Boris is back

Just to close off the story from a couple of weeks ago… as you’ll almost certainly know already, Boris Johnson won the London mayoral election. And as pledged, he has now returned to tweeting as @MayorOfLondon – an account which, we have now confirmed, belongs to the Office of Mayor, and not Boris personally.

Boris Johnson Twitter storm: no oversight, no grey area – and not his first such offence

You’ll remember the furore, just about a month ago, when London mayor Boris Johnson renamed his @mayoroflondon Twitter account @BorisJohnson – and in doing so, turned what had ostensibly (?) been an official account owned by the Mayor’s office into a campaigning platform for his re-election.

The decision to stop tweeting as Mayor was, unquestionably, correct. But by simply renaming the account, his (party political) campaign team had suddenly acquired an opt-in contact list of a quarter of a million people. Understandably, there was quite a backlash – and by bedtime, the account had been renamed @mayoroflondon, and mothballed.

Having spent almost my entire career walking that tightrope between ‘party political’ and ‘elected official’ communication – whether it be as a civil servant myself, or these days, running websites for MPs / ministers / candidates – I saw this as a fascinating case study. The @mayoroflondon account had been quoted on official Greater London Assembly communications for several years. But who actually owned it: Boris himself, or the office of Mayor? Had anyone ever asked that question?

So I lodged an FOI request. And they’ve just sent me their response.

I asked:

Can you please release copies of any correspondence to/from the Mayor’s private office, the Mayor’s press office or the GLA Public Liaison Unit relating to:

  • the decision to rename the account in 2009, adopting the name of the office of Mayor, with no indication of any direct personal attachment to the current incumbent;
  • the formal ownership of the account: whether it was considered Mr Johnson’s personal property, or whether it belonged to the office of Mayor;
  • requests to use the account for official purposes;
  • the decision to include references to the MayorOfLondon Twitter account in press releases and other official communications;
  • Mr Johnson’s move today (20 March) to rename the account and change its purpose into that of a platform for his re-election campaign, including references to the BackBoris2012.com website where there had previously been links to london.gov.uk

They have only been able to supply material in response to my final point. Which means, one would naturally assume, that the matter had never been raised beforehand. An regrettable oversight perhaps.

And so to 20 March 2012.

At 4.22pm, a good few hours after things had kicked off, head of media Samantha Hart sent an email to press office colleagues:

As you’re probably aware now, the @mayoroflondon twitter account has now been renamed  Boris Johnson and is being run by the campaign. If you have any links to @mayoroflondon on your email signature or anywhere else, please can remove it asap?

In other words: City Hall staff hadn’t been forewarned. And the account was now ‘being run by the campaign’ – where, one can reasonably infer, it wasn’t before. Half an hour later, Sam sends round a ‘line to take’, to help press officers deal with any enquiries.

Boris Johnson has decided it would not be appropriate during the pre-election period for him to be tweeting as Mayor of London. He has therefore made it clear to all his followers that he will now be tweeting under his own name outside of City Hall. Anyone who no longer wishes to follow his tweets will be reminded repeatedly that they can unsubscribe with one click of the mouse. @mayoroflondon can be revived by whoever is elected on May 3.

A resolution of sorts, then. The @mayoroflondon account is thus formally deemed to be the property of ‘whoever is elected’: meaning this won’t happen again next time. And a couple of hours later, at 6.25pm came further confirmation from Guto Harri – the former BBC journalist, now Boris’s Director of External Affairs:

The MayorOfLondon twitter feed has been mothballed until the 5th of May. Boris will update his long-standing followers about his non-campaigning activities under the a new feed called @Boris Johnson (…) The @MayorOfLondon feed can be revived on May 5th by whoever wins the election.

… although by midnight, the plan had changed again. The @BorisJohnson account too was mothballed, before a single tweet was sent; with all party-political tweeting through @backboris2012.

So, what do we learn from this silly little affair?

Ministers, Mayors and other elected representatives are multi-dimensional beings. They have an official status. They probably attained that official status by winning an election, on behalf of a political party. And they are (almost certainly) human beings too, with interests and relationships outside politics.

If we insist on maintaining a separation between all three dimensions – and there’s an argument that we should drop the pretence, as referenced by Jon Worth’s excellent blog post – then the Rules of Engagement for any ‘personal’ communication channel needs to be made clear. If you’re a social media manager, or Head of Digital Engagement, that’s your job. You need to lay down some ground rules on behalf of any ‘official’ communications channels… and see that they are enforced. Ask any difficult questions now, before it becomes an issue later.

Except – it had already been an issue.

Seeing Sam Hart’s request that all links to @mayoroflondon be removed, I naturally had to search the london.gov.uk website to see if that had happened. The answer? – yes and no. Certainly there aren’t many references to the account on london.gov.uk any more. But that made it all the easier for me to find this document from October 2009, relating to a complaint made against Mr Johnson by one Graham Parks.

He had complained that a tweet from the @mayoroflondon account on 30 September 2009 had apparently welcomed The Sun newspaper’s decision to back the Conservatives at the forthcoming general election. The matter went to the Assessment Sub-Committee of the GLA’s Standards Committee, who ruled:

it was clear that (the tweet) was written by or on behalf of the Mayor of London, as the hyperlink to the twitter account was found on the Mayor of London page on the GLA website.

In other words, the Sub-Committee had already, in effect, ruled that the @mayoroflondon account – by quoting a london.gov.uk URL – had declared itself to be the property of City Hall. They unanimously concluded:

Having regard to all the circumstances, the Assessment Sub-Committee concluded that, by writing in that manner, the Mayor of London could be seen to have breached paragraph 6(b) (ii) of the Authority’s Code of Conduct, as it appeared on the evidence presented that the Mayor of London was using GLA resources in seeking to affect party political support.

Having regards to all the facts and circumstances, the Assessment Sub-Committee considered that it was appropriate and proportionate for it to take a decision of “other action”, requiring the GLA’s Monitoring Officer to raise this with Mr Johnson, the Mayor of London, and give guidance to him about the use by him or his office of the Mayor of London twitter account.

In other words, the matter had been discussed: there was no oversight, and no grey area. The GLA had already asserted its ownership of the account. And Boris had already been sanctioned for abusing it.

Make of that what you will. And if you’re a Londoner, remember to cast your vote on 3 May.

When is an ‘official’ Twitter account not an official Twitter account?

Much consternation in certain political circles this afternoon, as Boris Johnson renames his Twitter account… and takes a quarter of a million people’s details over to his election campaign HQ.

Johnson was elected on 4 May 2008. His first tweet came on 8 May 2008 (‘Setting up social marketing accounts!’) – although it’s not entirely clear what username the account used when it was created. In January 2009, though, he changed that username to MayorOfLondon. And the account has been quoted since at least May 2009 in official City Hall press releases, as his official account. Or in the case of that May 2009 press release, ‘the Mayor’s Twitter site’.

Before today’s change, the URL associated with the account was http://www.london.gov.uk/ – and the biography read:

City Government for Greater London under the auspices of the Mayor of London

Could it have sounded more official?

(Something similar has happened to his Facebook account too; facebook.com/borisjohnson is now adorned with BackBoris2012 logos, and contains no history prior to 17 March 2012. And yes, that Facebook URL has similarly been promoted in the past as his official presence.)

In response, there’s a statement on the BackBoris website:

As some of you may have noticed, earlier today Boris changed the name of his Twitter account from @MayorofLondon to @BorisJohnson. While the name of the account may have changed, rest assured that the account is still – and has always been – controlled by Boris.

No City Hall resources will be used to update or maintain the account – that would be against the rules. Given we’re now in the official election period, this change is being made so there can be no question of Boris using official resources to campaign.

Of course, those who no longer wish to follow the account are welcome to “unfollow” at any time.

Of course, it’s not the fact that future City Hall resources will be used; it’s that past City Hall resources have already been used to build up a significant following. And the last line is somewhat ill-advised, in my opinion.

I’d be very interested to find out from people at City Hall – or indeed, from HM Government’s Deputy Director of Digital Engagement, Emer Coleman who used to be City Hall’s head of digital projects – as to whether City Hall thought it ‘owned’ the account on behalf of the office of Mayor.

If the account was always personal, Boris should have used his personal name. By using the name of his elected office, the natural assumption is unquestionably that you are following the individual in his/her elected capacity – as was the case with the Prime Ministerial Twitter account.

Here’s a tip. If you’re working in a government web team, I strongly advise you get something in writing to confirm who exactly owns any Ministerial accounts – rapidly.

Update: a climbdown of sorts. Boris has tweeted:

To be clear- @borisjohnson will only be used for discussing mayoral duties. To follow me on the campaign trail, follow @backboris2012

And in a post on the BackBoris2012 website:

‘As he entered the campaign he was determined to ensure there was no confusion between him as Mayor and him as a candidate and therefore changed the name of his Twitter account.

‘He did not expect this openness and honesty to have created such hysteria.

‘So in case there is even one Londoner who has a problem with what he did, he will not use that account for the campaign and instead can be followed from the political front on @BackBoris2012.’

Has he reverted back to being @MayorOfLondon? No. But the username hasn’t been abandoned – someone, and you have to hope it’s someone close to Boris and/or City Hall, has bagged it. Hopefully for safe keeping. We don’t want this happening again, do we.

Updated update: Somewhat inevitably, Boris has – pardon the pun – backed down. He’s now reverted to using @MayorOfLondon as his account name, and the BorisJohnson account has gone blank again.

To tweet or not to tweet?

A bit of a first today: meeting with a new client, I found myself – for the first time – insisting that they get a Twitter account. I think they were rather taken aback by the suggestion: so was I, to be honest.

But I think it’s important to recognise that Twitter has reached a certain scale now, where it can’t be ignored. And even if your account isn’t likely to attract huge numbers of followers, you need to be aware of the wider potential community, and the potential audience for a retweet: this particular organisation is in the international development space, also populated by DFID (9,000 followers) and NGOs such as Oxfam (80,00 followers). Make it easy for them to spread your message: give it to them in a format which allows them to pass it on with a single click.

As we’re using WordPress (inevitably), it can be a zero-effort addition to your online offering: there are plenty of plugins which will send automated tweets, based on a pre-defined template, to your Twitter account. Alex King’s Twitter Tools tends to be the most popular, but I tend to avoid it – it’s been a suspect (although never formally charged) in a couple of site failures. Instead, at the moment, I’m recommending WordTwit – which isn’t perfect, but does seem to do the job reliably.

And maybe it’s just me, but where I used to react quite negatively to automated ‘hey! look at my blog!’ tweets, I actually quite welcome them now. A blip in the flow of my daily Twitter stream isn’t enough to derail my train of thought, and it might be something I want to read (otherwise why did I follow the account in the first place?).

Three years ago, I wrote a post suggesting that Facebook would become the RSS consumption tool for the masses. I think the fine detail of my prediction may have been wrong, but the substance was right. The social network has become the notification channel for the masses.

Setting up the Twitter account costs nothing. Sending the automated tweets costs nothing. If it helps even one person, on one occasion, you’re in notional profit. And there’s unquestionable potential to go much, much wider.

Paul Waugh takes his audience with him to PoliticsHome

Evening Standard deputy political editor Paul Waugh starts his new job this morning, as editor of (increasingly paywalled) website PoliticsHome.com. Mildly interesting in itself, as evidence of the still-growing influence of online in the political space, although far from the first time a ‘proper’ journalist has gone over to the blogs’ side.

What’s quite interesting is the mechanics of the move itself. His final post on the Standard’s (Typepad-powered) blog gave full details of his new job, and where you’d be able to follow him – including direct links to his new home page. I find it very hard to imagine any other media outlet being so relaxed about a star reporter or columnist ‘taking his readers / audience with him’.

Equally intriguing is the fact that his (personal) Twitter account has just kept going as it always did.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/paulwaugh/status/593819410112512″]

Despite the on-page linking and the background wallpaper – Standard last week, PolHome this morning – Waugh ‘owns’ this particular channel of communication… and its almost 10,000 followers. He isn’t dependent on his employer’s infrastructure, or brand, to talk to his audience.

Former BBC man James Cridland, now a ‘radio futurologist’ (?), wrote an excellent piece about this issue 18 months ago, in the context of radio presenters moving jobs. His rather draconian-sounding conclusion was this – although it’s worth noting the dissent, some from known names in the industry, in the ensuing comments:

Give your presenters official Twitter feeds for your station, and make it clear that they can only promote these. XFM is doing the right thing here, since it has a set of them – @daveberry_xfm is Dave Berry, for example – but this is clearly part of the station’s output. Ensure that -you- retain the password, and ensure that you actively monitor what they say (just like you monitor what they say on-air.) That way, when you part company with that presenter, you can communicate this fact to their followers your way – and, crucially, you stay in control.

[Over the next couple of days, James also offered opinions on promoting personal websites (in short: no) and email addresses (likewise), stirring similar levels of controversy.]

So whether he realises it or not, Paul is offering an interesting case study in what constitutes ‘brand’ in the world of third-party online services. When communications infrastructure was difficult, employers could keep control. When we’re all just a few seconds away from creating our own Twitter / Facebook accounts, the employer is left with little more than guidelines. And perhaps a rather weak argument about using company resources for personal purposes.

I really enjoy Paul’s stuff: and I’d happily be subscribing to his new blog right now… except that somehow, the website – running on a bespoke platform which happily ‘ingests’ other people’s RSS feeds –  can’t offer an RSS feed of its own, although one is promised ‘soon’. (FYI: it’s two months since prominent blogger Waugh’s move was announced.)

Oh, and by the way, PoliticsHome – disabling the ability to right-click on your pages… really?

Useful WP plugin for embedding tweets

The announcement of a new function in WordPress.com led me to discover the existence of the Twitter Blackbird Pie plugin, which does this:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/wordpressdotcom/status/600049276948480″]

I’m finding a growing number of my blog posts being sparked by tweets, and this should be a cute method for embedding them, rather than simply linking out. Let’s see how it goes.

New Cabinet’s online footprint

I make it seven members of the new Coalition cabinet with Twitter accounts: although of course, some have been more personal than others:

It’s worth noting that only Hague and Pickles have been active since polling day; and judging by one recent tweet, Pickles seems intent on maintaining pre-poll levels of activity. I wonder how many others will restart… has Twitter served its purpose, now they’ve been re-elected?

We also have a few bloggers:

Some of the senior Tories have made frequent contributions to the Conservatives.com site’s Blue Blog – among them David Cameron and Eric Pickles.

The case of Sir George Young is worthy of special mention: his ‘on a lighter note’ writing goes back as far as 1999. And whilst it wouldn’t really meet the definition of a ‘blog’ – no feed, no commenting, etc – he surely deserves some credit for getting started so early. And indeed, for publishing his full constituency diary, ribbon-cutting by ribbon-cutting!

Update: Although not strictly Cabinet, it’s also worth noting reports that the Conservatives’ head of press, Henry Macrory is to take ‘the same role at Downing Street’ (although his Twitter biog hasn’t yet been updated). Henry has been a prolific tweeter, and as you might expect from someone in his position, they’ve usually been rather partisan in nature. Can’t quite see that continuing somehow, especially not the anti-Clegg stuff.

Yes you can change your Twitter ID. Don’t.

A while back, Mark Pack wrote a couple of articles noting that if MPs were worried about breaking election campaign rules by running a Twitter account with the letters MP in it, they probably needn’t be. The authorities tended to be ‘sensibly flexible’; and besides, it was dead easy to change your Twitter account name. In the piece which appeared on LibDem Voice, I commented:

But is there a risk that someone grabs your temporarily vacated username? I can’t see anything in the Twitter documentation to suggest there’s a ‘grace period’ between one person giving up a username, and someone else claiming it… as is often the case, say, with domain names.

Funny I should ask. Last week, colourful Conservative MP Nadine Dorries changed her Twitter name to ‘Nadine4MP’, apparently following Tom Harris’s lead. But somebody swiftly jumped in, and bagged the newly vacated NadineDorriesMP identity. Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads.com insists it wasn’t him, and has done some further digging into who it might have been. The account is currently reporting ‘that page doesn’t exist’. Accusations and conspiracy theories are flying.

Yes, if you leave your main MP-labelled account dormant for a few weeks and switch to a new non-MP-labelled account, you’ll lose a good few followers. But to be honest, if they don’t follow you to your new location, they weren’t following you very closely, were they?

Instead, where are we? No1 result from a Google search for ‘nadine dorries twitter’, and in the top 10 for plain ‘nadine dorries’, is the vacated, possibly hijacked, currently defunct @NadineDorriesMP account page. And this on the evening when said Ms Dorries is getting primetime terrestrial TV exposure for an hour.

You have been warned. Again. 🙂

that page doesn’t exist

Hansard Society event on Twitter in politics

What can you say about Twitter? They came in their dozens to the Hansard Society’s event at Portcullis House to find out from a panel consisting of blogger Iain Dale, MPs Jo Swinson and Kerry McCarthy, and Tweetminster founder Andrew Walker. I hadn’t expected to learn a lot: I’ve been using Twitter longer and more intensively than most people. But I still came away more than a little disappointed.

Yes, some/many people talk a lot of pointless nonsense. Yes, people send links to stuff. Yes, sometimes certain topics rise to prominence. Yes, you can build engagement with people. But if you’d spent the hour and a half just looking at the Twitter website, you’d have learned all that for yourself anyway. And since most people in the room were already Twitter users, they probably knew it before proceedings started.

The event just didn’t get to the heart of what made Twitter different. Most of the points were equally applicable to any other ‘social media’ channel. And regrettably, it felt like we were falling into the usual trap of seeing social media as new broadcast channels. Sure, there were brief mentions of debate (conclusion: it’s not very good at it) and short-form correspondence with constituents. But almost everything was in a context of getting your message out to an audience.

All of which misses what, for me, is by far Twitter’s strongest selling point: namely, the fact that your audience is listening to you because it wants to listen, wants to engage… and wants to help.

I longed to hear one of the panel talk about how their Twitter audience helps them be better at their work. Examples of where they’ve asked a question, and their followers have answered it. Or where they’ve said they’re about to go into a meeting with someone, and a follower suggests a Killer Question. Demonstrations of the power of the network. But none came. (It’s a pity, because I’ve heard Tom Watson talk most persuasively about precisely that.)

One of the reasons I love Twitter myself is that, when everything – and everyone – gets boiled down to 140 characters, there’s no room for airs and graces. It’s a level playing field, with world leaders’ great pronouncements streaming in alongside mundane updates about what my mates are having for breakfast. It’s a reminder that you’re nothing special – or rather, you’re just as special as everyone else.

You might have something to say to me, which might interest me; but equally, I’ve got something to say to you, which might interest you. We’re all in this together. And post-expenses scandal, in a profession which depends on connecting personally with an electorate at least once every five years, I’d have thought that was a timely reminder.

A good-natured, upbeat but ultimately insubstantial evening.

Who says Labour people can’t do web?

labourlist2

A couple of (broadly) Labour-related online developments of note late last week.

One was the relaunch of LabourList, just in time for conference. Alex Smith has done great things editorially since taking control of the website in the wake of Drapergate, and entirely deserved the recognition of a high ranking in Iain Dale’s annual poll of the top political blogs. But the website has always been a bit, well, ugly (or indeed, well ugly) – like it was trying too hard.

The new look is a big improvement, primarily because it accepts the reality that it’s really just another multi-author blog. You get a straightforward two-column layout: content plus comments on one side, a site-wide sidebar on the other, with header navigation based (I guess) on tags. It isn’t spectacular in design terms, but it doesn’t need to be. (Mind you, I’m not sure about including everyone’s ‘gravatar’ on every page: that’s going to slow things way down, for everyone.) It’s still powered by the same mysterious Tangent Labs platform as other Labour output; I’m wondering why.

The other was the news that Sarah Brown, the PM’s wife had passed uber-geek Stephen Fry in terms of Twitter followers. As I write this, Mr Fry has 773,000 followers, Mrs Brown has 791,000.

thebrowns

With no great fanfare in the conventional media, Mrs B has built quite a profile around her Million Mums campaign against ‘the needless deaths of women in pregnancy and childbirth around the world’, and other similarly lefty causes. It’s pretty clear she’s writing her own tweets personally, and gets actively involved in terms of replying, re-tweeting and hashtagging. It’s working, and she is often (rightly) used as a best practice example for public figures.

She also did a bit of blogging from last week’s G20 summit in Pittsburgh, again at wordpress.com – although I’m told there has been talk about bringing it properly ‘in house’; and has been contributing to the influential Huffington Post for some time.

Her activity is rarely Labour-branded per se… but of course it’s exactly a year since she sensationally appeared on-stage at the Labour conference to introduce her husband. (It’s quite amusing to look back at the BBC’s live text commentary from the day: ‘It’s almost time for the pre-speech video. Sarah Brown is in the hall. At the lectern. What’s going on? It looks like she is about to address the Labour conference.‘) Now articles are being written, describing her as ‘arguably the most admired and powerful woman in Britain… She might even be the last hope for Labour.’

Don’t underestimate the role her new media activity has played in this.