Digital campaigning has never been more important

Holly Whitbread is the Conservative Essex County Councillor for Epping & Theydon Bois and Epping Forest District Councillor for Epping Lindsey and Thornwood Common. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

In a Covid world, digital campaigning has never been more important, as was demonstrated in the recent local elections. Whilst social platforms did not paint the whole picture, they became an important arena in sharing key messages and promoting candidates.

Although digital campaigning plays a key role in the weeks and days leading up to the election, they play an even more crucial role over a longer period. Councillors and candidates should be present in the online space and engage with their communities. Building up a digital profile locally allows candidates to raise awareness of who they are, what they are doing and what they believe in. It also enables them to provide support and share information with the people they are seeking to represent. This was particularly important during the pandemic, where Facebook was integral in communicating with residents. The idea of a virtual neighbourhood grew exponentially during the months of lockdown.

I have been a District Councillor for the past five years, and I would say I distinguish myself from other local representatives through my accessibility and proactiveness online. I try and be as available as possible to residents in my area, providing support, sharing information and signposting. As well as running my own personal social channels, a few years ago I established a ‘Community Hub Group’ on Facebook which now has almost 2,000 members. This online community group is a forum for lively discussion, where residents can ask questions to their councillors and useful local information is shared. In addition to this group, I run a local Instagram page with well over a thousand followers, which also shares local information, as well as promoting local businesses.

Outside of social media, I write a weekly community newsletter covering my County Council division and the surrounding area, which is sent every Friday by email. I started this weekly mailer earlier this year and it now reaches around a thousand people. This provides me with the opportunity to collaborate and support local businesses, organisations, and charities.

Beyond community engagement, which is essential for any local activists, there is also a vital role for online ‘peacetime campaigning’. Local political parties and their representatives must keep in touch with residents all year round, for example by sharing good news stories and updates, as well as engaging with surveys to maintain a presence outside of election time. Outside of elections is the time to be increasing followership through sponsored posts and appealing content.

During an election campaign itself, social media is a great way to broadcast to the electorate. It also allows you to reach more people than you could purely through traditional methods of campaigning or where resources must be diverted elsewhere.

For myself, during my recent local election campaign, I tried to maintain a positive campaign online, sharing messages of what I had achieved and what I hope to deliver in the future, as well as using social media to stoke momentum in my local campaign. Though, on occasion, I found social media to be an essential tool for setting the record straight in response to misleading claims being made by my political opponents. While there are limitations (I don’t think Facebook will ever replace face-to-face canvassing), targeted posting enables you to reach some of your audience quickly and effectively.

Without a doubt, digital campaigning is here to stay! To be effective, modern councillors or candidates must be present and active in the online space. It enables representatives to serve their communities more effectively, while building up their own personal profile.

If you have ideas for the group or would like to get involved, please email us.

This piece was written for Digital Tories.

Reaction to #Budget2021

“Even by the standards of Brown, Darling, Osborne and Hammond many of the details in this Budget had been leaked in advance, prompting the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways & Means to issue a joint statement reprimanding the Chancellor. In addition, you must have been hiding under a rock not to have seen the six minute Twitter video (of Netflix quality) plus all the Sunak-branded graphics. What followed was another first: a press conference on the Budget itself. Make no mistake, this was about selling Brand Rishi and shaping opinion before the papers had their say. Judging by the editorials – not the front pages – and the immediate polling, he did his job. This populist government is playing the long game.”

Adam Honeysett-Watts, Founder & Director at do Different.

This Conservative government isn’t leaving office for many years to come. Really pleased to see £19 million announced to tackle domestic abuse in England and Wales, with funding for a network of ‘Respite Rooms’ to support homeless women and a programme to prevent re-offending. It’s an issue that is close to my heart and affects so many. All too often it is hidden and not reported.”

Aisha Cuthbert, Head of Communications at One Housing

“Slick, well-managed Budget from the Chancellor. I’m excited by the prospect of a rapid recovery but let’s hope interest rates don’t rise in the meantime. Onwards and upwards!”

Katie Perrior, Chair of iNHouse Communications

“The impact of Covid has blown away the dogma of Tory fiscal policy. This is a Chancellor acting and redefining not only the fiscal landscape but the political landscape with his ‘right thing to do’ approach to the economy.”

Kulveer Ranger, Global Head of Strategy & Communications (Financial Services & Insurance) at Atos

“A skilful Budget making the best of the terrible hand the Covid crisis has dealt him. This was the first Instagram Budget.”

Lionel Zetter, Patron of Conservatives in Communications

“The Chancellor’s decision to write into the Budget lead-in times for changes in corporation tax was a canny political move as it gives business time to bake in the adjustments and it gives him the opportunity to defer those changes to much fanfare later down the line, if the economic situation allows.”

Naomi Harris, Director at WA Communications

“A perfect combination of politically astute, of-the-moment statements and fiscally flexible future policies. But scratch below the surface and the Chancellor has outlined a titanic shift in Conservative policy towards a higher tax, bigger borrowing, expanded state. This shift must now be reconciled with the Party and decades of conservative economic policy making thus far. Sunak’s second Budget is one he’ll answer for years to come.”

Poppy Trowbridge, Strategy and board advisory

The consequences of ‘gagging’ Trump

GUEST POST: Mario Creatura is Head of Strategic and Digital Communications at Virgin Money. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Late on Wednesday evening Facebook chose to ban President Trump from their platform and Instagram indefinitely, but at least for the duration of his presidency.

Twitter temporarily froze his account, but then took the more drastic decision of banning him permanently on Friday. Given his words directly led to the violence on Capitol Hill, who could blame them for taking this potentially preventative action?

While social media companies have for some time now been encouraged to remove accounts perceived to be harmful or criminal, this is nevertheless a watershed moment for the core definition of these organisations – one that will shape the role they and regulators play in curating our digital world.

This could not be more important. It all centres round the ongoing debate about whether social media companies are ‘publishers’ (with an editorial policy akin to a traditional newspaper) or ‘platforms’ (where they act as the passive host through which any and all content can be shared).

For years now they have maintained the façade that they are platforms – in short that they are not to blame for much of the biased, twisted material that’s shared through their tool. But if they are making choices about who to ban, what content is permissible, and what action is justified in the policing of their sites then their argument quickly deteriorates to the point of ridiculousness.

This is not a semantic, academic debate for media lawyers. In late November last year, Prince Harry sued the publishers of The Mail on Sunday over a story claiming that he has fallen out of touch with the Royal Marines. If Facebook is a platform, then they are broadly protected from similar lawsuits. If they are acknowledged to be a publisher then this totally changes the ballgame and leaves them open to such libel actions as well and could remove them from the protections of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

The banning of President Trump from social platforms will likely have a huge impact on clarifying this debate. Social media companies are undeniably taking an editorial stance, one that many will agree with in this instance. But once that premise is accepted, how can we object to future judgements that we are less keen on?

Too little, too late?

In this very specific situation, what will the impact of Facebook and Twitter’s decision be on Trump’s advocates?

His removal from these platforms takes away his primary means of communicating to some of his increasingly aggressive base of supporters. One possibility is that over time this ban will hurt him and his populist philosophy by making him seem unconnected and ineffective. They could think: ‘If Twitter can silence the great Trump, is he really the all powerful leader we think he is?’

The alternative, far more dangerous path is that it will yet further embolden his fanatics. A scenario that paints the elite, wealthy techno giants as being in hock to the out-of-touch Democrats; claiming they are so terrified by Trump speaking the truth that the will do anything to silence him. ‘They stole the election, now they’re trying to gag him!’ In this version of events, where do these people go? Do they continue to spout their views on mainstream channels, without an obvious leader to corral them?

The editorial decisions made by social media companies could quite feasibly create a digital Hydra – they can try to cut off the head, but many will grow in its place, spawning yet more leaders of hyper-partisan, totally populist campaigners to accompany his already large following of loyal lieutenants.

After all, it’s simply too late to now be punishing Trump by removing his bully pulpit. He’s on his way out and frankly the damage has been done. And he’s not done it alone, dozens of his Senators, Congressmen, political staffers and loyal media outlets have stoked the rhetoric that led to the violence in DC. It has already spread too far for it to be halted by simply banning Trump.

What’s next?

While Trump’s gagging on social channels sends a clear signal that tech giants are taking their curating role seriously, it needs to be more than a Democrat-wooing PR-exercise. Personal responsibility needs to be taken urgently among our lawmakers and the press to self-regulate the content that they all individually publish, whether or not digital companies are finally identified as publishers. We simply cannot wait yet more years for this debate to play out or for social media companies to regulate free expression retrospectively.

For one: it will cause resentment of the social channels from the perceived oppressed side of the deal. If Trump is censored by Twitter, then Trump supporters will turn their guns on to Twitter.

For another: social media companies are significantly more adept at adapting to the shifting needs of the digital sphere. There is already fear that any attempt by legislators to regulate social media will be out-dated and irrelevant by the time the lengthy legislative process is complete.

Whose job is it to police the digital police if they exist beyond traditional borders with little knowledgeable accountability?

The decision to ban Trump has already unleashed waves of criticism – some arguing that it’s an attack on free speech, others that it’s a more serious assault on democratic institutions. That pales into insignificance when compared to the mass of calls for an entirely reasonable principle: fairness. Many are calling for Twitter to ban Ayatollah Khamenei for the same reasons as Trump – will social media companies be able to operate their content moderation policies consistently?

It took Twitter three days to remove a post from a Chinese Embassy trying to spin justifications for their Uyghur genocide – do they have the capacity to apply them fairly? The pressure on them to be consistent, in speed and judgement, will grow and grow exponentially.

Trump may have led the creation of the ripe environment for sedition, but many agents played their part in advancing it. Obfuscating social media companies, slow legislators, and partisan communicators all must share in the blame for last Wednesday’s violence.

For that accountability to happen, influencers need to get to grips with their responsibility to consider the consequences of their personal content and for us all to understand the true role of the social media giants.

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This piece was written for Influence.

Has social media become more caring during Covid-19?

GUEST POST: Jonny Piper is a digital and creative communications expert, most recently working on the Conservatives General Election Campaign. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

The British pub quiz is one of life’s simple pleasures. Pull together a few friends, pick a team name and enjoy an evening racking your brain; how many moons does Saturn have? Who was the oldest UK Prime Minister to leave office?

And that’s how I spent last Thursday, while enjoying a rather lovely house red. Normally to be avoided, except in this case the house red meant just that – pouring myself a glass while sat at my kitchen table, listening to the – questions at home via WebEx, conferring with friends over Microsoft Teams and clinking glasses with my webcam.

Matt Hancock says coronavirus ‘thrives on social contact’, with social distancing measures a necessary mechanism to slow down the spread of infection. But we too also thrive on social contact, feeding off it to work, learn and grow.  So, it’s no wonder that the ability to continue communicating digitally with friends, family and colleagues has been so crucial and shouldn’t be taken for granted. What on earth would we be doing right now if not for the internet and social media to keep us working, connected, informed and entertained?

I’ve watched this seamless connectivity bring out the best of humanity: caring and compassionate communities that are using digital and social media to bring people together and look out for those in need. Across social media you’ll find businesses innovating and finding new ways of working, an army of digitally co-ordinated volunteers caring for the vulnerable, and individuals channelling their creativity to keep us entertained.

I almost daren’t say it, but I’ve also watched as social media has become more caring. The tone of our conversations is more empathetic. Businesses are abandoning competitive thinking and instead selflessly looking to philanthropy. Party politics and the online vitriol that so often follows has been replaced by a country unified in willing the government to succeed in combatting the virus.

And it’s that spirit which has made this technology so critical; my phone and laptop have become my eyes. WhatsApp and FaceTime have become ears. In isolation, social media has become my integral connection to the world, my lifeline. And in Britain today, the spirit of the Blitz isn’t found while crammed onto an underground station platform as the sirens sound, but instead found in Instagram Stories across the country as the nation pours out its support for our incredible NHS workers with an ocean of applause.

Yet there are constant reminders of the world beyond the screen. Netflix nudges us after a few hours of binge-watching to check that we’re still conscious, and tech companies have added ‘screen time’ features to remind us to step back and look up at the world around us. A digital lockdown, it seems, regularly taunts us of what we’re missing.

We don’t yet know what world we will find ourselves in post-coronavirus. Social media might suggest that we’ll be a more caring and considerate society, and I certainly hope that’s true. But I also hope that we’ll be more digitally aware, learning to switch off more and appreciate IRL contact. I, for one, will be making a meaningful effort to engage with the world around me and not get distracted by a vibrating pocket. Phones off everyone, the quiz is starting!

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This piece was written for our website.