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Column: Sorry politicians, you can’t avoid social media – people no longer accept being ‘talked at’

The political class have realised the importance of a digital economy – but, they also need to realise the importance of building a digital democracy, writes Niall Devitt.

Niall Devitt

RECENTLY WE’VE SEEN politicians, State bodies and public institutions begin to use social media as a way to update, engage with and – in some cases – listen to the public. Even Pope Francis has gotten in on the act calling the Internet a ‘gift from God’.

This interesting shift in relationship is being driven by people who are tiring of the broadcast type communications of yesteryear and who now expect to be part of the conversation, in real time.

However, while some public figures and bodies are using social media well, others appear confused. They are yet to hone their skills and find the new line between being ‘accessible’ and ‘professional’ online. Even so, the reality for all is that it’s now becoming less and less acceptable to opt out altogether.

Tourism Ireland was one of the first Irish state bodies to really embrace social media and continues to successfully promote Ireland overseas using multiple Facebook and Twitter accounts. Their approach? Establish a local social media presence for each market and engage directly with the consumer. An Garda Síochána are using Twitter to show a ‘human’ and humorous side to the force, this tweet is just one example, and the Irish Defence Forces are another State body that get it.

Politicians’ use is a bit more hit-and-miss. Gerry Adams has split opinion with his cutesy tweets while Stephen Donnelly hits the mark by engaging with issues and other users, as just two examples.

The Digital Policy Council has just released its fifth annual report measuring world leaders’ activity on Twitter. As of last December, four out of every five heads of state are now using the site. Barrack Obama was one of the first to realise its potential by using social media to engage US voters during his initial 2008 campaign and again during his re-election in 2012. Interestingly, during his re-election, he spent 10 times more ($ 47.0 million) on social media than challenger Mitt Romney. Obama’s Social Media strategist, Laura Olin said, “we knew that people getting campaign messages from their friends was so much more powerful than them getting campaign messages directly from us.”

Here be dragons

Other politicians, such as former Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, have experienced the negative consequences of social media when his performance during a 2010 radio interview went viral on Twitter and subsequently became an international bad-news story. Former Dragon and entrepreneur, Seán Gallagher, was hot favourite to win the 2011 Irish presidential election, until a spurious tweet read out during a live TV debate destroyed his chances of becoming president.

While many countries, cities and government departments now interact with people through social media, a few currently use it to collect information that is used in an analytical way. Washington DC is one example; local government in the US capital gathers information using real-time comments made on Twitter, Facebook and online message boards as well as the government’s own website, to grade and motivate the bureaucracies that handle tasks like administrating drivers’ licences, building permits etc.

In 2011, Iceland crowd-sourced their new constitution and used social media to help make the process transparent and collect input from the public. The Constitutional Council, made up of ordinary residents compiled the document online with the help of hundreds of others. The council posted a first draft on their website and then let citizens comment via a Facebook page. Members of the council were also active on Twitter posting videos of themselves to YouTube and uploaded pictures on Flickr.

“In the aftermath of the financial crisis, we realised that this wasn’t just an economic or a financial crisis; it was also a social, political and judicial crisis,” said President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. “If we were going to allow the nation to regain its strength and position, it wouldn’t be sufficient to deal with it in traditional economic and financial ways. We needed a different democratic approach.”

Dipping in and out? Yes, people notice.

Many Irish politicians were prepared to leverage social media during their election campaigns but are now less inclined to participate. I find this contrary to the recent debate around the abolition of the Irish Seanad, when many highlighted the need for increased public input. For instance, the number of Irish Twitter users has grown considerably since the last general election in early 2011; however we’ve not seen a new tweet from Enda Kenny’s official account since July of that year.

The property bubble, banking crisis and even the recent charities controversies were caused by, amongst other things, a pre-dominance of self-interest. Whether you’re a politician, State body or a public institution, social media provides both direct and indirect opportunities to listen, measure public sentiment and ultimately inform decisio- making. It’s potential as a tool is enormous but it is not without risks. Clear goals, policy, planning, crisis management, trained personal and responding quickly are all key components of an effective social media strategy.

The political class have realised the importance of building a digital economy. Now, they need to realise the importance of building a digital democracy.

Niall Devitt is co-founder and C.S.O of the Ahain Group, a research led social business consultancy firm. He has authored and co-authored several reports on the Digital Economy and has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Business Insider and other leading online and offline business publications. In 2009, he co-founded Tweak Your Biz, an international, business advice community and online publication.

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