Changing Times Mr Politician: Social Media won't go away

social mediaBack in 1989 when I started as a news reporter, the one area I abhorred was covering political stories. I was barely out of high school and honestly I wasn’t impressed by all the political speak and the jargon that seemed to make the public further removed from the process which governed them. I’m never one for fluff and politicians have mastered the art of giving you lots of fluff with nothing beneath it. Even I like icing better on a tasty cake.

As my career grew, so did the necessity for me to cover more than ribbon cuttings and concerts. I had to understand the political process, engage with politicians and find a way to turn the gobbledygook they spill into stories people can connect with and respond to.

In the past week the article Caribbean Elections will be won or lost with Social Media, written in collaboration with fellow media strategist Ursula Barzey, has received both positive and negative feedback. Most recent are comments from the St Vincent & the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves. He labeled the people who use social media to speak against his policies and government the “internet crazies.” (Read the story here.) A little research found only a YouTube channel and a Facebook group attributed to the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. This is a clear indication that his government has not seen the critical importance of allowing the people to express their opinions even when they differ.

Incumbent governments seem to be the ones that are having the greatest challenge with this. Opposition parties and independents seem more willing to work by any means necessary to get into office and social media offers a powerful way to do this. Government officials are being advised to get on social media but they have no clear agenda as to how it can help them achieve the goals of the nation.This era of everyone speaking their mind is new to them and suddenly they are unable to intimidate people into keeping quiet by threatening the loss of their jobs as they can hide behind avatars and witty Twitter handles. The quick fix seems to be to smoke out the crazies.

The tide has already shifted and there is no putting the toothpaste back into the tube. Social media is here to stay and in the future the iterations of it will be more fluid and more readily available to the masses. What we must do is to understand how we can use these platforms to achieve the desired outcomes intentionally. It won’t happen without strategic thought and planning and consistent effort.

Politicians must be able to speak the language of their constituents with a goal to inspire them to grow and pursue goals which can be for the greater good of family and country. They must be given the space to actively engage in the discussions on public policies which will affect how they live. Politicians must be willing to speak to areas where they have clearly failed and are being challenged in without making it about vendettas. They must communicate even when it is not election time.

The responsibility is not only on the politicians. Citizens must take an active part in the process of communication. This means not only being ready to offer criticism but to offer solutions. The Caribbean needs more people focused on bringing solutions than pointing fingers.

As the former Director of Information for the Government of Montserrat I noticed how easy it was to get citizens to share congratulations for someone’s achievement, criticize loudly and harshly when a politician does something that wasn’t in their favor but it was the most difficult thing to get feedback on proposed policy changes or to gather recommendations. This being the case even if you used the simplest of photos, videos, or surveys to gather feedback. As citizens we must see it as our responsibility to understand what the jobs of our leaders are and how the decisions they make affect us. As we vote them in we should speak freely about how we are being affected by policies.

Governments must communicate more effectively offline and on. Both worlds must be consistent and having a clear strategy which engages the public is key. Governments must use every tool available to reach the people they serve. Social media has made this very possible and the most effective and efficient way to do so. It is not a tool to be feared but embraced to meet the goals of freedom and democracy. To do otherwise is to position yourself as having an ulterior goal which squashes the rights of the people.