The Politics Of Social Media



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This post is the first in a two-part series with our partner Weber Shandwick exploring how digital and social media are provoking a profound shift in political engagement between voters, politicians and governments.

The Politics of Social Media
Andy Thomas
Jon McLeod argues that UK politicos need to embrace Facebook if they are to save democracy.

Social Media Week reminds us all of the pace of change in the engagement business. But, while there can be no doubt that communities and commerce have ‘embraced social’, can the same be said of our politicians?

In the UK, many Parliamentarians, lobby journalists and think tankers are prolific on Twitter. Some are funny. Many are boring. But few engage.

This is despite the fact that Twitter-active politicians are regarded as social-media savvy. About 400 of our 650 MPs use Twitter to a greater of lesser extent. It is arguable that they all should, so that constituents can stay in touch for free and get updates which are timelier than via a clunky website.

Use of Facebook by politicians in the UK, with its potential to enlist advocates and activists is surprisingly limited among the political class, and one is left with the feeling that an opportunity is being missed. Compare this to Barack Obama’s 42.5 million Facebook fans. Indeed the Facebook rankings compiled by have the highest ranked European politician down as… The British Monarchy at 11, with the discredited former French President Nicholas Sarkozy at 15. David Cameron creeps into the social media charts at 39, but that is not for his Facebook use but for the 2.7 million who follow The UK Prime Minister on Twitter.

At a time when the cost of doing politics is under intense scrutiny, this is a serious lacuna. Why? The reason, as always, is money.

Here in Britain, the Electoral Commission sets limits on the amount any candidate can spend during an election campaign. The parties themselves are increasingly feeling the pinch, as membership numbers tumble and fixed costs grow. Their kneejerk reaction to this squeeze (and to successive ‘sleaze’ scandals) has been to foster calls for state funding of political parties (which already exists, incidentally, in the shape of the £7m of Parliamentary funding for the Opposition known as the ‘Short’ money, introduced by Edward Short in 1974 under the Wilson government).

But state funding is an option which is clearly unpalatable to the public and it flies in the face of the blindingly obvious, namely the fact that most parties splurge their limited resources on printed matter (leaflets, letters, posters, signage etc), outdoor advertising and direct mail/postage. Surely they can do better than that. In an increasingly cynical age, a political message on the doormat that lies among the pizza menus and the minicab firms’ literature is hardly a recipe for cut-through and engagement.

Surely the answer must lie in the relatively low cost option of social, but probably not Twitter, which is largely favoured by politicians, whose preferred mode is always to be on ‘broadcast’.

They need to start a conversation – and soon. Democracy depends on it.

Jon McLeod is Chairman UK Corporate Financial and Public Affairs at Weber Shandwick.

On Thursday, September 25, Weber Shandwick will host Social Media Week London’s flagship digital politics session, exploring ‘Why Social Will Decide the Next Election.’ Find out more here and join the debate by tweeting #SMWdigitalpolitics.

About Weber Shandwick

In a world where corporate reputations can be built and destroyed in the same week, the communications and political environment today is defined by real-time information, 24/7 commentary, the rise of unprecedented activism, and the expectation to be part of the conversation. To effectively engage, companies must tell a compelling story, integrated across all channels that resonate with multiple stakeholders. Weber Shandwick Corporate, Financial & Public Affairs (CFPA) builds, manages and protects reputations.

Integrated thinking is at the heart of what we do. We bring together experts in reputation management, public affairs and investor relations with specialisms in employee engagement, digital communications, corporate responsibility and crisis management, into one, integrated team.

Innovative Public Affairs

As part of one of the world’s leading communications firms, Weber Shandwick’s public affairs practitioners work closely with colleagues in the key political capitals on major international programmes. From our offices across the UK and around the globe, we convene experts from party politics, local government, NGOs and journalism to influence decision-makers at every level – from Town Halls to Davos.

We believe that content and community are inextricably linked. To build vibrant communities for our clients, we create targeted content to tell compelling stories that connect with audiences and stakeholders where they live – whatever the channel or device.

We are the most successful political specialists in the UK – the only UK PA team to have won two Gold Cannes Lions. Politics is our passion. We work it, play it and think it, every day.

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