Jul 182010
Kennedy Nixon Presidential Debate 1960

In the 1960 US Presidential race, Richard Nixon’s campaign was thrown off course when his team misunderstood how the new medium of television worked from politicians. Today’s political candidates are facing the same challenges with the Internet and social media.

Social media and the internet are great platforms for politicians to talk directly to their constituents without going through the filters of mass media however there are risks for the clumsy and ill-prepared.

The main risk for politicians, and businesses, is the Internet increases accountability and magnifies gaffes; a mistake in a remote town that may not have been noticed by the press ten years ago can today be the lead story on the national evening news thanks to an audience member with a mobile phone.

Social media increases that accountability as every tweet, Instagram post or Facebook update is effectively a public statement making these services powerful tools that need to be treated with respect.

1. You’ve put it in writing

As soon as a tweet, update or email is sent or published, it’s in writing against your name. Once you’ve posted it, it’s impossible to deny it – don’t even think about using the lame ‘my computer was hacked’ excuse. So don’t put on the Internet what you wouldn’t write in a letter or memo.

2. Everything you do online is permanent

Even if you delete an email, tweet or blog post after sending there will always be a copy somewhere. Nothing on the net is ever completely deleted and if it’s in the slightest bit controversial assume someone will make a copy. Think before pressing send.

3. All online comment is publishing

Prior to the Internet, publishing involved owning or hiring a printing press, radio station or television studio. Today anyone with a PC, tablet computer or mobile phone is a publisher. Every time you press “submit” you are publishing a comment with all the same potential consequences as writing an article or campaign flier.

4. Off line rules apply online

Many people on the net have the idea rules don’t apply online. Those people are wrong, defamation and electoral rules apply online as much as they do offline. What’s more, the Internet magnifies errors and dishonesty. Even if you haven’t strictly broken the rules, you still may find an ethical lapse could sink your campaign.

The difference when you do it online is that the record is permanent and available world wide, that’s why it’s called the World Wide Web.

5. The net makes copying easy

In a digital world, all content is endlessly reproducible, so your material can be copied, altered and distributed easily. This was a lesson learned by a bunch of London lawyers ten years ago. Learn from their mistakes and use it to your advantage.

6. Nothing is off the record

Everything you write on the Internet is on the record; an offhand Twitter comment is just as official as a press conference statement or media release. So keep the smart comments off line. If you’re going to be rude about someone, don’t put it in writing on the net even if the message is supposed to be private.

7. Online private and public domains are blurred

While there are private channels on the Internet, the boundaries between them are not always clear. For instance a Facebook group can be seen by anyone who is a member, so postings in that group can be passed on from there.

It’s also easy to make mistakes; a private Twitter message could go public if you hit the wrong key. There’s no shortage of horror stories where people have been included on email messages that were never intended for them.

Assume everything sent on the Internet can potentially become public.

8. Be transparent and consistent

As a research tool, the Internet gives media, the voters and your opponents the opportunity to quickly verify every statement you make.

If you are going say the dollar collapsed when your opponents were in government, check this really did happen. If your party promises a can of baked beans in every household then details of The National Baked Bean Access Program have to be online.

9. The Internet loves a vacuum

Should you leave questions unanswered, or if you make an empty promise with no supporting information, then you’ll find no shortage of people on the net willing to fill the blanks for you. Leaving people guessing is the quickest way to get an issue spinning out of control.

10. Be careful of delegating

It’s tempting to give the job of social media expert to the youngest staffer or volunteer in the office, however you are responsible for everything written. So if you delegate, think carefully. Blaming an over enthusiastic intern or contractor is rarely a good look even if it is true.

A good example of this was Hugh Jackman’s Sydney Opera Center gaffe which was clearly a Tweet from someone who wasn’t Australian. While for Hugh it was a minor embarrassment, a similar trivial mistake could derail a political campaign or career.

11. Think before you tweet

The best measure for posting on the internet is never to say anything you’d be embarrassed to explain to your mother. In a political context, don’t say anything you’d be uncomfortable justifying to your party leader, whip or the host of a radio talk back program.

12. Engage with your audience

You need to be adding value, while mediums like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are quite effective for getting out prepared material, that isn’t using those channels to their full potential.

The word “social” in “social media” indicates how these services have become communities where people exchange views and participate. Your Facebook pages and Twitter streams should be engaging voters and acting as a rallying point for supporters. Think of them as a virtual 24/7 town hall meeting.

13. The net is a big playground

The Internet is a perfect democracy. Everyone who chooses to participate has a voice.

This means the informed, engaged and intelligent have an equal voice with the ignorant, deranged and obsessed. While it is important to listen to what the lunatic fringe have to say, you don’t have to engage with them.

14. You are judged by your company

Be careful of joining online groups or being too closely associated with individuals who may be an embarrassment. Facebook is particularly bad for this as you’ll get many offers to join groups. Resist most of the invitations as even the funny ones could backfire.

15. Play nice with the trolls

On the net, you should never get into a fight. As the saying goes; “never wrestle with a pig; you both get dirty and the pig enjoys it.” The same applies with internet trolls.

The Internet is the greatest invention for idiots, giving them a forum to exercise their ideas and find like minded fools. Don’t join, argue or engage with them, you’ll only encourage them.

16. Don’t get clever

One thing the Internet doesn’t do very well is humour, sarcasm and irony. So be very careful with the smart comments as what would be a funny off-hand line at a press conference or walk around could be totally misinterpreted online.

Another problem is context which is easily lost on the net; be careful with statements that could be taken poorly by those not aware of the surrounding circumstances. This is particularly true with Twitter where it can be difficult for bystanders to understand the entire online exchange.

17. The web is worldwide

There’s no such thing as an intimate chat online. Everything you do could be passed on. You may only have a thousand Facebook friends or Twitter followers but if each of them has a similar following, that’s an immediate audience of a million people. Treat each tweet, post or update as if it is going out on the Morning Show or 7.30 report.

Similarly, some political organisers think the web is best for rallying the troops. That’s a dangerous idea as many teenagers have discovered when a horde of gatecrashers have turned up to their Facebook advertised parties. Your political opponents are probably taking as much interest in your posts as your supporters.

18. Don’t deceive

The New Yorker once said “on the Internet no-one knows you’re a dog.” So it’s tempting to set up anonymous accounts and webpages to discredit your opponent or derail their campaigns.

In reality, your posts in dog food forums will probably give you away and all but the most sophisticated hoaxer will leave clues in their digital footprint. Even if you cover your tracks, being mischievous can bring you unstuck.

You need to also keep your volunteers and staff aware of this; by all means let them engage, promote and defend your positions but make it clear that underhand and childish stunts will hurt more than help if they are exposed.

19. The net does not replace other channels

The digital natives will tell you old media is dying and only the Internet matters while older comms people will mutter darkly into their drinks about the net being over rated as a tool. Both are wrong.

Mainstream media and the Internet increasingly rely on each other as sources and distribution channels. Tools like Twitter help journalists find sources and spread stories while the news papers and TV shows provide material for Twitter and Facebook users.

Where the Internet works particularly well is enhancing the “traditional’ channels of community meetings, media appearances, fliers and articles.  What you can’t say in a 15 second TV ad or 500 word article can be expanded on and enhanced online because you aren’t subject to other peoples’ restrictions and guidelines.

20. Experiment and learn

In a risk adverse world it’s easy to ask why you should bother with the Internet as most voters are still getting their information through mass media and advertising spending is still largely used for broadcast ads.

The reason you need to be on the Internet is because your constituency has moved online and the broadcast journalists are online. You need to be listening to them and to understand how issues are developing and how these channels are being used.

As these tools develop, they are going to become more powerful. The politician who ignores them today and misunderstands how the medium works could find themselves being remembered in the same way Richard Nixon was in 1960.

Our society is increasingly using the Internet to debate and develop new ideas. If you hope to be part of those ideas, you need to be part of the debate.

  3 Responses to “Twenty Internet rules for politicians”

  1. Hi Paul, thanks for a really incisive post. I think you could publish this as general guidelines for internet use, not just politicians, as we could all benefit from following these rules. These rules are also a great foundation for training within any organisation; currently much overlooked.

  2. You saliently point out, offline and online is no different; the same rules apply.

    Neither is an off the record comment, that’s quickly deleted, entirely off the record.

    I’m not sure how realistic it can be for a senior Minister to manage his own social media, as in the heat of the moment, he may tweet hastily. As well, social media is so time intensive. Public figures need assistance with public commentary, it’s not something that can be left entirely in their hands.

    Which is not to suggest they are incapable of commenting intelligently. But the cut and thrust of political life can leave one a bit punch drunk in the heat of a campaign.

    Judicious timing, restraint and clarity are the imperatives of managing a Political profile.

  3. Great list Paul, thanks for re-surfacing this post. A must-read and should be incorporated into policies in government and business.

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