Image courtesy of flickr user Earls37a

Real Time Politics: Real Time Public Affairs

Politicians are now used to an age of instant reaction but in public affairs the pick-up has been much slower. But it will gather pace.

Many of those organisations involved in political engagement have to date shied away from using social media to respond immediately to political comments or stories. The reasons seemed to vary from those worried about possible accusations of jumping on a bandwagon and trying to get sales from ‘news-jacking’ a story, through to simply lacking the senior level to move quickly enough to make a responsive comment. Or it may even be that they did not think that anyone would really notice.

Social media has mainly be viewed in the context of longer term campaigns to help influence stakeholders and demonstrate support for a cause. But things have started to shift and as discussed on the For Immediate Release podcast, there are some examples of real time public affairs. These recent US examples are all Donald Trump related!

Skittles – Donald Trump Jr tweeted a picture (since deleted) of a bowl of Skittles comparing them to Syrian refugees .  Skittles responded by tweeting that ‘Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy.’

Tic Tacs – in the tape released of Trump talking about women in some of the most highly offensive terms possible, he referred to using some Tic Tacs in case he started kissing women.  Tic Tacs responded by tweeting ‘Tic Tac respects all women. We find the recent statements and behavior completely inappropriate and unacceptable.’

Ford – in the first presidential debate, Trump suggested that Ford was moving jobs to Mexico. But Ford, as well as the trade union the United Auto Workers, were fact checking him and putting the record straight, including the use of infographics.

All three cases have their differences. Ford had been mentioned previously so could plan for further mentions and put a strategy in place.  Skittles had little choice but to react and did so with a clear message in very strong tones.

Tic Tac on the other hand appeared to wait a little before responding. This could have been down to a hope that the comment would be lost in the rest of the media coverage about Trump’s offensive comments. But there was a little real chance of that especially given the way in the other two had already reacted.  So ‘get mentioned, react quickly’ seems to be the new reality.

In the UK, the most recent example where a company felt the need to react was Collins and Hayes, as I wrote about recently. They chose a more traditional media route but still moved quickly to protect their name.

Southern Rail did try a more social media type response to the industrial action they are involved in but it was too late in the day. The tide of public and, critically, passenger opinion was already against them. So to try a direct appeal encouraging passengers to tweet their anger at the RMT rail union was bound to fail.  The RMT currently has all the sympathy. So this is a failure of messaging and approach by Southern that goes back some time.

So there is something here about making sure you are starting from a strong base. There is also the need to balance the danger of annoying the politicians and the potential ramifications, against the reputational damage of saying and doing nothing.

As politicians need to shout louder to be heard and have less reliance on ‘the experts’ then more organisations will be called out more for their alleged behaviour.

The profile of the issue will undoubtedly help to decide on the appropriate scale and timing of a response. The precedent has, however, been set. When Tic Tac did not respond as quickly as some believed they should there was a danger that that would become the story with all the negative associated connotation that that would be brought.

So social media is no longer the preserve of the public affairs campaign but also needs to be at the heart of the real time response to politicians. This could also have the added benefit of making the political audiences think twice before making any sweeping statements.

We all have reputations to consider.

Image courtesy of flickr user Earls37a

Stuart Thomson

Stuart is a public affairs and communications specialist at Bircham Dyson Bell LLP advising clients on all elements of their public affairs strategies including political and corporate communications and reputation management. His work also includes consultation and planning communications and he has worked on a number of high profile media relations and crisis communications programmes. Stuart is an honorary research fellow at the University of Aberdeen and is the author of several books including 'New Activism and the Corporate Response', 'Public Affairs in Practice' (for the CIPR) and 'The Dictionary of Labour Quotations' (published by Britain's leading political publisher, Biteback). 'New Activism and the Corporate Response' was called a book that "every aspiring business leader should read" by MIS Asia. Stuart regularly writes and lectures on a range of business and political issues. Stuart recently released a book published by Urbane Publications, 'Public Affairs: News, Views and Hullabaloos' based on his blog. He is also a CIPR trainer and was shortlisted for the 2014 Director of the Year award by the IoD and CIPR.

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