Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

The rough guide to saving face on the campaign trail

Dubbed the ‘Facebook election’, politicians should take care not to get caught out online, says Dave Briggs

Even in the new digital world of Twitter, Facebook and blogging, politicians still need to heed communications common sense.

The example of Stuart MacLennan, a Labour party candidate in Scotland who was forced to step down after his Twitter account was shown to contain a remarkable list of inappropriate comments, is a sobering one and in many ways demonstrates how far our political classes have to go to fully understand the power and the culture of the internet.

Many of the comments published by MacLennan were examples of the sort of juvenile humour popular amongst schoolboys throughout the British Isles. Certainly not what you would expect from a potential Member of Parliament, however.

What is interesting is the fact that MacLennan - and indeed any other politician - would never have included any of these statements in traditional election material, such as leaflets or posters. So why did he think his online channels were an appropriate medium for this material?

Part of the reason, I suspect, is that many politicians don't take the online world particularly seriously. Even with many commentators dubbing this the 'Facebook election', digital campaigning still takes a back seat to traditional methods. This is a mistake.

For an ever-growing group of people, with busy lives working, commuting and raising families, the internet provides the best - and perhaps only - way of effectively engaging with audiences. Why irritate people by knocking on their doors after a hard day's work when you can provide your message online, which they can read at a time that suits them?

New audiences can also be targeted using digital methods. These might be younger people, who haven't engaged with democratic processes before. It is dangerous to assume that new voters are interested in the old ways of doing things - be active in the spaces they inhabit, which may well be online.

The internet also provides an incredible opportunity for voters to scrutinise the politicians. Without an effective digital campaign strategy, candidates will get found out. The culture of the net values transparency and openness.

So, what can politicians do to ensure they avoid such embarrassment?

Firstly, give digital campaigning the respect it deserves. Don't publish anything online that you wouldn't say in a meeting, or publish in a leaflet. Devise a strategy around using the web to promote your campaign and values. Don't leave it to chance, or allow others to fill the online gap.

Secondly, have a thorough review of your online profile. If you have used social networking sites in the past, make sure there is nothing contentious on there. Remove any photos that cast you in a less than positive light and delete any comments that you may have made in jest, but which might disrupt your campaign when taken out of context.

As a part of this review, tighten up your security settings so that only those you know and trust can access your personal content. Create a new profile for your work as a politician and ensure the two remain completely separate.

Thirdly, take a look to see what other people are saying about you. On sites such as Facebook, you have little control over what other people upload that relates to you - as the head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, discovered when his wife posted their holiday snaps online, causing much alarm.

Where people have added content which might not contribute to your campaign aims, contact them and ask them politely to take it down, or at least to apply strict security settings.

None of these three things are exactly rocket science; indeed, running a successful online campaign comes down to little more than communications commonsense.

The Facebook election may well provide new spaces for our politicians to slip up.

As long as they take the web seriously, however, more opportunities than risks present themselves.

** Dave Briggs works for Londonderry-based e-learning company Learning Pool. He is a former Government adviser on social networking

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