Social media style now taught to MPs

OTTAWA — No tweets allowed about that bagel you had for breakfast.

OTTAWA — No tweets allowed about that bagel you had for breakfast.

Only a twit would have a staffer tweet in their place.

Those are among the do’s and don’ts that parliamentarians are learning as communication firms across Canada leap into the growing business of social media training to help politicians negotiate the minefield of Facebook and Twitter.

Social media is fraught with electoral rewards and risks of embarrassing gaffes going viral, but communications strategist Ken Chapman has a message for politicians who are too timid to tweet.

“You cannot ignore this and you cannot avoid it,” he says, “I think Twitter is to 21st century politics what television was to 20th century politics.”

One-third of all Members of Parliament are now on Twitter, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has more than 30,000 followers.

The Google search engine now incorporates the latest tweets and Facebook updates in its results, giving social media posts a new audience with exponential growth.

That means when a politician puts a toe out of line — tweeting, as Liberal MP Michelle Simson did, that Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro “should grow up (not out)” — it can force an apology in the House of Commons, as Simson did later the same day.

That has also created a business opportunity for the traditional media massagers who have spent decades giving advice on public speaking and public style.

Chapman’s Edmonton-based company, Cambridge Strategies Inc., has refocused from traditional media training to online media training. He advises clients to use the devices themselves, stay away from tweets or brief messages that are too personal, and to forget the notion that online posts are frivolous.

“If they think it’s just fun stuff as opposed to a serious, serious opportunity to communicate, they miss the point.”

Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh is a prolific tweeter who combines the personal and the political in messages such as “Gym was great. Stuff abt torture in Afgn is now beyond he said she said.”

Politicians tweeting about what they had for breakfast or what route they took to work is a mistake, according to New Democrat MP Charlie Angus.

“The problem with Twitter is, it presents too easy an opportunity for politicians to cross the line and see themselves as some form of media star for the paparazzi,” he says. “We’re legislators. We’re here to do serious business.”

New Democrat MP Niki Ashton, the youngest female parliamentarian at 27, was accustomed to using social media in her private life before she was elected to office in 2008. She disagrees with the guideline to avoid personal messages.

“I think people have a right to know who we are as people.”

And she has advice for oldster MPs in their 30s, 40s and 50s: ignore Facebook and Twitter and you’ll lose younger voters.

“What we need from the older generation is for them to understand that you can’t ignore these venues,” said Ashton. “People are speaking through them.”

Jeff Ansell, a communications consultant in Toronto, says that he incorporates social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter into his traditional media training. Clients come in asking questions, he says.

“There’s a generational rollover happening because a lot of the politicians who are over 50 now find themselves in a world where Facebook and Twitter are very prominent,” he says. “They have to get on board or else you risk looking dated.”

Media training from within the party is still limited to traditional platforms, Conservative MP Daryl Kramp says. He picked up Twitter from a technology-savvy staff member.

“It’s been effective,” he says. “I have a number of people that have tuned in now and that are comfortable and that look forward to an occasion tweet.”

He says the consensus amongst his colleagues is that gaffes can be avoided by using common sense.

Chapman uses a formula to help politicians make the best use of social media. You should spend 50 per cent of your time listening to the conversation, 25 per cent responding to it and 25 per cent creating your own comments, he says.

It is a formula that works for Senator Grant Mitchell, one of the most prolific tweeters on the Hill. The former leader of the opposition in the Alberta legislature received advice from Chapman on how to use Twitter.

“It’s very social,” Mitchell says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised that twittering isn’t really superficial, that people really do grapple with issues and they really have points of view.”

He says the advice has helped him to understand how to engage in the dialogue and voice himself in tweets.

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