Chantal Hébert and Social Media

Last night (April 15th, 2015 for those future people not paying attention to the blog date) I attended the Tansley lecture hosted by my school the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy with the guest presenter, Chantal Hébert‘s discussion the role of social media in changing politics.

I have to say that I’ve often considered Chantal to be the best no-shit political commentator in Canada today and to have her present at what is for me one of the most important policy-related meetings annually was very gratifying. She was definitely her very brightest with just enough aloofness to make sure you knew she was giving you the honest goods. A good amount of her talk relied on her experience as a political journalist and she openly admitted that she would not have everything tied up in a nice box for the audience. She couldn’t possibly.

She began by describing political campaign reporting in the past as high-jacked by political actors. Media relied on the telephone to find out information and ask important questions. To keep media in the dark, you just had to keep them away from a telephone. According to Hébert, you’d think that 24 hour access to information online would mean a more informed society that is more connected to the issues.

But not so. Instead, she argued, politicians have come to understand that in a world of constant information, the only time a journalist will call is when they have some controversy to get a reaction to. That means that the person who takes the call is no longer the person who actually knows what’s going on, but instead someone who is used to communicating in a crisis.

Hébert sees this as a serious problem (as do I). Social media to her mind means that the chattering classes and government are increasingly disconnected from the voters, who, more often than not, are too busy working their 3 jobs to get excited about the latest Gawker report on some offensive thing a comedian said on Facebook.

I will be presenting on something similar in Arizona in May for the Digital Government conference. Although a lot of it will be a bit too technical for a blog post, one thing I will note comes from the protests on Elsipogtog First Nations against some hydraulic fracturing tests occurring near their lands. The eventual government response went in their favor – a moratorium was called on all fracturing in the province. While the anti-fracturing protests were all over social media, there was almost no mention of support for the government’s decision. Not even an “it’s about time.”

This theme of public interest in drama, but disinterest in solutions is something that bears scrutiny in our society. Hébert cites the example of young Quebec anti-austerity protestors who could not name the Premier who called for those measures. Too much of the social movements we see are caught up in ideas about social problems and less involved in the institutions they expect to do something about those problems. I don’t know if this is too new, but it’s a lost opportunity that all this political action has little to no connection to the people with the legitimate authority to act on the citizens behalf.

My dissertation will be looking at this problem with the hopes that the research I provide can suggest some recommendations around what could be done to connect those engaged in social movements to the legitimate political power. Given big issues like climate change, economic disparity, depleting resources, lack of productivity, a growing yet marginalized First Nations population etc., it is essential that we get as many bodies interested in developing policy solutions as we can.

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SCIENCE! YouTube, the Keystone XL Pipeline, & Not-for-profit Social Media use

Amid promises of, well, nothing, I’ve been thinking about restarting this blog. There are a few problems with this idea. 1) This blog is called The Other Librarian and, well, I am not really a librarian right now in the employment sense. Of course I will always be a librarian because … well, just because. On the other hand, I am more pretending to be a data scientist and researcher instead.

That brings me to some great news. I have two peer reviewed publications that have been released this month. I am excited about both, because finally I have been able to conduct some research about the value of social media to our daily lives.

The first is What Potential for YouTube as a Policy Deliberation Tool? Commenter Reactions to Videos About the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline where I look at comments on YouTube and evaluate the consequences of engaging citizens on social media. The answer is complex of course, but in general, if you use social media to engage the public, you will find 1) people will ignore governmenty videos, 2) topics related to minority groups (eg. First Nations Rights) will tend to be overlooked, 3) the most popular videos will be the ones where the topic is related to some form of identity (libertarianism, environmentalism etc.) 4) on the whole, the aggregated content will be somewhat “wise” in the sense that it generally covers the main issues that researchers pay attention to (with the caveat of #2). Overall, I am really proud of this paper because it was great fun to produce.

The second paper I wrote with Kathleen McNutt and it looks at social media use by not-for-profits. Using Mark Granovetter’s classic paper,  we argue that strong social media engagement requires attention to “strong” (emotionally intense) and “weak” (interest-based) connection strategies.

Beyond this, I have been doing a heck of a lot of writing for my dissertation which is about policy agenda setting and online engagement. I am also *very* excited about Podcamp Halifax coming up in January which will happen at the new and AMAZING Halifax Central Library. If you ever chatting to me about Podcamp, you’d know that my evil master plan was that the meeting could happen in the new library where it could expand to a much grander audience. That’s happened thanks to the lovely people who’ve taken the baton and improved on it year after year. Hopefully there will be a facilitated program about the future of Podcamp: whether it will keep going the way it is, or changing to something new given that the opportunity for growth is now quite grandiose. With the right partners, perhaps there could be a South by Southwest sort of program or a Winter arts & business somethingorother? I don’t know – the great thing about Podcamp is that it uses the wisdom of the crowd in such a way that whatever gets decided, it is likely to be smart. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to use the free aspect to put other conferences out of business – but on the other hand, there is plenty of room for community-based learning and sharing which helps everyone in the end!

Anyway, what are you excited about with social media?

A Kick in the H1N1 (hiney) – or How Social Media Can Help You When the Message Changes

The communications on the H1N1 (aka Hiney) vaccine in Canada has been a mess.    At first the message was ‘everyone should get the vaccine.’   Then it turned into ‘wait we don’t have enough vaccines for everyone, so it’s only young children and people with chronic illnesses.’   Doctors offices are getting calls all over the place.   H1N1 is over-publicized.   H1N1 is a real threat. And, there is actual evidence that Canada may be doing a better job than other countries at getting the vaccines out.

Some will argue that the problem is poor communication planning.   These problems  are no different from any communication problems.   Key messages change all the time.   Being prepared to change direction is all part of the PR game.   But I bet the people responsible here planned the heck out of this program.   I bet they had a communications plan that could make even the best firms blush at their prowess.   What they did not expect – and should have – is that the public expects faster, more personal and transparent responses to important public messages.   The public expects social media.

Here’s how an advanced social media plan would have benefitted the H1N1 campaign, even after all the messages changed.

Social Media is Fast

Twitter, Facebook, a blog, YouTube and other things like it bring out a message very quickly and easily.    That means the H1N1 message could have gotten out sooner, and offered an open and honest dialogue with the public about the risks, benefits and requirements for citizens to get the vaccine.   All of this could have happened *before* the big marketing push went out and got people all excited, and it could have switched gears as soon as people knew there were going to be problems with the supply.

Social Media Won’t Play “GOTCHA!”

People online like to bitch and complain.   They are skeptical and even jerky sometimes.   But one thing they tend not to do (because they will get their backsides whipped for it) is try and trap someone into a cheap gaffe just to sell newspapers.    If they do, political folks can call them on it easily and quickly.   In Canada, Health Care is political – there’s no end to how social media could have improved the message.

Social Media Builds Trust

The public will always be more receptive to changes in the message if they trust the source that’s saying it.    A clear, traceable road to the process of building, preparing, and distributing the vaccine would have been both inexpensive and indispensible to the messsage later on.

Let Networks Work For You

Having respected Health Professionals onside as the message was getting out would have been equally indispensable, and social media could have done a great deal to help establish those networks.   Networks can clear up questions before you have to, and maybe clarify things that you haven’t really been clear on (hey, nobody’s perfect) in a fair, constructive manner.

Social Media is Timely

Locally, both Capital Health and the IWK have made fair attempts at keeping their public informed about the wait times and availability of vaccines on Twitter.   It’s a modest effort, but an appreciated one, taking advantage of the timely nature of social media to keep the public informed.

Social Media Efforts Receive Feedback

If you are getting it wrong, your network will let you know.   Also, in the spirit of “there are no dumb questions – maybe someone else had that question but was afraid to ask,” the social media folks could have responded to some of those more nitpicky details without bulking up those press releases.

Social Media is Not the Same as Hype

Don’t believe what the media tells you.   Twitter did not ‘light up’ with all kinds of hype about H1N1.   The hype came from media outlets trying to sell news.   And when people told them that H1N1 was overhyped, they turned that into a news story too.   Social Media does not really get all excited about controversy.    People have opinions and sometimes it can be hard to filter through them all, but it doesn’t thrive on the kind of ‘fight or flight’ energy that traditional media does.

Social Media Thinks Long-Term

After flu-season is over, a good social media infrastructure could have been shifted into something more broad reaching.   For example, a communications effort to prevent all infectious disease.

Social Media Appreciates a Good Laugh

Social media give the messenger an opportunity to laugh at him or herself without losing credibility in ways that the traditional media does not.     People respond to joy.    They change their behaviors because of joy – even moreso than they do with fear.  Why not bring more joy into people’s lives?

In short, institutions with millions or billions of dollars in budgets cannot afford to let themselves down by ignoring social media in their communication plans.   At most, what I have proposed here would have cost $100,000 in staff time and expertise.   I am sure the H1N1 campaign had plenty more of that at their disposal and a big mess on their hands to show for it.