The potential benefit of social media for politicians and other public figures has always been that it allows them to engage directly with the public—unfiltered and in real time. Done right, it provides politicians an opportunity to communicate about politics and public policy in a way that shows their personalities. Amid increasing voter apathy—turnout in Canadian federal elections has trended steadily downward since the late 1950s—platforms like Twitter, Snapchat and Vine help turn the tide of cynicism among millennials and post-millennials toward politicians that make the social media efforts.
Done right, social media is effective and endearing. Done wrong, it’s embarrassing.
In mid-July, Toronto residents had the opportunity to see a bit of both: some politicians knocking it out of the park and others falling flat.
City councillor Norm Kelly is best known for his much-needed steady hand as deputy mayor during the Rob Ford administration and his impressive @norm Twitter account. With nearly 18,000 followers and more than 4,000 “favourited” tweets, Kelly is city council’s social media super star.
Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and dead raccoons
Over the past several days, Kelly, a historian and former federal parliamentarian, got called a “thug” by an obscure rapper from the United States while trying to defend hometown hero Drake. But the highlight of Kelly’s recent activity on Twitter was when he joined the #DeadRacoonTO conversation, which began when City crews failed to clean up a dead raccoon that was laying spread-eagle beside one of the city’s busiest streets. What resonated with people is that as Kelly joined the conversation he used his social media influence to shed light on concerns regarding the state of the City’s services, while still maintaining a sense of humour.
We asked Kelly for comment on his social media strategy. He refused but a staffer did say that Kelly writes all his own tweets.
Ontario’s transportation minister, Steven Del Duca, also capitalized on an issue trending on social media when he welcomed Kanye West to Toronto and gave a shout-out to unpopular temporary HOV lanes in the same tweet. The decision to feature the American rapper in the closing ceremonies of the Pan Am Games had been criticized by many Canadians on social media and the HOV lanes were even more unpopular.
Mayor’s social stumble
Contrast this with Mayor John Tory’s bad social media week. A few days earlier, Tory, a straight-laced businessman, heaped praise on Kanye West and the Toronto music industry that turned him into an internationally-recognized artist. (West was born in Atlanta and spent his childhood in Chicago and China.)
In response to the embarrassment, Tory’s PR team dug the hole a little deeper, posting an unfunny video to Facebook called ““Yeezus, can’t believe I didn’t know @KimKardashian’s husband wasn’t Canadian!”. To make matters worse, the video was removed due to copyright restrictions. While the mayor should be acknowledged for his willingness to take a risk, it wasn’t clear what he was hoping to achieve.
Tory hasn’t been all bad on social media. Days earlier, he successfully engaged Torontonians when he asked on Twitter where the newly-iconic TORONTO sign should go. Within 36 hours, the hashtag #TORONTOsign generated more than 8.3 million impressions, on a topic that hit more traditional John Tory brand: public engagement and civic pride.
What are the lessons learned?
Politicians can successfully use Twitter to engage with the public, so long as their personality comes through. When social media is stage managed, it’s inauthentic and ineffective.
Social media audiences are receptive to humour—as long as it’s funny. Being funny isn’t being easy, so politicians may first want to master credibility, authenticity and consistency before turning to lulz.
At the end of the day, when it comes to social media, it is perfectly acceptable to let down your guard and show the public that you have a fun side, but social media stunts should still have an underlying message. Trying to be funny for the sake of being funny usually falls flat.