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Five reasons why politicians should embrace social media

As recent news has shown, the South African government has started showing a significant interest in the media. Take, for example, the highly controversial Protection of Information Bill which is seeking to restrict mainstream media and, in my honest opinion, to impose yet another layer of control by our seemingly well-intentioned and morally-astute government over the equally well-intentioned and morally-astute opinions of the media.

Social media is not escaping the government’s scrutiny either. Certain factions are poking their un-splintered, un-calloused and un-woodworked fingers into social media, even suggesting a method of control over a medium that is so vastly uncontrollable that it would cause even the most tech-savvy parliamentarian to waver.

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I am, of course, referring to the ANCYL’s recent attacks on Twitter.

Amidst all the sound and fury, we can discern one important point: Our government is interested in social media. Ultimately I think it’s a good move, and I’ve put together five reasons why it’s the right thing to do:

1. Engage
There’s a reason Barack Obama’s been hailed as the world’s first social media president. With his own Facebook page, a Twitter account, several blogs, a YouTube channel, MySpace, a LinkedIn profile and even a Flickr account, there’s no denying the success of what’s been called ‘Obama2.0’.

While not directly responsible for the management of all of these accounts, his web presence is nonetheless a strategic advantage. From connecting with ethnic groups from his Facebook page, enlisting thousands of users to blog, share and communicate on his MySpace page, uploading photos of his recent campaigns via Flickr, distributing his ‘message of hope’ via YouTube (and engaging mainstream musicians to take it further and his fair use of Twitter; it is clear that he is a President who lives in the now and has embraced social media and the internet in much the same way that John Kennedy embraced TV as the medium du jour. The key word here is engagement and it’s something our government and parliamentarians should strive for.

2. Interact
Building stronger relationships with the member base is the basic mechanism of every known social network. Politician should want to interact with your community. Who are they? What are their age groups? What are their interests? Their political stance and views on government rhetoric are as important as which side they’re supporting at the Cup final. By understanding this, our MP’s and their respective spokespeople will seem more real and grounded and possibly a little more believable. Get to know your supporters above and beyond their interest in your political association is good politics.

3. Broadcast
It’s no use having a presence and not being able to use it to your advantage. Social media is tailormade for larger-than-life, egotistical personalities and nothing screams ‘ego’ louder than an ambitious politician. By interacting more with the public at large, members and members of related associations become aware of a politician’s presence. And, like with any major website that has gained it first peak in traffic volume, once you have broadened your visibility, then it’s time to advertise. Why overspend on traditional media when you can achieve the same results via clever advertising on a blog, website and social media.

4. Listen
The disadvantage of a public briefing or media campaign is that you can’t answer everyquestion that comes up. The advantage of the social media platform is that you can – in your own time and leisure. The key is listening. What are the majority of voters saying? Does the nationalisation of mines make a difference in the everyday lives of people, or will they be more affected by the transport strikes? Politicians can ask their followers what they are doing right, what they can improve, and they will be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

5. Lead
The mantle of leadership can be easily acquired via social media if you are prepared to accept the responsibility that goes along with it. Unlike public, live speeches where false promises can get blown away by the Cape South-Easter and just as readily forgotten, the same does not apply when you commit yourself to a cause via social networks. Claims and promises are recorded and visible, easily shared and distributed across hundreds (if not thousands) of users. Be bold and lead. Be engaged. Don’t be defamatory and rude. If, in your opinion, a certain politician resembles a cockroach, don’t post it as your profile status.

And, one final note… lighten up. Social media is also about having fun.

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