If Hugo Chavez can establish a special office with 200 staff to handle requests from his followers on Twitter, perhaps it’s time that Australian MPs got with the program.
Estimates vary as to how many Australian politicians have Twitter accounts but it appears to be less than a quarter of the federal parliament.
This contrasts with the hundreds of US members of Congress who “tweet”. In Washington, they even have a bipartisan Congressional Internet Caucus to educate themselves about “the promise and potential” of the Internet.
Recently, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally – @KKeneally – has emerged as one of the more engaging tweeters. She responds to messages and does not limit herself to broadcasting lines of the day. Her opponent, @BarryOfarrell, is a similarly engaging member of the twitterati. Elsewhere, @PremierMikeRann is somewhat prolific.
Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott both have Twitter accounts that leave a lot to be desired. The Prime Minister’s tweets are usually trite or twee observations about people met and places visited. The Opposition Leader has little to say, although he did post photos of the Pollie Pedal.
Unfortunately, I have the impression that most politicians on Twitter are either guided by old-style media manipulators or they have little idea of how to utilise this medium in a political way. With a handful of honourable exceptions, most MPs have bland Twitter feeds.
Peter Brent, a Parliamentary Library fellow, who’s preparing a monograph on the use of Twitter by MPs and journalists, quoted one MP as saying he’d joined Twitter “only so he is counted as one who tweets”.
So here’s some practical advice for Parliamentary tweeters:
Why Should a Politician Join Twitter?
We could pretend that you want to do your bit for political participation and representation. Afterall, Twitter is built for immediate feedback and responsiveness to public opinion.
The truth is you only want to join Twitter if there’s something in it for you. Will it safeguard your preselection and win you votes at the next election? Probably not. Don’t believe the hype about Twitter revolutionising politics. But will it help you disseminate your message? Definitely.
Think of Twitter as the hub of your communication with constituents and the media. Everything is integrated in the digital world. Do something in your electorate or say something in Parliament and you have several ways of getting the message out. Twitter doesn’t exist in isolation – it ought to play a role in your every engagement with the public.
Every MP has a website now. Twitter allows you to drive traffic to your site or other online spaces. Contrary to what you might have heard, Malcolm Turnbull didn’t announce his since-rescinded retirement on Twitter. He announced it on his website and used Twitter to send people there to read his statement. There are more people monitoring the news via Twitter than waiting around for something to appear on your website.
When you’ve got those eye-balls on your website you can put other messages in front of them.
You’re not going to stop writing press releases for the local newspapers. The endless round of encounters with local businesses, sports clubs, councils, businesses, schools, community groups and individuals will continue to dominate your existence. But Twitter can be the means of integrating your electorate duties and public profile.
Setting up your account
Secure your name now before someone else steals it. Your political opponents, even the ones in the other parties, may be keen to trip you up. @TurnbullMalcolm appears to be characteristically idiosyncratic but he chose that name because @MalcolmTurnbull is a fake. Similarly, @SteveFielding appears to be a small child from Seattle. Victoria’s distinguished representative in the other place is @SenatorSteve.
Fill out your profile – this is free advertising on Twitter. Tell us what party you’re in. Don’t assume anyone knows. If you’re really daring, you might state your factional allegiance (Labor) or informal hatreds (Liberal).
Once you’ve set up your account, rest assured people will find you and your tweets. Google indexes Twitter within minutes. Send a message to any of the myriad political tragics on Twitter and we’ll help you get known.
Add your Twitter name to your business card and stationery. Add it to your office window, put it on your press releases.
Most importantly, “follow” people. This is similar to “friending” someone on Facebook, except on Twitter you can follow anyone and read their tweets, even if they don’t follow you back.
The giveaway for many politicians is a limited following list. Worse, there are politicians who only follow other politicians and people involved in the political process, such as journalists. If you’re aiming for anything other than social chit-chat with people you already know and deal with, following people you don’t know is essential.
There are no rules on Twitter. It’s still the wild west of the Internet. Take no notice of people who try to tell you how many tweets you should or shouldn’t make. Mind you, @CatherineDeveny may have some tips on etiquette.
The most important thing is to talk to people. Even if you don’t follow us, at least respond to us. Don’t talk at us. Broadcasting your press release message of the day is all very well but it’s not enough. Kevin Rudd might be able to get away with this but you won’t. The measure of a good tweeter is whether their page is simply a list of broadcast messages or whether it is littered with @replies.
Don’t be frightened of interacting with people, even the oddballs and obsessives. Don’t block people unless you want to appear defensive. Just unfollow or ignore anyone who’s bothering you.
Educate us: Most people don’t know what MPs do each day. They don’t know anything about the work your office does for people on immigration, housing or social security. Show us what you do when Parliament isn’t sitting. This is your chance to do something about dispelling popular misconceptions about politics and politicians.
Show us you’re a person of substance. I like people who point me to things to read: links to websites, reports, interesting news articles. People like to know what you read, what you’re interested in, the policy areas you focus on. They might even push a few things your way in return.
Use your mobile phone for location tweeting. Post a video on YouTube, embed it on your website and link to it from Twitter. Use Twitpic, TwitVid or TwitDoc, free sites that allow you to post pictures, videos or documents. Provide a weekly report on what you’re up to, or a video of those kids who interviewed you for their school assignment. Twitter allows you to show what you’re doing, whilst also giving support to people and organisations you’re dealing with. Show us things those dying newspapers won’t show us. This is potentially very powerful politically.
We know no-one joins political parties anymore but all of these activities are opportunities for you to enlist the support and assistance of party members or volunteer helpers.
Retweet things you think are worthwhile. This is the ultimate compliment on Twitter. Show us you read other people’s tweets. We might even start to believe that you’re not just using Twitter for one-way broadcasts.
Involve us. Set up a poll on your website and tweet the link. Ask for feedback on an issue. We might respond.
Feed your Twitter updates through to your Facebook page. There are lots of social networking sites out there now. You can look very active on all of these just by using Twitter. There are Twitter widgets which allow you to display Twitter feeds on websites.
Most of all, remember that Twitter is about engagement.
You can spend your time in spats, as @HowesPaul and @ScottMorrisonMP did recently. You can spend your time flirting with journalists and other media people who now inhabit a large portion of Twitter real estate. That unique combination of ingratiation, fear and contempt you have for the fourth estate is marvellous to observe but, really, you have more productive things to do.
My point is that Twitter shouldn’t be something extra. It should simply be a part of every campaign you engage in. You don’t need 200 people like Hugo Chavez but you might be surprised by what one person can achieve with a little bit of effort and organisation.
This article first appeared on The Drum.