Number 10 hands out Twitter exclusives to favoured journalists

UK Prime Minister

A discussion topic in episode 701 of the FIR podcast, published today, looks at a question asked in the Metro newspaper last week: should British politicians take notes from Barack Obama’s campaign team?

The Metro’s excellent report looked at the key role social media played  – especially Twitter – in both of the US president’s election campaigns in 2008 and 2012 in enabling direct engagement with reporters and opinion-makers as well as with voters in communities across the United States (see detailed analysis of 2012 from Pew’s Journalism. org).

The discussion that guest co-host Stephen Waddington and I had in the podcast considered key elements of Obama’s campaign as described in the Metro story by Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon. Her conclusion:

[…] Summing up the lessons of 2008 and 2012, Ms O’Malley Dillon said: ‘If there’s anything to be learned from our campaign, it’s that we made it a priority, we believed in it from the top to the bottom, we ensured the resources were there and we allowed it to help dictate for us in some ways the type of things we were doing based on how people use these forums.

‘We weren’t trying to recreate the wheel, we were trying to be part of the dialogue and I think that’s one of the many ways we were able to be successful.’

Keeping that in mind, Wadds and I broadly concluded in  our discussion that a) yes, British politicians would benefit from studying the role of social media in US election campaigning; and b) there’s little to suggest that they are or have done so – certainly at a central-government level that seems isolated from grassroots ‘social politics’ – even though the next general election in the UK is only two years away at most.

So The Guardian’s report yesterday on the role of Twitter in how Downing Street aims to secure goodwill from journalists by revealing news before its official announcement by ministers had me thinking about what looks like a chasm of a difference in how American politicians see social media channels like Twitter and how UK ones do.

There, it looks more open and inclusive. Here, it seems to be secretive, selective and controlled.

That’s a great pity if it does turn out to be how my cynical view of the political communication landscape appears. The way in which social media channels can galvanize political engagement with and by those who have the final word on who gets elected, as evidenced by the US experience, clearly is firmly understood by government communicators:

[…] “We’re getting to where people are these days,” said Anthony Simon, the head of digital communications in the prime minister’s office.

“Increasing numbers of people are on Twitter – journalists, stakeholders and professional groups – and to be part of that conversation is vital for any government department. It’s democratic because it’s open to anyone and we don’t go on it for the sake of it or over-rely on it – it’s a means to an end.”

I hope that the ‘means to an end’ becomes a great deal more honest- and authentic-looking than the current situation that The Guardian describes.

(The Guardian’s report below is published with their permission via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.)


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Number 10 hands out Twitter exclusives to favoured journalists” was written by Josh Halliday, for The Guardian on Sunday 28th April 2013 21.07 Europe/London

Asked in 2009 why he didn’t use Twitter, David Cameron famously responded “too many twits might make a twat” . Four years later, Number 10 is attempting to move more rapidly into the digital future with a Twitter strategy that includes handing out “Twitter exclusives” to favoured journalists for release before they are officially announced by ministers.

In a tactic reminiscent of the BBC satire The Thick of It, Twitter is also being used to try to quash negative stories before they gain currency in a news cycle where every second counts.

“Every minute that passes the poison is spreading into the system to all sorts of roots and you need to find a way to cauterize that very, very quickly,” said a senior No 10 source.

The Twitter exclusives aim to secure goodwill from journalists who are often under pressure to break news online before rivals, but will irritate those who believe announcements should be made in parliament.

Many of Downing Street’s new media strategies were introduced by Craig Oliver, the prime minister’s communications director, who insisted on moving a Twitter monitor into the No 10 newsroom when he assumed his role in January 2011.

According to colleagues, Oliver likes to describe the social network as similar to fire: a useful tool in the right hands, but massively destructive if it is misused.

The analogy might leave some scratching their heads, but Cameron’s inner circle wants all his MPs to take Twitter seriously – even if the 2015 general election is, in internet time, light years away.

One example of using Twitter to “seal” a negative story came after the Evening Standard mistakenly broke George Osborne’s budget embargo on the social network last month. A mortified journalist promised to tweet a swift apology but Oliver ordered a pre-emptive tweet from the Tory press office account, to ensure the reporter’s promise was met.

Conservative party headquarters brief MPs on good talking points for Twitter, using them to “tweet as a muscular force” about a single topic or news item to hammer home the message. Some 418 MPs have joined the tweeting fray, according to the news wire Tweetminster, up from 176 in 2009.

“Twitter used to be seen as tool for the egocentric and verbally incontinent,” said a senior No 10 source. “But the reality is that it’s an extraordinarily useful way of getting talking points out there.”

Downing Street has not always been so fleet of foot – it took hours to respond to the online mockery prompted by Osborne’s first-class train ticket debacle last October – but Cameron’s inner circle now recognises that the case for a clear Twitter strategy is “unanswerable”.

“We’re getting to where people are these days,” said Anthony Simon, the head of digital communications in the prime minister’s office.

“Increasing numbers of people are on Twitter – journalists, stakeholders and professional groups – and to be part of that conversation is vital for any government department. It’s democratic because it’s open to anyone and we don’t go on it for the sake of it or over-rely on it – it’s a means to an end.”

The most popular tweet sent by the government was Cameron’s tribute to Baroness Thatcher, prompting 3,500 retweets. The most divisive was when No 10 tweeted every single reshuffle appointment last September, which led to a mass unfollowing from less devoted users but praise from politicos.

But the jury is out on whether the rest of Britain is as Twitter-addicted as the Westminster Village. “I think the majority of activity comes from a fairly small group and most MPs have fairly small audiences,” said Alberto Nardelli, the founder of the app Tweetminster, pointing out that 1.2m people follow MPs on the site – about the same size audience combined as Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

“I think we’ve gone beyond a ‘should politicians use Twitter?’ phase. It’s now how will it be used,” he added.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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Shape the debate about the UK and the EU

David Cameron EU speech

A few days ago, Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech in London on what he called “the future of Europe,” setting out his stall about the UK, the European Union, Europe itself and how he sees the future for these entities.

I watched his live delivery on the TV news. I liked much of what I heard: in essence, a call to action for anyone with a point of view about the UK’s future as a member of the EU, or not, to articulate that point of view, and contribute to the debate. “Join the conversation,” if you will.

I am quite sure the conversation that will ensue between now and the end of this Parliament’s life in 2015 will encompass the widest diversity of opinion about the European Union and the UK’s role in and/or with it that it’s possible to imagine. The conversation will undoubtedly get very ugly at times among the politicians, special interest groups, and others. Indeed, also no doubt among friends in the pub on a Saturday night.

The culmination of Cameron’s call to action will be a referendum offered to voters in the United Kingdom during the first half of the next Parliament after 2015 to decide, in a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote, whether they wish the United Kingdom to remain a member of the EU, or quit. That, said Cameron, will happen if his Conservative Party wins the next election and if he continues as Prime Minister.

There were a lot of ifs, and no mention of what may or may not happen if his party is in a coalition government again. No details in the speech either but, said Cameron, that’s coming:

[…] The next Conservative Manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative Government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament.

It will be a relationship with the Single Market at its heart.

And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether.

It will be an in-out referendum.

Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year. And we will complete this negotiation and hold this referendum within the first half of the next parliament.

So in the coming months, and continuing right through to 2015, I’d expect to see a great deal of communication about this issue, certainly from David Cameron and the Conservative Party, but also from the other political parties who will want to make their own cases for how they see the UK’s future in or out of the EU, even if any of them already have articulated a view on whether they think citizens should be able to vote on this matter or not (I’m looking at you, Ed Milliband).

While the politicos in Westminster will have their say – and think about where such people rank in the latest trust barometer from Edelman, published earlier this week – I’d also like to hear what others in public service think. For instance, what do the 100+ bloggers at our embassies around the world think and sense where they are? Especially those in embassies and consulates in EU countries.

And I expect every channel across the social web will play a significant role as not only the conduit for communicating the various points of view everyone has but also stimulating that conversation, facilitating engagement on and offline – the contemporary manifestation of our freedom of speech and how we exercise it.

If you’d like to read the text of David Cameron’s speech, and see the recording of him delivering it, you can do so at the Number 10 website and at YouTube respectively. You can also read the speech (and download a PDF copy) right here in this embedded Scribd document I made.

(As an aside, there’s a great backstory here, about Clare Foges, the woman who is Cameron’s chief speech-writer and who wrote this speech. The Daily Mail has the story which, unfortunately, reads like the rejected script from one of the storylines in Love Actually. But, see though the sickliness of the writing for some insight into the inner workings of Cameron’s close team.)

The Economist this week has a good risk assessment of Cameron’s call, labeling him ‘The gambler.’ And a wicked cover!

It looks like Europe will continue to be a hot topic in the UK for years to come. This time, though, our whingeing, supporting, complaining, championing, disparaging and everything else might actually have some point.

What a terrific communication challenge. And an opportunity to help shape the debate if you join in, whatever your point of view.

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