Our Toronto public affairs lead Geoff Owen spoke to the Toronto Star about our recent infographic that outlined the top 20 most followed Twitter handles amongst Ontario’s MPP. Here is a copy of that article featuring Geoff’s thoughts about the key communications role that Twitter plays in the #ONpoli arena.This article was originally published on TheStar.com on December 23, 2013.
Twitter holdouts: 140 characters not enough for some politicians
Many Canadian politicians use Twitter to communicate with constituents and the public at large. But a few steadfastly refuse.
By: Donovan Vincent News reporter
Most politicians across the country actively use the social media tool as a way to reach out to their constituents and the general public, but even as Twitter becomes more popular among MPs and MPPs, there are still some who adamantly refuse to engage.
At Queen’s Park, all but two of Ontario’s 106 sitting MPPs use Twitter. The exceptions are Etobicoke North Liberal Shafiq Qaadri and Liz Sandals, the education minister.
Most MPs across Canada also use the popular communication tool, but there are several who don’t, including New Democrat Alex Atamanenko (B.C. Southern interior) and Conservatives Colin Mayes (Okanagan-Shuswap) and Leon Benoit (Vegreville-Wainwright).
Some of these politicians and their staffers argue that Twitter, with its 140-character maximum, is too limiting for meaningful commentary. And besides, they say, they don’t have the time to devote to tweeting, what with the mountain of newsletters, emails and phone calls exchanged with constituents.
“I’ve never said anything in 140 characters in my life,” Sandals tells the Star.
“I used to lecture at universities, so you turn on a switch and I talk for 50 or 60 minutes.”
Sandals says she usually has so much to say that her communication staff have a “horrendous time” trying to get her down to 10- or 20-second sound bites for interviews with television and radio reporters.
“I don’t cope well with 140 characters,” she says.
She relies on the mainstream media, newsletters, news releases, telephone calls and Facebook to get the word out about goings-on in her ministry.
For politicians who do have Twitter accounts, many of their tweets are sent out by their staffers.
Some critics go as far as to argue that politicians who don’t use Twitter are denying their constituents, and the public at large, an important and quick means of keeping them up to date that keeps government open and transparent.
One blogger, Andrew Campbell, recently posted an article entitled “Does Liz Sandals Hate Twitter?” in which he argues that because education issues are increasingly being discussed freely on Twitter among a mix of educators, parents, students, principals, trustees and directors, “if the (education) minister and the ministry have a reduced or no presence, they’ll miss out on that discussion and exchange of ideas.”
“That’s a critical error and a missed opportunity to engage with Ontarians about education,” Campbell argues in his blog.
“I encourage the minister to do something we ask our students to do every day. Step into the unknown, take a chance and try something new.”
Geoff Owen, a spokesman for consulting firm Hill and Knowlton, says his firm’s analysis shows that most MPPs and MPs are using Twitter to follow the traditional media and other politicians.
“Twitter gives (politicians) the best chance to send and receive information to and from important audiences and to do so very quickly. It’s a very valuable strategic communications tool in politics these days.”
Later Owen adds: “Politicians have to connect with voters — not just when an election rolls around but all the time. Twitter is a wonderful way to hear from and speak to our political leaders. (Those) who don’t use Twitter are missing out on a lot of what is on voters’ minds.”
One Canadian website, Politwitter.ca is devoted to a Twitter shaming of sorts. It names and carries photos of this country’s politicians who don’t use Twitter and encourages the public to send messages to them — the website provides links to the politicians’ email addresses — in a bid to get the representatives to tweet.
But politicians such as MP Leon Benoit, 63, are holding steadfast to their anti-Twitter stance.
“There’s too much off-the-cuff comments. I know for some people a lot of thought goes into the comments they tweet, but really to me we’ve become a society of drivel. I’d rather see more substantial, well thought out comments made,” Benoit said — in more than 140 characters.