Politicians' Twitter Q&A's 'Don't Work', Says Government Communications Adviser
Another week, and another set of senior politicians taking to the internet for an online Q&A. On Wednesday afternoon Tory party chairman Baroness Warsi did a general session on a range of topics.
Next week, Treasury Minister Mark Hoban's holding a Twitter session on "getting family finances right".
The financially challenged and those with nothing better to do are being encouraged to send their tweets in, with the catchy hashtag #askhoban.
Interestingly, Sayeeda Warsi seems to have learned the lessons from previous Twitter Q&As, where trolling and abuse tend to dominate. She's decided to use the Cover It Live service for the session. It meant that the usual heckling was filtered out, but this in itself prompted protests on Twitter.
Still it's not surprising, given Ed Miliband’s latest forays into the Twittersphere. The “#AskEdM” question and answer sessions were styled as a chance to engage with voters directly. But the first session was derailed by mischievous Tweeters who “asked Ed” questions like “have you considered releasing a CD of your speech to help those with sleeping disorders nod off?".
That wasn't the worst of it, others wanted to ask Ed about his brother -"If your own brother couldn't trust you, why should we?", while another wondered: "Do you have another job lined up for when your brother gets given yours?"
Leaving aside Miliband’s “Blackbusters” mistweet, other politicians don’t fare much better online. Tony Blair’s attempt to do a Q+A on the subject of faith was undermined by pranksters asking questions about Iraq and his tax affairs.
Is there any point in them doing this? Was David Cameron right to quip that "too many twits might make a twat"?
Dr Andy Williamson, a fellow of the Hansard Society, thinks politicians shouldn't fear cheeky questions from tweeters - "that's the internet for you! There are always idiots online".
Williamson thinks the site is more suited to MPs who want to develop their profile - "It is good if the MP is the type who goes out and is visible in their constituency". Engaging with Twitter allows politicians to be more informal with voters and "combats perceptions" of inactivity.
Ellie Gellard, Head of Digital at Tetra Strategy, agrees about the potential benefits of Twitter. She herself has been a leading part of Labour's presence online, tweeting as @BevaniteEllie. She suggests Twitter doesn't work when MPs get their researcher to do it for them.
"Where [politicians] tweet themselves and where they are honest and authentic, it is a perfect way to get across not only their ideology and party lines but also their personality," she told HuffPost UK.
"One of the images politicians have as an image is that they’re cut off from the rest of the world and they’re living in an isolated Westminster bubble. Anything they could do to break that boundary is worthwhile."
Senior politicians should not be expected to tweet so much, according to Gellard. "If you're not up for the challenge, there's no point asking a huge team of researchers to do it for you. You should only do it if you can do it yourself".
But digital communications specialist Luke Bozier - who recently defected from Labour to the Tories - thinks politicians should avoid doing Q+As online altogether.
"Stop doing Twitter Q&As. They don't work, and they don't benefit anybody. More often than not they are hijacked, and the answers to the serious questions don't provide any tangible PR benefit to the politician. Mostly they're repeating what they've already said elsewhere."
He sees little point in senior politicians engaging online. Ed Miliband's twitter profile now reads like a "pin-board for press releases, whereas when he was campaigning to become Labour leader he actually used it quite effectively."
So what's the future for politicians' relationship with Twitter? Are they going to have to get off the internet and back to work?
Andy Williamson says things need to be kept in pespective, and urges MPs to be on the lookout for the next big site: "Politicians will always be engaging online, their presence on Twitter depends on what new sites may come up".
For now the message to politicians from the experts is don't duck the difficult questions. Gregor Poynton, UK Political Director of Blue State Digital, looked through Sayeeda Warsi's session on Wednesday, and told HuffPost UK: "I think she took some hard ones on, and I’ve seen Ed Miliband do the same. When it works is when they take the hard questions and some Twitter comedy/heckle questions.
"It’s not going to work if it’s just patsy questions from supporters but if they actually take it on. If it’s just boring questions, no one is going to look at it and no one is going to engage with it. If people actually take on the tougher ones, they’ll see some benefit from it."