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The UK election: social media lessons


Some of you may have heard about an election in the UK last week.

Far too many words have already been said and written about the whys, whats and implications of the result, some of them even cogent. I don’t want to add to that canon. Instead, here are a few thoughts about what we can learn from the social media campaigns.

An obvious point is the anger and vitriol in political social media is pernicious. But it is happily quite rare for most of us using social media for marketing. The rule is, of course, to say nothing online that you wouldn’t say in person. People using social media for customer relationship management probably suffer the most, but that’s as much the nature of CRM as it is the channel.

That aside, what can we learn from the election?

1. Social media does not equal real life

A few days before election day, the media was full of news that Labour had won social media. It had outspent the Conservatives on Facebook ads, its videos got nearly four times as many views as the Conservatives’ and it had all the most successful posts.

But social media success doesn’t always translate into real life success. In this instance, Labour wasn’t talking to enough new audiences, and the messages weren’t resonating enough, so wasn’t changing any minds. In many ways, it was a classic echo chamber.

The first lesson here is that we need to use social media to reach new audiences with messages that resonate with them. This is true for unknown brands and for well-established ones, and anything in between.

The second lesson is to focus measurement on outcomes. Make sure you know if likes and follows translate to behavioural change in real life, otherwise they’re just vanity metrics. A lot of noise made by a very engage existing audience may look good on the surface, but it’s meaningless if your objective is to attract new followers or to change people’s behaviour.

2. Social media really does not equal real life

Everyone is a journalist; everyone is an expert. A totally untrained polemicist can build a sufficient following on social media that the media feel the need to give them time and space to pontificate to a wider audience. This in turn makes their views look mainstream, meaning they are taken seriously.

The ultimate end game, politically, is that they end up in an election manifesto. But because they are not, in fact, mainstream views, the resulting manifesto is a disaster.  

The lesson is that we shouldn’t be wooed by the temptation to generate superficial content that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, just because it’s likely to stimulate engagement. In a corporate context, greenwashing springs to mind. True thought leadership is not your ability to express a unique, engaging viewpoint. It’s your ability to communicate a unique, engaging viewpoint, backed by in-depth experience and expert understanding.

3. Events move fast and fake news is prolific

Bear with me while I give you some background. A breakthrough story towards the end of the election campaign involved a boy asleep on some coats on an Accident and Emergency floor because there weren’t enough beds.

In an interview, a journalist gave Boris Johnson a phone with a picture of the boy and asked for a comment. Johnson refused and pocketed the phone, escalating the story.

The result was Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, going to the hospital in question to try to make things better. Very quickly, a story emerged that a protestor had hit one of Hancock’s aides, propagated in part by a tweet by the BBC’s political editor.

It quickly transpired the ‘hit’ was in fact the aide walking into a protestor’s hand by mistake. There were plenty of videos, taken on phones, showing what actually happened.

There are two lessons here. The first is that news can travel very fast, whether it’s true or not. We therefore need to be very careful about what we say on social media. We also need to be critical of anything that doesn’t sound quite right. Better to be a little cautious than potentially damage your brand.

The second is that the same probity rules apply on social media as they do in the real world. If you make things up, or say anything inaccurate, you will be caught out. So while I’ve said, twice, that social media doesn’t equal real life, in this instance it actually does. Basically, don’t think you’ll get away with anything. Not that you were thinking of doing that, of course: this lesson is for those other people.

Happy Christmas.

Charlie Pryor

Senior Advisor, International Communications, based in London

Charlie is an experienced communications consultant who started Leidar UK in 2010. He is responsible for developing and implementing communications strategies for companies and organisations of all sizes and in many different sectors.

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