8 Replies to “Social media engagement: The PR2.0 shift for politics

  1. 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?

    1. 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.

  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.

    1. 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. 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?

    1. 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.

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