How not to use social media in politics

Those of you who know me, know that I spend some of my paid time trying to figure out how an organisation in Ireland can start to have authentic conversations with customers using social media, and that I spend a good deal of my free time trying to help others figure out how they can do this for their organisations.

It troubles me therefore when a reputable Irish organisation actually uses social media to (apparently) deceive people. This doesn’t do them any favours, nor does it do any favours for those other organisations that are trying to genuinely engage their customers using social media.

An invitation went out via Irish bloggers  from a PR company called Strawberry Media to a meeting with the new media director of Obama’s presidential campaign. (I mentioned the groundbreaking nature of his campaign previously.) I really wanted to go but was out of Dublin on business. This is the invitation that was issued:

Strawberry Media are pleased to organise an open seminar with Joe Rospars, founding partner of Blue State Digital and New Media Director of the Barack Obama Presidential Campaign.

Joe will be discussing the lessons of the Obama campaign, how it can be applied in other fields, and will take a Q&A on his talk. Attendance at the seminar is free.

This event is open to all, and would be particularly suited to bloggers and those interested in technology and politics.

Lots of people interested and committed to new media in Ireland turned up, excited by the prospect of the talk. It seems that only half-way through the presentation did they realise that they had been somewhat duped. It seems that the event was less about Obama and more about the launch of Fianna Fail’s new website.

An alternative invitation had been issued separately that also included:

Mr. Rospars is in Dublin to announce the formation of an agreement between Fianna Fáil and strategy and technology firm Blue State Digital to work on the development of the new Fianna Fáil website.

The new website will be launched and will develop further in the weeks and months ahead.

To mark the occasion Fianna Fáil will be hosting a presentation by Mr. Rospars on his work with President Obama in the Camden Court Hotel on Wednesday 25th February 2009 at 6pm. We would be delighted if you could join us for this event.

To be clear, I don’t see this as a Social Media issue, but rather a very poor Public Relations issue. Did this pass through official Fianna Fail PR channels? Whether it did or it didn’t doesn’t matter to the outside world. The basic inappropriate duplicity of it doesn’t require a degree in communications to see through.

Is it normal in PR to send two very different releases out to different audiences, describing a single event in two very different ways? If it is in other circles, it certainly won’t wash with the online community and the scale of the backlash we will see in the coming days will be a setback for Fianna Fail as they start their social media journey. The appropriate (authentic) response is to say “Sorry guys, we got it wrong. Give us a chance, give us your feedback and we’ll work hard at getting it right in future.”

If I can finish with a plug, to anyone who is still reading, the Business Blogging breakfast briefing that we are hosting under the auspices of the IIA’s Social Media Working Group will be really worth your while attending, especially if you are trying to decipher what are the business opportunities and potential pitfalls of blogging.

(In the interests of being open and transparent I don’t have political affiliations with Fianna Fail or any other political party. I do think that all those decent hard-working Fianna Fail people I know as friends will not be happy with the approach taken here and I for my part am happy to chat (in my free time, boss) with them or any other political party about how to appropriately use social media in politics in Ireland.)


Within 24 hours there are literally hundreds (386, if Google is to be believed) of articles online discussing last night’s debacle. If Fianna Fail had done this right they certainly wouldn’t have got this much coverage. The same could be said about Ryanair’s treatment of local blogger Jason Roe, who has now achieved worldwide notoriety. Is this the way that any organisation really wants to be talked about?

Today, coincidentally, I found out how social media can be a powerful way to engage positively with customers who might be frustrated by some aspect of your customer service. I hopefully helped to turn a customer around from leaving dissatisfied and telling hundreds of their followers on Twitter, into a customer who hopefully felt that we cared about them.

There is huge potential for consumers and for businesses in using these tools to engage with each other to each other’s mutual benefit. That’s where we need to get to.

9 thoughts on “How not to use social media in politics

  1. Hi Brendan. I was one of probably a very small pool of people who got both invites and I was confused from a different perpsective. As an FF activist (nay candidate even 🙂 I received the FF invite and was very excited at the prospect of Rospars coming to town and teaching the party new tricks. As someone who has been playing with these ideas myself for some time (and who has been online since first booting up an old BSD box out the back of the HamCaf – but we’ll spare the anorak stories for now!) I was intrigued and hoped Rospars could fill a few the gaps in my own explorations of politics 2.0

    I became aware of a second invite doing the rounds when I logged onto twitter later that evening and saw the other link doing the rounds and I was confused (In fact I tweeted directly to ask) whether this was an FF or a public event.. I couldn’t understand why the party wasn’t going all out for a bit of reflected glory.. might as well get a good news story in these troubled times…

    Now as it happens I couldn’t go on the night (alas had some old fashioned politics to do with offline folk) but was really sorry to be missing it.

    It is obvious now and I had been wondering even beforehand that wearing two hats (as the organiser involved here does and I fully accept his bona fides by the way) can lead to confusion and it backfired badly here.

    But the fallout may not have been all one way – if I can highlight an alternate scenario, when I received the FF invite, initial thoughts were that this was a candidate seminar, then re-reading a party event, and then an FF hosted event. Nothing wrong with any of those and my invite was certainly fully ‘FF’ branded etc. I was delighted the party were positively engaging in this domain. Neither I should point out, was there any indication whatsoever of secrecy or a coverup or anything of the sort, in fact I forwaded the invite directly to many friends and bloggers I thought might be interested. Which was exactly how it should have been promoted by the official organisers.

    But had I gone up to the event, cancelled my other gigs and burnt a few brownies at home and abroad (which I was very close to doing until logistics prevailed) I might have been a bit annoyed to find there were multiple different audiences with multiple expectations and that there were suddenly a backlash emerging because a screw-up was made on the communications side. I’d say I would have been rightly pi$$ed. So perhaps thankfully I didn’t go in the end!

    I think strawberry media have learned a lesson and it is a useful one for anyone in PR or in general (although it’s fairly 101 stuff but how and ever). But I might close with an appeal. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There may be merits in the initative. In fairness it comes from a good stable (Rospars). I’m certainly planning to try out some of the candidate features – although I won’t be sending Michele any ‘take down’ notices (for my own presence) just yet!



  2. James, really interesting to see a different perspective on all this. Not only were bloggers duped, but the party faithful were also duped. Crazy stuff – inadvertant or not.


  3. Hi Brendan, the real issue here is why did Fianna Fail commission a US company to redevelop their website. It does not say much for their belief in the Irish industry. There are enough experts in Ireland to advise and deliver a solution to Fianna Fail without them going to the US. Don’t forget it wants too long ago we were being asked to be Partiotic


  4. Hey Martin. Yep, that’s the outrageous bit. There are so many businesses in Ireland that are already selling their expertise in social media abroad and here Fianna Fail go importing “experts” from outside. It is actually incredible, and you are right, is a point that many commentators missed in all of this.


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