While this post focuses on David Cameron it is also intended to be an analysis of the importance of social media, and Twitter in particular, to all politicians.
1. Why David Cameron?
I chose David Cameron as the subject of this piece because despite being a prominent political leader he has, unlike others, famously dismissed Twitter and has also demonstrated his ignorance of digital media and the instantaneous and direct form of communication it necessitates by telling candidates in the run up to the UK’s last general election that they would need approval for posting to sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Influential Tory bloggers such as Tim Montgomerie and Walaa Idris have long called on David Cameron to join Twitter in order to help their party’s message reach hundreds of thousands of people in a more sincere and direct way than is possible through traditional broadcast media.
2. The Conservative party’s current media strategy
The recent News International debacle and the fact that Cameron chose to appoint the discredited Andy Coulson, an ex News of the World editor, as his party’s head of communications demonstrates the Conservative leadership’s misguided belief that the overwhelming focus of their media strategy should be centered on traditional broadcasters and publishers.
The exposure of Cameron’s intimate relationships with Murdoch and his senior executives show how Cameron has had to compromise his own authenticity and beliefs in order to ingratiate himself and his party to established media owners. Cameron’s previous business experience was limited to commercial public relations in an era when relationships with TV channels and newspapers were key, but the web and social media have made what he learnt about the media at that time increasingly irrelevant. Reading inbetween the lines my view is that Cameron has yet to understand the importance of Twitter and instead still sees the traditional broadcast media as an easier way to build influence.
There have been various announcements by the Conservatives relating to appointments of ‘Twitter Tsars’ etc, but these initiatives seemingly serve to largely dump the ‘digital issue’ with some overpaid executive with no real experience or understanding of social media in the hope that this will somehow have some effect. Rishi Saha, head of new media for the Conservatives at the last election didn’t even (and still doesn’t) have a Twitter account. As a Twitter user myself I know that if you are not using Twitter properly you can’t begin to understand digital media and its impact.
David Cameron needs to take the lead with Twitter and social media and ensure that from top down government and politicians are properly connected and fit for purpose in a digital age.
3. Political leaders using social media
As far back as the US election in 2008, Barack Obama’s social media strategy was widely seen as the defining factor that led to his win and despite Sarah Palin’s inexperience and unorthodox approach, her proficient use of social media is seen as the main reason behind her prominence in US political discourse. Such diverse political figures as the Dalai Lama and Hugo Chavez increasingly use Twitter as their main communication channel and otherwise backward movements such as the Taliban have also embraced Twitter.
In Cameron’s own party, prominent figures such as foreign minister William Hague (undeterred by the sensitivity of his office) and Boris Johnson have active Twitter accounts. Despite the majority of London’s population and constituencies having a Labour voting record, Boris Johnson used Twitter and Facebook to help him win the London mayoral election in 2008. Johnson has now evolved his Twitter use to the extent that he is no longer purely broadcasting, but growing his influence through using Twitter as an interactive medium to host live Q&A sessions.
Even though I only have a few hundred Twitter followers and for most of the last two years have been based in the geographically remote extremity of Cornwall, foreign leaders such as the long term leader of the Malaysian opposition and Bahrain’s foreign minister and member of its royal family have taken the time to have conversations with me on Twitter about Malaysian politics and Cricket respectively. I even received a tweet from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs when I criticised the Israeli response to the Palestinian aid flotillas in 2010. The simple act of Australia’s former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (or someone in his team) following me on Twitter the other day gives me the impression that an Australian politician is more interested in listening to me than any UK public official that would like me to elect them.
4. Why Twitter is important
a) Accessing people
Politicians recognise the importance of talking to many people on the campaign trail, but many still do not convert this practice into online communication which allows for far more opportunities to engage in discussions and debate. Whenever Cameron has any otherwise dead time like sitting in the back of a car, or even on the loo (!), he can respond to comments from people throughout the UK and around the world, in a manner whereby he can be visible to potentially millions, thus all the time continuing to build a powerful profile. While politicians say they want to talk to their constituents the opportunities to do this face-to-face are limited, but those who are successfully using Twitter to keep in touch and interact with people are doing so in a far more effective way than has ever been possible before.
The public expect to be able to interact with those that are elected to serve them and Twitter is the most accessible venue for public discussion, raising issues and sharing ideas ever available in the history of politics. Politicians are even using Twitter to share news from invitation only meetings in order to open up information and discussions.
b) Accessing information
Taking into account the fact that many tweets include condensed links to more in-depth commentary in blog posts, no other media tool enables people to receive and absorb such enormous volumes of quality information and to access fascinating and insightful content from the world’s leading thinkers. As well as a social network tool, twitter is also an important information access device, without which there is no other way that someone is able to effectively digest and synthesize content from a wide variety of sources in today’s multi-media digital age.
In a fast changing world, the only way to keep up and understand the issues of the day from technology to foreign policy is to use Twitter and if Cameron is not accessing that information, but instead relying on the silo thinking of one or two advisers close to him, then his knowledge and understanding of the world around him will be relatively limited. With Twitter politicians get a variety of news, opinions and information pushed to them, rather than relying on their limited imagination if they are solely accessing content through search and people close to them in the physical world.
c) The amplification effect
All journalists are on Twitter and tracking public figures in order to find stories, so using Twitter also helps to generate more press and stories in mainstream blogs and traditional broadcast media as information in the twittersphere continues to make headline news. Therefore, members of the public who don’t follow politics on Twitter will still be influenced by political stories emanating from it through consuming news produced by journalists who do follow online conversations. This combines with the viral nature of the internet and the way single messages are spread to many through public mentions and retweets on Twitter to produce a huge and very powerful amplification effect.
d) The importance of word of mouth
Social media and Twitter are a new form of word of mouth politics that applies the power of software to human relationships to create a potent form of ‘social proof’ marketing whereby people are influenced by what their friends share and post via social networking and deem such information more credible than news heard elsewhere, especially from broadcast media controlled by vested interests.
e) Controlling your message
As alluded to above with the reference to David Cameron’s relationship with News International, on Twitter you can control your message by being able to use a communication medium in an unfettered manner rather than have to compromise your beliefs in order to get the outside controlled mainstream media to include your content, views and opinion. A politician’s message has more resonance when articulated in such a genuine and transparent way.
f) Developing a personal brand
A post earlier this year in Canada’s Hill Times (a politics and government newsweekly) highlights the importance of Twitter as the primary way for the public to understand a politician as a person as you get more of an appreciation for their sense of humour, genuine motivation, family life and demands of the job. However many politicians just broadcast prepared press releases from the party or have their staff update their Twitter accounts, when what’s really needed in order to build a personal brand is to tweet yourself authentically and let your real personality and passions show. If Cameron were to make the odd mistake then it will only help to highlight his human side.
g) Getting content to rank highly in search
From a search engine optimisation perspective, Twitter and social media use will help push politician’s content and other content they approve of (or retweet) up search engines’ rankings so that their agenda and viewpoint is more dominant and highly ranked in search.
Liberal Democrat digital PR man Mark Pack points out in one of his blog posts that Google data clearly shows that when the public are searching for information about politicians online increasingly the main thing they click on is their Twitter url, and if the politician is not on Twitter, Google instead will show their spoof accounts. Both of these facts should spur politicians into getting on Twitter and using it well.
David Cameron’s job is to connect with people and communicate, as well as to be networked to information and know what is going on. Without Twitter, Cameron risks becoming out of step in a fast changing world. By not realising the potential of Twitter and social media, many people will call into question Cameron’s judgment.
Twitter is not about telling the world what you had for breakfast or following the inanities of celebrities, just as any other publishing or conversational tool is not used exclusively for such purposes. Instead, Twitter is the most sophisticated communication tool known to man. Those politicians like Cameron who can’t or won’t use Twitter to constantly engage and deliver their message free from the opinion filters of traditional media interests will struggle for support and votes and will also find themselves losing ground to politicians who have been building their influence by using the direct, unhindered, interactive and viral nature of Twitter and other social media tools.