Comment: Where is social media savvy Malcolm?

Malcolm Turnbull holds his mobile phone up to his mouth as he listens and watches Question Time from the frontbench in the house of representatives in February 2015. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) Source: AAP

Why has new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull - an early adopter of social media and a prolific app user - nearly vanished from Twitter?

Last Sunday night, as journalists and political junkies pored over the first Turnbull ministry, most government MPs kept their social media posts to a minimum, politely congratulating or commiserating with colleagues.

There was no such restraint for Australia’s most powerful female politician, Julie Bishop. The Foreign Minister seemingly spent the whole evening on Twitter, firstly welcoming Steve Ciobo as the new Minister for International Development and the Pacific, and then swapping emoji-laden tweets with actual, everyday Australians.

It wasn’t the first time Minister Bishop had enjoyed an emoji-fest with the hoi polloi. She’s famous for it – and her Twitter-following of 148,000 suggests she’s popular for it, too.

In response to one snarky tweep, who suggested the Foreign Minister’s obsession with emoticons was “scarily juvenile and just plain strange”, Bishop good-naturedly replied that she was #justhavingfun. We could equally note that Bishop’s genuine engagement on Twitter is #justbeingsmart.

In these days of cookie cutter and risk-averse politicians who can only speak or post on social media in slogans and sound bites, authentic politicians have an immediate cut-through that appeals to cynical and otherwise jaded voters.

Turnbull deftly used social media to craft a “man of the people” persona... bypassing traditional media altogether.

This is particularly important for political leaders. Former PM Kevin Rudd (1.6 million Twitter followers) set the standard by constantly being on Twitter, even as he ran the country.

During her time as PM, Julia Gillard (664,000 followers) was a much cautious tweeter, no doubt due – at least in part – to the considerably volatile political environment within which she was forced to operate.

NSW Premier Mike Baird (40k followers) is now the standout Australian political leader when it comes to use of social media, whether it be interviewing former PM Paul Keating, posting #qanda selfies, or hilarously live-tweeting The Bachelor finale, while stuck at home on the couch with his daughters due to a bout of man-flu.

As Baird said to his Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian in another recent video posted on his Twitter account, one of the most important things on social media is to “be yourself”.

This is the advice that new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (435,000 followers) will need to take to heart, now that he has less time to fiddle with his electronic devices. Turnbull, of course, is no slouch in the social media stakes.

Like Rudd, he joined Twitter in October 2008, but the technophile Turnbull has also been blogging since 2004. He was an early adopter of Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and Wickr, and was the probably the first Australian MP to have a mobile app.

Like Rudd during his wilderness years, Turnbull deftly used social media to craft a “man of the people” persona and build a personal following, bypassing traditional media altogether. His tweets about using public transport are legendary, particularly his love for the 389 bus and the recent trip to Geelong, during which not one helicopter was observed.

But now comes the tricky part: running a government while maintaining a genuine and engaging presence on social media.

Social media can no longer be a jaunty past-time for the Prime Minister.

Turnbull has been quiet on social media since announcing his tilt for the Liberal leadership a week ago, posting only two transcripts and a congratulatory note on Twitter to the successful Liberal candidate in Canning, Andrew Hastie.

Unlike PM Abbott, who depended heavily on traditional media to get his message out, PM Turnbull will likely continue to use social media to communicate directly with voters. But with considerably less time on his hands, the PM will have to become a lot more strategic if he is to find the time to authentically engage with his followers and avoid lapsing into broadcast mode.

Good communication on social media doesn’t happen by accident. It can involve a videographer or photographer – and sometimes both – a crack team of graphic designers, and someone with a flair for words. It requires an awareness of contemporary issues and popular culture, and a flair for words, balanced with a light-handed caution that can only come from years of political wisdom.

There’s also the tricky question of who’s actually posting the leader’s tweets. One way to maintain authenticity is to use differentiating sign-offs, so that a tweet from the man himself could be signed MT, while the PM’s social media team could use Team MT. This system is established and works pretty well for most leaders, although Labor leader Bill Shorten’s team does seem reluctant to use Team BS.

In short, social media can no longer be a jaunty past-time for the Prime Minister. But it can remain an integral part of the way he communicates.

Kevin Rudd mostly gave good social media during his time as PM, and Mike Baird has set the new standard. It’s clear Julie Bishop could do so too, if she was ever called upon to mind the shop while the PM was away.

It’s over to you Malcolm, to show Australians that you remain one step ahead when it comes to that new media thing. We look forward to your prime ministerial posts, videos, photos and broadcasts. No pressure, really.

Paula Matthewson was media advisor to John Howard in the early 1990s and has worked in communications, political and advocacy roles for 25 years.

 

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