Samu Communications | Samu: Twitter, politics, and MPs
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Samu: Twitter, politics, and MPs

Communications for change?

For smaller charities, social entrepreneurs or activists the costs for a public relations agency with a specialist in public affairs will most often be prohibitive. There are good reasons for this. The management of public affairs is an involved process which can extend to contacts in the EU, devolved parliaments, local authorities, trade unions, trade associations, and many more. It is time consuming, and requires experienced heads to make progress. These organisations also tend to run (expensive) software to handle Government Relations.

So as an alternative the temptation to engage in at least some low-level lobbying may still be pressing, driven by your desire to get your cause increased attention, in the hope of eliciting change. After all arranging a meeting with an MP is not difficult and you or your marketing team’s outcomes may provide sufficient confidence that you can grow public support for a campaign,  And then there’s Twitter.

The reputation of Twitter as an enabler of change has been enhanced by the regularity of media generated stories emanating from it. This has raised some campaigners expectations of what it’s possible to achieve with a minimal budget. Though this approach is often disparagingly dismissed as ‘hashtag activism’ its power should not be underestimated. Yet it has many limitations requiring many more approaches to be efficacious.

Before you proceed though here are some pitfalls to be aware of, and useful resources to check out.

Regulated space

First, some rules. UK Charities for instance face regulatory restrictions as a result of the 2014 Lobbying Act, so do non-party campaigners and Trade Unions. The legislation appears to have had small effects on the third sector during the General Election campaign of 2015, but arguably had its greatest impact on restricting trade union campaigning, the primary aim of the legislation.

As it took a long while before the Act was clarified (Official advice was drip-fed through my email inbox at a near glacial rate, leaving any campaigning advice always subject to change)  there were visible results in scaring off charities even before the election period began, notably following Oxfam’s Perfect Storm  campaign when it launched on Twitter, eliciting Conservative cries and tabloid headlines of ‘Shameful’.

Aside from the Lobbying Act it’s wise to have at least some appreciation of other media regulations, this guide can provide a start.

Twitter Policies

Twitter has a useful help centre where it offers its policies and provides ‘help’ (some of which is useful and informative, whilst other parts serve to be more promotional).

From here we can see such examples:

Twitter restricts political campaigning advertising. These restrictions are based on the specific advertisement being promoted, as well as the country that the campaign is targeting.

and on High Profile Chat.

Conversations on Twitter can provide incredible access to the lives and the thinking of politicians and other public figures involved in government. And when these high-profile political leaders connect with each other on Twitter, it’s a special treat for constituents.

With Twitter there is always the temptation to directly engage MPs in the support of a cause. It’s a shortcut lobbying route after all, and such approaches are not entirely without some levels of success. Before you do, you should consider how they use, or don’t use the platform.

Patterns of usage

If you are seeking to engage an MP support via social media conversation, it’s useful to know how MP’s in general use Twitter, before looking at how an individual politician does. It turns out they have a lot to learn.

Their levels of engagement are low, and certain topics provoke little interest, particularly international topics. A study found that just 1.3% of Tweets covered international issues (from a sample of 40 MP’s). The economy was the topic of greatest recurrence, though disappointingly these tended to be party promotional tweets, attacking their opposition colleagues despite the reality of marginal differences, being that most  parties follow a particular macroeconomic orthodoxy. The Twitter activities of local campaigning interest fair better from politicians either:

When it came to the purpose of the tweets most were explaining their or their party’s position or opinion on the matter, with a similar amount also promoting their or their party’s activities.  When it came to tweeting about their constituency it was often to promote what they were doing, such as visiting a local group, attending an event, or saying how well attended their surgery was. A small number of MPs responded to constituents with problems their constituents wanted addressed, but these accounted for only 2.6% of the tweets sampled.

But there is some potential for communications as the conclusion of the study noted:

28.7% of the tweets sampled were communication with other users using Twitter’s ‘@’ function. Some of these were conversations with fellow MPs, journalists and other MPs, but a large number were with members of the public.

Individual MPs

At the time of writing, there were 436 MPs on Twitter (surprisingly few from the SNP) available in a public list. Or there would appear to be.

Establishing if the Twitter account is being written by the actual MP, a paid communications staff member (or unpaid intern) may seem problematic, but is essential before wasting effort on Tweeting. It’s not too difficult to infer if an account’s respondent is genuine. You need to carefully observe the particular feed for a short while. Fortunately, many former colleagues and peers in the communications sector have a sense of predictability about their Twitter usage Their craft betrays them, in that they deliver on their contracts, ensuring a client’s messaging is always on-point, carefully constructed and consist. If you see an account like this, and there are a few, the odds of useful engagement are marginalised.

Campaigning MPs accounts, such as Tom Watson or Zac Goldsmith seem to be more interesting than many others; demonstrating commitment to causes, ability to engage with Twitter users, and their occasional forays into issues and interests beyond those designated by the party whips.

They tend to get Twitter.


watson twitterzac twitter
Like any aspect of a communications strategy, the social media element needs careful consideration, but this is especially so when there is a public affairs component. It requires considerable research and degrees of contingency built into the public facing campaign elements. Then there are the politicians themselves to consider. Knowing how they currently use social media, their strengths and weaknesses, becomes a vital part of the research process prior to any attempts at open engagements.

Remember, if you are running a campaign about a particular issue that is gaining success, then undoubtedly someone, some organisation, or group of companies will be monitoring you, which may prompt a counter-campaign. They will be using tools such as social monitoring services to keep track of your successes. Lobbying for change i never straightforward, regardless of the values inherent in your cause.

For further information on campaigning available via The Right Ethos: these resources will prove invaluable.

Additional ideas about digital technologies for activism can be found in the Tactical Technology Collective’s book: Visualising Information for Advocacy.

The book showcases over 60 examples of visual campaigns from around the world, and looks at what has made these campaigns effective.  It’s also full of advice and ideas on how to influence issues using the right combination of information, design, technologies and networks.