Should politicians tweet (and how should they if they do)?

Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Liberal Party had ‘slapped a social media gag on MPs’. While the article didn’t live up to the sensation of the headline, it did touch on an area I had provided a media comment on last week.

As such I thought I would publish my full notes, edited and updated with a view to the content of this article.

Firstly, I think social media has become an important ‘toolkit’ of channels for politicians to use to engage constituents, stakeholders and the media.

While politicians may personally choose whether or not they wish to use social media, based on their available time, need for the reach and comfort with the technology, when parties actively or passively gag politicians on social media it sends a dangerous message – the party can’t trust its own electoral candidates to behave appropriately in public discourse, so why should the public trust these candidates in public office?

I think that if a party can’t trust its candidates to behave properly online or provide clear guidance to candidates on how to use social media effectively, the issue is with the candidate selection, not the channels (social media).

Effectively if a politician isn’t able to present themselves appropriately through social media channels, perhaps they need to consider a different career (and political parties should not pre-select them).

In my view, in modern societies the majority of politicians at all levels of government should engage through appropriate social media channels.

These channels help amplify their direct public voice (uninterpreted by traditional media) and allow politicians to interact more broadly and deeply with constituents and interest groups than is possible through time constrained face-to-face events and meetings or traditional media channels.

Also, many of the constituents politicians can reach through social media are far harder to reach through other approaches and so the service allows them, as it allows brands and government agencies, to reach people who otherwise would not engage with them through other channels.

Looking specifically at Twitter as a channel for politicians (already used by a majority of Federal politicians in Australia), too many politicians are still using the service purely as a one-way tool for linking to media releases or ‘vanity posts’ they’ve made in traditional media outlets or in their own sites.

This is a valuable use of Twitter and, where politicians are Ministers or act in an official or honorary capacity for a particular movement or cause, they definitely should retweet tweets by the agencies and organisations they are responsible for. However if news announcements and retweets are the main or sole use of a Twitter account, followers will quickly switch off and ignore the politician as they’re not adding value.

Politicians also should avoid using Twitter mainly or only for political positional and ideological statements such as “The Liberal party is committed to doing X – read about it in our site”. These are commonly one-way closed statements and generally don’t provide the space for politicians to engage in active conversations with the public. While important for positioning individuals and parties politically, when tweeted too often they can damage the credibility of politicians – making them appear interested only in making motherhood statements rather than engaging communities in real conversation.

I believe politicians need to consider Twitter as an engagement tool – like a meeting in their electorate or in-promptu drop-in at a shopping centre. It should be used by politicians and parties to engage actively with citizens and with groups discussing particular issues or topics.

They definitely should use Twitter’s service to announce news and ideological positions, but also should use it to engage in discussions around the edges, and on topics where their party or themselves personally are still building an understanding of an issue and are willing to listen to and test ideas.

This use of Twitter for engaging in conversations can be conducted in a more structured manner than simply randomly responding to user tweets at different times when the politician is online. I recommend that politicians consider scheduled ‘tweet-ups’ with their constituents where they invite people to have an hour or two hour long conversation on a given topic. This has been successfully executed by the ACT Labor party through their Twitter cabinets, and can similarly work for individual politicians as it can for parties or cabinets.

To use this approach effectively, the politician or party should define a scope or topic for each conversation – this allows them to refrain from responding to hecklers who wish to go off topic.

It is important to set a hashtag for these events (in aggregate rather than individually) and promote them before the event to inform potential participants.

Politicians should to be prepared to respond quickly to comments – even having an aide or two involved to answer side questions and allow the politician to focus on the ‘meat’ of the conversation. If they are engaging in a conversation about their portfolio as a Minister, they should involve their agencies as well – if they have Twitter accounts (and if they don’t, they should be asking why!)

Finally, the use of Twitter to talk about what someone had for breakfast or their daily activities is often maligned (‘who cares what I had for breakfast’), however it is important part of establishing a human connection between the tweeting politician and their constituents.

In face-to-face conversation it is normal to engage in pleasantries and small talk, comments about the weather, asking how people are. This is a conversational tool for establishing a connection and building an initial trust relationship.

In social media there is a similar, if not greater, need to establish a connection and, when tweeting, politicians who talk about what they are doing and engage in conversation about it (such as asking for movie suggestions – as Kevin Rudd has done) help build trust and active engagement with constituents – so long as they are genuine and not forced or exaggerated.

To break tweeting down in percentage terms, I’d say politicians should tweet in roughly the following proportions (though each should adjust this to suit their particular positioning and strategy):

  • Announcements (media releases/decisions/actions): 10%
  • News (tweet headlines and link to statements/articles/posts): 10%
  • Retweets (of agencies/causes/related parties): 10-20%
  • Inpromptu engagement (responding to interesting tweets/correcting misinformation): 20-30%
  • Scheduled engagement (organised tweet-ups/twitter chats): 10%
  • Activities (where they are/what they are doing): 20-30%

Are Australian politicians using Twitter effectively?

A few are with, federally, Malcolm Turnbull, Kevin Rudd and Kate Lundy standing-out, through the entire Greens team have been growing their effectiveness, as has the Prime Minister who, after a shaky start, has found her own social media rhythm.

At state/territory levels Katy Gallagher and her cabinet are very good at using Twitter – possibly because they’ve had so much practice and have considered it a useful and effective way to engage with the ACT community for some time through their Twitter cabinets. Kristina Kenneally was also quite effective, as are several current State Premiers, Ministers and a few back benchers.

I’m not aware of any stand-out local councillors tweeting, although as this is more localised and fragmented due to the number of councils, there may be many great councillors out there.

Overall our politicians primarily appear to follow other politicians and traditional media representatives, shaping their tweets to these audiences.

The public remain more spoken at than too by most politicians – an issue that appears linked to political parties seeing the public as a passive group, rather than an active and involved audience.

In conclusion, few politicians use Twitter effectively – but they should. Twitter, and other social media channels, shouldn’t be seen solely as a way to broadcast political positions and decisions, but as a channel to tap the wisdom of the crowd – sourcing ideas and perspectives that rarely filter their way to Ministers through public sector or political machinery.

This does involve a level of judgement and skill on behalf of politicians to be able to identify good ideas, test them and debate them in a public way, which few of our politicians appear to have really learnt, and poses one of the biggest challenges for the future of Australia.

Measuring Twitter’s effectiveness for politicians

While many organisations do look to Klout or Kred scores, follower numbers or even semantic-type analysis through services such as Brandtology as a way to measure their effectiveness, it is important to keep in mind that these don’t measure actual engagement or influence and simply reflect interactions.

While they are useful metrics to track, they don’t accurately quantify whether politicians are building trust and respect online, getting their messages across or actively engaging the community to help foster deeper political engagement and inject new (and sometimes better) ideas into the political process.

To assess effectiveness for politicians using Twitter it is important to consider the level of retweeting and sharing – including how broadly politicians retweet community members, not just their own parties or media. Other factors should also be considered, such as the community’s level of @ responses (in Twitter terms) to community members, as well as participation in hashtag (#) based discussions on topics related to the politician’s portfolio areas and political interests.

Another measure of effectiveness – or at least notoriety – is the number and sophistication of the parody accounts for a politician. If I were a senior Minister or Shadow Minister and didn’t have someone parodying me on Twitter in a humorous and subtle manner, then I would be worried that I wasn’t really cutting through to my constituency and having an impact. Boring and unengaging politicians are less likely to achieve a long future on the government’s front-bench.

Finally, politicians and the media should judge the effectiveness of politicians’ engagement on Twitter through actual engagement – looking at the relationships they are building and the engagements they are having. This tells a story beyond the statistics – just as OpenAustralia’s statistics on how often politicians speak in parliament only tell part of the story as to how effective those politicians are at getting things done in their electorates.

Politicians are already being judged on social media – but verdicts are not necessarily in

Politicians are already being judged on Twitter and other social media channels by their acts and words – how often, broadly and deeply they engage. Those who primarily make announcements, or selectively follow and retweet their political colleagues and the press gallery, are being judged harshly – even if this isn’t necessarily obvious to them.

Politicians who are actively engaging, building trust relationships, debating politely with those who hold opposing views, use linking, retweets and hashtags wisely and are otherwise acting as good Twitter ‘citizens’ will reap the benefits through trust and respect over time. They are also exercising their social media muscles and building skills that will help them in their future careers as other social media channels emerge and become important for engagement with the public.

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