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#GE2015: Eight Twitter lessons from politicians

30th Apr 2015
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It seems like a lifetime ago that David Cameron lambasted Twitter users by declaring that “too many twits might make a twat”. That comment was made back in 2009 in the run up to the 2010 election and didn’t damage Cameron’s charge to the Prime Ministerial hotseat, despite the social network having over 4m established users in the UK at the time.

However, fast-forward five years and the proposition is markedly different. Cameron’s, and indeed all politicians, stance on Twitter has changed significantly. No longer can the social network be dismissed as a platform for spleen venting teenagers and trolls. The teenagers have grown up and are now part of the electorate. The trolls have established even more of a voice than in 2010 and are arguably more influential.

Publishing statistics on the upcoming election at this week’s Adobe Summit EMEA, Gemma Proctor, UK research manager at Twitter revealed that there are now a staggering 500m tweets being sent across the world every day.

With 37% of UK Twitter users aged between 20 – 29 and a remarkable three-quarters of those stating they plan to turn out and vote this year, politicians have a huge opportunity to canvas opinions in the last few days before the polls open, and communicate freely with voters by engaging fully with the world’s most engaged social network.

The problem is, it doesn’t always work out.    

David Cameron show off his phone

Perhaps the finest example of a naïve approach to Twitter came from David Cameron in 2014 when he posted an important tweet with an image to ease worries over the UK’s position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict:


The issue wasn’t that he was trolled as a result of the post; as Prime Minister, Cameron’s exposure to abuse was always pretty high regardless of what he put out. On this occasion, it was more the reaction of certain high-profile respondents in the aftermath of the Tweet, and the viral effect their responses created as a result:   

Patrick Stewart

Fast-forward a year and any image of the PM with a phone automatically triggers a nation to collectively visualise Patrick Stewart holding some wet wipes. Not that Cameron ever purposefully gets snapped with a phone against his ear anymore.  

Emily Thornberry alienates her customers

It’s fair to say that, despite being a member of the shadow cabinet at the time, Labour MP, Emily Thornberry was not a household name outside of her constituency of Islington South and Finsbury.

And then one day, while on a fact-finding exercise in the Kent city of Rochester, she saw a house with a white van parked outside it and some St George’s cross flying from the windows, and decided to send what she saw as a light-hearted take on the whole scene:

Emily Thornberry

Unfortunately, the Twittersphere didn’t take it the same way, and the calls of political snobbery were so fierce that Thornberry resigned from her post in the shadow cabinet. Next week she may lose her seat in the Houses of Parliament if things go against her. However, a quick Google search proves that, whatever happens in the future, she will forever be synonymous with one household in particular.      

Chris Huhne fails to check his communication channel

Little needs to be said about disgraced former energy secretary Chris Huhne’s Twitter faux pas.  

A common source of embarrassment in the early days of Twitter was to post what you think is a direct message as a public tweet. Unfortunately Huhne’s post happened to be a little more revealing than most:

Chris Huhne

In hindsight the course of action was clear: When trying to bury some form of bad news, always make sure the communication channel is one you can bury a message in, too. Huhne deleted the tweet almost instantly after sending it. However, alas, in this day-and-age instant isn’t quick enough.

Aiden Burley taps into insight

Cannock Chase MP Aidan Burley was regularly in trouble for his controversial views, having previously been hounded by the media for a reported incident involving SS uniforms at a French ski resort.

Which makes his own Twitter gaffe inexplicable – and unbelievable. During the almost universally praised Olympic Games opening ceremony, Burley invoked widespread internet rage by declaring the whole thing "leftie multi-cultural crap."   

Adrian Burley

The Conservative MP was condemned and announced he would step down in advance of next week’s election, but not before he’d almost made himself unelectable amongst the majority of the UK population for his views.

Ed Balls trials new technology

In setting up his Twitter profile for the first time, Ed Balls inadvertently typed his own name into a tweet and published it back on 28th April 2012. Little could he have known that three years later, a day would be dedicated to the memory of his innocent gaffe.

Ed balls 1

What started out as a quasi-piteous laugh at Ed’s expense snowballed into a thriving social media campaign, and as a result, two days ago saw #edballsday trending on Twitter all day long. People even queued up to get a signed, framed printed version of the tweet for their walls:

Ed balls 2

The question is, was Ed’s error actually the slapdash act of a luddite MP, or the masterstroke of a technophile masquerading behind an act of accidently buffoonery to gain social media cult status? Probably the former, but the idea of it being the latter is definitely more exciting.     

Nicola Sturgeon tackles feedback

It would be unfair to purely focus on the inabilities of the men and women that run the country – especially when there are plenty of MPs using Twitter successfully to communicate their message and build their brand. Step forward woman of the hour, Nicola Sturgeon, and her very personal responses to public matters and media swipes.  

“Nicola Sturgeon is superb on Twitter and has been able to slap down things that have been said about her,” said Bruce Daisley, managing director of the social network, at the FT Digital Media conference on Tuesday. “That ability to respond has served her well.”

Daisley gave the example of Sturgeon’s immediate response to a piece in the Telegraph claiming that she was backing the Conservative party because she did not want Labour to win.

Nicola Sturgeon

“She responded immediately and stopped it becoming a major news item, and certainly making a news item on mainstream TV,” he said. “There are some stories that might have taken hold [before the rise of Twitter] that haven’t now.”

Boris Johnson engages customers

Boris Johnson rarely needs an excuse to promote his brand, but when he was given the opportunity to run a monthly question and answer session on Twitter last year, he could have easily dismissed the idea for fear of exposing himself to the kind of ridicule many of his peers have been subjected to. But instead, he embraced the idea with the kind of wild abandon only Boris can get away with:

Boris 1

Most people didn’t take him too seriously:  

Boris 2

But crucially, Boris never buckled. And rather than giving up, in Ed Balls style he rode with the humour and enhanced his brand on social media as a result. He’ll never stop the ridicule, but at least he's able to it to his advantage.  

Ed Milliband uses the power of Twitter

We started with one of the leaders vying for government next week, and so it is where we finish. Except, unlike David Cameron, Labour’s chief Ed Miliband faired a little bit better with his own understanding of how Twitter works back in 2013, and he didn’t even need to send a tweet.

Speaking in the House of Commons as a response to that year’s budget set by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Miliband mocked George Osborne on the day the chancellor launched his official Twitter account by tapping into his understanding of what made people using the social network tick.

"All he has to offer is just more of the same budget. Today, the chancellor joined Twitter. He could have got it all into 140 characters: growth down, borrowing up, families hit, and millionaires laughing all the way to the bank. #downgraded chancellor," he said.

The result? The hashtag trended worldwide and, according to Twitter’s Gemma Proctor, Miliband’s status soared on Twitter in the aftermath. And now, as we approach the final hurdle of the election campaign, #milifandom has perhaps proved to be the biggest endorsement of how people really feel about Labour’s hopeful leader.   

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