Last week the US Republican Party announced restrictions on candidates’ ability to run for elected office until they embraced digital technology.The Republicans are not saying they need candidates to be experts in Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter but they want to ensure they accept these tools as an important part of their engagement with the electorate. US politicians have tended to lead the way in terms of digital political engagement, so is it now time our MPs and MSPs took note?
More questions first: is it necessary to be tech-savvy if you’re a politician? In the UK the evidence would suggest, that while it’s fast becoming mainstream, there are plenty of politicians all too willing to ignore digital engagement altogether. So if representatives in the US are more digitally savvy, why is that the case?
It was announced this week that the White House is now officially on Snapchat. The launch coincided with President Obama’s State of Union Address. So far a highlight has been a shot of the First Dogs, Bo and Sunny, being snapped alongside their owner getting into a helicopter. Would anyone be interested in snaps of David Cameron behind the scenes at 10 Downing Street? In truth, when you look at who the target audience of Snapchat and Instagram (late teens to mid-twenties), just 43% of whom turned out to vote on the last UK general election, my guess is that the PM would find himself struggling to keep up with the Kardashians in more ways than one.
At the moment you’ll predominantly find UK politicians on ‘traditional’ platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, although the Scottish Government has recently moved into Instagram. In the US the top politicians are hoovering up exposure on a whole host of platforms, from Snapchat to Instagram. Even Donald Trump is on point, showing a level of social media nous that leaves Jeremy Corbyn in the dust. Perhaps our politicians are missing a trick here, by failing to engaging in exciting new ways and through channels which resonate firmly with the voting public. Then again, new social media tactics can be a double-edged sword.
For my money the most daring recent plunge into the waters of youth-focussed social media was Ed Miliband’s pre-election interview with Russell Brand on YouTube. Its content received praise and criticism in almost equal measure, but as an exercise in outreach it did well, appealing to the Snapchat and Instagram-using voters in Labour’s core 18-34 age category. Last week Barack Obama did a similar YouTube interview with some of the channel’s biggest stars, with the President being asked questions such as what Star Wars character he most related to and who would win a rap battle between Kendrick Lamar and Drake.
Would anyone have care who Jeremy Corbyn’s or Tim Farron’s favourite rapper was if Russell Brand asked him? We’d love to hear the answers, but probably not for reasons that his special advisers would like. What about Nicola Sturgeon though? Or Ruth Davidson?
Politicians with a reputation for having an established, authentic voice on social media have an in-built advantage when it comes to embracing digital channels specifically targeted at young people, because they know how to get the tone just right. For everyone else, here are a few cautionary tales from an earlier blog entry….
Euan Stirling is a Social Media Executive at Indigo