Take the general election. While it’s an exaggeration to say it’s the first social media election, online sentiment analysis has reached new levels ahead of the 7 May vote, rivalling traditional opinion polls as the de facto gauge of voter intent. That has been especially true following the leader debates.
But writing for prweek.com, MSL Group UK’s Andrew MacDougall, ex-comms director to Canadian PM Stephen Harper, warns it is "wrong" to consider your Twitter feed a proxy for the population. "The public isn’t as up for Twitter as lobby hacks or political flacks," he points out. "Confusing them with the general population is a mistake a political communicator cannot afford to make."
No doubt social media analysis following 2010’s famous "I agree with Nick" debate would have given even more fuel to the false belief that the Liberal Democrats were a genuine election force that year. When it comes to the ballot box, what matters is whether key messages resonate with voters.
It is not just about politics. I lose count of the times retweets, shares and ‘likes’ are used as evidence of the success of a campaign. It is certainly one form of evidence, but counts for little if the fundamental goals are not met, whether that means shifting units or winning votes. PR can’t forget that engagement on social media is not an end in itself.
Elsewhere, our cover feature on religion is a fascinating insight into the challenges of representing organisations that are frequently on the back foot these days. Their problems differ, but all operate in an era when specialist religious correspondents are a thing of the past and the media landscape is less attuned to their nuances. All the more important, then, to use their own channels to create their own narratives.
Have they risen to that challenge? Steps have undoubtedly been taken. The current Pope has shown willingness to engage on Twitter, where his online ‘flock’ numbers more than 5.8 million. In February the Muslim Council of Britain organised national #VisitMyMosque day.
But as PRWeek has previously reported, the antagonists and extremists have arguably been better at using new media to their advantage, most notably through Islamic State’s online propaganda.
Whether mainstream religions will be able to counter remains to be seen, but the lessons for politicians and religious leaders about not resting on your laurels will resonate across the wider PR world.