This morning, the nation woke up to the sound of UKIP’s steady march to power – or at least a bit more of it than it had before. The Rochester and Strood by-election saw UKIP gain its second seat in Parliament.
Yet it wasn’t this piece of news that struck us most. Rather it was the sorry tale of Labour MP Emily Thornberry standing down from her post as shadow minister over the white-van-man-tweet-gate.
Her fellow MP Douglas Alexander was right when he commented that she had broken the first rule of politics – respecting the voter.
Insulting your customers is never a good idea.
She follows in the not-very-fine tradition of figures such as Gerald Ratner, who infamously destroyed his jewellery business overnight by explaining to an audience at The Institute of Directors that his strategy relied on selling ‘total cr*p’.
Ratner may have been under the illusion that it was an event taking place behind ‘closed doors’.
Emily Thornberry can have no such excuse. Broadcasting to the world on Twitter is a very public activity, and her tweet was unprompted, apparently for little more reason than to demonstrate a proactive presence on social media.
Yet how do people in positions of authority and responsibility get it so wrong?
Time and again, in the era of social media, we see error of judgment that can destroys of career building at the click of a button.
A sense of invincibility?
An inflated sense of their earned right to broadcast?
Perhaps those are contributing factors.
Ultimately though it comes down to too little regard for some fundamental principles about communication when it comes to projecting a public image.
Controlled, sustained communication, focused on repetition of key messages has always underpinned public relations activity and much political campaigning.
It is often said of social media that it has made ‘control’ impossible; that the appeal of the channel is immediacy and spontaneity.
And that may well be true.
Clearly the ability to communicate to customers or voters directly, in real time offers a new opportunity to engage with people, respond to their concerns and share new ideas.
But underlying this, individuals need to remember that once it’s out there, it’s out there.
Self-control and controlling your messages remains key.
And if you want to be active on social media, content is king. A ‘what shall I tweet today?’ approach will ultimately prove fatal.
What is needed are clear objectives and a thought-out approach to content and messaging.
That’s why organisations need to think hard about the individuals they empower to broadcast on their behalf and make sure they’re ones their trust. In many cases, the reality of speaking on someone else’s behalf may well prompt more thoughtfulness and judiciousness than those representing themselves.
The lessons from today are simple.
Show respect for your ‘customers’ and think before you speak (or tweet).