700 Lords a-tweeting
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This is an article by Laura Gilmore.
The average age of Parliamentarians in the House of Lords is 70.
This is not the normal demographic of a workplace in central London, and probably not where you would expect a whirl of social media and communication activity.
My education and working life before my two-year stint as Head of a Whips’ Office did not prepare me for the complexities of the challenges in political communication in an institution like the House of Lords.
It was, however, a very interesting time to join.
We were in an unprecedented coalition government, plus the social media revolution had reached a point in popularity that the political and media world were taking outlets such as Twitter and Facebook seriously.
I studied political communication in 2005 at the University of Liverpool as part of my Masters degree. There I sat, diligently taking notes about political theory, wondering about what it must be like to work in the corridors of power in Westminster or Brussels.
But in those classrooms in 2005 there was no teaching of social media and its impact, no advice on how to handle political crisis communications against the 24-hour news cycle and no understanding shown of how to deal with political communications during a coalition government. I had to learn about all of these things on the job.
I was fortunate to work for a very bright and forward-thinking Chief Whip who understood the importance of internal and external communications.
He was also new to his role when I started and the first thing we worked on together was to improve the internal communications for our political group within the Lords with its stakeholders.
In a coalition government internal communications is crucial for the ruling political groups. They are often asked to back policies and vote for legislation that is very unnatural for them to support, and in some cases have campaigned against for years. Therefore, explaining why they are doing this and what they have secured in return to the rest of their political party and external organisations is crucial.
The next step to this is communicating externally through the media to the public.
It could sometimes be difficult explaining to journalists the processes of a coalition, such as the ‘back room’ workings that happen before legislation hits the floor of the House. Therefore, we started to rely on modern communication methods and social media, Twitter, e-newsletters and blogs, to get our message out.
Teaching former Party leaders and the great and the good of the group how to use Twitter was a lot of fun. Not only did they enjoy it, but also the majority of them got it. They understood its importance and place in politics today.
Dealing with political crises (and we had a fair few) against a backdrop of the 24-hour news cycle and social media is not only difficult but also impossible to control. Trying to combat misinformation on social media on an enormous scale is very difficult, time consuming and draining.
Everyone rightly has an opinion on politicians, but when the opinion is based on misinformation it can be difficult to rectify from a communication point of view. And in politics, mud normally sticks.
Another thing to factor with social media is that the negative comments tend to drown out the positive ones; therefore you have to train yourself not to panic or get upset about the negative ones – growing a ‘thick skin’ as they call it in the trade.
My time in the Lords was a wonderful experience and gave me the best grounding I could hope for in political communication, and in gaining an in-depth understanding of the UK political system. It certainly had its moments – both good and bad – and the running joke in the office was “this could be a storyline in The Thick of It or House of Cards.”
Laura Gilmore was the Head of the House of Lords Liberal Democrat Whips’ Office until August 2014. She is currently the Head of Public Affairs and Campaigns for the Dearman Engine Company and is the Co-founder of the Women in Public Affairs network.