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I was surprised to read on the BBC last week that I may have been the first MP to join twitter. I recall the very moment. Back in March 2008 my wife and I were out for dinner with a good friend who has always been interested in Social Media. He mentioned Twitter to me and by dessert I was signed up. I ve posted a tweet or two (sometimes more and occasionally none) most days since. The BBC also reports that over half of all MPs now have a Twitter account and just yesterday I happened to reach my 40,000th follower, so I thought now might be a good moment to jot down my personal unofficial rules.
1. Do it yourself! The biggest single question I m asked on Twitter is whether I write and send my own Tweets. The answer is YES in every case and I personally think it s a big mistake to let someone else Tweet on your behalf. It just comes over as insincere. In my view the whole point of Twitter is personal, so thinking that you can get someone else to say what you really think is nearly always counterproductive. 2. Never Tweet the daily Party political propaganda from Head Office Rather like the point above, the quickest way to destroy your Twitter credibility is to robotically retweet the story of the day out of your Party s HQ. It s predictable, boring and available somewhere else. No one but your own mother and a few constituency activists are going to follow or thank you for re-posting it. 3. Think about who you re Tweeting to? Back in 2008 I Tweeted, It s a rainy Sunday afternoon and I m deciding whether to take my son to football in the park. On Monday morning an article appeared in The Times headed, While our economy burns, our politicians twitter. And they used my Tweet about whether my son would play football or not as a case in point. Ouch! Now at the time I probably had more friends and family following me than those interested in politics, but I quickly realised I had to think carefully about who was reading my Tweets. So go ahead and ask yourself, who is my audience? 4. Keep it real Having given the warning in #3 above, I should quickly add that unless you make your Tweets human and interesting your following will remain strictly limited. Sure, a certain number of your constituents will follow you just because you re their MP. But what most people want to know is what really makes your tick? Remember, there s a certain voyeuristic nature to Twitter so followers will appreciate a bit of an insight that they can t get @grantshapps
Twitter and Politics
elsewhere. In truth, getting this balance right if probably your biggest Twitter challenge.
5. Get out of broadcast mode and be engaging Twitter is not a one-way street, so if you simply use it as a tool to post your policy, propaganda and prejudice, then you re definitely missing out. Check in on your @yourname to read the comments others are making. Needless to say you won t want to be drawn into arguing out every criticism made. You won t have the time. But do post a few choice responses and not just to those who say something polite. You ll find Twitter far more useful if you actually engage with people. You ll also surprise and impress people when you respond, because rather like the way that people don t expect you to be Tweeting personally, they don t expect you to ever respond either. 6. Don t get offended! You re a politician and you probably already have or are in the process of developing a thick skin. If not then don t even think about being active on Twitter you ll just get sad! Since the medium is largely anonymous people will write in 140 characters what they d never dream of saying to your face. I would estimate that the comments that range from negative to outright abusive outnumber the positive by two to one. But once you know this is the nature of the Twitter beast this really doesn t matter. As I m about to explain in #7, you can use it as your personal instant YouGov polling system. Here s how 7. Pay attention to your @ Twitter comments Right. Now you ve resolved not to be offended, here s how to make use of your Twitter feed. The next time you re over at Millbank doing a Live on the News Channel or Sky, alert your Twitter followers just before you go on air. Then afterwards switch your mobile back on and expect instant feedback. When I was recently talking to the BBC about why High Street shops could still have a future, despite the rise of Internet retail, I made several points about how Town Centres enable human contact, yet somehow failed to point out the most obvious advantage that you can actually touch and feel the goods you re about to buy. I quick glance at the Twitter feed afterwards reminded me. Two minutes later I had reworked the line live on Sky News. Hearing how viewers interpreted your performance is gold dust feedback and it s instantly available for active Twitter politicians and anyone else on the media. 8. Be self-deprecating Twitter is great at putting people in their place. So avoid being pompous, getting overly offended or taking comments too seriously when you respond. If you Tweet from your mobile (I use the excellent TweetCaster available on Android, iPhone, Blackberry and Windows) then sooner or later the auto-correction feature will shame you by twisting something you meant to say. When you make a mistake Tweets will quickly appear suggesting that your office intern screwed up. So, put your own hands up. Make a joke about it and move on. Accidents happen. Of course the nature is Twitter is fast and furious @grantshapps
Twitter and Politics
and so mistakes will occur. Try to demonstrate you have a sense of humour when they do. 9. Never Tweet in anger! With Twitter on your mobile phone the temptation to sneak a peek wherever you are may become irresistible. So there you are, having had a couple of drinks and suddenly you notice you re being flamed for something you didn t even say. The temptation to get stuck in straightaway can be high. Warning: Tweets sent in anger are nearly always a BIG mistake and could even become career ending. Which brings me to my last rule of thumb for MPs on Twitter. 10. Read it back before you hit the Tweet button Despite all the risks, I highly recommend Twitter. Not only can you link it to your Facebook page, but you can display Twitter badges on your website like this. I even run a Twitter feed at the top of this Forum that I run for local residents. The great thing is that when you hit the Send button your pearls of wisdom are going to show up in multiple locations, increasing your audience. But before you hit the Tweet button get into the habit of pausing and carefully re-reading whatever you ve just written. For many of the reasons described above, a moments discretion could save you a lot of hassle in the long run. In fact, if you happen to be standing next to someone trustworthy, let them take a quick read before you hit Tweet.
Extra TIP #1: I generally think it s a missed opportunity to Tweet something without including a link. If people want to read further into the subject then that link could be a website to the piece of news you re commenting on. You should always take readers with you, so mention other people s @ if they ve asked you a question. And make maximum use of # tags. These are kind of unofficial so it can sometimes be difficult to discover the correct hash tag for the subject or programme. When you do use them effectively you ll find the number of Followers will grow more rapidly. A few like #bbcqt (Question Time) always trend (rank amongst the most used on Twitter) during the programme.
Extra TIP #2: You ll need to decide the extent to which you intend to follow people back. I recommend avoiding the two most extreme positions of following almost no one back or following everyone back. When you follow no one it s hard to claim that you re truly engaged with your Twitter followers. When you follow everyone back it s frankly spamming to get followers. There are lots of folk who will follow you back just because you follow them and this becomes evident if you have the same number of followers as those you re following. A good ratio is two followers for each one that you follow. @grantshapps
Twitter and Politics
There are any number of Twitter apps and programs that you can use. These are the ones that I ve found to be great: Tweeting from my computer. http://hootsuite.com I use the FireFox browser with the HootSuite Add-On. This allows you to type in your text to Tweet and the URL will automatically be shortened and posted.
Tweeting from my SmartPhone http://tweetcaster.com This is the best mobile Twitter app. It s available on all the phone platforms and I use it for 90% of my Tweets, often even if I m sat in front of a computer.
Scheduled Tweets http://twuffer.com From time to time it can be useful to Tweet a number of messages over a period of time. I ll do this if I m announcing new housing policies for example.
Grant Shapps is MP for Welwyn Hatfield and Minister of State for Housing. Follow Grant on @grantshapps
7th Feb 2012