How to win at social media with the Clintons

Here’s a post I recently wrote for the Spark blog

You may have seen recently that Hillary Clinton became the latest of the Clinton Clan to join Twitter, following in the footsteps of husband Bill and daughter Chelsea. And whichever PR pro helped Hillary launch her first tentative social footsteps was something of a genius, she may have only tweeted four times (to date), but she’s gone down a storm.

Bill and Chelsea are far more active, as are all their associated profiles which encompass their many charitable and action foundations. The Clintons have built a formidable presence on Twitter, perhaps learning from Barack Obama himself, whose social media practices have been near flawless. As a ‘brand’, the Clintons are impressive – managing to do what many businesses fail to do; build a cohesive, united, ‘joined-up’ presence on social media networks to get that all important message out there.

Social media, as we all know, is here to stay (as are the Clintons). Having a social media ‘presence’ is deemed as an almost necessity for businesses these days – and whether it is the right thing for your business or not (it isn’t always!), there are lessons to be learned from the Clintons if you’re making the jump to social.

So, what tips can companies pick up from the Clinton’s foray into the Twittersphere?

  • Make an entrance – Hillary’s inspired first tweet, a play on the #TextsFromHillary meme was a great start. Retweeted 11,042 times so far, that first tweet itself generated a whole lot of headlines and goodwill.
  • Have a sense of humour – Well done Hillary, referencing your own meme and taking‘selfies’ with your child; clever, wry and in the best of humour.
  • Choose your time wisely – Do not, under any circumstances, try to gain capital or make jokes out of tragic events (I can’t believe that even needs to be said, but sadly it does).
  • Don’t forget your profile – The 140 characters under you name is your first chance to draw the user in. Hillary’s is excellent, and that clever ‘TBD…’ ending hasn’t put those 2016 rumours to bed.
  • Be active – Now Hillary is letting the side down here a bit, but Bill and Chelsea are regular tweeters; businesses with inactive streams or infrequent updates are not engaging in the conversation which will deliver them customers.
  • Build your brand – Chelsea Clinton does this very well, her Twitter profile page has the Twitter handles of all her other associated accounts listed down the side – a good tip, make it easy for users to find your other connected networks.

Now, the Clintons were starting out with a good deal of reputation and cache already in place – very, very few businesses will have that type of expectation or welcome if they decide to go social. Building a social media following is a slow and involved process, and can’t be done half-heartedly. But whether you decide to make the social leap, or if you already have, why not strive to be like the best?

The North/South divide: Still a thing.

Disclaimer: I’m a northerner.

Check out this story on ComputerWorldUK, about a new competition launched to find the next £100m tech start-up, with a £1m prize and advice and support given to the winner. Where is it based? London. This is part of the government’s continued effort to create a tech hub in East London. Because of course, absolutely no technical expertise, skill and innovation happens outside of London. The Tech City initiative is just one more example of the government’s inability to focus on anywhere outside of London. It is so hopelessly short-sighted.

We can talk all day about the North/South divide, but the fact remains it is there. As someone whose office is in London but is a home-worker based in Manchester, I make the trip from North to South regularly. I’ve also lived many years in the South East and many years in the North West. I have seen first-hand the disparity between wealth accumulation and job availability in both locations. In short, London and the South East have money to burn; the North West is haemorrhaging jobs and increasing poverty all over the place. And it is not getting any better. This government is so wholly focused on its London bubble, it has all but forgotten that the rest of the country exists, except when it needs some votes and it has to muddy its feet north of the Watford Gap.

Sadly, some very good London based friends and colleagues are stuck in the same bubble. The disdain for anything outside of London is quite astonishing sometimes. I don’t rise to it, mainly because I’m used to it, and it’s something of a losing battle to begin with. But I also recognise the difference between a bit of harmless banter, and, well, some pretty nasty and disparaging views about anyone/anything in the North. The North of course in these situations referred to as some mystical, far away land, populated by people in flat caps, eating pies and claiming benefits they are not entitled to.

Honestly, it’s boring. So very mind-numbingly boring that these types of views still exist. But they do. And until the government looks outside of London and starts to do something for the rest of the UK, you know, like invest some actual money somewhere, the situation will remain the same.

Free speech? Evelyn Beatrice Hall had it right

I love Louis Theroux, and have religiously watched all of his documentaries, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed with his latest examination of ‘America’s most hated family’. Theroux first visited the Phelps of Kansas, who founded and run the utterly abhorrent Westboro Baptist Church in 2007; this documentary (BBC2, Sunday, 9pm) is their second meeting.

With unprecedented levels of bile and vitriol, the Phelps have made it their mission to tell the world just how angry and vengeful God is,  and just how much he hates gay people, anyone of another faith, or of another race. I can’t even begin to explain their absurd and offensive views, and quite how one is able to conjure up so much hatred toward another person is beyond me.

It does however, raise the interesting question of free speech and that famous quote from Evelyn Beatrice Hall, ‘’I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’’ These words resonate especially when watching the Phelps, and their ilk, waving offensive placards and chanting shocking insults on small-town street corners, and the funerals of military personnel.

The legal question of free speech has become somewhat entwined with the moral question, as the Phelps experienced in a protracted Supreme Court battle with the family of a soldier killed in Iraq, over whether their demonstration at his funeral constitutes an expression of free speech (Snyder Vs Phelps).

As much as I hate these people, and what they stand for, you cannot mandate what someone puts on a sign, what words they speak or indeed what thoughts are in their mind. The minefield of what is offensive to some and isn’t to others is a never-ending discussion. The Supreme Court found 8-1 in the Phelps favour; an unprecedented level of consensus amongst the Supreme Court bench’s ideologues.

I am not for a second suggesting that their demonstration is right, decent, or acceptable; it is deplorable to me and the vast majority of observers.  But our society, and that of America, is a society founded on individual freedoms, and one where we fight to protect these rights both at home and internationally. So as galling as it may seem, the Phelps do have a right to express their opinions.

What one would hope for is that general human decency and sensibility would inspire some modicum of self-restraint in their behaviour. There is a time and place for expression of views, and the funeral of a young man isn’t one of them. I may hold views which are offensive to some, in fact I’m sure we all do; it’s the nature of the human race, we are all different, but most of know exactly when to bite our tongue.

Unfortunately the Phelps being the people they are, they haven’t quite mastered that subtle art of simple human decency. So although the legal outcome may sit at odds with our moral opinion, the fact of the Phelps existence is absolute. And while I certainly couldn’t bring myself to defend their rights, I leave that to the minds of the Supreme Court and Beatrice Hall, the best I can hope for is to laugh at them.

The Good, the Bad, and the Fees.

Tuition fees are just one of the current victims of our much vaunted ‘swingeing cuts’;and are sure to ignite impassioned discussion amongst varied groups. I’ll be honest and say that I’m not quite sure exactly where I stand on the subject. Sure, my blood boils when I see the current crop of privately educated, wealthy politicians who enjoyed generous grants inflicting vast amounts of debt on the current generation of students; but at the same time I recognise that higher education, whether subsidised or otherwise, is not a right, but is a privilege.

I’ve had the privilege to attend university for undergraduate and postgraduate study, and I certainly have the debts to accompany it. I would advocate university to anyone; I had some of my best and most valuable experiences during my time at university. But I appreciate how daunting debts running into the tens of thousands must appear to prospective students.

I’ll also be honest and say that I don’t fully understand the numbers (I didn’t study maths at university for a reason). But as it has been explained to me, universities are in the main charging the maximum, or as close to the maximum £9000 limit as possible for two crucial reasons; the actual reduction in government funding, and the predicted drop in student numbers. Combined, this leaves little other way for universities to cover the cost of delivering a degree.

The ‘bad’ I am referring to in this post’s title is the negative publicity problem this has created for universities. Leeds Metropolitan University, where I took my Masters degree, this week announced their intention to charge fees of £8500 per year. Leeds Met has built a strong reputation on widening participation and of traditionally charging lower fees. As the first of the ‘newer’ universities to announce this news, they’ve taken a good amount of flak as a result and face something of a battle to justify the cost. The below the line comments on this Times Higher Education article are scathing to say the very least.

The ‘good’ I am referring to, is the devilishly good PR move executed by the coalition government. By leaving little other option than to raise fees, the government has effectively managed to deflect blame to individual institutions, and shift the focus away from themselves. Forcing the hand of universities this way, means we tend to blame the announcing institution and it is the institution that becomes the object of our ire.

So, as much as I hate to congratulate David Cameron and co, they seem to have their PR machine pretty well oiled this time.

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All publicity is good publicity, right?

Well, not for Barack Obama and the Democrats, who have been incredibly poor at creating some their own positive coverage during the run up to the Midterms, indeed, the past two years. The sterling and vocal work of the Obama 2008 Presidential campaign has petered out into a quiet, somewhat aloof organisation, who does not deign to tackle rumour and supposition – despite the clear harm it is doing to their reputation.

The Democrats are getting publicity though, in the form of daily right-wing Tea Party attacks against Obama, his policies, and his heritage, which go largely unchallenged. Even if those attacks are based on absolute groundless rumour, supposition and innuendo. It infuriates many of the Democrats loyal supporters that the Tea Party can make such outlandish claims without being corrected. Michael Tomasky writes in his column of what conventional wisdom says about responding to claims made against you, namely ignoring them, and why the Democrats should be doing the opposite, and handing the Republicans some spades:

But we are in a new media and political environment. In fact it’s not even new any more. It’s been around for 15 years, but still Democrats think the old rules apply. One old rule is, don’t respond to nutty allegations because you only give them oxygen. Well, Democrats have spent two years not responding as “birthers” spin their conspiracies about Obama, and the result is that between 20% and 25% of American adults doubt that the president is a genuine American.

So I propose a new rule: when the other side is shooting itself in the foot, stand close by and keep handing out bullets. Democratic strategists should be thinking of fresh ways to demonstrate to the American people that these Tea Partiers are not the sons and daughters of John Adams but people who stand almost entirely outside the country’s best mainstream traditions.

This debate raises an interesting question about when you should speak out and repudiate (or equally, my favourite Palinism, ‘refudiate’) such attacks. What the Democrats haven’t been doing is putting to bed some of the more ridiculous claims bandied about. Significantly, the claim which a quarter of Americans (jaw-drop) believe, that Obama is Muslim. Not to mention that he is communist, socialist, Indonesian, ex-CIA employee , and angry ex-Colonial subject,  who has been making suspicious side-trips to Pakistan; pick whichever ludicrous claim you want, all are being given significant airtime.

Obama is clearly stuck in a bad negative news cycle, but what is most interesting is that nearly all commentators and observers agree that he has actually done a pretty good job in his first two years, faced with an economic problem the size of Dubya’s Texas Ranch. Many articles cite his top three hits of introducing healthcare legislation, the fiscal stimulus package and ending combat operations in Iraq. What the Democrats have failed to do is tell anyone that they’ve been doing a good job in a tough atmosphere. You can’t ride the wave of optimism all the way to your destination, then forget to continue to carry on the conversation when you get there.

Tea Party darling Sarah Palin

Tomasky’s point is a good one though, and maybe the Democrats are slowly getting there; as they would much rather the GOP field a raft of extreme rightwingers, than established, moderate conservative candidates. Midterm gains for the GOP are inevitable in the House, the Democrats might just hold the Senate, but they really need to put Obama back in campaign mode and start addressing those Tea Party accusations. Palin, Beck, Limbaugh et al, can get away with making some seriously ludicrous statements; just as an organisation or business tries to control what is being said about its brand, the Democrats need to control what is being said about their own brand, Obama himself.

And now, from our correspondent in….

Listen to the doomsayers, and traditional journalism is dead. With the advent of The Times paywall, which no one can seem to decide if it is successful or not, and Wikileaks rising prominence, ‘stateless journalism’ according to some; then old news is dead. But this is old news in itself really, it’s been many years since print media relied on people buying their publications for revenue. I personally still buy newspapers and magazines, and think there is nothing better than flicking through the pages and soaking it up. Which is not to say I don’t read news online or via other sources, I do that all day every day. But I’m not going to stop buying newspapers, or Time, or Economist or Guardian Weekly. I like the pages in my hand.

I’m a bit more hardcore when it comes to books though, because I’m a geek, and I love to read. To me, there is nothing like holding a book in my very own hands, turning the pages, putting it on my bedside table, marking my page and not being able to wait to get back to it. Yes, I know I could do all this with a Kindle or iPad, but I’m just not interested, I love the feel of a book, and I’m not going to give up my Waterstones addiction any time soon.

There is little doubt though, that breaking news is the domain of the internet, with Twitter leading the pack. Although interestingly, Wikileaks, a firmly web-based service, announced it’s big Afghan war log leaks in print. With The Guardian, Der Spiegel and The New York Times sharing the landmark leak. Proof then, that newspapers still have a part to play. The three papers have had this particular bit of news for months, but have spent that time analysing, documenting and presenting the information. Which would have been impossible if they had released the leaks online as soon as they had received them; once it’s out there on the web, it’s also out of control.

This also brings me to another old grumble of mine, concerning journalism and responsibility. Don’t journalists have some responsibility to national security? I thought the same thing when I blogged way way back when about senior anti-terror officer Bob Quick’s unfortunate security lapse, which this countries newspapers reported in technicolour glee. He subsequently lost his job – as the press bayed for blood, and conveniently ignored the fact that the operation he accidentally exposed was carried out safely and successfully.

Julian Assange launching the leak

UK and US sources have accused Wikileaks of having complete disregard for national security, and of having ‘blood on their hands’. Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder and chief is unapologetic, he is simply exposing a ‘truth’. But at what cost? Pertinent facts have again gone ignored by the media, the Afghan war logs are actually quite old, and document activity before new rules of engagement were introduced this year, and very few commentators have reflected on the indiscriminate behaviour of the hostile forces the coalition troops come up against. War is painful, ugly and lamentable, but that is nothing new – it’s only now it can be reported in full, graphic detail that we get a sense of it. The media have largely made up their mind in the UK that this War on Terror is an illegal failure. I’m undecided myself, but I see no reason for putting the lives of coalition troops and Afghan informers at risk, or desperately trying to highlight how immoral coalition forces are. Lest we forget that they are doing a job, and the vast majority are not murderous occupiers as portrayed; it’s a job I certainly wouldn’t like, or have to guts to do, but I respect and support completely.

Bob Quick lost his job over his widely reported blunder, Tony Hayward, on behalf of BP, would probably have had a much quieter and gentler exit were it not for the hacks, bloggers, and vociferous media attacks calling for his scalp. Will someone lost their job over the Wikileaks bombshells? Probably, Bradley Manning is the first low-ranking sacrificial lamb. Will this kind of thing happen again? Probably.

We are all journalists now, and we can all report what and when we like, and with whatever bias or viewpoint we hold. I think this is a good thing, but it’s also a little bit dangerous – there are very few boundaries left – and it’s not just chucked into the ether, this kind of leak or reportage has a direct effect on the lives of real people.

Still, I make the case for print media again, consider this blog post by a fellow Guardian Weekly reader, there is nothing like actually holding those pages in your hands.