Friday, 28 January 2011

Social media, politics and the capacity of our gobs!

Yesterday saw the last in our CllrSocMed tour of Yorkshire (and that oddity of a place “The Humber”) during which we’ve talked to – and with – around 80 councillors from different political parties about that strange old beast, “social media”. From my perspective it has been an education and, I hope, those councillors who came along got some value from my inanities, prejudices and bad jokes.

It seemed right to reflect on the whole “social media” thing – on its ups and downs, on the way in which it has caught a few politicians out and how it just might be pretty useful. One thing though that is abundantly clear is that the political party panjandrums neither ‘get’ nor like social media (or indeed the idea of a ‘blogosphere’). All they see are problems – councillors, MPs, candidates opening their gobs and inserting size 10 hobnails, gangs of opponents bombarding the world with attacking comments and, above all, something that can’t be controlled, can’t be put into a tidy communications grid.

Unfortunately the genie is out of the bottle, has a headache and isn’t about to be bossed around by former journalists and lobbyists employed by the big political parties. And here’s why:

  • There are 500 million people worldwide using Facebook, 175 million on Twitter and hundreds of thousands blogging. Add in MySpace, Flickr, YouTube and other places and spaces and you have a mob environment that cannot be directed or controlled by the politicians – other than by stopping or blocking.
  • The game has changed – we’re right back to response, interaction and engagement and away from message management, targeting and mass communications. Success will come from understanding what makes people respond positively rather than from repetition and saturation.
  • Whether something or someone is ‘liked’ has become important – as significant as message content. And being liked comes from exchange and interaction not from polish and presentation alone. While being tall and having good hair still matters, it is joined by being witty, responding to those around and not being an obsessive or a bore.
  • Politics is boring – for plenty of people it has always been boring – and most folk don’t like it. While the charmed circle of Westminster controlled debate this didn’t matter but now boredom has triumphed. The bloke outside Number Ten can be – and is – ignored as we seek our information and pleasure elsewhere.

There are some changes that still need to happen – political parties need to be less obsessed with whether something someone once said was “offensive”. The next generation – a generation brought up with Facebook and Twitter – will not be either interested or impressed with the singling out of an unfortunate tweet or slightly off Facebook photo. The current approach of trying to remove all media risk not only doesn’t work but is crass and ridiculous. It is ironic that our kids have grown up in this respect – can accept and forgive the odd social faux pas – whereas us older folk remain “offended” and “appalled”. There is surely a good case for political party bosses to grow a sense of humour and to learn what the words, “I’m sorry” mean. The public – the folk on Facebook and Twitter – get this, it’s about time our lords and masters did too.

In the mean time I’ll leave you with Simon’s “How not to do Twitter” for politicians:

  • Attack the man not the ball. That’s right go for the jugular folks, forget about honest debate and go for your opponent on the basis of where he was born, the colour of his hair, the car he drives or what he said ten years ago when he wasn’t a Councillor. The audience will love all that, they’ll think you a really nice, pleasant person who they’d love as their Councillor or MP!
  • Tell risky jokes – you know the ones about wishing Maggie were dead or Mandelson’s dog. You’ll get a laugh – lots of people will send your jolly witticism round the airwaves which will be great. Except you’re not Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle are you? They can do it because they’re comedians – you’re not are you!
  • Swear a lot. Well everyone does, don’t they? The twitterfeed is full of cussing, of ‘c’ words and ‘f’ words competing for space. If you swear a little it shows you’re normal but look at the fuss when Cameron said “twat”! You don’t need to swear to get your point across and, if you do it right, other folk will do all your swearing for you anyway.
  • Call people names. Somebody tweets about housing and you respond with a pithy comment capped off with “you idiot”. Now that will work won’t it, you’ve put the other side firmly in their place. A bit like Barnsley’s chief executive calling Eric Pickles a ‘clown’ – not exactly the best idea really!

Now before you all go crawling through my tweets, let me say that I’ve done all these things – sometimes in the heat of the moment, sometimes with malice aforethought. This changes nothing and I don’t set myself up as exemplary or even especially expert – the advice is what it is, gleaned from having sent 30,000 tweets a handful of which, in the glory of hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have sent.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore social media – it is too important for that. But understand that when you, as a politician, are using social media you are ‘on parade’ not in the pub with your mates. It’s a forgiving parade but, as someone once said, don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t want your mum to see!


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