Social media engagement: The PR2.0 shift for politics

Guest post by Tyler Orchard


Social media engagement: The PR2.0 shift for politics


Whether you work in the private or public sector, social media and PR2.0 have evolved into something more than just another set of communications vehicles. Perhaps several years ago taking the plunge into Twitter or Facebook would be a choice one could make based on simple calculations of return on investment. However, in today’s closely connected world, being involved in social media is more of an expectation, especially for younger PR practitioners.

Much like consumer-based companies, people involved in politics are constantly searching for new ways to connect with their stakeholders. Many of the social media techniques are seamlessly transferable between the public and private sectors. However, I find digital engagement has not been leveraged to the same extent in the public sector as it has in the business or non-profit worlds.

“Engagement through social media” is a phrase we often use, but do not truly understand, including what that means or how to achieve it. I point you to Pierre Killeen of Thornley Fallis, who provides a good introduction and working definition of online participation and engagement.

Social media advantages

Killeen notes that the various social media networking platforms, coupled with an abundance of online media sources, allow people to express their views and opinions in real time. And these viewpoints have an immense reach. People are closely connected and information, positive or negative, is transferred from one person to another at speeds we cannot even begin to fathom. Not to mention journalists and media outlets have placed significant attention on social media conversations and sentiment around the public sector—attention that makes those who tend to be risk averse to shy away from social media all together.

The expectation of social media fluency has “forced” political officials to embark on a highly publicized and, at times, rocky learning endeavour. This expectation has arisen out of documented benefits of social media and its widespread popularity. Digital ads have skyrocketed within political campaigns over the years, because of their advantages over traditional forms of media (i.e., highly targeted, more accurate data). In my opinion, the public sector’s transition from conventional forms of communication to social media has been at times hastily implemented in response to this extensive technological shift within society.

There may be more emphasis placed on being in the space rather than using it to its full potential.

Personal experience

In my position, I have witnessed the apprehension towards social media that is sometimes encountered in the public sector. I find it tends to be a precarious environment in regards to engaging our publics on certain issues. This hesitation stems from the natural desire not to instigate or engage in conversations with the potential for conflict. In the public forums of social media, the traditional concern is even more pronounced.

I have experienced a wide variety of issues discussed via Twitter and Facebook and, as one would expect, there are always differing viewpoints—some of them hostile and seemingly unchangeable. This makes engagement not only difficult, but also raises concerns about vulnerability.

Occasionally content moderation is a necessity (for example, hate speech or libel), but my aim is to ensure any filtering practice is minimal and not self-serving, as I have personally witnessed how the public reacts to unconcealed manipulation.

Regardless of natural apprehensions encountered in the workplace, I attempt to practice what I preach through the implementation of a detailed engagement policy and protocol. I have experienced and learned how the community reacts and perceives information in 140 characters. It is important to note and acknowledge that public sentiment is influenced by internal and external forces that constantly redefine conversations within this space.

Through trial and, of course, error, we are learning how to effectively mitigate conflict and potentially damaging situations through content creation and awareness of the public’s sentiments or emotions that may be attached to certain topics and issues.

Social media content

When it comes to Canadian politics, I find the most productive conversations (across party lines) tend to revolve around topics that offer something of substance for the public. Value-added content provides stakeholders with the opportunity to advance the conversation, as well as take something away—be it new information, clarification or descriptions.

These topics may include, for example, stimulus budgetary allocations for local projects and initiatives. Localized content appears to have the ability to re-shape the relationship and conversation with publics on a general level.

The more contentious topics that occur share a common element of pronounced partisanship.

An optimal example would be the omnibus crime bill recently introduced by the majority Conservative Government. A topic such as this contains significantly differing viewpoints. It was also highly publicized and criticized by the majority of mainstream media outlets, especially those with a more centralist or left-wing orientation.

Media portrayals can ignite conversations and, in some circumstances, a revolt. These types of controversial topics within federal politics create an environment that is defined by clear partisan lines and debate. In turn, social media provides Canadians with platforms to share their views. These perceptions are then shared directly with elected representatives and other publics—a process that lifts the veil of anonymity and separation.

Demographics

In my observation, demographics active in social media are uniquely diverse. It would appear that younger Canadians are more vocal (i.e., unfiltered opinion), largely due to the generational popularity of this form of discourse. Whether the online activity translates to offline action (such as voting in elections or activism) is less clear.

Gen Y and X might be the most “visible” in the space, however, an increasing number of groups and individuals, across professions, age groups and genders, have begun to embrace social media as a clear line of communication with their elected representatives.

I witness more activist-styled groups, as well as older Canadians, using social media in part because of its availability, simplicity and power. Communication platforms, notably Twitter and Facebook, have re-shaped the traditionally distant relationship between politics and publics.

Learnings

My hands-on experience with social media and politics has been interesting and educational, particularly when translating academic theoretical concepts into practical usage. Social media has redefined how views are shared. It is a forum that is as unequivocally beneficial as it is dangerous. In this I mean it offers a level of transparency and vulnerability that was previously unavailable.

As I have experienced both the advantages and the perils of social media within politics, I attempt to implement cogent policies and rigorous processes that align with Terry Flynn’s detailing of the vision and course of action behind the creation of the Flynn, Gregory, Valin definition of public relations for CPRS. His A defining moment in public relations guest post recently came to my attention and it spoke to me, as both my professional position and personal leanings are grounded in reputation and relationship management, two-way symmetrical communication and serving the public’s best interests, both literally and figuratively.

Social media, in my eyes, are channels and tools that best help to promote the democratic principles that are so vital to the political landscape, whether in Canada or other parts of the world.

Understanding the space

I believe it is important to understand the conversations that take place on a daily basis within this social world. It is not enough to only use social media at times of convenience. Rather, it should be acknowledged that an investment of resources is required to truly connect with those looking for information and/or engagement, both known and unknown.

Authenticity is paramount

Leveraging social media should be done in the proper manner. Talking points and convoluted statements that resemble a “cut and paste” from a policy docket, in my opinion, do not engage people—neither does a heavy reliance on outbound marketing and self-promotion. It is about making a true connection with your publics in meaningful ways; a process that cannot solely be on your terms and conditions. Anything less is easily identifiable and has a tendency to stifle progress, permanently.

Openness

I believe a social media and PR2.0 strategy in the public sector should be based on transparency, two-way conversation and openness. Operating in a way that offers people the opportunity to engage organically with their elected representatives is something that is achieved by consciously practising undeniable veracity and unconditional dialogue, at least in regards to those areas on the public record relating to access, process, truth and disclosure. This may see simple, but we see limited examples of this ideology practised in the real world.

Finally, stakeholders are expected to be treated like human beings, not a placid audience.

Clarity

Content is king—this we know. We have heard professionals speak at length about the importance of creative content. In social media, content is the very essence of your being, including:

  • What you say
  • How you say it
  • How it is perceived and consumed

All are very important points to keep in mind.

Regurgitating information or talking points are not great examples of captivating or productive content. PR revolves around generating substance that is accessible for consumption and commentary by the media or the public. The same applies for social media. Creativity that is grounded in the understanding of your public’s needs is the Queen to the Content King.

Value

Creative content is an essential element of any PR and social media strategy, but creativity has its limits. Value-added content tends to propagate increased engagement, sharing and discussion. I have found it to be important to develop a succinct messaging strategy that re-shapes certain issues and information in a way that provides your known or unknown publics and/or communities with something of use. Before disseminating any communication via social media, ask yourself: “Why would anyone want to read or share this?”

I believe it is important to take an objective view of your communication before sharing it with the world. Be a harsh critic. Adding value in terms of tips, initiatives and answers relating to government programs is a great starting point, but further value is found in endorsement, civilized debate and sharing of outside information (i.e. not defined solely by politics). This is just as true in politics as it is in a social enterprise.

Build your community

Social media, in its most basic form, comprises platforms that connect people. In the political world this connection is invaluable. I tend to believe that the focus should be placed on grassroots connections relating to issues that concern stakeholders. It is an experience that allows one to discover relevant conversations and become imbedded and invested in those discussions.

Social media is a tool that enables our public service to give back—and receive—in ways that shape our perception and understanding of the world around us. It is a method to create, contribute and reinforce value in the communities that we live and work in—not a self-serving promotion machine. Elected representatives investing, listening and taking part in such discussions where appropriate is vital.

The future

Without a firm understanding of these key points and suggestions some political “actors” may continue to stand on the outside of the conversation. A disconnect continues between the public and most political representatives, because at times the latter still views social media as an outbound communications vehicle. Vigorous counsel might be needed to guard against or resist this temptation.

Based on experience to date, transparency, authenticity, unconditional openness and value-added dialogue may overcome any hesitation to engage, mainly because it connects with people on a personable level. I believe it comes down to working to identify who your publics are, then sincerely taking steps to listen and learn. We tend to forget that discourse shapes so much in our world, even in the political realm.

I continue to strive to make a difference in this space by pursuing a transparent and authentic social media presence. There is a complex relationship that occurs between politics and publics. In my opinion, success hinges on the ability to empathize with your publics and candidly listen to their ideas and perceptions. The pursuit of active engagement is not a simple task as publics at times remain unwilling to partake in conversations across a wide variety of topics. Other dialogue that is grounded in negative sentiment remains a distinct element of this space, as well as an impediment to overcoming heightened trepidation of vulnerability. Limitations present themselves to those operating in this space. However, I believe it is important to acknowledge certain trends and adjust any subsequent communications strategy accordingly.

It also should be noted that I do struggle between how this medium can be used to increase interaction yet still leveraged to serve internal goals, as sometimes what works externally is not desired internally.

Finally, I should note that social media in today’s reformed political landscape has been a vital element in election campaigns. In my opinion this digital tool has become an innovative and highly tactical aspect of any election strategy. Whether you agree with attack ads or that style of political messaging approach, social media has redefined the environment that we operate in. It is worth noting that the Conservative Party took full advantage of this tactical shift and thus was able to influence public sentiment and national mood through unique PR2.0 approaches. These strategies garnered wide-spread attention, criticism and discussion; key elements that defined its success.

Where can social media take this sector and how can PR2.0 shape the connection between the public and their elected representatives?

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Tyler Orchard, MA, is a Toronto-based director of communications and PR for a Canadian Member of Parliament (MP). He holds a master’s degree in public policy and public relations from the University of Guelph. This unique program emphasized a core set of skills in public relations, economics, research methodology and policy analysis, as well as a firm grounding in theoretical literature. Tyler Orchard completed his thesis on the public relations strategies employed by political and private sector entities throughout the procurement of the JSF F-35 Fighter jets Canada. This research was augmented by an analysis of the economic and procurement policy present in this ongoing multinational procurement program.

Tyler considers himself a lifelong student of social media. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn, or email him directly. Check out his blog, Talking Points.

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8 Responses to “Social media engagement: The PR2.0 shift for politics”
  1. Tyler – thank you for the post and presenting a perspective on social media and political engagement. One of the challenges I think this raises is that such media are complex. So they can be used for one-to-one conversations (primarily in public) as well as connecting with influencers/mediators and group communications (whether these are publics who come together to join the conversation or exist as a group outside of social media). Social media does offer a valid opportunity to make announcements or broadcast, although I agree this doesn’t reflect the potential of such technology.

    I am still not totally convinced that every politician should be using social media without thinking through the resource required and the impact on their ability to engage in other means. For example, most of us only encounter our local representatives when they are seeking votes – if they got out into the community more often that would for me be preferable to a raised online presence.

    Similarly we have seen a decline over the past few years of those who advocate senior executives in organizations should be open and accessible via social media. There has to be a balance between what is possible and what is desirable. Is it really relevant for politicians to be online 24:7 without thought of prioritising their time and communications?

    • Thank you for the comment, Heather. I was honoured to guest post here and I really enjoyed working with Judy throughout the process. You raised some very good points. This type of media is extremely complex and you accurately highlight the ways that social media can be leveraged by not only political representatives, but anyone for that matter. I believe there are still many people who view social media as a narrowly focused tool that serves internal purposes.

      I should note that you are completely correct in saying that not every representative should be on social media. I think that holds true across all industries. Without pragmatically identifying the resources, investment and consequences of social media, there tends to be a decreased prospect of success. I agree that an increased online presence should never be viewed as more beneficial than being out in the community, but I also believe that being out in the community is limited in its scope. Especially in regards to engagement on certain issues and topics. There is something to be said about social media’s ability to increase engagement across an entire community (from a dialogue standpoint). This can be juxtaposed against only being in certain areas of the community for very specific events/gatherings. However, organic person-to-person engagement is still an invaluable part of this world.

      I also agree that being present online 24:7 is not a realistic use of time or communications efforts. I believe social media should not be used as a stand-alone element of a communications strategy, but rather an element that is used based on calculated ROI and balanced with other priorities. I tend to think that it is important to view any social media strategy from a realist perspective.

      Thanks again for the comment, Heather, and the opportunity to post on PR Conversations.

  2. Tyler – I enjoyed reading your post and echo Heather’s compliments regarding its contribution to our understanding of social media and politics. There is still not a lot of solid empirical or conceptual work in this area, so your column offers much value.

    I agree with your remarks about the potential benefits that digital technologies afford at a time when public cynicism about the political process is high. Certainly the platforms themselves create new opportunities for access to politicians and bureaucrats. Yet, this will require policies or guidelines that permit and encourage open and more transparent communication. The goal should be to generate dialogue rather than surveillance and spin control. When ATI legislation was introduced it was intended to do the same, but we have seen governments of all stripes use the legislation and its internal mechanisms more for self-preservation than to preserve and promote democracy. I think there is a useful historical parallel to be made here.

    A couple other comments and observations, which I offer in the spirit of constructive feedback.

    First, the critical response to the omnibus crime bill has come hard and fast and mostly from outside the media rather than from the media itself. News organizations have certainly shaped that response but I see no evidence that the criticism is ideological, as you suggest.

    Second, I worry about politicians using social media to enhance their ‘authenticity’ appeal. I believe voters are generally turned off by authenticity performances from politicians, in particular because the Twitter feeds and Facebook posts of most of them are rarely connected in any tangible way to issues of policy. And even when they are, these platforms tend to be used primarily to reproduce tightly scripted and partisan party lines (a point you note above). In contrast, I think voters would prefer their politicians be honest and accountable for the decisions they do make and to be answerable to voters who want them to explain themselves. The unwillingness of most politicians to do this far predates the rise of social media; Twitter and Facebook will not solve this problem, although their presence may help shine some light on the responsiveness problem.

    Third, I’m less persuaded than you are that social media is “reshaping the distant relationship between publics and politics”. The total numbers of Canadians who are *active* Twitter users is quite small. Those who use social media to engage in discussion about policy and politics is even smaller. If governments are interested in increasing citizen engagement, there are myriad things they can do. Encouraging political and unelected members of government to update their Twitter or Facebook accounts might enhance their populist appeal, but I do not think it will encourage citizens to take their politics or civic duty more seriously.

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on these points. Could you also tell us which MP you work for as director of communications and PR?

    Thanks again for your post. It certainly got me thinking.

    • Josh,

      Thank you very much for the compliment, but more-so the comments. I really enjoyed the parallel you identified between social media and the ATI legislation. I believe there is two sides to the social media coin, or referencing your work, there is the Janus-face of social media in any industry. On one hand you have a platform that was intended to increase engagement as well as transparency (of sorts). However, social media at times is still leveraged in ways that are self-serving; almost a shrouded veil that people, or brands, can hide behind. You are spot on when you mention there is a need for “policies or guidelines that permit and encourage open and more transparent communication”. This I fully agree with.

      I would be remiss if I didn’t state that the criticism of the omnibus crime bill did in fact come from various groups and individuals, not connected with the media. I do however think that certain criticisms and responses shaped by the media could be analyzed through a partisan lens. I think my main goal of using that example was to highlight the ideological influence that shapes communication (tough on crime vs. other forms). You do raise a good point in that organizations/citizens played a large role in the response to the bill’s introduction. That should have been included in the original post.

      You are quite correct in that publics tend to view certain acts of authenticity illegitimate or “forced”. However, I believe social media has added a sense of authenticity through its personal level of connectedness. Publics are no longer only getting press releases or flyers, they now have a vehicle that is directly connected to their representative. Stated in my post, I tend to find that social media is not utilized in its most beneficial form by some. In this I mean, and you clearly indicate, there is no tangible dialogue that discusses policy issues past talking points. Maybe this comes back to the idea of risk aversion that is prevalent, but I agree that for social media to be truly beneficial in this world, it must be used to enhance discourse.

      I appreciate your hesitation to agree with my comment that social media is reshaping our relationship between publics and politics. In your article “The Janus-Face of the Conservative Government and New Technology” (http://bit.ly/tPJg2A) you bring up a few points that I really enjoyed – that more Canadians are using social media, the discussion of politics/policy is on the rise, it promotes transparency/accountability and it allows publics to engage. I agree with these points in that this platform is reshaping that traditional relationship. Written letters and telephone calls are being replaced by Tweets, Facebook messages and wall posts. You do raise a good point in that it is a small number of Canadians who are engaging through this forum. However, I think this will continue to grow and become the norm. I think there is something to be said for being able to connect directly with your representative and not just their office.

      Thanks again for the comments, you gave me a few things to think about as well. I appreciate your feedback and I really enjoyed your Janus-themed article.

  3. Judy Gombita says:

    Tyler, something I kept meaning to ask you at the editing stage (but kept forgetting):

    When you were hired for the role as director of communications and PR, was social media a part of the existing or aspirational job requirements? Or is it something that you’ve lobbied to bring on board since working for the MP?

    • Great question, Judy. Coming into the position it wasn’t a requirement, nor was it a tool that was offered a lot of attention or investment. It was something that organically grew to become a big part of our communications strategy. I have always had a fascination with social media and how it connects people. I think that my interests and optimistic view of social media in politics was part of the reason why it has become a cornerstone (but only one element) in our outreach and engagement endeavours. I fully believe it has achieved results that traditional communications vehicles could not. However, these benefits may be difficult to quantify so some may dispute my belief that social media has brought about a great change in political-public relationships.

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