Friday, 27 March 2009

Can social media be applied to the public sector and politics?

I was asked recently on this blog how the principles of social media could be applied to the public sector and, specifically, politics. That got me thinking, a rare occurrence. I thought that being negative would help focus my mind - why couldn't you use social media tools to engage people in politics? That thought lasted a few minutes before I was resolved; social media is hugely relevant to politics and the proof is in the Obama pudding. Below are the key points to my response to the question posed by Oranjepan (apparently a “A balding, ginger primate verging on extinction” from Reading, you don't meet one of those every day!):

Politics is about people not words

How can you engage your voters if you don’t understand what they want? You must speak to them in a way that is conducive to their needs – too many politicians speak through soundbite and never actually listen, too interested in their own voices and pomp (yes that is a disservice to grass roots politics where more people are genuinely interested but mainstream politicians like Gordon Brown and David Cameron have a wider influence)

Engagement requires direct contact

Putting a leaflet through a door does not mean you’ve engaged with someone – engagement only happens when somebody responds to you, implicitly or explicitly.

Passion breeds interaction

Engagement involves concerted effort – you can’t just say “well I tried”; if you believe in something make others feel that passion – communicate it regularly and don't expect everyone to respond at the first hurdle. Creating true conversation takes time and effort, nature and nurture

Build it and they will come!

Use advocacy – when you find someone who is listening and responding, ask them if they would like to be more involved & reward them for their effort – doesn’t have to be money! The power of advocacy is huge and people respond far better to "people like me" than a politician they have no direct relationship with.

Make it easy for people to interact with you

Allow people to share information, make it easy for them to pass on what you are saying. Create a blog, allow people to track it; set-up an RSS feed so people can have your content fed to them in a convenient way; use social bookmarking tools to enable people to post your content around their social networks. Open the communication channels and make sure you respond; I recently sent an email to Patricia Hewitt via her website and received no response, making me dislike her and what she represents even more. Why bother having a "Contact me" section if you have no intention of replying?

Embrace the online channel

You want to see a good example how social media can influence in politics? I give you Mr Barrack Obama, President of the USA. Check out his official website and follow the social media links. This helped him engage with millions online, many of whom never embraced politics before. Here is a handy chart that my fellow blogger Oranjepan kindly sent me:

Team Obama's intelligent use of social media to engage a diverse online audience was instrumental in achieving two political milestones; record numbers of people using online to engage with the election and record amount of money raised online to fund the campaign.

Granted, Obama will have had far greater resource than local politicians but the principles are the same. People are not interested in grandiose rhetoric about solving the problems of a nation, they want to here policies that will deliver tangible results and that are relevant to their lives. Social media provides one of the channels to achieve 1-2-1 communication and build personal relationships.

In my opinion, there is no reason why social media can't be applied to politics. However, i would urge budding politicians, at whatever level, to tread carefully. Social network are not there for your manipulation; if you misjudge the culture of the community you can do your reputation a lot of damage. 

Engagement is about listening and sharing, not pushing your agenda. Take time to understand who your audience is, then spend time monitoring where they talk and what they talk about. Only when you are sure you have something positive to contribute should you join the discussion.

If you are genuinely interested in what people have to say and what to engage in dialogue with them, you could use the online space to build an effective community and influence the voting public.

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