PRCA debates whether #GE2015 is a truly social election

Weber Shandwick hosts PRCA debate on the political power of social

#GE2015 is widely being touted as the UK’s first social media general election, following the direction of travel of US political campaigns, where spends of $16m on digital campaigns are not unusual. But what impact does social media actually have, here in the UK?

Some argue that Facebook likes and tweets don’t necessarily translate into votes, while others point to research that indicates social media can drive political interest. Weber Shandwick’s own research into which channels engage voters most has found that traditional media is still the most likely to grab voters’ attention, but that social holds significant potential for influencing how people vote once it engages them.

Weber Shandwick’s UK and EMEA CEO Colin Byrne last night chaired a PRCA Digital and Public Affairs Group panel debate on the power of social media in the current General Election campaign:

The key conclusions the panel reached were:

1. This is not a ‘social media election’ but social media is providing a platform for political conversations

Whilst it would be premature to call this a ‘social media election’, social media is increasingly being used by voters to engage in conversations about politics, as we witnessed during the Scottish Referendum. Social media won’t make voters politically literate straight away, but it is a ‘fish hook’ to engage the public in political debate.

2. Politicians need to find a more meaningful way to engage with voters over social media

Politicians often still fall into the old trap of using social media to broadcast at, rather than engage with, voters. The old models of politics are simply being reinvented for social media and this is failing to connect with voters. The most successful digital campaigns so far have been those which haven’t directly involved politicians, such as the Register to Vote campaign.

3. Social media has the potential to transform local campaigning

Social media is successfully being used on a local level to connect with voters in a way politicians haven’t been able to in the past, particularly in rural areas. It adds another dimension to constituency casework. Compared to 2010 when only 25% of MPs were on Facebook, now two thirds are. However, in order for politicians’ social profiles to be authentic, they have to last beyond the election.

4. Politicians need to be authentic when engaging with voters

The parties’ campaign teams are always keen to ensure that party leaders meet with voters in tightly controlled circumstances and avoid putting themselves in situations where they might be criticised or ridiculed. Social media is in danger of becoming just another channel where politicians avoid connecting with real voters and only talk in a controlled way or engage with people who agree with them. Communication can be overly polished and scripted, missing the opportunity to show a more dynamic profile of politicians and to convey personality.