current or former holder of public office brings with it a series of expectations as far as behaviour is concerned. There’s nothing the social media world likes more than getting on its high horse over a controversial comment on a social media platform. The mainstream media like this sort of story too. “Politician posts naughty word on interwebz! When is weak party leader going to sack this despicable individual?” Part of the challenge for political leaders – local or otherwise is to decide what is a storm in a teacup and what is something more serious.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, the expectations and the conventions of social media have still not been set. New guidance for public servants is in the pipeline. What is one person’s sackable offence can make others think “get a life!” The more you use social media to engage and converse with people, the more you’ll get a feel for what is and what is not acceptable. The important factor here though is ensuring your audience goes beyond your ‘usual suspects’. The risk otherwise is that you end up in a little bubble. What might be acceptable in the bubble may not be acceptable outside of it. Think MPs’ expenses.

For younger councillors in particular, the risk is that their past social media profiles and postings from their school and college days end up being plastered all over local newspapers. The new generation of young councillors have grown up with the internet – and are using it in a manner, and with expectations that may not be the same as those of us who grew up in pre-internet days. Political parties will need to consider how they manage this. Will there be an expectation for people to block/unfollow/unfriend lots of people when they stand for public office? Will there be an expectation that such accounts will have to be deleted? I don’t know.

Trolls, spammers and hatebots

Politics is a subject that inevitably inflames passions – normally angry ones. I’ve said on a number of occasions that I’ll never sink my teeth into party politics because I don’t have a thick enough skin for it. One of the fears that has cropped up is why anyone would want to open themselves up to a torrent of abuse that seems to inevitably come from signing up to a social media account?

I blogged about this in general terms in my post Puffles (*takes plate away*) (i.e. “Do not feed the trolls”). My advice is the same to politicians as it is to everyone else: Your account, your rules. There is nothing to compel you to engage with such people. I have a very low tolerance threshold, blocking and reporting on a regular basis. Life’s too short.

How local media are using social media posts by politicians

The internet allows local media to put up “online only” content – the sort of stuff that might be of mild interest on a given day but not suitable for say a weekly print edition. One of the things social media does is it saves journalists a lot of time trying to source quotations. Rather than trying to phone around for comments, they only need to look at a social media account to see if a quotation has been posted there. Because of the nature of Twitter in particular, the character limit means that quotations have to be short, sharp and to the point. Thus saving the journalist time trying to pick out key lines from a long statement or a press release.

The drawback to this is that you don’t necessarily know that your tweet or post has been used for an article until either you’ve seen it in the article or when the comments start coming back thick and fast. This can become confusing if the quotation being used is from a comment that seems like it was from some time ago.

Although it may not be immediately apparent of the benefits of using social media, local media reporting of who is saying what on it can increase politicians’ profiles. As the number of social media users continue to rise, and as social media world begins to mature, there’s no time like the present for local politicians to start experimenting with it.

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