Social media and the Mandy Rice-Davies election

"He would say that, wouldn't he?" Mandy Rice-Davies' famous riposte to Lord Astor's defence counsel during the trial of Stephen Ward came to mind as I scrolled my Twitter feed during last week's Jeremy Paxman grilling of David Cameron and Ed Miliband.

Twitter has the potential to be a navel-gazing echo chamber for politicians, thinks Andrew MacDougall
Twitter has the potential to be a navel-gazing echo chamber for politicians, thinks Andrew MacDougall
Labour and Conservative spinners were out in force during the respective interrogations, with each side slamming their opponent, proclaiming their man the winner, and retweeting the pundits who agreed with them. 

To which I say: well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? 

Make no mistake, thanks to social media we’re on the road to a Mandy Rice-Davies election. 

The trouble is, the narrow social world of Westminster doesn’t equal the broader offline world, and so politicians and flacks will need to resist social’s siren song if they’re to claim the top prize and avoid the shoals of the opposition benches. 

Speaking from experience as a former director of comms to a Prime Minister, it’s tempting to consider your Twitter feed a proxy for the general population. 

It’s also wrong; the general public isn’t as up for Twitter as lobby hacks or political flacks. 

Indeed, journalists are one of the most active sub-groups on Twitter.

Confusing them with the general population is a mistake a political communicator cannot afford to make.

Without a doubt, the trickiest part of political communication is keeping your ear attuned to the public. 

The Westminster bubble, like all bubbles surrounding centres of power, is an echo chamber that can leave you deaf to the concerns of 'ordinary' people. 

Indeed, the rise of UKIP and other fringe parties is due largely to a feeling that Labour and the Tories have lost the public pulse.

Playing to the bubble might be satisfying from a partisan perspective but it doesn’t mean you’re satisfying the information demands of the electorate.

Ah, the electorate. The people who will actually decide matters and elect our Members of Parliament. What did they think of last week’s interviews by the leaders? 

As ever, there were a slate of polls released that netted out a narrow win to Cameron, a conclusion promptly trumpeted on Conservative social media channels.

The question then becomes: how representative is the population who watched the Paxman interviews? Again, the crowd who will turn into the Paxman interviews is likely to be more engaged than the average voter, many of whom don’t pay any attention to politics in between elections. 

So, where does this leave us?

The real value of social media is that it fires up supporters and allows you to identify new supporters and build relationships with them. 

This is precisely what political parties are meant to do. 

Identifying supporters through social media can be useful, as long as steps are then taken to build a face-to-face relationship.

It’s all for naught unless they go out and vote, and on its own social media is not enough to get the job done.

But, as a social sceptic, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Andrew MacDougall is a senior executive consultant at MSLGroup UK

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