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  • 04.09.10

Twitter Feed Torpedos First U.K. Political Candidate

Twitter twerp

Twitter’s booming international growth is not without its pitfalls. If you haven’t noticed, there’s a General Election going on in the U.K. And, rather like its American counterpart, 18 months back, British politicians have embraced social media as a way of reaching out to the country’s voters. In the 2008 campaign for the White House, candidates, for the most part, demonstrated mastery of the social media. The political bods of this tiny, scepter’d isle, however, may want to stick to using Twitter and Facebook as a method of receiving their constituents’ opinions, rather than transmitting their own.

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Exhibit A: A Labour parliamentary candidate, Stuart MacLennan, is in deep doo-doo this morning for updates posted on his Twitter feed from last year.

Twitter

Oh.

Twitter

My.

Twitter

Lord.

Actually, perhaps that should have read: You. Stupid. Git.

MacLennan was first forced to issue a grovelling apology by his party overlords, who put it down to their candidate’s youth, and like a wayward tween, his Twitter account was rapidly suspended. Then at lunchtime this morning, things got real adult. He was sacked, with Labour official shutting down his campaign Web site toot sweet. I bet he’s wishing he’d read Gina Trapani’s guide to social media on FastCompany.com right now!

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The U.K. is not without adept political tweeters. The most is the Prime Minister’s wife, Sarah Brown. Although not strictly a politician, the former PR supremo has quietly mustered over one million followers and uses it to post a mixture of intimate behind-the-scenes moments, personal messages, and unaggressive support for husband Gordon as he battles to get reelected. And the PM is obviously aware of how powerful a weapon his wife can be, as her Twitter feed is live on the front page of Labour’s official blog.

But have the parties set their social media campaign to receive? Labour were out of the starting blocks with a “People’s PMQs“–that’s Prime Minister’s Questions, the rowdy 30 minutes every Wednesday when MPs get to quiz the Premier on various issues–on Twitter and Facebook. The party should be slapping itself on the back as it got pretty favorable reviews from the media. There were, however, dissenting voices, who saw the event as overly stage-managed to be truly democratic. But it’s a general election, stupid, that’s what people like this potty-mouthed guy are paid to do.

Mainstream political parties should be aware that they need to use social networks in a very different way to other social media presences–Nestle learned a similar lesson last month. Have an overly corporate strategy, and you bore your market. Belligerence is out–it may work for single-issue activists such as Greenpeace, but voters don’t want to be hit over the head repeatedly with a blunt object–and they’ll vote with their Unfollow buttons.

Sarah Palin has decided to run her putative campaign for 2012 (but let’s not call it that, shall we?) using Twitter and Facebook, but is already coming under fire from some commentators. In a nutshell, they are worried that comments like “Don’t retreat, instead, reload” will be taken literally by a politically frustrated gun nut. Has she misunderstood the power of social media, or are the commentators underestimating the American public?

Despite the enthusiasm of the parties for social networking, and their, no-doubt, frantic hiring of anyone who purports to call themselves a social media guru, it is still uncharted territory. When it comes to using sites such as Twitter and Facebook as a two-way radio, rather than a tannoy system, there is no formula that works. But perhaps the blame should be laid at the feet of the political classes who, let’s face it, are so used to spouting their policies and their opinions to the general public, have forgotten how to listen–and how to behave in polite company. The fear is already palpable, so perhaps there is every chance that MacLennan’s swift removal from the political landscape may change their behavior.

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About the author

My writing career has taken me all round the houses over the past decade and a half--from grumpy teens and hungover rock bands in the U.K., where I was born, via celebrity interviews, health, tech and fashion in Madrid and Paris, before returning to London, where I now live. For the past five years I've been writing about technology and innovation for U.S.

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