From tweet to twat

The New Year had barely begun before yet another politician was forced to make an apology regarding a blunder on Twitter. Rosemary Healy, Labour councillor for Nottingham, expressed her ‘profound apologies’ on 6 January after retweeting a parody Conservative poster, showing images of the gates of Auschwitz with the words underneath Let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy.

Healy, who claimed it was a ‘genuine mistake’, was the latest in a long (and growing) line of politicians to fall prey to Twitter’s pitfalls. Last April, vice chair of the Conservative party, Michael Fabricant was sacked for tweeting Well, about time following the resignation of culture secretary Maria Miller.

And who could forget Ed Balls, who in 2011 accidentally tweeted his own name while searching for a mention of himself, leading to the annual social media celebration ‘Ed Balls Day’ on 28 April to celebrate his error? Balls’ errant tweet has since been retweeted more than 36,000 times.

Twitter is clearly not for the faint-hearted. But with so many politicians having a hard time communicating on the platform and the General Election fast approaching, it is appropriate to ask why they seem to get it wrong.

One of the challenges, according to Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake, is the speed of conversation on social media and the consequent expectation of an immediate response. Responding to every follower is no easy feat, especially if, like Brake, you have more than 13,000 of them.

‘In some respects [the immediacy of social media] is a hindrance because people’s expectation is that you are on Twitter all the time,’ says Brake. ‘I don’t have the time and resource to handle all the Twitter queries about Lib Dem policy from all over the world. I simply can’t do that. I have to try to be selective, I have to try and identify whether people are or not my constituents.’

Ed McRandal, public affairs consultant at Insight Public Affairs, also notes that the false immediacy of Twitter can be tricky to deal with. ‘Social media makes things move at the speed of light,’ he says. ‘There is pressure to respond instantly. If you’re not responding immediately, people will think you’re dodging the issue. In reality, you might just be in a meeting or your phone has run out of battery. People demand that response so quickly because of the nature of the 24 hour news cycle.’

But while politicians are too busy for round the clock tweeting, many of their keen-eyed followers are not, meaning that even the simplest utterances online can be scrutinised intensely. David Prescott, director at communications agency Commucan and son of prolific tweeter Lord Prescott, reminds politicians that Twitter is a ‘public place’, and that interacting on Twitter is comparable to having a conversation in the pub, adding ‘occasionally you’re going to be overheard’. And there is no escape for politicians who think twice after sending a tweet, and seek to delete it. All deleted tweets by MPs are automatically retweeted by the account @deletedbyMPs and ‘pounced on’. To date, more than 18,000 tweets have found their way back into circulation via this account.

‘[Twitter] is the most personal communication channel available, which increases democratic accountability,’ acknowledges Ben Carson, head of product at social media monitoring service Yatterbox. And with the personal musings and mishaps of politicians on Twitter so easily accessible for scrutiny, Carson notes that those managing their reputations are faced with an even harder task.

‘What it might do is to force people to react more quickly. For example, if the Gordon Brown Bigoted Woman incident [when Brown was caught on microphone calling a voter from Rochdale ‘bigoted’ in 2010] happened today, it would develop much more quickly,’ he says. ‘If you don’t enter that debate, it moves on without you. Lines get drawn. The truth gets decided very quickly.’

Those contributing to the debate may also be less than friendly, as many high profile figures have discovered. Negative comments from ‘Internet trolls’, who deliberately try to provoke emotional responses from those they harass, are increasingly common on open forums. It is easy to see why some politicians are reluctant to engage with the public online.

‘Even Boris [Johnson, Mayor of London] only responds when its #AskBoris,’ points out Prescott, in reference to Johnson’s usually personable approach to politics.

Authenticity, for Prescott, is essential and all too often overlooked: ‘My main advice is Just be yourself.’

Despite accusations to the contrary, Lord Prescott controls his own Twitter account, which now has more than 225,000 followers – or roughly ten times the number of votes he regularly secured in the Hull East by-elections. His account, @johnprescott, contains a mix of political news, events and fun. For example, when The Times reported that UKIP had allegedly sacked its policy chief for failing to finish its manifesto, Lord Prescott encouraged his followers to assist using the hashtag #MyUKIPManifesto. Personality, according to his son, is the operative word.

Prescott argues that Twitter can help those politicians who tend to stiffen up on television relate to their voters. Even Ed Balls has joined in the Twitter banter on Ed Balls Day, and when radio presenter Nicky Campbell also managed to send his name as a tweet, sent a sympathetic Welcome to my world tweet to @NickyAACampbell. And Balls has even provided an insight into his musical tastes, tweeting former X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos during the show that the song ‘Call Me Maybe’ was THE song of 2012.

But with around one third of Britain’s MPs still not using Twitter (including six members of David Cameron’s Cabinet), some politicians are clearly exercising a fair amount of caution when it comes to outlining their views via the platform.

‘It’s like learning to swim. You fear drowning but then you find your balance,’ explains Prescott. He uses the example of an unnamed journalist friend, known for being controversial in her columns, who was too scared to take up Twitter for fear of open verbal warfare.

‘I said what she will find is that more than likely there will be people agreeing with her too,’ says Prescott. The journalist in question has since come to love the platform, Prescott asserts.

Gregor Poynton, associate director of digital at Portland Communications, agrees that, for the most part, the threat of blunders on Twitter is almost always outweighed by its rewards. ‘For most politicians, they made a risk/benefit analysis and ultimately have seen the benefit, and the opportunities for engaging people, raising profile, talking about issues they care about, helping further their campaigns, are much greater than the opportunity to say something daft that echoes around the Twittersphere for a couple of days,’ he says.

‘The conversation is being had on social. If you say Well I’m not going to do that, then you leave the playing field to others to fill in that conversation and talk about issues that you’re talking about, and talk about you, without you having the opportunity to put your own point of view into the mix. It’s not like you can say Well, I’m going to opt out of Twitter so Twitter doesn’t really exist for me. It is still happening, the conversations are still going on, so how do you make sure your voice is still heard?’

Mark Flanagan, senior partner at Portland, agrees that politicians should not be put off by the media’s eagerness to catch them out on Twitter. ‘There’s a general societal issue that we’re in transition between seeing these tools as frivolous and taking them seriously. It’s the same with all of us, where we might say something we regret because we haven’t taken it seriously, we haven’t thought about it carefully enough. In a business, that might be leaving it to the intern. I think we’re now reaching the point where people do see [social media] as an important part of communications.

‘People will make gaffes. When I worked for Gordon Brown, every single thing we did on social media was written up as backfiring. The narrative was always Politician tries to be with it and adopt these tools and it backfires. That was the story they wrote every time, whether it was or it wasn’t true. Some were bad, some were good, but they were all written up in that way. You have to keep going and you have to get better at it. I think that considering the volume of content about politics and politicians on social media, I think there’s actually relatively few so-called ‘gaffes’ and we should just all get over it basically.

‘The answer is not Let’s not do it. That would just be ridiculous. For people in politics not to use the most cost-effective and efficient channels of reaching your audiences would be insane.’

And while Twitter and its reputational risks might seem demanding of politicians and their ever-precious time, Prescott is on hand to offer some more encouraging advice: ‘If John can do it, anyone can.’

The parties might want to put that on a motivational poster.

ADVICE FOR POLITICIANS USING TWITTER 

Source: David Prescott, Commucan

1. Don’t just broadcast. Conversing will give you credibility in the long term. All the party leaders are guilty of not replying.

2. Don’t follow everyone or no-one at all.

3. Remember you’re in a public place so think before you tweet or retweet. MPs’ deleted tweets are automatically tweeted by @deletedbymps and pounced upon.

4. Know the difference between Twitter and Facebook. Twitter’s a conversation down the pub; people may overhear and join in. Facebook is a private house party.

5. Don’t deal with constituent matters on Twitter – get it off social media to email. You can’t answer complex constituency matters in 140 characters.

6. Do not feed the trolls! Try to ignore them. If they persist, block them. They want to know they’re hurting you so don’t give them the satisfaction or the publicity.

7. Don’t talk about politics all the time! Let people see the real you. They hate to see on-message soundbites.

8. Ask people what they think! Call and response using hashtags and encouraging user-generated content are a great way of engagement.

9. Get people involved. mydavidcameron.com [a series of parody advertisements based on

David Cameron’s 2010 campaign posters] gave people the tools to do better adverts than the Labour Party ever could.

10. Listen and learn!