Who speaks for a political organisation in the age of social media?

President Johnson meets with candidate Richard...

President Johnson meets with candidate Richard Nixon in the White House, July 1968 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today the LGiU published a briefing on the two-year study by the Young Foundation (funded by DCLG) called Local 2.0.  The report is well worth a read because it shows what is being done on the ground with social media.  What is interesting is that most people still want SMS or Email as their preferred point of contact.

The report looks at why residents were not interested in cultivating a relationship with their local authority.  The author made a comment that caught me eye.   What the comment implies is potentially political dynamite.  It raises questions about organisational and political accountability in a social media age.  Where do private opinion, public opinion, and democratic accountability intersect?

I do not believe councils should worry too deeply though – audiences build relationships on Facebook and Twitter with BBC journalists, not the BBC. Perhaps local authorities should be more active in promoting officers and councillors in particular to make full use of digital communication channels available?

The comparison raises two points.  First, the BBC is not a political organisation.  Reporters and editors have a different relationship with the public. The relationship for officers inside a political organisation is not the same.  In the end, each organisation has different types of accountability.

Second, politicians do not want rivals, for the public’s attention, in their own organisation.

Here are some thoughts, based on the American political system, on such issues. The comments do not reflect where I work.  Instead, they should be seen as general points about politics based on the research for my book.  Many of the practical concerns, such as the press team, have been picked up by other bloggers like Dan Slee

Conflict of interest anyone?

For an officer, there is an immediate potential conflict of interest.  The officer could be seen as acting politically. If they had a large following, it could raise questions about their impartiality.  Some officers are in politically restricted roles.  In extreme situations, the officer’s relationship could threaten elected politicians.  The core issue is that elected politicians have a democratic mandate. They have a role in reflecting their constituents’ views and opinions.  By contrast, officers do not have that role.

Who do you think you are?

Second, I can imagine what Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon would have said.  “Who the hell do you think you are? I speak for myself. You are building your reputation off me.  You work for me, not the other way around” As a result, the officer in question would likely have to parrot the political line or the organisational line.  As such, it would hardly allow for much of a relationship.

What will the professionals do?

Third, if officers are able to do this, then what does the communications team do.  If they are no longer the main source of information, what is their role?  Why would they, let alone the President or the senior administrative officers, allow such relationships to emerge on council issues?

Undermine the boss and lose that promotion.

Fourth, what officer wants to have their views, or approach to issues, known when that can bring them into conflict with senior administrators and senior politicians?  Such a system would only work if the internal lines of communication were a robust dialogue and not a monologue.  I am reminded of the Vietnam War where officers in the field knew what was happening and often expressed disillusionment with the gap between the official line and what they were seeing in the field.  At the same time, there was a strong urge to pass good news upwards.  Who wants to be the one tweeting or blogging the bad news?

 Political organizations are different

I doubt political organisations will follow the BBC lead on this issue.  What is the benefit? The BBC gains from this activity.  Political bodies do not.  How political organisations communicate serves their purposes. The purposes are not the same and to confuse them forgets the difference. If officers are to tweet or blog officially, it challenges the political and organisational hierarchy.

Here is the basic problem. First, senior people do not have the time and  junior officers do not have the authority.  The trust needed to allow the relationships still needs to be developed. In a political environment, this is twice as difficult as any other organisation.  Second, the relationship would only succeed to the extent that the organisation is transparent to itself. If the person leading the relationship is not, aware of what is happening, their statements could be taken as contradicting or undermining what is being said from the official channels. Third, politicians have to be comfortable with the social media use. If they see any risks, it is unlikely they will want to take the chance.  As Lyndon Johnson would likely say “Why the hell am I encouraging someone to be my political rival?”

The pitfalls are too great and the benefits too small for officers to expect their political organisation to promote their social media.  If it happens, it will be by trial and experiment from a corporate account with strict limits. Things are changing, to be sure, but we are not seeing a grand political revolution. Yet.

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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2 Responses to Who speaks for a political organisation in the age of social media?

  1. Alexis Bailey says:

    My role, as Head of Digital Engagement at DCLG, is to encourage colleagues in policy teams to use social media. We want people to listen to what’s being said about our policies on social media and join in the conversations if appropriate.

    As Civil Servants we have to follow the Civil Service Code which means avoiding political content and commenting on controversial issues in a way that’s inconsistent with department policy. But that doesn’t mean staff can’t give out information and have discussions on social media. Policy staff are the experts on their policies and so they’re in a good position to talk to people directly and answer questions.

    I’m not saying we don’t still need comms teams. Comms are the experts when it comes to talking to journalists, and some policy staff need our help with getting the language and tone right on social media. Organisations still need someone to keep up with the latest digital developments and trends and pass this on.

    • Alexis,
      Thanks for the long and thoughtful post. I hope my response can be as informative and as helpful as your comments.

      First, good luck with your post. I know it can be a daunting task at times. I think you will do well given the success of the event last week.

      My focus in the post was to draw out the implicit tension within a political organisation. We may wish to deflect or minimise that tension by focusing on expertise, but that expertise has a political consequence and will be seen in that light. I am reminded that a famous scientist and expert was quickly dropped after comments within their expertise were not politicallly palatable.
      I doubt that issue of such magnitude will emerge within social media discussions, but it reveals that any communication from a political organisaiton can have a political consequence, intended or unintended.

      I agree that a comms team will be needed, but it also raises an issue of their role. Is comms about maintaining a certain line, regardless of its compatibility with the expertise or moreover with the public. If th public want x and say that on social media, can a member of staff agree even though the official or organisational line is y? I am not sure where the line is drawn and each officer and each organisation will have to mak its choice. What remains to be seen is how adaptable and understanding ministers and senior political operatives are of social media’s political consequences until they become fully conversant with it.

      Good luck with your post and thank you again for the thoughtful comment.

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