Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Socrates! Blogs and tweets are public!

Steve Martin did a bit in 1980 in which Socrates complains that, despite all the time he and his students spent together, no-one ever mentioned that hemlock is poisonous [note: the part related to this topic is over by the 2 ½-minute mark].

Conservative Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is finding out this week that sometimes, what seems obvious (or at least, common knowledge) isn’t so obvious to everyone. He and his party are doing a little damage control after Edmonton-Calder MLA Doug Elniski posted some ill-considered “advice” to high-school girls on his blog [another note: this clip is preceded by a 30-second commercial, and followed immediately by other news stories].

Mr. Elniski reportedly has also had to apologize for comments he made on Twitter.

Everywhere we look these days, there’s discussion of how social media tools like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook are revolutionizing communications by allowing organizations and people in power to converse directly with their customers or constituents online. With that free access to “the people”, though, must come the recognition that what you say using these tools is “out there.” Sometimes, it can feel like a tweet is just a short-lived, offhand comment to your friends – but when you have a public reputation you care about, you need to make sure your tweets (or blog posts, or Facebook status updates) reflect who you are professionally.

We give this same advice to our CreComm students at Red River College. What you post online contributes to how the world – including future employers – sees you; so resist the temptation to post things that will reflect poorly on your “personal brand”. Once you post them, they're “out there”, for far more than your close friends to see. People who don’t know you will make judgments based on what you post – and that may not tell the whole (or even an accurate) story.

OK, gotcha. Watch what I say using social media, check. Case closed?

Not quite.

In an article in The Globe and Mail online, Elniski says he will continue to use online communications – “but he may have his comments vetted, possibly by government officials, before they appear;” for his part, Stelmach’s chief of staff says he’s going to “send a letter to Tory MLAs in the coming days about the dos and don'ts of using social networking websites.” Certainly, that might help reduce the number of similar embarrassments to the party in future – but it doesn’t address the fundamental issue of the MLA’s personal views and judgment. [For the record, Elniski has publicly regretted and apologized for the comments, and Premier Stelmach has clearly stated that the comments don't reflect "my values, they don't reflect the values of our government, they don't reflect the values of the caucus nor of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party."]

Historically, many Canadians have voted for candidates without ever having had direct contact with them; they voted for the ideas and ideals attributed to the candidates, but didn’t have much opportunity to get to know them personally. Now, social media tools like blogs and Twitter allow politicians more opportunities to speak directly to their constituencies without the filters of the mainstream media (or even, apparently, party brass); they allow people to get to know their representatives a little better on a personal level, for better or for worse. Today, if your candidate has a less-than-politics-friendly sense of humour, people are going to notice it.

Vetting politicians' blog posts and tweets may reduce the potential for online embarrassments, but if they really represent their views, they're just as likely to express them in other forums. New media and traditional PR tactics aside, the most important ingredient in any successful PR campaign is your product: if there are characteristics of your product your customers won’t like, the best PR strategy for the long term is to address them.

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