Ensight’s John Delacourt weighs in on social media best practices for parliamentarians – as featured in the Hill Times

John Delacourt

#cdnpoli: social media like Twitter can polarize voters and over-simplify issues

To be effective, politicians should strive for authenticity, and avoid canned posts.

By CHELSEA NASH
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 12:00 AM
The effective use of social media may at one time have given a politician an edge over their opponent. But in a world where President of the United States Donald Trump uses 140-character tweets to address and announce policy issues, and Justin Trudeau is known as the ‘selfie prime minister,’ having at least a bare-minimum presence on social media has practically become a prerequisite in politics.
“It’s part of our job. That’s how people communicate,” says Twitter aficionado and Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.) “You’d be leaving out a whole cross-section of your community” if you weren’t on it, she said.
Ms. Rempel said she’s used various social media platforms to hear from her constituents on issues, including crowd-sourcing opinions on M-103, a Liberal MP’s anti-Islamophobia motion, which she voted against.
“It’s given people platforms and it’s become a very interesting [way] to exchange ideas, but I think it’s also forced us to sensationalize content,” she said. “You’re looking for that 140 characters. Donald Trump is a good example of that,” in that he simplifies “complex policy actions.”
In Canada, and the United States, Ms. Rempel, who is the immigration critic for her party, said putting immigration policy “down to 140 character soundbite” can be detrimental.
“I’m not sure it’s been the best thing for public policy,” she said.
Mark Blevis, a digital public affairs specialist with Full Duplex, said social media is changing the way politicians seek out support.
“It used to be that when you worked in politics you tried to reach the squishy middle, people who were pragmatic about issues,” he said. Now, he said there’s quite a bit of “shoot first, ask questions later” strategy going around on social media.
“They’re doing what Donald Trump does,” he said, in that they put something out that might enrage most people, but caters to their base.
“You put out the idea, you may or may not have to apologize,” he said. “The only people who are going to care about the apology is the opponents.”
Because of this strategy, which Mr. Blevis said Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch (Simcoe Grey, Ont.) is employing, “we’ve become extremely polarized.”
While Mr. Trump might be a good example of having a polarizing Twitter account (just look at the responses to anything he tweets out), no one can deny his authenticity is an asset.
John Delacourt, a former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau who now works at Ensight, said on Facebook and Instagram, “authenticity rules.”
“There is nothing that just becomes wallpaper quicker than a clip or a shareable that is just an MP at a podium delivering an award or delivering a speech. It looks canned,” he said. What does work well are live videos as direct addresses, or live videos featuring constituents, because “in a short video you create a short narrative,” he said. And, on social media, it all comes down to the story you’re telling, and the brand you’re delivering, Mr. Delacourt said.
Mr. Delacourt said one of the most useful platforms for politicians is Instagram. “Instagram has a great deal of potential, and as a way of taking a piece that you do from one platform to another,” he said. It also appeals to younger voters, who might not be as engaged on Facebook or Twitter.
The Hill Times took a look at the Canadian politicians who are leading the way in social media use. While some of them are better on some platforms than others, they all have a unique strength.
Top 10 Canadian politicians to follow on social media:
1. Justin Trudeau
Instagram: @justinpjtrudeau
Snapchat: justintrudeaupm
Without a doubt, the prime minister’s social media presence is one that’s been honed to near-perfection. While his Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook pages are obviously curated by staff, with well thought-out captions to photos, and posts always seamlessly appearing in both official languages, his followers don’t expect the prime minister to have time to personally update them. The team behind his social presence knows what they’re doing. The dissemination of an Instagram photo of Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) greeting a newly-arrived Syrian refugee at Toronto Pearson Airport was an instant “shareable” moment, Mr. Delacourt said. “And in many respects, of course there was a level of authenticity there, because we all knew this wasn’t staged, this was something that occurred in real time.”
“What the PM is incredibly good at, is he has an active working conversation with those who are working with him,” Mr. Delacourt said, which can make up for the fact that it’s not actually Mr. Trudeau behind the posts. “I think of Adam Scotti who’s working with him,” he said, referring to Mr. Trudeau’s photographer. “There are years of a simpatico relationship there.”
2. Rona Ambrose
Facebook: @ronaambrose
Instagram: @ronaambrose
Snapchat: rona.ambrose
After the last election, in which the Liberals used social media to their advantage to encourage the youth vote, the official leader of the opposition knew she had to step up her game if she was to keep pace. “Behind the scenes” videos of Ms. Ambrose show her clapping, laughing, and clapping some more as she prepares to deliver weekly video updates to her followers. And arguably, one of the best #cdnpoli mannequin challenges was done by Ms. Ambrose and her team, showing the full official opposition office standing still as if turned to statues. The “mannequin challenge” is a social media craze of filming a room full of people frozen in position that took the world by storm last year.
3. Jagmeet Singh
Facebook: @jagmeetndp
Instagram: @jagmeetsingh
Snapchat: jagmeetsingh
Jagmeet Singh is seen here posing for a mirror selfie. On his Instagram page, he demonstrates a stylish and casual brand.
In the Ontario NDP, Mr. Singh is making waves as an up-and-comer whom we might see a whole lot more of if he decides to enter the federal NDP leadership race. Mr. Singh was recently profiled in GQ Magazine, thanks in large part to his avid social media use. Mr. Singh updates his followers constantly on his Snapchat and Instagram accounts. Follow him to get a glimpse of the life of a polished and trendy politician, including selfies, protest photos, and video messages on issues he cares about.
4. Michelle Rempel
Instagram: @michellerempel
Ms. Rempel is as fiery on Twitter as she is in Question Period. She is an entertaining politician to follow, since she doesn’t shy away from a good debate. “I think people engage and find the content more useful to them when it’s an authentic reflection of the person,” she said. “There’s a flavour of me. It’s not a cardboard cutout.”
5. Naheed Nenshi
Twitter: @nenshi
Facebook: @NaheedNenshi
Instagram: @nenshi
Speaking of Ms. Rempel’s debates, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was one of the latest to get into a sparring match with the Calgary Nose Hill MP. But dramatic arguments aside, Mr. Nenshi is a good example of knowing your brand and staying authentic. It’s one of the reasons he was able to get into it with Ms. Rempel in the first place. In all likelihood, staff-managed accounts don’t get into arguments on Twitter.
6. Carolyn Bennett
The minister of indigenous and northern affairs demonstrates her social media savvy by hosting weekly Q&As via Facebook. Every Sunday night going back years before she took over her current ministerial role, Ms. Bennett (Toronto-St. Paul’s, Ont.) has consulted her constituents using one of the most widely used platforms. While her Instagram only has two posts, Mr. Blevis says her effective use of Facebook and Twitter puts her top of mind as one of the best Liberal ministers for online engagement.
7. Tony Clement
Facebook: @tonyclementpsm
Instagram: @tonyclementcpc
Snapchat: tonyclementcpc
For the avid #cdnpoli follower, Mr. Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.) provides a nice depth for his audience. Photos and posts often come from his point of view, like an Instagram of his guitar, or the snow outside his Huntsville home, instead of a collection of photographs of him at different events. But, the most entertaining part about following Mr. Clement is his use of Snapchat filters, which add different features to one’s selfie, such as dog ears, or a flower crown. Mr. Clement said he prefers the thematic ones, such as the pizza-slice face for National Pizza Day, and the Hello Kitty one for Valentine’s Day.
Mr. Clement said he does most of his own social media, though his staff might help him with Facebook now and again. Asked how much time he thinks he spends on social media in a given week, Mr. Clement said with a laugh that he’d rather not answer, as it could get him in trouble with his wife.
Mr. Blevis said Mr. Clement’s style on Twitter “is interactive.”
“Most MPs, 80 per cent of their content would be communications. Regular tweets like, ‘look at me, look at me, look at me.’ They’ll retweet and they’ll almost not reply at all. The average MP reply rate is five per cent. He has about a 40 per cent reply rate. He was looking for questions to answer,” Mr. Blevis said.
8. Niki Ashton
Twitter: @nikiashton
Facebook: @MPNikiAshton
Instagram: @nikiashtonmp
Every person The Hill Times spoke to pointed to Ms. Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.) as one of the best users of social media. Mr. Blevis said Ms. Ashton knows how to use different platforms for different purposes.
“It’s not just about having popular tools like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, it’s knowing which ones to use, and how,” he said.
Otherwise, if people follow you on more than one platform, they are getting the same message blasted to them over and over.
In an interview with Mr. Blevis for his podcast, Ms. Ashton told him that within First Nations communities, Facebook is very important for staying in touch over long distances. So, she uses Facebook specifically for listening to First Nations communities in her riding.
However, one downfall of Ms. Ashton’s social media strategy is her use of two separate Instagram accounts. One was created only recently, which Mr. Blevis speculated could be because she is planning on creating a more curated image before announcing her run for the leadership of the NDP. However, upon looking at both Instagram accounts, Mr. Blevis said there was no reason for the two of them to be separated. The content could be merged into one account, and her followers would hardly know the difference.
9. Jim Watson
Instagram: @jimwatsonottawa
An exchange on Twitter shows how Jim Watson responds to almost everyone who interacts with him, making him one of the more accessible Canadian mayors.
The Ottawa mayor is a natural choice to follow for those living and working in Ottawa. Mr. Watson has a certain affinity for engaging with his followers. On Twitter, he will often reply to those who start a conversation with him, whether it be criticism, praise, or simple conversation.
10. Gary Anandasangaree
Twitter: @gary_srp
Mr. Delacourt pointed to Mr. Anandasangaree (Scarborough-Rouge Park, Ont.) as someone who has been effective at reaching out to diverse communities in his riding through social media. On Twitter and Facebook, Mr. Anandasangaree posts frequently about Tamil Heritage Month, which was created under his own private member’s bill. He also invites his constituents to celebrate Black History Month with him, shares stories of Tamil heritage in Newfoundland, and links to reflections on the impact of superstar boxer Muhammad Ali.
cnash@hilltimes.com
@chels_nash