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Politicians Suck on Twitter

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Nick Clegg's tweet on Wednesday in which he mocked the Daily Mail was perfect. It was funny and it made a point. It got thousands of retweets and favourites, which confirms that it hit the Twitter sweet spot. Spreadable content is king (or queen) on social media.

A British politician getting it right on social media is, unfortunately, a rarity. On Tuesday I was idly following David Cameron's cabinet reshuffle announcements on Twitter. I enjoyed it. It felt immediate and relevant and the hashtag #reshuffle created a space for the (huge) conversation surrounding the announcements. Basically, it felt very modern. Well done Dave. But there were two glaring mistakes. And I'm not talking about the reshuffle itself, rather the social media practice.

Firstly, he and his team had chosen to use the #reshuffle hashtag. Inexplicably, the PM left the hashtag off several of the announcement tweets. Now, this may seem minor, but the details are all important. I spoke to Rajiv Nathwani, who runs the social media activity of BBC One and BBC Two, and he was amazed about these missing hashtags, because it's such a basic slip-up. Decide on a hashtag for your conversation and then stick to it. By not doing so you risk people missing some of your information and also, you make yourself look a bit silly. And no-one likes it when politicians look silly.

The second mistake is more subtle and has a much wider implication. Although the Twitter announcements of the reshuffle were undoubtedly valuable they were just chunks of information. That's the old media model in action. Top-down politics. Broadcasting information from a single source (DC), to the many (Twitter users). And that's not enough on social media. It is fine to provide information like that but it is then essential to follow it up with meaningful engagement. The days of passive consumption are gone. That's not what people expect any more.

Cameron, or rather whoever it is who Tweets for him (from an iPhone, interestingly), should have set aside 20 minutes after he finished firing out the infochunks™ and replied to some users. Retweeted some comments. That's where the real value of social media lies and he missed a big opportunity. The problem is widespread - a study into the types of tweets that MPs were writing found that only 28.7% were part of conversations - using the @ function. That is far too low. Social networks demand many-to-many-interaction. Social media is about talking and listening. It's about relationships. Of course, the volume of correspondence is overwhelming. It's obviously not possible to respond to every tweet. But people understand that. Well, most people.

The benefits of conversations on Twitter, or whatever other platform, are manifold. Discussion and consultation should be able to provide a steer for policy and decision-making. And perhaps more importantly, being responsive and engaging with the public should help build trust.

I would not for one second say that being a politician on Twitter is a walk in the park. Because it isn't. For starters, the traditional barriers of authority and hierarchy haven't just been lowered - they are non-existent. And what that means is that anyone with a public profile knows that when they post a tweet, any tweet, the first however-many replies will probably be abusive. With horizontal networks like Twitter, there is no avoiding them. A cursory glance at the responses to each of the PM's #reshuffle tweets will illustrate my point.

Politicians and their aides need, first of all, to develop a thick skin, and second of all, to work out how to moderate and manage responses, particularly those that are critical or off-topic or abusive. With abuse it's best to simply ignore it, but it's also vital to distinguish between trolling and dissent/disagreement. Politicians should certainly not block or delete comments simply because someone disagrees with them.

Yesterday I read a document called 'Social Media Guidelines for Parliaments'. I wouldn't recommend it - it's no page-turner. It did, however, give me the idea to compile my own set of guidelines for politicians on Twitter. So pay attention, politicos:

1. USE IT YOURSELF: if you can help it, don't have other people on your team write your tweets. If that's impossible, make it clear when it is you tweeting. For example, Obama always signs off tweets written by him as -bo. Transparency is important.

2. HAVE CONVERSATIONS: as I said before, and will say again - don't just broadcast information. Twitter isn't a loudhailer. Have two-way conversations.

3. UPDATE REGULARLY: there is simply no point in being on a social network if you aren't going to post on it. People won't want to follow you. What would be the point? You don't need to post every day - but when you do, make the most of it and your followers.

4. LINK TO CONSULTATION: when it's impossible to conduct a meaningful discussion with people because of the character or time limitations, provide a link to a consultation page where the discussion can be continued. Consultation pages are the new press releases.

5. BE HUMAN: this might be the most important thing to understand. It's definitely the trickiest to get right. You need to lose a level of formality on social media. You have to show some personality. This also means striking a balance between posting about your public and private life and interests. Again, Obama is a master of this.

Those are my guidelines. I find the human element fascinating. Politicians in the UK regularly post stuff that seems disingenuous or tokenistic. When David Cameron posted a picture of himself on the phone, apparently to Obama, it created a tidal wave of mockery. Similarly when George Osborne posted the tweet of himself working on a speech with a burger and fries on the go. And yet, if Obama had posted that picture of himself on the phone (pretty big if actually, because one of the problems with that particular image is that it served no purpose - if you say you're on the phone, no-one needs visual confirmation of it) or if he'd posted the photo of himself writing a speech and eating a burger, I don't think it would have been subject to ridicule. It's to do with public persona. All of a politicians tweets need to feel real - they need to fit with their public persona. All of Obama's posts suit him. We know that he's funny, so he can get away with being funny. We know that he's a family man, so he can get away with being a bit cutesy. Authenticity is key.

Politicians shouldn't be afraid of social media. They have to embrace it, because if they don't, someone else will. They need look no further than Beppe Grillo for evidence of that. Whatever happens, I strongly believe that social media will transform our democracy for the better.

(NB this blog post was lifted almost wholesale from a talk I gave this week at an event called #tweetsfromthetop - a flattering misnomer - organised by Twitter UK. A few weeks prior, I'd been asked to do my first ever talk. A TEDx run by the Houses of Parliament which you can watch here, if you like. It turns out that talks are like buses.)

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