In a digital world there is an expectation that public figures are constantly within reach and easy to communicate with. That is what BU’s Dr Darren Lilleker is teaching politicians in a bid to reform how they communicate with the public, specifically through the use of social media.
“Getting people involved in politics is important for democracy,” he explained. “Social media today plays the role the soapbox did 100 years ago. People are becoming aware of different political ideas, getting involved and feeling empowered.”
Dr Lilleker and his colleagues were invited to advise the Labour Party front-bench in the UK House of Lords on the use of social media. Researchers developed a training programme to introduce MPs to online communication platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging.
“We consistently find that if politicians are willing to use social media to ask questions and encourage feedback on current affairs they gain a strong online following of individuals who are active and willing to support their campaigns,” he explains.
For a number of years Dr Lilleker and his colleagues have been researching the use of Web 2.0 in politics and the impact on public engagement. This has highlighted that a proactive communication strategy has a range of advantages. It can build reach in online networks; encourage feedback on campaigns; increase coverage in the media; build relationships with members of key stakeholder groups; create communities of interest who can then be mobilised to support important political campaigns; and increase the politician’s authority within interest groups.
Dr Lilleker explains: “Social media provides access to a wide range of demographics, many of whom traditionally would never contact a politician. A social media presence makes the politician seem accessible, gives a sense of their personality, but most importantly it can get ordinary people involved in politics. It is therefore a win-win situation. The politician gains an active audience while those they engage with become empowered and active politically.”
Lord Knight of Weymouth, formerly Jim Knight MP for South Dorset, took part in the training: “In the House of Lords, I find a growing appreciation of the need for effective political communication coupled with nervousness about how it all works,” he said. “Darren’s expertise in this field and his understanding of a wider range of communication practices and techniques has been invaluable in helping Parliamentarians reconsider the way they talk to each other and engage with the public – particularly through social media.”
Equally as important as a proactive political communications strategy though, is measuring its success. Dr Lilleker is offering analysis on the time invested in communicating with the public through social media and how it has added value to their campaigns.
Measured analytics already show that this research is making a difference. Analysis of the Legal Aid reform debate showed that Lords who used Twitter were reference points among users (measured by retweets) and saw greater media coverage. Similar results were found during the debate on Lords reform.
Dr Lilleker hopes the research will continue to have impact for many years to come as more politicians communicate with their audiences through social media. He and his team are producing a best practice guide that will help them to achieve this goal and teach many politicians that digital communication is not only a tool for the future, but a tool for the present too.
“It is amazing what can happen in 140 characters,” he concludes. “One short political tweet can be the start of a whole campaign if politicians become more proactive and get to grips with social media use.”