As Twitter usage by politicians increases, so too are interests groups, lobbyists and journalists starting to use the channel to engage politicians. This is entirely legitimate. After all, if politicians use Twitter to get their message out, they will have to be ‘on receive’ as well as ‘transmit’ if followers are to take their use of the channel seriously.

So far most politicians are pretty careful about engagement. Their posts are more like ads. There are some notable exceptions here in Canada…most notably Tony Clement who is setting new standards in public dialogue. If you respond to a decision maker’s comment in a thoughtful and respectful manner you might get engagement. If you are trying to show how smart you are by making critical quips, like I have seen some journalist do, you can expect the same in return. What we don’t know is how many direct messages are going on between politicians and their followers.

Twitter will never replace face-to-face dialogue. It is impossible to explain a public policy position in a 140 characters or less. But the free flow of opinion on Twitter does give democratic discourse another boost when properly used. Certainly, elected officials have a better grasp of where their ‘followers’ are coming from. This is helpful because an outcome of the preoccupation of politicians and the courts with lobbyist registration, is that traditional face-to-face dialogue is becoming much more bureaucratic. When the Mulroney government introduced legislation in the 1980’s on lobbyist registration, the motivation was to make communication with public office holders transparent. Today, there is an assumption that the legislation exists to guard against real or perceived influence.

Compliance regulations have become much more onerous, paradoxically resulting in some clients turning to paid professionals who understand the legislation to undertake their lobbying activities. I doubt that’s what the MPs had in mind as they passed increasingly onerous amendments. So when interests group, lobbyist and journalist are looking for less bureaucratic ways of getting their views out, the use of traditional and social media will likely grow exponentially.

The great thing about Twitter from a decision maker’s standpoint is that he or she can select who it is he or she follows. That can eliminate a lot of spam as well as rude people who don’t engage in dialogue with respect. Like other vehicles of communication, Twitter can be as useful as the care you put into your communications. When representing a client, lobbyists in particular should be clear whose interest they are representing.
With a little common sense and professional courtesy, Twitter is a limited but a useful channel of dialogue.